Be a model not a martyr: why prioritising your wellbeing will be the best decision you make this year

Executive Head Teacher

Kensington Primary School

Educational leadership is a tough gig. In fact, leadership is a tough gig. It’s why leaders get paid the big bucks, right? So they should suck it up. Except that isn’t entirely true. They are trusted (and paid) to carry out the infinitely complex job of being an effective leader. So the only question that really matters is: what do we do to maximise our effectiveness?

I’ve cried – a lot – since being a headteacher. I’ve cried when colleagues have come to me about losing their family members. I sobbed as I wrote the letter to parents to say we were closing the school to most children because of COVID. On one occasion I had to pull over as I drove up the M11 on my way home after having it confirmed that the child we thought was being abused for some time had been. The crushing guilt of not doing enough can easily be too much to bear.

‘Of course’, we say, we’ve come into this profession to help children so why wouldn’t we do everything we can? I’ve seen colleagues go into their own wallet and give £20 to a parent to pay for her gas and electricity top-up. Sitting with children till 9/10pm waiting for the police and social care after a disclosure. Setting up food banks. Raising money to buy clothes, cots, kettles. And that’s just the tip of the emotional iceberg. Behaviour; complaints; accountability…

And the role isn’t even just about our emotional intelligence and resilience. Intellectually we deal with ‘wicked’ problems every day too. Why are children not attending? How can we solve that? What helps learning? (Frankly, what IS learning?) And how do we support stressed, overworked teachers to translate that into practice? How do we reconcile the competing views of parents? The list is never ending.

For too long, we have shrugged it off and accepted it as part of the job: ‘Sure I’m exhausted but it’s the holidays soon.’ The result? An exodus of senior leaders (1) – 53% of senior leaders who leave their post are lost to the profession. Far too many people leaving the profession who could have contributed so much more. Even more looking at their senior leaders and saying, ‘not for me’. Tragically, so many senior leaders not able to perform at their best – 89% in educational leadership are stressed (2) – and no-one does their best job when they’re stressed. (3)

So, what do we do? It is all too easy to look at the factors outside our control and blame these. (I certainly urge anyone concerned about an aspect of education, who has the capacity, to do something about it. Joining Big Education’s, ‘Rethinking Leadership’ campaign is one possible step.) But I would say the most important step is accepting your job is to be the best leader and starting from there. Because the best leader doesn’t equate to knowing the most. Or completing the most tasks. Or working the longest hours. It is about turning up every day emotionally and intellectually ready to face the challenges ahead. It’s about being in it for the long haul; still able to contribute in 10/20/30 years time. As the Rethinking Leadership paper says, it’s about being a model not a martyr. How you do that will be very personal to you. Be active; connect with others; make time and space to think and reflect; cry; laugh; start early; finish late; find your tribe (the Well Schools movement, www.well-school.org, has 2,000 schools on this journey); invest in yourself; get a dog; take up painting; read a book. Wellbeing is a complex beast. What works for me won’t necessarily work for you. What is far less complex is deciding to prioritise your wellbeing. If you’re still not convinced, over the next month, just observe yourself. When are you a great leader? When are you emotionally available? When do you make considered, intelligent decisions? When are you resilient? And when aren’t you?

Now stop reading this, leave the governor paperwork, don’t worry about the recent data drop, forget the parent complaint response, and go and do something for you. If you do – and you keep on doing this – I guarantee you will be a better leader and will change the lives of more children, families, and staff, and isn’t that why we are all here?

(1) https://www.naht.org.uk/Portals/0/PDF's/Campaigns/NAHT-Retention-rate-report-FINAL.pdf
(2) https://www.educationsupport.org.uk/media/0h4jd5pt/twix_2023.pdf
(3) https://www.business.com/articles/stress-and-productivity-what-the-numbers-say/

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