Updated: Aug 28
Beware of becoming burnt out and overwhelmed!
There are so many head teachers (and other school leaders) who are exhausted and in danger of becoming burnt out. This is not surprising given all the pressures during the pandemic and since then. The lack of recognition for teaching professionals in the proposed pay award, increased accountability and an OFSTED framework that instils fear, together with a lack of funding and support, is creating the perfect storm for school leaders whose only purpose should be to create the right conditions for pupils to thrive in their schools.
I know how exhausting running a school can be. I loved my role as a head teacher immensely, but there were times when it felt like all I was doing was firefighting and not really succeeding at anything!
Added to the responsibility of running a school and being accountable to so many, a head teacher’s responsibility for their staff well-being, as well of course, the huge responsibility in ensuring the safeguarding of pupils, can sometimes take its toll and at times, feel overwhelming.
In other professions such as in social work or counselling this is sometimes labelled compassion fatigue, and I so clearly see why it is called this. Carrying the emotional weight of others can create compassion fatigue in school leaders and other education professionals, and contribute to a reduction in their well-being which can ultimately lead them to becoming burnout. This is not widely understood or acknowledged in schools, but Dr Rachel Briggs has researched this extensively.
SO WHAT SUPPORT IS THERE FOR COMPASSION FATIGUE?
So, is it easy to seek support? Since the pandemic there has been a definite growth in the provision of services for head teachers, and I know of several that offer a confidential chat over the phone or a network group to join which I think is great and is a support to many.
However, would I have sought support when in post? I’m not sure – and there are many reasons for this, one of them (mistakenly) being that I always felt that I always needed to show emotional strength in my leadership. Also, if I had thought about seeking support, then it would probably been as a last resort when when things had got really bad.
HOW CAN WE MITIGATE COMPASSION FATIGUE?
Could the first step in the prevention of compassion fatigue be to help leaders develop an awareness around this issue. But who’s responsible for this? Governors? Trust? The LA? How do we open up the conversation around this issue?
WHAT ABOUT COACHING OR SUPERVISION?
If supervision or coaching was routinely available to head teachers and other school leaders (and school staff in general too) would this help to prevent individuals from feeling near to breaking point, and would this then support retention and recruitment?
I know that some schools, MATS and local authorities provide coaching and supervision for their head teachers, which is really encouraging, but shouldn’t this be a right for all school leaders?
All professional counsellors and other services, have supervision and it is seen as an ethical imperative. Head teachers and school leaders are trusted to deal with a multitude of issues regarding one of our most vulnerable group of people – children. They work with other professionals in supporting families in their community with complex issues, so shouldn’t they be supported in this role?
WOULD COACHING HAVE HELPED ME?
When I was in post, a regular, scheduled chat with a trusted professional (coach or supervisor) with whom I had been able to build trust and a relationship with, would have benefitted me greatly in my role, not only when I was a new leader but also later on when there were other challenges to navigate.
We know that coaching can bring about clarity and help individuals to re-focus in those times when self-doubt and lack of confidence is all consuming but it also provides that opportunity to openly talk in a confidential and safe space and free from judgement which can be very therapeutic.
I have been on both sides of the coaching journey since re training and qualifying as a coach and working with school leaders, so I know how powerful and supportive coaching can be for the individual and for teams. I would have relished similar support while in post as a head teacher, and if it had been provided as a fundamental component to help me carry out my role, then so much the better!
And surely this would support head teacher recruitment and retention too.
SO HOW CAN WE SUPPORT OUR SCHOOL LEADERS?
How else can we support school leaders? Is there still room to do more? How do we get Governors and heads of trusts to do more?
What are your experiences? I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on how we build supervision and coaching into the fabric of school leadership and provide it as a right for all?
And, if you are a new leader, or about to become one, then congratulations and I am sure you will be amazing, but please remember to seek support if you need it!
P.S. The dog photo is reference to a chat I had with a social worker friend who explained how she talks to her dog to help her with her emotional resilience and compassion fatigue on those more challenging days.