Supporting headteachers' wellbeing


Julian Stanley considers how the charity’s programmes can help headteachers develop their students and themselves

I’ve recently been doing some reading around the work of Emil Jackson, a psychologist and work coach, who during his time as a senior psychotherapist at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust’s adolescent department, published work considering how discussion groups at schools can help teachers reflect on individual pupils, consider social factors and understand possible mental health issues.

I’ve long thought that teachers need sufficient time to reflect on their practice of teaching. Jackson has shown the benefits of these discussion groups, where classroom teachers and other staff (heads, receptionists, support staff) meet on a regular basis to take a closer look at challenging pupils or classes and explore the issues at the root causes.

This kind of forum allows staff to consider, maybe for the first time, the background of the pupil, issues at home and how they personally feel about or interact with the child. 

Peeling back the layers like this can unearth hidden issues; in some cases a student’s bad behaviour may have more complicated origins.

Every teacher will have some students who pose a problem and would benefit from this approach. Teachers need time to think differently about relationships with each other, with their pupils, and those between pupils and others. There’s something quite powerful in sitting down and having these kinds of open discussions.

In our Headspace programmes, we offer a similar forum for school leaders to meet in a neutral space to learn from and support their peers. These sessions – often run before the start of the school day – do not focus on pupils. 

Rather they create a space to openly discuss the challenges each individual headteacher faces in their role, be that professionally or personally.

This is a space to work with colleagues, share learning, frustrations, and best practice and explore what works in the face of change and amid the growing raft of demands placed upon headteachers. Participants report feeling more effective as leaders, developing skills and behaviours that have a positive impact when they are back in school.

This programme is now beginning to attract attention among secondary school heads, although some find it harder to devote the time required. 

Others, however, still seem less willing to admit that they struggle with anything. 

Our Headspace sessions are similar to the ones Emil Jackson has worked with, in that they offer that rare opportunity to reflect. The people who attend are determined, focused educationalists attempting to deliver the best outcomes for their students, and deeply committed to running schools that are highly effective places of learning.

Headteachers today have to be highly competent and robust to flourish in this highly demanding role. It is not unknown today for a head to become a scapegoat, sometimes after only one bad Ofsted inspection. 

Thus it is hardly surprising if some heads feel reluctant to take up CPD opportunities which they perceive might reveal their weaknesses, doubts and fears. But the truth is that many of those who do commit to this process feel more confident, able and empowered. 

Education is about growing, learning, sharing, exploring and becoming competent, knowledgeable, skilled and confident in the world across a range of subjects and skill-sets. Facilitated group sessions can provide a powerful arena that can foster a better understanding of our own needs and those of colleagues. 

Group work encourages listening, an openness to change and often results in being better equipped to manage difficulty and cope with difference. Emotionally literate children and adults are central to making our schools the best they can be.

  • Julian Stanley is chief executive of the Teacher Support Network. Visit or call 08000 562 561 (England), 08000 855088 (Wales).


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