Plenty of buzz, but no TLC: heads say they're human, too

5th March 2010 at 00:00
The role of hands-on team leader is one to relish but the pressures and problems of the top job take their toll, research reveals

Many headteachers are desperate for someone to come up to them during the day just to ask how they are, research has revealed.

And this desire to have their efforts acknowledged has only grown as their role shifts increasingly from hands-off manager to team leader.

Rosemary Webb, from Manchester University, and Graham Vulliamy, from York University, interviewed 50 headteachers from small, medium and large primaries. These included 15 headteachers who had been previously interviewed during a study in 1992.

Most interviewees relished their current jobs. One spoke about headship as "a buzz that you feed off". Another said: "I'm just never bored: there's always some crisis or chaos or problem to tackle."

In particular, heads enjoyed watching children progress over the years. However, most quickly realised that responsibility for pupil progress was not theirs alone.

"When you first become a head, you think, 'I am here to make a difference to children'," one head said. "But ... there are several people in between you and the children, and you have to work through other people."

When heads were interviewed in 1992, most used the terms "management" and "administration" to describe their role. Now, they used the word "leadership". The researchers believe that this is a direct result of government emphasis on the importance of heads as democratic leaders, rather than dictators.

About a third of interviewees talked about a growing awareness of the need for a collaborative approach to leadership. "I try to build as big a consensus as possible," one head said. "That is a movement away from my old style, which was a bit coercive, a bit heavy-handed."

Many referred to themselves as "a people person", citing examples of their informal style or sense of humour. And most felt that it was their responsibility to identify and motivate talented staff.

However, this pastoral care was rarely reciprocated. While they consciously praised staff and offered them new opportunities, heads' own work was rarely acknowledged in the same way.

"It can be quite lonely, actually," one head said. "People come to you all the time, telling you, 'oh, this' and 'oh, that', and sometimes they forget that you are a person as well ... You feel like saying, 'ask me how I am'."

They also spoke about the importance of maintaining a "professional front", suppressing their own fears and concerns. Headteachers, they said, should not have discernible emotions.

"You have to stay calm and you have to take responsibility, and you have to take risks all the time," one interviewee said. "Will the money manage this? Is it a good idea to have that class teacher there? Will those children cope with that situation?"

A quarter of the interviewees had reconciled themselves to difficulties of this type by repeating to themselves: "What's the worst thing they can do? They're not going to come around and arrest me."

But the researchers concluded that headteachers needed the same level of encouragement and support that they were now providing for their staff. "The Government needs to do more to ensure that headship is realistic," they said.

"However ... headteachers will also have to change. While they make personal sacrifices to seek to meet all government requirements, the unrealistic demands seem set to continue."


- Make a clearly prioritised to-do list and keep to it

- Try not to be a perfectionist

- Divide responsibilities among staff

- Make time for out-of-school hobbies and activities, even if this makes work more stressful

- Use humour as an outlet.

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