Being a Head can be the loneliest job in the world.
You get paid the big bucks. You volunteered for the job. There’s no point moaning, from the luxury of your leather chair, about the fact that the job’s tricky.
Quite. Couldn’t agree more.
I don’t mind the loneliness. When you look beyond the cliché and explore why headship sometimes feels lonely, I think I prefer it that way. I wouldn’t want anyone else having the full accountability for some of the stuff that lands at my feet.
I would, for example, never seek to burden teachers with the emotional trauma that often comes from taking part in a child protection case conference. Yes, I’ll share the outcomes, the plans and any pertinent details. But I’ll keep the tears, the abuse, the anger, the embarrassment, the denial and the pain, that often takes up so much time at these meetings, to myself. Walking out of those meetings, after you’ve been hit with another person’s depressing reality, is isolating. Your moral imperative drives your refusal to give up on these children in crisis, but the reality of relentless financial-cost-saving-initiatives forces you to acknowledge how alone you are in trying to protect the vulnerable. At times, it appears hopeless. But how could I share that? So instead, I absorb it. Not because I’m a martyr, but because I need teachers to focus on supporting these families in the present for the sake of their future. Too much information can make you jaded. That’s the last thing that is needed. So, I happily keep it to myself, and so what if I lose a little sleep in the process?
Talking of financial cost saving initiatives…have you checked your school’s budget against the new national funding formula? If you thought 2016 was a depressing year, wait until you count the number of cuts schools will have had to make to their infrastructures in twelve months’ time. I can’t imagine that any school will be safe from some form of ‘managing change’ in their attempt to balance their budget. Having to take a lead in this process is, perhaps, the loneliest element of a Head’s accountability. And quite right too. It’s not pleasant. It is deeply personal for those involved. But it must not be personal for the Head. That is not to say that it does not require sensitivity, transparency and tact; it most definitely does. But don’t confuse being compassionate and showing a little humanity with getting personally involved. Decisions must be made. The Head must make them. It won’t be nice and won’t be comfortable. But it won’t be as uncomfortable or unpleasant for the Head as it will be for those on the other side. So, be tactful and keep your emotions to yourself. So what if all you lose in the process is a little sleep?
Finally, in my little lonely trinity, there is Ofsted. You still can’t escape the fact that, in terms of accountability, Ofsted is about as big as it gets for the Head. When a school enters its ‘inspection window’ there’s not a lot else that goes through the brain. Everything suddenly starts getting viewed through the Head’s O-Vision spectacles. Something good happens: put it on the SEF immediately. Something bad happens: how are we going to explain that to the inspector? It can become an obsession. It can become a distraction. It can, if you’re not careful, prevent you from doing your job. There are still too many anecdotes of Heads who appear to be running their school for Ofsted as opposed to for the community. Shell-shocked staff, anxious about coming to school, shuffle into work in fear of the next Ofsted-orientated initiative that needs to be in place yesterday. The Head, after delivering yet another speech in the staffroom about the new marking criteria, wonders why nobody else seems to care. They can’t see that they have eroded the staff’s professionalism through their obsession with Ofsted. Yes, it matters. Yes, it’s the Head’s name on the report. But even an outstanding Ofsted report can’t fill the hole left by an absence of staff respect and support. Best to keep your Ofsted obsession to yourself. So what if it’s only you losing sleep over it?
It is a lonely job being a Head. But, in the right circumstances, that’s highly appropriate. If you focus on building a positive and professional culture within your school then, although you may still feel lonely at times, you will always know that you are not alone. Carrying out a lonely job is a small price to pay for working in a school where people respect and trust that you carry out your role with integrity. So, the next time you’re having a sleepless night, ask yourself whether anyone else in your school is wide awake thinking about your problem. If you think they might be, probably best to buy them a coffee on the way to work and try leading them a little differently. That way, at least one of you should be able to get a good night’s sleep tomorrow.