Keeping Our Heads



Over the past decade the role of a Head Teacher has changed significantly. It is now fraught with ambiguity and complexity. From day to day, Heads find themselves taking on a variety of roles in which, at any given moment, they must demonstrate their leadership prowess as well as show expertise as social workers, counsellors, child psychiatrists, politicians and community workers – all roles for which they have not been trained, yet in which they are expected to be competent.


Many Heads appear to move seamlessly from one role to another, giving the impression they are at ease with the mental and emotional adjustments needed for each; to a certain degree they are. It is their ability to act that inspires confidence in others. However, for each new role they must not only adopt a different psychological perspective, but also process copious amounts of information. The result is often mental overload and increased levels of self -doubt. With each performance, the individual seeks to illicit a positive response from their audience, and wants to feel that they have been listened to, valued and respected for their leadership. However, most Heads know, when you are at the top of an organisation, feedback is not always forthcoming. When it is, the negative tends to override the positive. and not surprisingly many Heads [no matter how well hidden] constantly question their reputation in the eyes of others; they struggle to find answers that maintain their self-esteem and promote a sense of well-being. It is a struggle that can cloud their ability to see the important question that needs to be answered:

Who do I need to be to get this job done?”




Before Head teachers have a chance to answer this question themselves, the education system forces them to ask, “What do I need to do to get this job done?’ Having to consider this second question before fully answering the first, Heads can find that – unconsciously – they put themselves on a course does not lead to congruent, healthy leadership. When a person’s mind is exclusively focused on the job, at expense of the self, it cannot develop the deep personal understanding that all leaders, particularly Heads, need. A level of understanding that allows them to:


Realise their intellectual and emotional potential and …fulfil their roles in social, school and working life.

(Kinderman 2014)


When individuals are constantly required to perform different roles for different audiences, there are emotional and psychological reasons to stop and reflect. When such moments are not available, internal and external fault-lines appear, and their personal and professional lives begin to fracture. During these times, they must be encouraged to find ways that enable them to:


‘Re-integrate the inner work with the life-giving outer work’

(Palmer 1998)


And in so doing, achieve greater alignment between the personal and the professional.


We are all in a continual process of constructing our personal narratives, usually inside our heads. These internal narratives can be overly critical, leading to anxiety and self-doubt – obviously not conducive to a healthy state of mind. But this is often the shadow side of leadership and, along with increased levels of public scrutiny and personal accountability, it has become a major factor in attrition and early retirement among Head Teachers.


To prevent this situation getting even worse, Head teachers must be supported to engage with their role in a new way, to prioritise not only the emotional intelligence of self-awareness and self-management, but also self-compassion.  To fulfil their ambitions for themselves and their schools, they need support that helps them to face up to and re-frame the way they view their vulnerabilities. It is not an easy task, but it is a necessary task if we are to safeguard the health of our nation’s school leaders and the futures of the schools they lead.



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