Time to re-humanise headteachers | Education Support
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Mental health and wellbeing of headteachers and school leaders

Time to re-humanise headteachers

5th March 2020

Headteacher Darren Morgan looks at why headteachers and senior leaders are increasingly suffering from poor mental health and wellbeing.

I genuinely believe that being a headteacher is one of the most enjoyable, rewarding and edifying positions one can hold.  I love my job, I love the people I work with and love the children I have had the pleasure of teaching.

This piece is not intended to be negative about the profession that I consider an honour to be a part of, it is intended to raise the issue of a growing and significant crisis that needs urgently addressing in order that people who care so passionately can be better protected by the profession they are so dedicated to.

Education Support’s Teacher Wellbeing Index revealed that senior leaders reported the highest levels of stress in 2019 (84%), up from 80% in 2018 and 75% in 2017. From 1 April 2018 to 31 March 2019 there were 561 callers to their helpline clinically assessed as being at risk of suicide, a 57% increase on the previous year.

I know how it feels. I have been there.

The responsibilities

Should a school experience a significant safeguarding breach, financial issue or receive an unsatisfactory judgement from Ofsted the position for a headteacher can be immensely stressful.

The issues causing the anxiety is a seemingly endless list - anything from hostile and unreasonable parents, parking, neighbours, children’s behaviour, underperforming staff, even perimeter fences. 

A teacher approached me about an older sibling of a pupil inferring a threat towards him.  This was the culmination of months of complaints and threatening behaviour from the family.  Understandably, he parked the issue with me, for me to deal with it.  That is, after all what I get paid ‘mega-bucks’ for!  I drove home late that evening with no idea of how I was going to address this issue.  It was not as if the parent would simply accept the allegation, I knew the next morning would involve a hostile conversation that would affect me personally. After months of hostility, my resilience was at an all-time low. Overwhelmed, this is when I considered ways out of the situation.

Time heals and eventually the family left the school.  A few months later, I was involved in a conversation with a headteacher from a different Local Authority, whom I had never met, who was in pieces at the end of the telephone.  The reason…the same family had done to her what they had done to me, and so many other school leaders.

Let’s stop trivialising these issues and start seeing them for the stress-inducing, wellbeing impacting issues that they actually are.

Isolation

Many headteachers feel isolated. Should the ‘proverbial hit the fan’ they often find themselves alone whilst their colleagues take a step back in order to avoid the flak.  

However, after speaking at length with many school leaders I can categorically state that many of these issues are often not being talked about by headteachers. They are not impervious to the pressures and by not opening up about the weight of these responsibilities, many are becoming ill.

Headteachers have to stop thinking of ourselves as unerringly coping with every aspect of our role and admit that, at times, we need decent help and support, both for the benefit of our schools, but for the benefit of ourselves. It’s time to be honest about the issues that are keeping so many of us awake, night after night, about the worries that are in the pit of our stomachs from Saturday morning until the dread of Monday morning is upon us.

Lack of support

Part of the issue is who do we talk to?  In my experience, talking to the local authority or HR often provides me with sterile and not very useful answers. I have heard horror stories of lack of support from authorities when heads have needed them. 

School leaders also need more support in times of crisis from the police who need more resources and authority to help.  All too often headteachers have to deal with situations they have neither the legal authority nor skills to deal with.

I personally find it hard to discuss these issues with other headteachers for fear of being judged as inadequate, or a ‘wimp’. However, discussion with others has revealed to me that there are actually a lot of us ‘wimps’ out there.

Hostile environment

The environment that headteachers have to work in has become increasingly hostile

Often governing bodies can be the opposite of supportive of headteachers. I have one friend whose governing body used to meet in her absence on a Saturday morning in order to slate her! How can this be acceptable? I have personally experienced the impact of hostile governor meetings led by self-important governors with personal agendas.

In addition #edutwitter has become a negative place for headteachers to frequent. Daily, I read degrading comments about SLT and heads on social media.  School staff and sages of education often share these views. The comments can include promoting unacceptable responses to a headteacher’s vision and actions and de-humanises them on social media.

This, in addition to all I have shared is why I think the time is right, the time is now to re-humanise headteachers.

Darren Morgan is a proud headteacher of a wonderful school tweets @Moggy14

How we can help 

If you are struggling with your mental health and wellbeing please call our free and confidential helpline: 08000 562561. 

Our Headspace and Yourspace service offers a safe and confidential environment for school leaders to develop the most effective leadership behaviours and learn from each other, using action-learning and problem-solving techniques. Find out more.