The higher you climb as a head, the worse it feels

3rd July 2015 at 01:00
Fears of inadequacy grow with experience, research finds

Being in the same job for a while comes with certain benefits. After several years in a role, most people relax, stop feeling like a fraud and start believing they might be good enough. Except, it seems, headteachers.

New research shows that the longer headteachers stay in the position, the less likely they are to recognise their own achievements, or to feel that they are up to the job.

Julia Steward, an independent consultant and former assessor for the National Professional Qualification for Headship, surveyed 49 headteachers on how confident they felt in their role.

Her research will be presented at the annual British Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society conference later this month. It shows that headteachers who have been in the job for between one and three years are split roughly evenly between those who worry that they are not good enough (50 per cent) and those who have no such worries (44 per cent).

But, among those who have been in the job for 10 or more years, 60 per cent worry that they are not good enough. Only 20 per cent have no such fears.

`They have more to lose'

Ms Steward believes that, the longer headteachers are in a job, the higher the expectations they have of themselves. "You go from not being able to do something to taking it for granted," she said. "They're meant to be experienced heads, so people expect more of them. In a sense, they become more insecure because they have more to lose."

Her research also examines to what extent headteachers acknowledge their own achievements. Fifty-four per cent of relatively new heads say they do not. This rises to 61 per cent once they have been in the job for between four and nine years. And all headteachers who have been in the post for 10 or more years say they do not acknowledge their own achievements.

Ms Steward points out that the longer headteachers are in the role - and the older they grow - the more they might find that it drains their energy.

Jamie Barry, headteacher of Welford Primary School in Birmingham, agrees. "We always take the burden off the staff," he said. "So it can be a huge burden [on the leader] over time."

In addition, he said, the cumulative effect of keeping staff morale high might mean that school leaders ultimately ended up forgetting that their own morale also needed boosting.

"I find it very difficult to say `I've done this' or `I've done that'," he said. "It's very disingenuous to take credit when there's a huge team behind you. But if you exclude a child, you think, `What have I done wrong? What could I do differently?' "

`It's in their soul'

Anne Byrne, headteacher of Hampton Vale Primary in Peterborough, echoes this. "Your job is never done," she said. "Your eye is always on the next job, the next target." (See panel, right.)

Ms Steward points out that years of praising others without stopping to reflect on their own achievements could wear headteachers down. "On the whole, heads are busy rushing around, making sure everyone else is OK," she said.

"Any public service role demands that you give to other people. But there's a temptation always to put other people first. Heads need to pay attention to looking after themselves: the old adage that you have to put the oxygen mask on yourself before you put it on your baby."

Jason Harrison, of the Teacher Support Network, recommends that school leaders form peer support groups. "It's about giving headteachers permission to go home on time, or not to be sending emails at 11 o'clock at night," he said.

"You can't do it on your own. You need that space around you. You need space to talk and think."

Ms Steward cited the example of a headteacher who once told her "I'm an outstanding school", as proof that long-serving leaders might need to step back from the job occasionally.

"It's very personal," she said. "People invest a lot of themselves in the role. It's in their soul, almost."

`Everybody looks to you'

Anne Byrne, pictured, suspects that one of the reasons that long-serving headteachers do not acknowledge their achievements is because they simply do not have time.

The headteacher of Hampton Vale Primary School in Peterborough has been leading schools for nine years.

"You have this very high expectation of yourself as the leader in the school: that you will resolve all issues," she says.

"Ultimately, if a parent comes in yelling, or - God forbid - there's the death of a child or something traumatic in the community, everybody looks to you. You get very good at dealing with a crisis and not reacting emotionally."

The problem, she says, is that once the crisis is dealt with, there is no time to reflect on the emotional toll it may have taken.

"You go from one situation to another," she says. "There's no time to evaluate it, or to recognise that it was a difficult situation. Potentially, they may not allow themselves to be proud of what they've done."

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