Primary principal teachers put their heads together to overcome stress

12th March 2010 at 00:00
National conference hears advice on managing workload - from `embracing uncertainty of outcome' to lighting candles

Admit you don't have all the answers, put your feet up at weekends, and ask colleagues what they think of you - no matter how painful the results.

These were just some of the nuggets of advice offered at the first national gathering of primary school principal teachers, organised by the Association of Headteachers and Deputes in Scotland - an event where the intensity of debate underlined just how rare it is for PTs from across Scotland to meet.

The job of PT should be like raising a child, said Graham Thomson, director of the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University.

Parents learned how to parent by listening and responding to their child's needs, he explained. If a baby cries, parents work out for themselves what is causing the upset.

Promoted teachers, too, should figure out what to do, primarily by listening and responding, and embracing "uncertainty of outcome".

"Sometimes, as leaders, we don't try and encourage that whole process," said Mr Thomson.

In some schools, staff were more used to the headteacher providing solutions, an approach which "smothered" innovation.

Mr Thomson cited HMIE advice that principal teachers should be the "lead learners" in schools: "That means you don't need to know the answer."

Promoted teachers should, however, know how they are viewed by others, according to AHDS West Scotland area officer, Kay Hall.

The former head of West Kilbride Primary in North Ayrshire had been surprised by the response when, late in her career, she asked colleagues for feedback and found that "I was perceived as a bit of a dragon lady".

A colleague she was close to, when hearing that Mrs Hall's husband had proofread a report she was putting together, said: "Gosh, he's brave."

The unexpected response made her realise that promoted teachers gained a more rounded appreciation of their strengths and weaknesses by consulting others; fellow presenter Paul McBride, a quality improvement officer in Glasgow, said the approach had worked well in his authority.

Mrs Hall also promoted the use of "self-help strategies" to ward off mental ill-health.

Harvard University research suggested that, by 2020, more time would be lost at work through depression than heart attacks.

Teachers should take pre-emptive action by taking "time out", perhaps through alternative therapies. Lighting candles, for example, could help take people to a "spiritual level".

President Irene Matier had a similar message, urging delegates not to become "boring" by letting work dominate their lives.

Mrs Matier, who became head of primary at Glasgow's Jordanhill School last year, said she had never been busier in her career.

But, while she worked until late in the evening during the week, she got her work-life balance right by travelling every Friday to her home in Isle of Whithorn, a village in Dumfries and Galloway.

Her message at the end of last Friday's conference? "Go home now and forget about school."

Principal teachers have been allowed to join AHDS since November 2008. They make up 30 of its 1,450 members.

General secretary Greg Dempster said the decision to let principal teachers join had not been widely publicised, since the union wanted to find out initially what its first band of PT members might want.

Despite the low-key start, the 82 delegates at last week's conference at Stirling University - from 21 local authorities - were more than he had expected.

Allison Buchanan, principal teacher at Balfron Primary near Stirling, summed up the mood at the event, enthusing that she had never before had the chance to meet so many people who shared her role.

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