There are few jobs where it’s critical that you’re on your ‘A’ game each day. Whenever a headteacher makes a decision, there will often be a high risk associated with it.
Get it wrong, and the resulting publicity will be far more high profile than anything a teacher would be exposed to, since the buck stops with you. Heads receive generous salaries because they’re the ones exposed to the highest risk. We have to be on our ‘A’ game every day.
So what happens when we’re not? More importantly, what happens when we don’t even realise that we’re not on our ‘A’ Game? Just to be clear, I’m not referring to long-term depression, psychosis, or unresolved mental health issues, such as alcohol addiction.
What I’m looking to explore here is what happens when your personal ‘balance space’ is eroded by external issues and how to react. Specifically, I want to look at the two life-changing events most likely to have an impact on the typical 40+ headteacher – death and divorce.
Focus and listening
In November last year, my mother was diagnosed with stage three bowel cancer. This was, as I’m sure you can imagine, an intense and often surreal experience.
She was in a great deal of discomfort and pain, and I soon found myself spending an hour each night talking to her and her husband and travelling from London to Durham on as many weekends as I could manage.
This naturally had an impact on my family and my interactions with colleagues, but I was fortunate enough to be in a well-established school with good routines that I could rely upon while this took over my life.
I do, however, remember my first parental conversation minutes after my mum had first told me she had cancer. It was 5.30pm in a Friday when she called me. Halfway through this crucially important conversation the line suddenly cut out – and at that very moment a parent appeared at my door.
The parent was clearly upset, yet I felt it fair to briefly describe the nature of the call I’d just received, adding that if my phone should ring, I would have to answer it.
It was then that I was truly struck by just how focused parents can be. She seemed to ignore my comments and proceeded to spend the next half an hour talking about a particularly challenging situation in her life. There were tears.
Yet at that moment I was as far from my A-Game as it was possible to get. Though every bone in my body was desperate to close this meeting, I didn’t. I carried on listening.
After those 30 minutes had passed, I gently reminded her that I needed to return a call, briefly adding why. At this point she suddenly became embarrassed, saying that she hadn’t realised I meant my mother, but thought I’d been referencing ‘a mother’.
Having talked for half an hour, it seemed by this point that she was now in a position where she could ‘hear’ what the other side was saying.
That incident clarified my thoughts; we can weather intense dips in our lives if we’re clear and honest, but being honest is hard. We don’t want to expose difficult personal circumstances any more than we need to, yet we all have key colleagues who will need to be made aware if they have to step up and fill our drop in capacity.
Last summer a head I work with lost her mother. It was deeply moving watching this colleague handle the challenge of a dying parent, but her approach was both mature and sensible.
She made a point of being upfront and honest with her governors and immediate colleagues. She took time away from school in a way that was manageable, but also realistic – frankly, there were some days she wouldn’t have been up to the job in any form.
Half a year on, and she’s now back running the same successful school she always has. It was interesting to hear her say afterwards that she felt she could morally defend the decision she took to share her personal circumstances, while acknowledging that her response had to be time limited, despite grief being a powerful and unpredictable emotion.
At around the same time, another head I was working with experienced a sudden parental death and chose not to share her situation with anyone. Aside from taking time off to attend the funeral, she otherwise spent no time away from work, and the vast majority of her colleagues remained completely unaware of what she was internally trying to process – the loss of a beloved mother.
Sadly, she subsequently missed something that then led to a formal complaint being made against her.
Having worked with this colleague for many years and having a great deal of respect for her, I can only conclude that the error in question was due to her personal circumstances at the time.
The impact, however, was that she had to then endure a complaint which, while not upheld, was arguably unnecessary. Whilst it can be argued that this oversight would have happened in any case, my own knowledge of the head suggests it was an uncharacteristic oversight.
The vast majority of headteachers are in their forties, which is the demographic that exhibits the highest rates of divorce and separation. Nothing drives couples apart like a demanding job – even the most secure relationships can be irreparably eroded. I’ve met too many heads who have had relationships collapse upon them taking on their first headship.
I know of one recent case where a new head found herself overwhelmed by the demands of the job as a direct result of pressures stemming from a divorce she was going through at the time. She took the last month of term off as sick leave, later returning in a phased way. The period has since had a significant impact on her, both professionally and personally.
Being on your ‘A’ game, and recognising when you’re not, requires a great deal of self awareness. There are times during the year – end of term, for example – when you’ll be aware of having less energy than usual, but deep, personal losses will challenge you far more than the usual end of term fatigue.
In those situations you have a duty to your organisation to both share your circumstances and listen to advice. By their nature, heads will often tend to be quite headstrong, but in my own experience, heads that can demonstrate some humility during difficult personal circumstances find that they can be gently managed. When they don’t, they can risk long-term damage to their reputation and capacity as a leader.
A missed decision or overreaction as the result of personal circumstances can erode a leader’s credibility, further adding to their sense of stress and anxiety.
Whilst there’s no magic wand for preventing this, I hope the case studies cited above show that honesty on the part of school leaders about what’s happening in their lives can better support the immediate leadership needs of their school.
It’s something that takes maturity, and a willingness to ‘let go’ of the tight grip many heads prefer to have over their schools.
Anthony David is an experienced headteacher, executive headteacher and educational writer and speaker.