A week ago I wrote a post about how leaders can safeguard their own well-being. I also answered interview questions from Sam at Schoolwell on my approach to well-being, so the subject has been very much on my mind. In this post I will reflect on what leaders can do to support others to strike a sustainable balance between their personal and professional lives. Arguably, helping others is even more difficult than working to get it right ourselves, as our agency is inevitably more limited. However, we never stop trying – helping those we lead to be their best is what leadership at all levels is about, in my view. The personal and professional fulfilment of others should be a priority for every leader in the school.
Establishing the most positive, constructive and mutually respectful relationships is key, I think. Those you lead need to feel that they are listened to, that their contribution is valued, and that you take them seriously. You have to be able to see the best in people in order to get the best from them, so recognising your colleagues’ strengths, ensuring they feel their abilities are appreciated and utilised, is just as important as having the highest aspirations and encouraging them to address those areas in which there is room for development. I have written, and spoken, frequently about the need for both support AND challenge, and no good leader dodges the difficult conversation and avoids the elements of professional practice that need to be stronger. But if relationships are healthy, and all staff are treated with humanity and warmth, they are more likely to be able to accept constructive criticism and guidance.
I think two, related, issues which create stress for teachers are: a) feeling out of control of your professional context – that you are helpless and have little agency over your working life, and b) feeling that your workload is unmanageable. Staff in schools (teaching and support staff and leaders) work hard, and in my view they accept this and know it is what they are signing up for when they join the profession. But they do need to feel that the work they put in is worthwhile, that it has a positive effect and is relevant and productive, and giving staff some choice over what they do, when they do it and how much time they spend on it can help. Continuing professional development is one good example, here. Developing professionally may not be negotiable, but deciding what activities will be most valuable so that your CPD is directly related to your needs, helpful and rewarding rather than indiscriminately decided by others and of dubious relevance can pay dividends.
Building a sense of community so that those in schools feel they are pulling together, giving and benefiting from mutual support in a common endeavour, is hugely important. Goodwill is precious and powerful. In my experience, if you show understanding and generosity when staff are in need of it, they will repay you with significant discretionary effort in the future. So giving someone time when they need it may well mean that they go above and beyond in the future, in return. Finding ways of connecting and communicating as a staff, sharing challenges and causes for celebration, underlining that you are all on the same side – which is, of course, the children’s side – can build a community which is mutually supportive, aware of the needs of others and prepared to go the extra mile for one another.
When I became a head I floated the idea with the Head of Drama that we might put on a staff pantomime at the end of the autumn term to give the staff the opportunity to entertain the students. When the first staff panto loomed and I realised how exhausted we all were, I wondered whether this had been a good call! But at a time when we were all ready for a holiday we pulled together, we laughed together, the students loved it and it created an energy which actually bolstered and sustained us at a potentially difficult time of the year. (I’m Peter Pan below…)
In the busy day-to-day life of school it can be easy to lose sight of exactly what demands we are making on the individual classroom teacher, or the individual Middle Leader, as challenges may come thick and fast from multiple directions. It is crucial that as a leader you have a clear overview so that what is being asked is not unreasonable. If you introduce something new, do you take something else away? Do you consider a workload impact assessment when you embark on an initiative? Is someone on the Senior Leadership Team monitoring what all members of the SLT are requesting of staff – what emails are being sent and what responses are asked for? Are workload and well-being things which are openly and honestly discussed, and, as a leader, can you listen carefully, especially when you hear something you hoped not to hear?
Developing our awareness, reviewing and responding appropriately when we haven’t got it right (and sometimes we won’t have!) is essential.
I know this can all be sensitive and challenging, but the most important thing of all is that we don’t ignore it and we never stop trying to make things better. The human resources in our schools are the most precious resources of all. If we want to reach the children, and give them the best teaching and care we can, this isn’t something we can do DESPITE the staff! We have to do it with and through them. Model good practice yourself, help those you lead to get the balance right, and the school will be stronger, and your leadership more effective and fulfilling, as a result.
Photo credit : John Berry COMMUNITY: With girls and staff who sang together in the Chamber Choir – and a couple of panto shots!