Look after your head
Recent times have been hard for everyone. Headteachers, in particular, have weathered some truly testing storms admirably whilst carrying the weight of their school communities’ health and safety on their shoulders. I, for one, could not have managed that without breaking down into a blubbering mess. I’ve been thinking though: who looks after the heads? I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to many school leaders, both digitally and in person, and often the subject of ‘loneliness’ can come up: being a head can be a lonely place to be, especially when you’re fighting battles that nobody in our profession is trained for.
I’ve read blogs, books and had training on ‘managing up’, but I haven’t seen much on ‘supporting up’. I imagine many of us do this for those around us or those we line manage without thinking about it, but in these challenging times I believe we need to make a conscious effort to look after our heads. Within this blog I will suggest some strategies to support your school leaders as they do their very best to navigate these unchartered waters:
1. Check in
Checking in and asking how someone is doing can have a significant impact on the trajectory of their day. Popping by with a cuppa and a smile can bring people out of dark spots quickly. In my experience, the kindest heads always bounce these questions back and ask how you are, so persevere and make sure you check in properly!
2. Back them up
Heads are making incredibly difficult decisions – some potentially life or death – and need their school communities to be 100% behind them. When a decision has been made, we should do our best to see it through as positively as possible. We, as school staff, are able to be islands of calm in a world of panic and it is our duty to always do our best.
3. Challenge them sensitively
Many people are at breaking point. Tempers are short and patience is wearing increasingly thin. There are going to be decisions made that not everybody agrees on, however there are suitable ways, times and places to have these conversations. A private conversation with your head can clarify things both for yourself and them – I’m sure they would appreciate your input and if you have reacted in a certain way then the chances are that other people have too. Challenging publicly and harshly or, heaven forbid, bitching about decisions in the background, can eat away at the foundations of a school’s spirit and demoralise many.
4. Chocolate goes a long way
Sneaking your head a bar of chocolate or a sweet treat can go an awfully long way. If you head is tied up in meetings, especially endless Governing Body discussions, having a sweet treat on their desk can give them the energy boost they need to power on. Brownies definitely work best in my experience!
5. Spread the load
Asking what you can do to help can significantly reduce the pressures and stresses on a head. Even if it’s something small, like a phone call or a lunch duty. That extra 5 minutes of thinking space can have a really positive impact when heads are trying to juggle so much at once.
6. Send them home
This one relies on you having a great relationship with your head. Many heads are working ridiculous hours, often staying awake to try and catch up on midnight Government guidance. Sometimes heads need someone to pop in and suggest they call it a day and head home to rest, then they can tackle problems with a fresh mind in the morning. This is easier said than done as so many people are worrying about things, however it can get really unhealthy and stressful when we start losing time with our loved ones. Alongside this, I would strongly advise leaving them alone on evenings and weekends – that email can wait until the morning!
7. Tell them how well they’re doing
It takes no time at all to pop across and say well done to someone. A (distanced) pat on the back and a thank you can take the weight of worry off a headteacher’s shoulders as every decision they make will be coupled with the self-doubt of “Am I doing this right? Is it safe? Is it the best way?”
I am sure many of us do all of these things already with those we line manage and work alongside, but often the head can be in a lonely place trying to keep everyone happy and healthy without anyone checking in on them. After reading this blog, try out one or two strategies and give your head a much needed boost before the summer break.