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Who supports the head of support?

When the world appears to be crashing down around you, where do you, as a school business leader, turn?

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When the world appears to be crashing down around you, where do you, as a school business leader, turn?

I was recently reading a blog by a school business leader (SBL) colleague who was bravely sharing their experience of workplace stress. I replied by saying: "SBLs instinctively believe they are supposed to support, not be supported, so struggle to ask for help." Our exchange was on Twitter, so limited to 140 characters, but it felt like such a woefully inadequate response to such a huge issue, and it played on my mind for the rest of the weekend.

SBMs/SBLs have a unique role in schools, always something of the odd one out around the SLT table: they are rarely centre-stage and often overlooked by the wider educational establishment. Much has been made of teacher stress and wellbeing, quite rightly, but there are also teams of other folk working in schools who are operating under the same pressures, but for whom there is no national outcry, no ministerial acknowledgement, minimal coverage in the edu-press and no end-of-term crashmat to collapse on to. We just keep on going. There are SBL-specific groups, but these tend to be operational in focus and support the role, not the person. Our purpose, among many other things, is to lead the support functions of the school. We are taught, from our first day in post, that we support teaching and learning, that we support the head, SLT, the governing body and we lead the whole-school support function. So where then does the SBL go when they themselves need support?

Getting support

There are local networks of SBLs who support each other professionally, but often there are undercurrents of quiet competitiveness at play: it takes a brave soul to tell their highly experienced and capable competition that they're not coping with the demands of the job. So what can you do? You can talk to your head, but that also comes with a host of worries that most SBLs will find familiar:

  1. They might think you're weak or incompetent.
  2. They might lose faith in your ability.
  3. They might bypass you for new opportunities.
  4. You will have somehow let them down.
  5. You might need more staff to get the work done, but as the holder of the purse strings, you know you can't suggest increasing staffing costs, especially in your own area, as you spend all day, every day telling everyone how tight the budget is.
  6. That it's you that's the problem, and that if you just work a bit harder, for a bit longer, you might just get it all done.
  7. They might suggest you take some time off, but you can't afford to; you have too much work to do.

All of this is, of course, nonsense. You were appointed because you can do the job, because you were the best person for the job and because everyone wants you to do the job. But workflow and stress are not steady streams, they are subject to tidal flow; you may be fine for years then one term everything hits at once with the force of a tsunami. That's not your fault, it's just a case of external factors causing a peak in demand.

Crisis approaches

My peak came a few years ago; I was in the middle of a massively complex building project that was having a hugely negative impact on the school's operations, and I was getting all the flak. I had a nasty member of staff who was attempting to undermine me continually, and I had to single-handedly convert a massive school to multi-academy status in the early-converter days when no one had a clue what they were doing. I nearly broke. I wobbled, I scared the life out of myself, I ignored every warning sign there was, and I almost came crashing down. But I didn't: my family, my friends, my colleagues and my trade union (thank you, ASCL) caught me, and together we tackled the problem. And I'm lucky, because now I know the signs, I know who to rely on, and I know when to put myself first. There's no sense in sinking the lifeboat, after all.

Flashback

I recently had a minor skirmish which gave me a flashback to that time, and instead of stressing I had an honest conversation with someone who had the power to resolve the situation. I told them how I felt and what I needed, what I was and wasn't prepared to do, and I handed the problem to them to resolve. That handing over of the baton comes with a phenomenal sense of relief. It's not about saying, "I can't do this," it's about saying, "I've taken this as far as I can, but now I need someone to take hold of the other end."

Everyone experiences stress differently. For me, the symptoms were working stupidly long hours, being over-controlling, a perpetual feeling of dread, finding myself snapping at my husband and kids, physical feelings of anxiety (palpitations, shoulder and neck pain, panic attacks) and a feeling that if I stopped pedalling I was going to fall off. I didn't stop pedalling, but I did break my bike.

What to do

So what should you do? Heck, I'm no therapist, Heaven forbid, but I know that the first step is to be completely honest with yourself. Then use your SBL problem-solving skills to take the emotion out of the situation, to look at the problem in a strategic way and see if there is a practical solution. Just as we do all the time when dealing with others. If you were a member of your own staff, bringing you this problem, what would you do? You'd listen, you'd analyse, you'd sympathise, you'd support and you'd resource. Do the same for yourself as soon as you start, like there's a problem coming. Speak to people, ask for help, ask for the resources you need, apply that duty of care to yourself and be honest with your head. All decent heads will want to help and will support you: no head wants their SBL to crumble. That'd be like taking the portcullis out of their castle defences. And if your head doesn't listen, and doesn't support you, then frankly, you're working for the wrong boss. Find yourself a different one who will.

The problem of other people

No SBL is in it for the glory – there isn't any – but nor are we there to be silently put upon. The current funding crisis in schools is putting massive pressures on our profession, and many SBLs who have been forced to set a deficit budget this year will be unable to stop themselves feeling in some way partially responsible: managing the finances, and their fallout, is our job, after all. But, and this is the fundamental but, work alone will not make you stressed. Other people will. That might be people's expectations of you, people's actions towards you, people's poor management of you, people's unreasonable demands on you or, perhaps, the unreasonable demands and pressures you put on yourself.

But SBLs are also people-managers, we know how to deal with people. So, in theory, we know how to deal with people who cause us stress. But to do that, we need to see ourselves as valuable commodities, as resources that are essential to our schools' success, and that's something that SBLs are notoriously bad at. So my advice is to pick up that wellbeing book in the staffroom and read it. Take your annual leave, go home at a reasonable hour, do that mindfulness course, talk openly and honestly to your boss about workloads and reasonable expectations, find and do something that makes you laugh out loud, connect with other SBLs wherever you can but, above all, accept that you are fallible, listen to your body and look after yourself as you would look after anyone else. 

Hilary Goldsmith is director of finance and operations at Varndean School in Brighton. She tweets at @sbm365

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