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Leadership and Well-Being

Jill Berry

27th May, 2018

When you have a leadership position within a school, at any level, there are two aspects of staff well-being that you need to give attention to: your own, and that of those you lead. The two are related, in that if you do not safeguard your own well-being, you are less likely to be fully professionally effective, and you are not modelling the approach to well-being you ideally want those you lead to adopt. Even if you are capable of finding a healthy and sustainable balance between your personal and professional responsibilities so that you can act as a positive role model here, you may still find there are members of your team who struggle to do the same, and you need to be aware of this, and to work to support them.

 

In this post I will focus on the subject of leaders protecting their health and well-being, and in a subsequent post I will address the issue of how we can support others to protect and nurture their own.

 

I want to begin by saying that, in my view, teaching and school leadership is an important job, but it IS a job. It is not the sum total of who we are. And if it isn’t possible to do a committed, successful job and to have a life, then there is something wrong with the job, and not with you. I am a fan of flexible working, including (though not only) part-time working, but it shouldn’t be necessary to go part-time in order to make the combination of work and life manageable. You should be able to be a strong, effective teacher/leader while still fulfilling, and enjoying, personal commitments to family, friends, your hobbies and interests, your physical and mental health. Those in education work hard, I recognise, but we need to acknowledge the difference between taking on something which is challenging, and taking on something which is impossible and which jeopardises those elements of our lives which fall outside the professional sphere.

 

I was a teacher and a leader in schools full-time for thirty years. I was certainly dedicated and industrious. But I was also protective of other aspects of my life and my relationships with those beyond my job. And for the last ten years, when I was a head, I always knew that if you took the ‘headteacher’ out of me, there would still be a person left behind. I loved my job, but I am relishing #lifeafter, which can be rich and full.

 

What advice would I offer serving leaders who are trying to ensure they are getting the balance right and that their well-being is not jeopardised by their commitment to their job?

  1. You have to be able to protect time where you try very hard not even to THINK about school concerns. The worst option is where you’re not working, but you’re worrying about the fact that you’re not working, or you find yourself dwelling on issues to do with education.  Identify times in evenings, weekends and holidays where you are going to focus on resting and relaxing.  Don’t check school emails or educational Twitter at those times or you will be sucked back in to educational preoccupations.
  2. Ask yourself what is a reasonable amount of time to spend on schoolwork outside the times of the school day. Be proactive and not reactive.  Allocate time you will give to marking, planning, reviewing, documentation – whatever your role demands.  But decide in advance when you will stop.  And that can’t be ‘when the work is done’ because, in reality, it never is completely finished and perfect.  You have to know when ‘good enough’ is good enough.  Give yourself a break and don’t drive yourself unreasonably hard.  And remember, guilt is such an unproductive emotion.
  3. Know yourself well enough to recognise when you are really too tired to do well a job that requires energy and clear-thinking. Rest first and then go back to it.  Whenever we broke up at the end of a half-term/term I knew I needed several days’ rest before I could tackle whatever needed finishing off/sorting, and what I needed to plan for the half-term/term ahead.  Usually I needed to sleep quite a lot before I was in the right frame of mind to focus on schoolwork.
  4. Different activities work for different people when it comes to unwinding. For me, reading good fiction has always been a great escape and a very good way of absorbing myself in something which demanded my attention and stopped me drifting off to think about school.  Similarly, daily exercise, singing in a choir, cinema and theatre and just time spent with my husband, family and friends have always been restorative.  What works for you?  Whatever it is, be fully present and not mentally elsewhere.  This usually means putting the phone/laptop aside.
  5. Finally, do think about #lifeafter – that stretch of your life beyond full-time work when you will have greater choice, flexibility and freedom to do what sustains you. Plan for it.  Look forward to it.  Make sure, whatever you do, that you maintain contact (even if it’s infrequent) with those you intend to spend more time with when you have the opportunity. I have written about my time to ‘exhale’ here.  Work is an important part of our lives for most of us.  It isn’t ALL our lives and it isn’t all we are – it’s only a part of who we are.  It can help to keep that in perspective.

When you have a leadership position within a school, at any level, there are two aspects of staff well-being that you need to give attention to: your own, and that of those you lead. The two are related, in that if you do not safeguard your own well-being, you are less likely to be fully professionally effective, and you are not modelling the approach to well-being you ideally want those you lead to adopt. Even if you are capable of finding a healthy and sustainable balance between your personal and professional responsibilities so that you can act as a positive role model here, you may still find there are members of your team who struggle to do the same, and you need to be aware of this, and to work to support them.

In this post I will focus on the subject of leaders protecting their health and well-being, and in a subsequent post I will address the issue of how we can support others to protect and nurture their own.

I want to begin by saying that, in my view, teaching and school leadership is an important job, but it IS a job. It is not the sum total of who we are. And if it isn’t possible to do a committed, successful job and to have a life, then there is something wrong with the job, and not with you. I am a fan of flexible working, including (though not only) part-time working, but it shouldn’t be necessary to go part-time in order to make the combination of work and life manageable. You should be able to be a strong, effective teacher/leader while still fulfilling, and enjoying, personal commitments to family, friends, your hobbies and interests, your physical and mental health. Those in education work hard, I recognise, but we need to acknowledge the difference between taking on something which is challenging, and taking on something which is impossible and which jeopardises those elements of our lives which fall outside the professional sphere.

I was a teacher and a leader in schools full-time for thirty years. I was certainly dedicated and industrious. But I was also protective of other aspects of my life and my relationships with those beyond my job. And for the last ten years, when I was a head, I always knew that if you took the ‘headteacher’ out of me, there would still be a person left behind. I loved my job, but I am relishing #lifeafter, which can be rich and full.

What advice would I offer serving leaders who are trying to ensure they are getting the balance right and that their well-being is not jeopardised by their commitment to their job?

  1. You have to be able to protect time where you try very hard not even to THINK about school concerns. The worst option is where you’re not working, but you’re worrying about the fact that you’re not working, or you find yourself dwelling on issues to do with education.  Identify times in evenings, weekends and holidays where you are going to focus on resting and relaxing.  Don’t check school emails or educational Twitter at those times or you will be sucked back in to educational preoccupations.
  2. Ask yourself what is a reasonable amount of time to spend on schoolwork outside the times of the school day. Be proactive and not reactive.  Allocate time you will give to marking, planning, reviewing, documentation – whatever your role demands.  But decide in advance when you will stop.  And that can’t be ‘when the work is done’ because, in reality, it never is completely finished and perfect.  You have to know when ‘good enough’ is good enough.  Give yourself a break and don’t drive yourself unreasonably hard.  And remember, guilt is such an unproductive emotion.
  3. Know yourself well enough to recognise when you are really too tired to do well a job that requires energy and clear-thinking. Rest first and then go back to it.  Whenever we broke up at the end of a half-term/term I knew I needed several days’ rest before I could tackle whatever needed finishing off/sorting, and what I needed to plan for the half-term/term ahead.  Usually I needed to sleep quite a lot before I was in the right frame of mind to focus on schoolwork.
  4. Different activities work for different people when it comes to unwinding. For me, reading good fiction has always been a great escape and a very good way of absorbing myself in something which demanded my attention and stopped me drifting off to think about school.  Similarly, daily exercise, singing in a choir, cinema and theatre and just time spent with my husband, family and friends have always been restorative.  What works for you?  Whatever it is, be fully present and not mentally elsewhere.  This usually means putting the phone/laptop aside.
  5. Finally, do think about #lifeafter – that stretch of your life beyond full-time work when you will have greater choice, flexibility and freedom to do what sustains you. Plan for it.  Look forward to it.  Make sure, whatever you do, that you maintain contact (even if it’s infrequent) with those you intend to spend more time with when you have the opportunity. I have written about my time to ‘exhale’ here.  Work is an important part of our lives for most of us.  It isn’t ALL our lives and it isn’t all we are – it’s only a part of who we are.  It can help to keep that in perspective.
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