Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Spinning out of control

Spinning plates

As a headteacher, Gary Coleby had considered himself a model of work-life balance. Then a heart attack forced him to reappraise his approach to the job.

In 1990 I was appointed principal of Crown Hills Community College, a struggling inner-city comprehensive school in Leicester.

I spent the last part of my career turning the school around. By 2003 it had been listed in the top 200 improving schools three times and had two highly successful Ofsted inspections.

For me this success was exciting and ego-boosting. I was more and more busy and increasingly in demand outside school.

Then in May 2003 while on holiday in Spain, I had a heart attack.

Back home I was signed off for four weeks to recover and, after the initial shock and the realisation that I would probably not die immediately, I started to take stock.

I had not had more than a handful of days off in the previous 30 years as a teacher. I was very active professionally, had a busy personal life and a rich family one. I had always regarded myself as a model of good work-life balance. So what had gone wrong?

I started thinking but also talking and listening. The city councilfs human resources team was very useful and arranged some work-life balance counselling. I met with a counsellor on a number of occasions who helped me to look as objectively as possible at my life and it really helped.

What I discovered about myself was that:

  • It was impossible to say that the heart attack was caused by stress, but there is little doubt that the stress contributed to it.

  • I was under enormous stress - personally and professionally. The former included having two very unwell parents that I was supporting (both have since died - one before the heart attack and one after). We moved from a comfortable big house to a run-down smaller one and there was much work to do. My daughter returned home from university and moved in with us (not a stress), but then bought a run-down house that also needed doing up.

  • Professionally, I was riding the crest of a wave. I was enjoying it but was running myself ragged. I rushed from one meeting to another, one conference to another, took few breaks and started to delude myself that I was being effective. Even so, the school was running well because it had really good staff who kept things in order.

  • Finally, I began to realise that I spent an enormous amount of time looking after and caring for other people but very little looking after and caring for myself. I was living on adrenalin and, I found out, this is not good for you over long periods.

I decided that I had to make changes - and stick to them. Here are some of the key ones:

  • Personally, I had always liked caring and did not want to stop caring. However, I started to put limits on what I could and would do. I worried less about what I could not control and started to put my own interests forward. This has not been easy but I have stuck with it.

  • I changed the way I worked. I analysed all of the extra or non-statutory aspects of the job and made decisions about which ones to keep or modify and which ones to jettison. I did a lot of work for the city council and what were then the TTA, SHA, and the DfES. I gave up most of it except some work for SHA and stuck with the decision. I also reaffirmed that I was an important person and if outside agencies wanted my input, they could come to me. Some did and some did not. The important ones did.

  • I looked at my main job. I decided to work more sensible core hours and leave at a reasonable time. How did I manage it? I was always good at delegation and trusted my senior colleagues but I took it up a gear. I listened to other peoplefs issues but did not always try to solve their problems. I looked very carefully at out-of-hours meetings and set priorities and time limits. I did not see excessive time in meetings as a necessary evil, just a plain ordinary evil! I took a lunch break virtually every day off the premises and came back refreshed in the afternoon. None of this affected my contact with students or staff.

  • I used my PA more effectively and always planned meetings so that one would not run into another. I always insisted on a break between them.

  • If I had a meeting in the city centre, I would get a taxi rather than rush and drive. I would expect a break before or after.

  • I analysed my other tasks. I delegated and empowered others more and spent a lot more time on strategic thinking and less on day-to-day. I was still around the school and making sure it was working. But I did not try to solve all problems myself and kept staff to account more.

I stuck to these practices. I began to grow in confidence and Crown Hills continued to be successful. It became a thriving specialist sports college and had an excellent Ofsted report which said aspects of the school were outstanding.

By the time I took early retirement in August 2007, I had enjoyed four more successful years. I was fit and healthy and went out on top.

I think most senior leaders could benefit from taking similar action and I would be happy to share more details of this process with individuals or groups.

Gary Coleby was head of Crown Hills Community College in Leicester until summer 2007. Contact him at gacoleby@yahoo.co.uk

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