Diary of a headteacher: Practising ‘tension-free’ leadership

Written by: Diary of a headteacher | Published:
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Is the job of headteacher a stressful one? There is certainly a lot of pressure, but what can we do to protect our wellbeing and ease some of the many stresses and strains we face day-to-day...

One of the most common questions that I am asked is: “Is your job stressful?”

It is an interesting question. The role of a head can be highly pressurised and the weight of accountability and responsibility can be a heavy burden to carry.

For schools in challenging circumstances I know that stressors can emerge from all angles on a daily basis. In fact, I am sure that every single headteacher feels stressed at some point during the academic year – but do I have a stressful job?

The way I view this is that mindset and attitude are key. I could easily allow the pressures of my role in school to cause me stress, but if I were to lead from a position of stress then the culture, feel and ethos of the school would be highly compromised.

One of the mantras we have adopted as a leadership group at school is the notion of “tension-free leadership”. This is founded upon the principle of being able to make calm, objective decisions on a consistent basis each day.

If school leaders allow their emotions to influence their decision-making, or if decisions are arrived at too hastily, then a school can feel reactive, unpredictable and potentially volatile.

School leaders must set the tone for the organisation and lead by example with the manner in which they approach complicated situations, and we believe that the most effective way to achieve this is by being free from tension.

To achieve this we must accept that we will be faced with situations and scenarios that are highly complex and often out of our control as a school.

There are more than 1,000 human beings on site in my school each day – 900 of them aged between 11 and 16 and more than 100 adults – many of whom will arrive at the start of the day carrying significant personal issues with them.

Considering this there should be no surprise that a plethora of unpredictable situations emerge each day – as school leaders we must remain tension and stress free in order to resolve these issues effectively, acting within the values of the school.

So, as a head, how do I remain tension free? In school I always ensure that my body language, demeanour and tone of voice all embody our notion of tension-free leadership. By doing this I can make decisions from a position of calmness. This also demonstrates how I expect all other adults to act as they go about their work. Also, I was taught long ago to not rush decisions, especially big ones.

Away from school, I do not take the pressures and issues I am dealing with home with me. Once I get in the car and drive home, this time is for me and my family and I do not allow this precious time to be compromised by difficulties I might be facing at work.

I see many heads burning-out because they are never able to switch off from work and I know that this type of approach is not healthy.

If we are to successfully develop the next generation of headteachers then a significant aspect of their training and development should focus on how to achieve not only a healthy work/life balance, but also how to cope with the various stressors that come hand-in-hand with such a significant and important role.

  • The author is a headteacher in his fifth year of headship at a secondary school in the Midlands.


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