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What every headteacher should know about overcoming stress

Viv Grant, founder of Integrity Coaching, explains how and when it is time to drop the leadership mask

Posted by Charley Rogers | September 20, 2017 | Teaching

It is my belief that more Headteachers would remain in the profession if, on appointment, it was made explicit to them the link between school improvement and their own personal development. Unfortunately, however, in today’s world of high public scrutiny and personal accountability, they are not and as a result far too many Heads become victims of stress and burn out, unable to cope with the intense psychological and emotional demands of the role.

The Irish author and poet David Whyte works with large organisations and businesses across the globe. He has an acute understanding of the interplay between self and work. He says, “We must have a relationship with our work that is larger than any individual job description we are given. Real work, like a real person, grows and changes and surprises us, asking constantly for recommitment.”

Whyte’s words foretell the trajectory of a Head’s life. They point to a life that will stretch and grow the individual. 

A life that will be accompanied by an array of ‘surprises’. New circumstances that will force Heads way beyond the confines of their comfort zones and to come to know themselves in new and unexpected ways. Because of this, it is vital that one of the first things that any Headteacher must learn to do, in order to overcome the stresses of their role, is to ask for help.  Learning to ask for help, I believe, is an act of courage as much as it is an act of kindness and compassion towards oneself.

Learning to ask for help, I believe, is an act of courage as much as it is an act of kindness and compassion towards oneself.

In the headship role, vulnerability and fear of being judged are constant companions. They have always been there and are part of the human condition, but in the leadership role, they ask to be seen and be taken notice of, less individuals adopt behaviours that cause their vulnerabilities to become their weaknesses. 

In the headship role, you are always on stage. Every interaction, every nod of the head, every turn of phrase is closely inspected and interpreted in any number of different ways by those who have witnessed the performance. It can be both deeply exposing and anxiety-inducing and as a result Headteachers have to learn to dare greatly. They have to learn how and when to drop the leadership mask so that they can step out from behind their defences and meet their vulnerabilities head on.

Many Heads that I have worked with have come to realise that in the same way that supervision acts as an emotional and psychological safety net for social workers, coaching provides the same function.

Coaching provides a space, where they can work ‘backstage’ to process and make sense of each of their ‘on stage’ performances. Backstage they can drop their leadership mask and with a trusted confidante they can:

 - Share their doubts and confusions

 - Share their defeats and upsets

 - Edit and re-write the script for their next performance

 - Rehearse their lines 

 - The coach sits backstage, ready to lend a listening ear, ready to hear how an individual’s multiple performances have gone, ready to help them prepare for their next show.

When a Headteacher seeks to work on both their front of house and backstage performances, they increase their ability to be continually outstanding in front of their audiences. They develop a much stronger internal locus of control and are less likely to be buffeted around by the storms of school life.

Moreover, the term ‘Outstanding’ ceases to become a narrow definition for defining public victories, such as SATs and GCSE results. It also becomes a term for defining their inner victories, marked by their growing self-awareness and ability to reflect. It is this capacity that will be a marker for longevity in the profession and for those Heads who are able to stay on and fulfil their vision, both for themselves and future generations.  


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