The cloak of the headteacher

Written by: Diary of a Headteacher | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

It was quite a nice story until he told us the scary bit – he spent much of his time worrying that one day someone would creep up behind him and pull off his hood...

Before I took up post as headteacher, I was associate headteacher for a number of years. This was in another school in a different London borough. I honestly thought I’d seen everything in those nine years. But well into my second year of headship and it is abundantly clear that I am still learning every day.

As associate head, I joined a well-known leadership development programme. The men in my group were all existing headteachers. There were many more men on the course than women, although the organisers had tried hard to ensure the participants were representative. It was interesting to see how few women had put their heads above the parapet.

I remember clearly what one of the speakers told us. He was sharing his personal experience of headship, including many interesting anecdotes that we could all relate to.

He had been a headteacher for more than 10 years. A successful one at that. One thing he said that really stuck with me was that being a head often feels like you are living every day wearing a hooded cloak. He said that he had pulled the hood of the cloak over his head every day for the past 10 years.

This metaphorical cloak of headship helped him to get on with the job at hand. It was quite a nice story until he told us the scary bit – he spent much of his time worrying that one day someone would creep up behind him and pull off his hood.

I thought carefully about what he meant by this. During my time as a head, I have come to my own conclusion. I decided that, if what is under the hood is revealed, we too are revealed. We are just ordinary people trying our best; not the infallible headteachers that everyone expects.

Many of my fellow headteachers and school leaders are wearing their hoods every day and lots are worrying that they might just be “revealed”.

I happened across an article in Time magazine that resonates with this idea. Yes, impostor syndrome is real. Here’s how to deal with it (Abrams, 2018) focuses on impostor syndrome, first identified by psychologists Clance and Imes in 1978. The article explains that 70 per cent of people experience these impostor feelings at some point in their lives. It is the notion felt by many that they are the imposters; that they have only succeeded due to luck, and not because of their talent, hard work or qualifications. An idea shared by many school leaders, I imagine.

In their early research, Clance and Imes theorised that women were uniquely affected. Could this explain why so few fellow females take the step to headship? Since then the research has shown that both men and women experience impostor feelings. Indeed, impostor syndrome can apply to anyone “who isn’t able to internalise and own their successes” according to psychologist Audrey Erving (Abrams, 2018).

So, borrowing from the Time article, what similarities do those who experience imposter syndrome share?

  • Some are the perfectionists (even if they meet 99 per cent of goals, they feel like failures).
  • Others are the experts (they won’t apply for a job if they don’t meet all the criteria in the advert).
  • Then there’s the natural genius (if they struggle to accomplish something, they think this means they aren’t good enough).
  • Soloists feel they have to accomplish tasks on their own (if they need to ask for help, they think they are a failure or a fraud).
  • The supermen and superwomen push themselves to work harder than those around them to prove that they are not impostors.

Do you recognise any of your school leaders in these groups?

These past few weeks have been hard. We’ve had a series of incidents that have taken place outside of school (and outside of our control) that have impacted on us all. Working our way through these difficult times has brought me to a major conclusion in my headship journey: although the cloak of headship is a crutch in hard times – it has been really liberating to discard it and just be me. It is at times like this when I realise, I have really done it: I’m a headteacher.

  • The author is a headteacher in her second year of headship at a secondary school in east London.

Further information

Yes, impostor syndrome is real: Here’s how to deal with it, Abrams, Time, 2018: http://bit.ly/32DPS5k


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