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Support groups can be essential for school leaders

January 10, 2020, 9:12 GMT+1
Read in 8 minutes
  • Support groups can be excellent for school leaders’ mental wellbeing
Support groups can be essential for school leaders

A problem shared isn’t necessarily a problem halved, but meeting up with other school leaders as part of an organised group can give you some much needed perspective and motivation. Here’s how to go about exploring what professional heads’ groupings might be in your local area, along with some suggestions for starting one of your own.

It is often said that headship is a lonely job, and for those of us in it, it can certainly feel like this sometimes. The unique pressures of the role and the numerous people one comes into contact with, each with their own demands on your time, mean that confidential discussions and difficult decisions rest with you – and often there is nowhere to turn for your own personal debrief or sounding board.

Mental health is rightly being talked about much more openly in society and in the workplace – in schools the headteacher is always looking out for their team. But again, when it comes to your own mental health, who can you turn to?

More and more headteachers are recognising that the lonely aspects of the job are unhealthy. Decisions are always better taken in consultation, and mental health can only thrive in an open and supportive environment. To this end, headteachers can find solutions by discussing the principles behind conversations and decisions without breaking confidences, and can help one another talk about the role so as to relieve the pressure, recognise the truth in the old adage of “you’re not alone” and maintain good mental health – all through group support structures for heads.

Partnership with employers

Where I work in the Isle of Man, headteachers have teamed up with their employers – Isle of Man Government – to stage regular workshops and forums where school leaders can get together and listen to presentations and take advice on a range of subject matters linked to the role and to general wellbeing for headteachers. These sessions are very supportive and give headteachers the chance to take time out from running their busy schools and come together for group discussion. We’ve had a range of topics as the theme for our support sessions with key note speakers addressing headteachers about the importance of sleep for senior leaders and how to improve sleep quality; HR officers on avenues of support for school leaders who need time out for bereavement, stress or medical reasons; and personal stories of overcoming mental health issues which have encouraged heads to talk more openly about mental health and to remove the stigma from the subject matter – one speaker asked heads to place a tin of baked beans on their desk so that curious colleagues would enquire as to its purpose thus serving to open a dialogue about mental health.

Resources and discussion prompts

Through these support sessions, the employers on the Isle of Man have produced various resources for headteachers which further contribute to the support group ethos. A simple pocket guide which signposts which support is available to headteachers, together with contact details and information, doubles up as a great stimulus for discussion in group sessions. We can also enjoy a cup of tea from our mugs which are emblazoned with handy reminders that headteachers should – and can - seek out support if required. The resources don’t have to be anything more technical than a prompt for conversation and a reminder that it is OK to seek out help from other heads.

Rant and rave

Alongside a dedicated support forum for workshops and presentations, headteachers can meet informally – and should definitely seek to do so in order to offer one another support. In the Isle of Man regional cluster meetings for heads is one way in which this is achieved. Sometimes an agenda of nothing more but a “rant and a rave” can be all it takes to help headteachers feel better about themselves and the work they do.

By “raving” about what we do well, headteachers can share ideas and ways of working that will benefit each other. By “ranting” about our frustrations, headteachers will realise that although we all have our own ways and means of doing the job, we have common issues – and common solutions.

These sorts of support sessions can help re-motivate headteachers and offer that inner assurance that they’re not alone in the difficulties faced.

Supervision

Another strand of support offered to headteachers in the Isle of Man is a version of supervision which is based on a model used by the Manx Police Force: annual vulnerability checks and debriefs for officers who work in challenging roles has become an annual “well-being” check for headteachers. These are confidential sessions led by counsellors from the Isle of Man Staff Welfare Service – while the content of these meetings is private to the individual, key themes emerging across the headteacher workforce are compiled and shared so that headteachers know what the collective issues are and can seek signposting to further help, support and guidance in identified areas.

Social media

While there are obvious benefits to support groups taking place in the physical realm – such as meeting over coffee and cake, one shouldn’t underestimate the power of the telephone! Voice to voice support is very comforting – and I’d encourage all headteachers to develop a network of colleagues with whom they feel able to pick up the phone and talk away to a friendly confidante.

It’s certainly true that at its very best the #EduTwitter community can be informative, supportive, positive and can help shape thinking and challenge ideas. Social media is awash with headteachers and other colleagues with whom a wide and diverse network of support can be built. LinkedIn and, in particular, Twitter, offer this ready-made leadership community to engage with.

Some colleagues have an open account, some anonymous – the choice around that remains with each individual – but the size, experience and support on offer from this huge e-community can augment and enhance the more traditional support group formats available to headteachers. It’s easy to start making use of the social media community and the range of conversations is exceptional; there is always something for everyone. Becoming an active contributor to Twitter chats is a great way to begin and lends itself well to discussion on an agreed topic or general support. #UKEdChat from @ ukedchat on a Thursday evening is a great place to start and there is also the wonderful #PrimaryRocks chat on a Monday evening.

So the next time you find yourself saying that “its lonely in headship” stop, reflect and pick up the phone or log into social media. Or send an email inviting colleagues from nearby to join up for a coffee and a chat… you’ll be surprised how many other feel the same way and are equally glad of the support.

Maxim Kelly is Executive Headteacher of two schools in the Isle of Man (Dhoon School and Laxey School) which form the Laxey/ Dhoon Federation.

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