Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Feeling the heat


Emotional burnout is one of the hazards of the job for school/college leaders and has certainly been partly to blame for the current shortage of heads. Glynn Kirkham explores some strategies found to be useful in achieving long-term professional equilibrium.

An old story about a conversation on a Wednesday morning goes:

"Time to get up and get ready for school."

"But I don't want to go to school."

"Why is that, darling?"

"Well. The teachers all hate me. The children there all hate me. It's a horrible place! I don't like it and I don't want to go."

"But you have to go, dear. You're the headteacher."

If you as a leader in a school or college have ever felt like that, you are certainly not alone. Putting aside issues of workload and work-life balance, running a school or college still is, for most people, a highly emotional, stressful job.

Ultimately leaders are responsible for the well-being and educational success of children. On top of that,

those who lead and manage schools and colleges - more so than the vast majority of organisations - are questioned about and held accountable by internal and external agencies for their behaviour.

As the choice of career would suggest, many school and college leaders have a strong sense of wanting to make a difference, of social justice and equity. The powerful positions that you as leaders hold do require you to make difficult, sometimes moral, decisions.

Leaders can sometimes be torn between trying to do the right thing, sticking to principles and values, when the rigid, managerial approach suggests that you should do things right and follow the rule book.

Emotional resilience is a term often used to describe the ability leaders need to carry on day in and day out in the midst of troubling and stressful situations. It may mean concealing how one is feeling in order to maintain the direction in which one wishes to travel.

Emotional resilience may also allow an individual to remain comfortable with the anxiety that often accompanies uncertainty of a situation. But where does this resilience come from?

There may be some leaders who are able to separate out work from home clearly. However, a more likely scenario is the leader who regularly wakes in the middle of the night (or is unable to fall asleep) thinking about how to resolve a school or college issue, usually involving a colleague, student, governor or parent - for instance, how to manage a balanced budget without making someone redundant.

When to break the rules

It is in the nature of leaders that they are risk-takers and thus they are often in the firing line for 'breaking the rules'. (In other industries, creative thinking and creative problem-solving are applauded as assets.)

While there are some rules which should not be broken - and educational leaders have also the responsibility of setting good role models - other rules get in the way of good sense.

A recent television programme about missing persons showed the son of a woman, who had been missing for ten years, talking about what had happened. He recounted that he was 15 years old when she disappeared and admitted that he became a problem at school because all he could think about was his mother.

His mother's then partner had also walked out of the 'family' home, leaving the boy with his 15 month-old half-brother. Their grandmother finally took them both into her home. Ten years on, at the time of the interview, the mother had still not reappeared.

The boy's comments were a stark reminder of the issues schools and colleges have to deal with. Their role is often significant in determining - sometimes with the help of others and sometimes entirely alone - the rehabilitation of such students.

Research suggests that school leaders are among the most trusted of professionals. Whereas all adults who work in schools and colleges may be seen by members of the community as critical friends, social workers or counsellors, it is school and college leaders who are seen as confessors, who might give absolution or blessing to the actions of all within the community they serve. Who gives absolution or blessing to the leaders? Emotional resilience is a means of being self-sustaining.

Sustaining strategies

Everyone has several faces - the face for the office, the face in the mirror, the face which returns home at the end of each day (for some to an empty house or a carer role).

How, then, do leaders deal with things that occur in their daily life beyond work or that happened in their own childhood (of which they may be reminded when dealing with students)? How do they deal with the serious issues which face them almost every working day and remain sane?

Some responses are presented below.

  • Develop a sense of realism about what is and what is not possible. The old poem, Desiderata, suggests that you should "avoid loud and aggressive persons" because "they are vexations to the spirit". It is not always possible, but should they be tolerated? No matter how leaders might feel about a situation, they must always behave professionally. Righteous indignation is not an option.

  • Accept what is within your sphere of influence and which things you have no control over and cannot influence. Recognise what monkeys you are carrying and give people back the monkeys that they suggest you carry for them.

  • Recognise when, as a leader, it is okay to show how you feel about situations, but in a professional manner. Acknowledge that some days (hopefully rare) you may be tempted to act outside your preferred 'persona' and be one of the many persons that you can be, but which you normally hide behind what you believe is the right way for a leader to behave.Colleagues will expect your behaviour to be consistent; for you to be the 'you' they think they know. For example, if, instead of hearing your usual empathic response, a colleague is the recipient of an unexpected, "For goodness sake, I am fed up of hearing about your life's problems, just get on and do the job you're paid to do", it may cause that person to reassess her/his view of you as a leader. It will almost certainly be relayed to other members of the community.While it may make you feel better, it will not necessarily be the most appropriate professional response. Recognising the tension between how you feel and how, as a leader, you should handle a situation, may make it easier to respond accordingly.

  • Recognise also that showing your human side is not always a sign of failure or weakness. Research suggests that every secondary head will, for example, encounter the death of one or more students in the course of her/his headship.Dealing with instances such as the death of a colleague or student may invoke a waiver in the voice or even a few tears shed in public. Demonstrating such emotion in extreme circumstances would be perceived by only an insensitive few as a sign of weakness. The place for expressing greater emotion is, of course, outside the public arena.

  • Look after your own health and well-being. This does not include excesses of alcohol, although there is good research to suggest that it can be beneficial in moderation and à la mode française, that is, with a meal.Well-being should include lots of water, which not only helps to detoxify the effects of the wine and coffee but also maintains and improves renal activity. Physical exercise (which also calls for re-hydration) is again good for resilience.

  • Decision-making does not in all cases have to be instant. Give yourself time and don't be pressured into making a decision without gathering good and sufficient data, and giving yourself time to think about it.

  • Have a confidante. Sometimes verbally expressing an issue to another can make it seem more manageable and the solution emerges as you speak. Often there is no need for the other to say anything, just being there is enough.One leader expressed it thus: "I have been able to talk confidentially to my mentor about significant personal and personnel issues, using her like a sounding board. It has added a further dimension to my work. She has not judged or provided solutions, but she has made a lot of sense. It has been like having a professional husband, only I don't have to cook her dinner!"

  • Build in breaks to your work. There is much research now about the mechanics and chemistry of the brain and the rest of the body to suggest that particular activity, including the ingestion of certain foodstuffs, re-energises the mind and body. Chocoholics can celebrate. Equally, a time-out period for quiet contemplation is helpful in re-establishing equilibrium.As the poem 'Leisure' by William Henry Davies concludes: "A poor life this if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare."

Ensure that your life is a rich one. Mens sana in corpore sano.

Glynn Kirkham works in the School of Education at the University of Wolverhampton. He is presenting a workshop on emotional resilience at the ASCL annual conference in March.

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