Dead mice add stress not value to your day

10th March 2006 at 00:00
Paul Blum continues his series on coping with life in the leadership team

It never fails to amaze me, the incredible range of work I am supposed to be handling simultaneously. Take the other day.

I was checking the rules which allow some newly-arrived ethnic-minority pupils exemption from the Sats league tables. As I walked across the playground, deep in thought about where the school would stand in terms of its value-added criteria this year as a result of this possible alteration, I walked straight into a hysterical mob of youngsters gathering around the stiff little body of a dead mouse.

Some of the boys were trying to kick it at one of the girls, who were standing around screaming. One particularly odious Year 10 stooped down to pick up the dead mouse and fling it into the group of girls.

Data forgotten, I jumped in and put my foot on the corpse. A couple of lads tried to push my foot off it, but I stood resolute. The crowd around me got bigger, feeding off the news that I had something horrible under my shoe.

Somebody tried to push me from behind and I over-balanced, dropping all my work.

A dreadful scream went up from the mob. 'It's a mouse, a mouse. He's squashing it." Luckily, a fellow teacher came to my aid and helped me pick up some of the sheets of my value-added data, whilst I struggled to conceal the mouse from the ever-growing crowd.

I now wriggled my emergency mobile phone out of my inside pocket, keeping my foot over the animal and called up the premises team to come and relieve us of the body. I kept my foot over the mouse as my loyal colleague watched my back so nobody could try and push me again. In five minutes, the now very squashed mouse was brushed into a pan. Crisis over, one particularly vital page of student data blown away.

The juxtaposition of detailed intellectual work with exhausting crowd control is a key feature of senior management. Sometimes I know that it is dangerous to step out of my office because I will lose my high level of concentration on the curriculum report I am writing in the deluge of minor disciplinary issues in the corridor, lesson changeovers and the end of lunchtime being especially volatile. Given these extreme contradictions - some would say exciting varieties of the job - senior managers need to protect themselves from being completely overrun and psychologically battered. If you don't take care of your own mental and physical well being, nobody else will.

Obviously inner-city schools offer the most extreme divergences of experience - opportunities for calm, reflective administration and management are frequently lost to the uproarious physical and verbal maelstrom of the corridors and classroom. But there is always an element of this kind of work in any senior manager's role , whatever the type of school.

The conflict between being proactive and reactive, trailblazing new ideas and acting as a shock absorber remain a prevailing tension in your working life. Given the extreme pressures that can be put on a senior manager, it is important to look at all the ways you can protect yourself against such high levels of stress.

Emergency action to protect yourself:

* Keep an eye on yourself throughout the day. Try and map a route through the day that prioritises some things in the in-tray, but leaves plenty of time and energy for the unexpected.

* Give yourself time and space in the school day to sit down, have a chat and "chill out" a bit. I often order music CDs from HMV online to cheer myself up.

* Leave school early for a run, a swim or some other form of physical exercise, if you feel big pressure building up. This is not skiving, it is vital recovery time and will pay dividends in the long run. How often are the most efficient workers the ones who spend the longest stewing away on the school site at the end of the day?

* Don't feel that every kid that is hanging around or every unruly incident is one that you must personally intervene in. Sometimes you must ignore, to survive.

Paul Blum is a senior manager in a London school

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