When I think back to my first year of headship I look on it with a real sense of pride because whilst it was a fantastic experience taking charge of a school for the first time it was also a challenging one. Headship is a great job. No doubt about it. It is also a very lonely one at times and, if you are anything like me, you are able to all too easily see what you are not doing in the role rather than what you are. Of course, this depends on the day and the picture below sums it up well.
Personally, the challenges for me were the isolation the role can create. If you want you can blame yourself for anything. On a day with self doubt I’d turn it all on me and whilst this inevitably means that you set high standards and don’t rest on your laurels it also means that mentally you can really knock yourself. If a teacher was RI I’d blame me. If a message hadn’t been communicated from a teacher to a parent – that would be my fault due to poor systems. If morale was low I’d blame me. Anything and everything was my fault because I was in charge. It can be quite a dark place if you let it.
I particularly felt this in the first year because ultimately I had very few outlets for allaying my worst fears when I was in a doubting phase (I can testify that this does get a lot easier the further into headship you progress). Obviously I could speak to a solid network of HTs that I had built around me but, to be honest, I was all too aware that they have their own jobs to do and whilst a ten minute chat was never a problem or the odd half day here and there, I always felt that to take more would be to impose myself on them and I respect them too much to do this. I also spoke to my wife, she’s great at listening but when I am being overly reflective then there is only so much that I can air. The same can be said for my family – my Dad wants to solve the issues for me and make it right and, I end up worrying him and my Mum because I am the only person who can resolve them. Finally, and I can see this paragraph is a bit depressing, I couldn’t really turn to anyone in school because who wants to know that the leader of the school is doubting whether or not he cuts the mustard.
The reality is that in the role of headteacher you are judged by all and quite rightly so. Children, parents, grandparents, staff, LA reps…you name it. They ALL judge you. It’s called accountability and goes with the job. This also means that again there are few people to turn to when the doubting sets in!
It took me a while to come up with a solution and having a strong group of HTs that I could turn to certainly helped but as I have said was not the complete answer. Ultimately I decided that I wanted and needed someone who wasn’t going to judge me, wasn’t going to worry about me and was purely going to listen. The answer – a coach. The real beauty of a coach is that you pay them not to judge you, they don’t know you on a personal level and so won’t worry about you and they listen without prejudice and with complete objectivity.
I was really fortunate that I had worked with a coach as part of NPQH and contacted her via email. She charges a really reasonable price for a two and a half hour slot and believe me it is money well spent (I class this as my CPD). To be able to sit there and unload my worst fears about how I am performing in my role is hugely liberating and has allowed me to avoid the ‘doubting dips’ that plagued me in my first year. My coach doesn’t judge but she does provide objectivity and often helps me to appreciate that my responses are out of context and disproportionate to what is really occurring. Don’t get me wrong, I still doubt myself and hit the odd dip but the key is to book your coach in when you know you will be approaching your most vulnerable periods – for me this is the penultimate week before the end of a half term. I have come to learn this about myself. We approach the half term and I start to see everything that I am not doing and fail to recognise any successes – this then spirals and can leave me feeling quite isolated and unable to think strategically or with clarity. Meeting with coach pre-empts these feelings and since I have been working with her I have noticed a marked improvement in my mental resilience.
A new generation of leader
There are many senior leaders and headteachers who will decide that having a coach is not for them and is a sign of weakness. I couldn’t feel more strongly in the opposite direction. I think having a coach shows that you know your own mind and are open, as leader, to your fallibilities. The key is being self aware. Having a coach does not mean that I don’t know how to be a headteacher or a leader, it just means that I acknowledge that at times I need a structure to clarify my thoughts. I think the really good thing is that there’s a new generation of leader coming through that is self aware in this department and not afraid to say that at times they would benefit from resolving issues with someone objective. My advice to anyone stepping in to a leadership role is to consider a coach because it empowers you and will ensure longevity in your role which ultimately the school community wants and needs.