The Staff Meeting
Can you feel isolated and 'lonely' in a room full of people?
This is a simple story that immediately springs to mind whenever I hear about the loneliness of headship. As I delve into the way that this situation made me feel, as well as why this was the case, I can see how headteachers can easily find themselves in situations where things can be too much, where they can feel overwhelmed and isolated.
This was my first opportunity to lead as an acting headteacher at the junior school that I'd been working at for some time. There was the proposal of a merger with the infant school who were on the same site. With this in mind, it was important to find ways to start to bring the two schools together. It's important to say that both schools were very different, with completely different visions, histories and habits.
The proposal, agreed and discussed with my infant colleague, was to hold a celebration evening for the staff. This would be an opportunity to end the year informally together. We also liked the idea of presenting each of the support staff with flowers, to acknowledge those 'over and above' contributions. We both knew that there was a lot of change ahead and that this would help staff to connect before amalgamation.
I can't say that every idea that I had was a roaring success, but I wasn't in a position to consult with others at this point. The schools were still working in separation and there hadn't been anyone appointed to lead this. I put my neck on the line, because someone had to give it a try.
The following week, we had all of the teaching staff together. It was pretty tense because some supported the forthcoming changes, and some really didn't. At the end of the meeting, I stood up and shared our proposal. I saw stern faces and could see that this was not going down well with some. One person was very vocal, and said that this was a bad idea, that all staff are the same in 'this' school and that the idea of acknowledging support staff in this way was therefore unnecessary. Others nodded along with their colleague. At this point I stood unsure, exposed and vulnerable. The colleague that had planned this with me said nothing, and the meeting abruptly concluded. The idea had been successfully challenged and publicly opposed.
I unplugged my laptop, hiding from any further interactions, as everyone left the room chatting with their friends. I headed swiftly for my office, closing the door and taking a moment to compose myself. I was feeling upset, cross, frustrated, offended, challenged and worst of all, alone. I then took this home, and as my children played in front of me, I stared out of the window thinking about school.
Looking back, this was not the end of the world. This was an indicator of some of the many, bigger challenges that would lie ahead. This was the moment when I realised the importance and strength when involving others in the process. This type of situation was more common for me as I started headship, with some unfortunately seeing this an opportunity to test my character.
There would be other moments when these situations could occur. My first governors meeting was especially challenging in this way, when I was told beforehand that I was going to get lynched by the 'God squad'. Or the moment when I was approached about forced academisation, completely out of the blue at a public event, vol-au-vent in hand, with the assumption that we were failing. My first parents evening in a school in special measures was similar also.
The common characteristic is being the one person who is feeling exposed within a group. The one person in firing line, which inevitably you have unknowingly become. It would be easy to assume that loneliness is a physical position, being on your own in an office, but it's not. It can be a deep, intrinsic stirring that occurs when all you really want to do is run for the door.
To limit this and to secure confidence, I needed to work closely and collaboratively with the right people. I developed a fantastic relationship with our deputy headteacher and also our chair of governors. I worked hard to forge good, sincere relationships with everyone that I could. With these people, I shared ideas, problems, feelings, frustrations and opinions. We would disagree and there would challenge, but I would never question their loyalty, dedication or support.
These are the relationships that every headteacher requires to effectively manage what is a complex, challenging and deeply personal, roller-coaster journey.
The WIN / WIN
These situations would no doubt still occur. There are days when you have to deal with things that are uncomfortable or that place you in a position of vulnerability. Relief and assurance comes from the fact that this is not just about you, because you are working closely, transparently and on behalf of others. This is the position that you must identify, create, nurture and secure.
When I see headteachers without healthy, senior relationships, I see vulnerability. Vulnerability is not a nice place to be, if it's combined with solitude. It can slowly eat confidence, create uncertainty and damage emotional welfare, which are the most significant attributes for any school leader. I would even go as far as to say that the long-term success of a school can be dependent on the relationship between the headteacher, deputy headteacher and the chair of governors. This situation allowed me to recognise the value of a good deputy and chair to confide in. Our relationships would be the secret to our success as we lead our newly amalgamated school from satisfactory, RI to two consecutive 'good' outcomes over a 10 year period.
This all brings us back to the importance of relationships, feeling secure and assured. It's a strange concept that you have to 'seek to belong' when you are the one leading the school. This is something that you can often see and hear when you visit schools and listen to school leaders. But the real beauty of these relationships is that it brings happiness to your workplace. We became friends. As a headteacher, I questioned whether or not I would be able to have genuine 'friendships', but I did.