I have been a teacher for 31 years, a head teacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about the challenges for early career headteachers: coping with the loneliness.
I am in my seventeenth year as a state school secondary head teacher. Recently I was interviewed by an organisation exploring the biggest challenges for early career head teachers. I began the interview with the knotty question, “What do you mean by head teacher?” We settled on the traditional definition of the head teacher who runs the school with a significant level of autonomy, both challenged and supported by a traditional governing body in a critical friend role.
I identified eight major challenges for early career head teachers:
- Forging your relationship with the chair of governors (CoG);
- Managing the fact that the buck stops with you;
- Understanding the finances;
- Establishing your core purpose;
- Being patient;
- Establishing a position on teaching & learning;
- Understanding change management;
- Coping with the loneliness.
In this current series of short blog posts, I am addressing each of these challenges and providing some tips which might help early career head teachers to meet them. This final post explores, coping with the loneliness.
Coping with the loneliness
I had been exercised, early in my first headship, by a lad from the town who was known to dabble in drugs. He would loiter at the stile at the end of the school day, mixing with some of our most vulnerable students. One darkening November afternoon in my first term, I confronted him boldly, accusing him of being a drug dealer and directing him, in no uncertain terms, to stay away from my students. He stood his ground. He wasn’t, by a matter of inches, on school property. And he had an audience of some of my most challenging charges.
As I walked away, back down the path into school, the sense of loneliness was palpable. He stood there, victorious. I could hear the laughter and the jeers. Things got worse when his parents complained to the governing body. I literally sunk to the floor in my office when that news came through, in complete despair. I had mucked up. A week later I faced his mum and dad in my office where I had to apologise to them for making unsubstantiated accusations about their son. I felt humiliated.
Kevin, our older, hugely experienced, burly assistant head teacher, reassured me. He frequented the local pubs. He knew the town. He was sure nothing would really come of it. In a week’s time it would be old news. And, of course, he was right.
Later that first year I made a terrifically difficult decision about an internal appointment. Two strong candidates for a senior post and I decided to appoint neither. That was tough. For what seemed an eternity, every time I walked into the staff room colleagues stopped talking. I thought about that issue day and night and all weekend. I went fishing with my mate Nick and it was all I could contemplate. Even when I caught a pike, I was wondering about how to sort the mess out at school. Nick knew something was wrong. He chatted it through with me. He was wise about it all. Of course, it would resolve itself. I just had to be patient. Like Kevin before him, he was spot on.
The loneliest moment of my career came in 2010, when our results dipped badly. On that damp August results Wednesday, I sat in my car as the rain pummelled down on the roof and wept and wept; I felt like the loneliest man on the entire planet. I finally rang my wife Louise who said to me, John, come home. We all love you. You can pack it in. It’s really not worth it. Her words were the balm I needed just at that moment. I was very close to quitting. Thanks to Louise, I didn’t.
The loneliness of the job comes, in the end, from a mixture of forces: the fact that the buck stops with you; having to have difficult conversations with other adults; the confidentiality of so much of what you have to deal with; the range and number of different people and organisations to whom you are accountable; the sheer vulnerability of the position and how you are more sackable than any other person in your school.
So, if you are new to headship and you are sitting in front of a screen this Sunday morning feeling distant from your family and worried about next week – if you are feeling just plain lonely – here are my top five tips for early career head teachers for coping with the loneliness:
1. Find someone you can talk to. The thread through my loneliness examples above is clear. All head teachers need someone they trust with whom they can share their insecurities. In January 2016 the BBC screened a programme entitled The Age of Loneliness. In a poignant documentary, which is affecting yet never mawkish, Sue Bourne interviews a range of people who talk about living in relative solitude. Loneliness, according to Bourne, is ‘the silent epidemic’. Bourne’s fundamental conclusion is that, ‘People of all ages missed someone to do nothing with. To chat idly. To sit next to.’ And that’s it, isn’t it? We all need, to a greater or lesser extent, someone with whom to share our lives. And why should head teachers be any different? If there is no-one at home to talk to, a good employer will provide you with an experienced leadership coach. Bottling up stuff will only increase the sense of loneliness.
2. Choose to be a stoic and control how you react to things. Shakespeare’s “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so”, is rooted in Stoic philosophy. Accept that you can control how you react to life’s vagaries. You can choose how you think, and knowing this has helped keep me sane. It is worth reflecting upon the fact that here, now, as you read this and take a moment to look back on your life, all the things that have traumatised you, all the disasters which have befallen you, you have survived. Nothing has been as bad as it might have been. Nothing is ever that bad. As Karen Pierce, the UK’s Ambassador to the UN, pointed out in a recent interview, “It will be alright in the end and if it isn’t alright, you haven’t reached the end yet”. We can surely choose how we react to life’s vagaries. All events are neutral; how we interpret them determines whether they are good or bad and how we allow them to affect us. Imagine this…impossible as it might seem, everything that happens to you could be good if you chose to think that way.
3. Learn to compartmentalise. I have always argued that the work-life balance is a false dichotomy. I enjoy my job, I am proud to be a head teacher, my work is a central part of my life. For a long time I have preferred the work-home balance, which, combined, constitute my life. But now, much nearer the end of my career than the beginning, I am not sure that I wholly subscribe to my nuanced definition. I heard Cat Scutt speak at researchED Durham yesterday and some research she pointed to, made me think. A paper by Klusmann et al, on teacher wellbeing found that some of the most effective teachers maintained a ‘healthy detachment’ about their job and ‘conserved their personal resources’. What Cat said resonated with me and reminded me of Philip Gould. In his final interview before he died at the age of 61, Gould, Tony Blair’s close adviser, said this to Andrew Marr and I have had it pinned on my office wall ever since: ‘What would have been better for me would have been to have said, “I’ll do what I can do, which I do quite well” and then just push it back a little bit’. Gould’s insight came too late for him, but it isn’t too late for me or any early career head teacher. It. Is. Only. A. Job.
4. Expand your own mental health jam-jar (you need to read this post to understand this completely). I have a list of things I do which grow my capacity to cope with whatever life throws at me:
- Prioritise Louise, Joe and Olly
- Breathing exercises
- Recondition old fishing rods
5. My most important tip for coping with the loneliness is an eternal truth. As Francis Bacon knew so well, the best antidote to loneliness is love. It is the only thing that really matters.
“But little do men perceive what solitude is, and how far it extendeth. For a crowd is not company; and faces are but a gallery of pictures; and talk but a tinkling cymbal, where there is no love.”
Resonates completely. I’ve been lucky to be able to do a year on the job whilst the boss was on maternity leave. I’ve never felt so alone. I’m an experienced DH but I truly wasn’t ready for that. In many ways I prefer being the DH. Not because I can’t make the tough decisions – I had many during that year. But the isolation was something I’d never expected or experienced. Little wonder we are struggling for leaders when as you say you’re the most sackable person. Schools are not football teams. Culture building takes time. Probably five years to do properly but the short term performance circus makes that almost impossible. I’ve seen colleagues move up to Headship and last a year or so before they get sacked because of one set of results…and we still wonder why staff don’t want the top job.
Thank you John. I am a head in my sixth year and have experienced this loneliness that has resulted in me currently being at home with stress. I return to work tomorrow after taking three days off. Your article really has given me something to focus on after the children at work: my family, the gym, football.
Hi David. The post on finding your jam jar is really helpful. Alistair has been a great help to me. I know his partner well enough, Fiona Millar. I have taken a lot from it. I am in my 56th year, have been pretty successful in my career, but can now see, looking back, that it took a great deal out of me. I have, on balance, gained morenthan I lost, but only just. I love the job but it is a tough one. The public accountability of it all is hard. I hope your return to work goes well. All we can do is our best and if that is not enough, then so be it. Take care and keep making your jam jar taller…
Thank you so much for this John. I’ve resigned recently as a Head from a pretty dysfunctional NAT and your blog has truly inspired me, particularly your points about the bigger picture, family, love. I’ve had two months out and have struggled to turn off the mental tap (the anecdote about lonely Sunday mornings really hit home) but am readying myself for a return. Your blog is so centred on the things which matter to me- kids and teaching- and it has been superb to read your thoughts. Let up the good work.
Thanks David. That is so kind of you.
Just ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” And the answer is, 99.9% of the time, “Not much, actually”!
Wishing you a Happy New Year!