I love the song ‘Piece of my heart’, first recorded in 1967 by Erma Franklin. In fact, I think this song should be the headteacher’s anthem. It captures perfectly the ebb and flow of the strength that is required in school leadership. It beautifully illustrates the juxtaposition of other people’s expectations versus your own capacity and determination. I can think of no other time, in my professional life, where a feeling of being drained manages to, in of itself, provide me with the fight to carry on.
Didn’t I make you feel like you were the only man,
Didn’t I give you everything that a woman possibly can.
But the more of the love I give you, it’s never enough.
Well I’m gonna show you baby, a woman can be tough.
Don’t we all love our schools? Aren’t we all, every day, turning up because we care? I know I am. There isn’t a week gone by where I haven’t tried to improve the state of things for everyone in the school. From the smallest actions to the biggest decisions, I go about my days trying to make things better. I love the school and want the best for everyone in it. I want the school to be special. Thus, I try to give the school everything a headteacher possibly can.
Every decision made doesn’t suit someone. Somebody will disagree. At least one person thinks an alternative would work better for them. Sometimes they assume you haven’t considered their point of view because, how could you have done and still made ‘that’ decision? Sometimes, they expect a volte-face. Sometimes they expect an apology. Sometimes they are happy just to let you know they’re not happy. And why not? Everyone has a right to be heard.
I can’t always predict every objection. Even when I think I’ve covered all bases, it can sometimes feel like nothing would ever be good enough. But my job is to be resilient and respond to, or absorb, any fall-out so the school keeps moving forward.
I won’t lie: this can be harder than it sounds. It’s heartbreakingly, soul-destroyingly depressing to be repeatedly told ‘you’ are not making people happy. Even on your most successful day it will be the lone voice of dissent that ends up whispering in your ear depriving you of sleep. But you can’t be a slave to your detractors. You can’t always presume that unhappy people are right. You can listen, for sure. And there’s nothing wrong with holding up your hand and saying ‘Do you know what? You’re right, sorry. I’ll sort that out straight away.’ That is caring and compassionate leadership. This should come easily to anyone in a position of responsibility. But, sometimes, you have to show your love by being strong and standing firm.
Take it. Take another little piece of my heart now, baby,
You know you got it if it makes you feel good.
I have found that being in a (relatively high profile) position of responsibility can have drawbacks beyond people not always agreeing with your decisions. Drawbacks that nobody really tells you about during your NPQH. At times, it can feel like people think they own you, and every facet of your being, just because of your job description. I have lost count of the number of incredibly personal comments that have been directed at me during my time as headteacher. My private life, is apparently, fair game. All manner of stakeholders, from governors to parents, have, at one time or another, deemed it appropriate to enlighten me on their perceived knowledge about me. At best, I could put this down to curiosity (my homelife, my own education etc.); at worst, it is a bizarre presumption that they have a right to know everything about me (my political allegiance, my sexuality etc.). Not only that, some people feel they have a civic duty to tell everyone else what they think, including me – as if I would somehow be unaware!
Just in case you think I’m being over-sensitive I’ll share with you my favourite: whilst sat in my office a parent informed me that everyone had noticed I had ‘let myself go’. It’s either that or the time I was called a balding Nazi.
Nobody told me that the role of headteacher came with such a strong sense of public ownership. And, since I am often taken completely by surprise when such sentiments are presented to me, I tend not to dignify them with a response. (Although, I would like to stress that I am not a fascist and I am, and always have been, in peak physical condition.) It seems odd though that when I have shared this with my masters, I am expected not to mind (it’s just part of the job) and, due to being in a position of respectful responsibility, am not allowed to ‘robustly’ tell these people to mind their own business. I must be dignified and continue to lead without prejudice. I must allow them to have little pieces of me that they can chew up and spit back at me whenever the feeling takes them.
Break another little bit of my heart now, darling, yeah,
Hey! Have another little piece of my heart now, baby, yeah.
In dealing with – or ignoring – these personal invasions I, like Erma, gain strength from a different side of emotional ownership and one that headteachers are often privy to: when supporting those that require your emotional strength because they have none left themselves. Over the years, I may have run out of patience, once in a while, but I have never, and hope I never will, run out of compassion, empathy and love for members of my school community. Schools are beacons for those in need. And, as @smithsmm wrote in his recent blog, headteachers are now expected to take on supportive roles far beyond their job description and training. I often feel incredibly ill-equipped and isolated as I try to support members of my community in the way that they need; the only thing that hopefully benefits them is that I am guided by my compassion. It is my duty to help them and I will gladly break off as many pieces of my heart as is necessary to support an individual in crisis.
And each time I tell myself that I, well I can’t stand the pain,
But when you hold me in your arms, I’ll sing it once again.
Headship is hard. Strip back all things academic and it’s still a daunting and seemingly impossible job to do. It is not made any easier by the people that inhabit our schools. We all have dark days. We all have times when we lie in bed, after the alarm has gone off, and wonder if we have the strength to go in today. We all should be forgiven for those times when we think that if it wasn’t for the teachers, the kids, the parents, the governors, the government – and anyone else for that matter – our job would be a lot easier.
But, in truth, we need the school as much as the school needs us. Every person, every problem, every success…every smile, tear, hug, laugh…provides me with sustenance. Nothing surprises me and keeps me on my toes as much as leading a school. And that, for me, is what keeps me singing. I know that sometimes life is unfair. I know that in the future I may be subject to a personal attack or feel a victim of undue criticism. But the good will out. I will weather the storms and always come back fighting. I will continue to give the school everything I have, because, that is what we both need.