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School leaders need to take care of their own wellbeing if they are to support staff and pupils effectively, writes James Bowen

As a school leader, there is nothing more important than looking after your own wellbeing. This might appear to be a slightly strange, even selfish, statement. Surely, as leaders, we are there to serve our community, to put others first, and to help pupils and staff achieve their full potential? Great leaders are “servant leaders”, we are told.

Of course there is an element of truth in this. In my experience, there is a degree of selflessness to be found in most great leaders. I love Simon Sinek’s book Leaders Eat Last, where he uses the example of military leaders who deliberately line up behind lower ranked officers in the lunch queue to exemplify how the best leaders are often prepared to make personal sacrifices in order to look after the needs of the group.   

However, there is a balance to be struck. As a school leader, you ignore your own wellbeing at your peril. Whilst for a short period of time it might be possible to be all things to all people, ignoring your own needs, eventually it becomes unsustainable. Prioritising your own wellbeing can actually help to make you a better leader. Let’s face it, if you are burnt out, exhausted and drained, you will not be the leader the people around you need you to be.

But this is easier said than done. Most school leaders are instinctively altruistic and, if you’re not careful, it is easy to overlook your own needs whilst you are busy taking care of everyone else’s around you.

So what can school leaders at all levels do to take better care of themselves and ultimately become better leaders?

Actively build networks of support

Leadership can be emotionally draining work and, at times, it can be an incredibly lonely job. Having people you can turn to for support can make all the difference. However, this won’t just happen by accident, you will need to reach out. Find someone in a nearby school who does a similar job to you and ask if you can visit them. Make sure you attend local network meetings, however busy you are. These relationships can be the source of enormous support when you need it the most. As the old adage goes, “a problem shared is a problem halved”. Whilst you cannot beat face-to-face conversations, modern technology and social networking also offers the opportunity for you to build networks in completely new ways and connect with people you may never have otherwise met.

Don’t leave it to chance

If you don’t plan to look after your own wellbeing as a leader, there is a strong chance it simply won’t happen. Let’s face it, life has a nasty habit of taking over if we’re not careful. Putting time aside in the diary to do things just for you and sticking to these commitments is crucial. Whether it’s the gym a couple of times a week, a trip to the pub with friends or simply a nice long bath, make sure you allocate time in your schedule and don’t be tempted to cancel when you become “too busy”.

Set clear boundaries for yourself

Let’s face it, you could work 24 hours a day, seven days a week and still never complete your to-do list; the job of a school leader is never done. This is why it’s so important that you establish some boundaries and stick to them. Having a cut-off time for accessing and sending emails each day is a good idea or having some evenings which you protect as being “work-free”. As a Headteacher, my commitment to “No Work Wednesday” was a major part of my wellbeing strategy (I should point out that this referred to evenings only and I didn’t take the whole day off).

Seek help and support

Often, we can be tempted to only seek help when we hit rock bottom. Some of us may even feel uncomfortable about asking for help; we’re supposed to be the leaders after all. It’s only when physical symptoms start to manifest themselves or when things become overwhelming that we reach out. As we all know from our education experience, early intervention is best, so look for the signs that things aren’t quite as they should be and take action sooner rather than later. I know school leaders who have benefited enormously from talking therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy. Ultimately, multiple sources of help exist and we shouldn’t be afraid to access them. 

Unions can provide excellent support, especially when you’re dealing with a complex professional issue. The support unions offer comes in two forms. There is the support that you can draw from the community of members and the wide range of experience, information and guidance they can share. However, if things get really difficult, your union should also have specialist advisors to provide tailored advice and support based on the situation you find yourself in. Hopefully, you will go through much of your career not needing this support, but it’s reassuring to know it’s there should you ever need it.

Similarly, there are professional organisations that offer emotional support and advice for people working in schools.

As leaders, we should never feel guilty about looking after ourselves, in fact if we want to maximise our impact on those we lead, it is essential that we do.

Further information

A former headteacher and SENCO, James Bowen is Director of NAHT Edge, a trade union for teaching leaders:
www.naht.org.uk/naht-edge

Information on looking after your wellbeing as a teacher is available on the website of The Education Support Partnership, which also runs a 24/7 telephone hotline for teachers:
www.educationsupportpartnership.org.uk

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