I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about resisting the misery of life in our schools.


It seems that there are many people working in our schools feeling pretty miserable. It appears to me that such attritional conditions have become all too common place due to school leaders being unable to shoulder the pressure of external accountability on their own; instead they find themselves unwittingly passing that pressure onto SLT who, in turn, pass that pressure onto Subject Leaders who, in turn, pass on that pressure to their teaching teams. Too many schools are toxic places. Back in October, just for a moment, the whole thing got to me too:

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I’m not being critical of my school leader colleagues. The thing is, I’m sure school leaders realise that the best thing for students is a happy, motivated staff.  But it’s bloody hard to resist the relentless pressure: it drives some Headteachers to do things that, if they thought about it, they’d be appalled at; apparently, some Headteachers are observing assemblies OFSTED-style, which seems both mad and sad to me. There again, the football manager syndrome means that you are only as good as your last set of results. @Chocotzar gets it right in her(?) latest blog post when s/he says: I’d have never dreamed when I started that HTs would be on £100k+ salaries, accompanied by the cut throat longevity of a Spurs Manager. And I don’t like it. I don’t think I want to be one of those Heads that are rarely in schools, completely strategic (from a distance) and then sacked when a DfE missive changes the goalposts. I recall with great sympathy a colleague Headteacher saying to me last year that he was sick of being accountable for what 1,600 people – the staff and students in his school – say they are allegedly doing (or not doing).
Go beyond the data. I was in a meeting recently when I expressed my frustration at being unable to weave careers education through the curriculum in any meaningful way. A colleague Head was incredulous that I should be having conversations with Subject Leaders about such a thing; according to him the only thing he talks about with Subject Leaders is student progress data. I tried to explain that if he was to get the teaching and learning right – including the curriculum – the data would largely look after itself, but he was having absolutely none of it. The way he spoke at me was filled with vehement derision and was a clear manifestation of the pressure upon Headteachers.


It’s worth recalling Mike Hughes’ perceptive aphorism: The most effective leaders seem to have erected a sheet of polaroid across the school gate: all the confusing, paradoxical and frustrating initiatives hitting the school, as they pass through the polaroid, emerge as parallel lines, harmonious with our plans and processes. Keep things in perspective and Hold Steady.
Read Tim Brighouse when your working world seems a lousy place: his How successful head teachers survive and thrive is an inspiring read.

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Tom Sherrington is an inspirational force in education. His latest post, Ten reasons to love teaching, is a welcome injection of positivity.  Imagine there was no OfSTED, no league tables, no SLT… just you and your class..what would you choose to do to make it GREAT? Do that anyway…
Concentrate on people. Love is a leadership word.  This is a line from the post 20 Things all Great Organizational Leaders Do. As a Headteacher it’s worth comparing your leadership traits against this checklist.


Defensive pessimism works for me. I was delighted when my sister sent me this Now article a few years ago – it defined my approach to life! Reflecting on the darker side of things can allow for greater self-acceptance and self-esteem, better health and an enhanced ability to handle life’s challenges. All this helps the defensive pessimist to make lemonade out of life’s lemons, precisely because they embrace the sour bits.

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What’s good for our students is good for us toofor instance:
We know students perform at their best when they feel safe, happy and academically challenged. We know this to be true, so why not the same for the teachers in our schools?
We know students respond best to feedback when there is no grade, just constructive commentary. We know this to be true, so why not the same for teachers when we observe them teach?
Perhaps, as school leaders, we have forgotten what it is like to have fun. I love this Smirnoff advert from 2002…

Maybe we have lost what it means to be carefree like a child. Holly Forshaw was a wonderful student with a special spirit at whose funeral I spoke eight years ago. She never had the chance to lose what it is to be a child. In her Memorial Book one of her friends wrote, Who is going to dare us to be wild now? In the spirit of Holly, my challenge to school leaders for 2014 is to dare to be wild now and then – I reckon it’ll do you and your colleagues all a bit of good!
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I really like it when you speak like a child
The crazy sayings like “I’m so free and so wild”
You have to make a bargain with me now
A promise that you won’t change somehow
No way, no how…

Nothing lasts with age, so people say
But I will always try to feel the same…

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This post has 15 Comments

  1. Safe, happy and challenged staff, at all levels, generally perform very well. It’s not a crime or sign of weakness to have open discussions about staff welfare and well being, any school / educational institute would do so if it was an issue with the learners welfare and well being! So school leadership who dismiss the moans and groans of working in ‘schooling’ today, prick up your ears, tackle the signs of misery head on and aim to replace the lousy with joyous in a profession that offers so much. Help to ‘reinstitute the magnificence of life in our school’…at worst, it’s got to be better for the young people in front of us.

  2. Thanks John. Another gem in the ‘This much I know..’ style. I know too many HTs who express that ‘vehement derision’. Tragic. Love that quote from Holly’s friend…’dare to be wild’. I know a few people who need a bit of that. Happy New Year! It’s going to be a good one.

  3. I have enjoyed reading this John and have seen the role of headship from all angles; having been one myself , been a governor, a chair of governors, having worked for several heads and SLTs, being married to a head and now consulting and interim for schools where heads get pushed out when the “football season ” begins. It is much like a game now; defence and attack being in equal measure. Governors the temperamental managers, and head teachers the coaches that support or cajole from the sidelines. Parents being both the fickle and loyal fans. Having also worked in the health service and seen the parallels it will not be long before leaders are replaced by business leaders. I remember when an ex ships captain took over the hospital that I worked in as the director. It was a shock to everyone but it has been allowed to continue and is now the norm.
    I enjoy my work and remain focussed on the outcomes for children. I remain optimistic for a future where it is ok to talk about loving our work and caring about kids. I hope that you all find yourselves refreshed and ready to play again in the new year. Remember that when you called off the pitch, it is only a game and it will go on without you. You are only a player, it is those who love you who really matter, who you are and not what you do that counts in the final score. If you find you are in trouble or need a coach that knows where you have been you know where to find me. All the very best.

  4. A sobering but important post, John.
    I think one of the really hard things about headship is maintaining a positive outlook without seeming to be falling prey to naïve optimism or blindness, a kind of ‘Pollyanna’ approach. We have to look reality squarely in the face and still be upbeat, ‘how can we?’ people who negotiate obstacles and with the help and support of others find a way over or round them rather than wearing ourselves out beating our heads against them.
    I know you’ve read and responded to Ros’s latest post http://principalprivate.wordpress.com/2013/12/29/what-i-am-learning-about-maintaining-ethos/ which is helpful, as are Tom’s 10 reasons…
    (Will add the links in case anyone else reading this hasn’t yet seen them.)
    Am sure you’ve also read Jim Collins’ ‘Good to Great’ and may remember what he says about the ‘Stockdale Paradox’ “you must retain faith that you will prevail in the end and you must also confront the most brutal fact of your current reality” – I found this useful when I was a head.
    Anyway, hope you’re having a very good Christmas break, that it’s given you the opportunity to have a proper rest so that you return to school feeling refreshed and reenergised, and that 2014 is a very positive, productive and happy year for you, your family and your school.

  5. My wife is a special education teacher who have been frustrated with her job many times. But she still tries to enjoy it by focusing more on the students.

  6. Hello John, really taken by the content of your blogs. It reveals the human scale of school leaders. Would love to repost on our blog and link back to you. How does this sound?

  7. Do you people not realize the truly appalling standards you have been setting as educators in this country ?

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