Case Study: Was it something I didn’t say?

Was it something I didn’t say?

As an experienced Head with two schools under my belt, one of which I took from special measures to Good in a relatively short period of time, I was ready for a change. I was approaching 50 and reassessing my working future and felt I either had to stay where I was until I was ready to be put outto pasture or have one more move. So, I took the plunge and applied for a new position. The school I applied for was inner city with all the challenges that come with that. The previous inspection report led me to believe that there was a good team in place and despite the rock bottom outcomes for children, it looked like it just needed some fresh eyes and some tweaking to improve. I thoroughly enjoyed the interview process and honestly felt for the first time in my career that I genuinely had the answers, no blagging, no flannel. Leaving my previous position wasn’t easy, I had built up a great team and a good reputation, but I was excited by the challenge ahead and keen to bring what I had learned to a new post.

Within days in my new role, I knew that the challenge ahead was considerably more than just a tweak. With little infrastructure in place, few policies, a crumbling building and a staff who really didn’t want a new Head, it was always going to be tough. The results from the summer were the worst in the authority and by October, we had a letter from the RSC telling us we were a ‘Coasting School’ and I needed to tell them why we were and what we were going to do about it. This came as a massive shock to the senior leaders and Governors -  the inspection just 18 months before had told them they were a good school with outstanding leadership. The evidence was that the school was far from this judgement. With little to no admin support, a senior leadership team in shock and a staff that didn’t want any change, I set about trying to win hearts and minds, after all, we all wanted the same thing, the very best for the children in our care.

It was in this context that I was then faced with trying to build a leadership team who had the confidence to tackle underperformance. I joined forces with other local schools inan alliance where we agreed to be each other’s critical friend. It was good to have feedback from another very experienced local Head who said that she could see the big changes and improvements that we/I had made. However, the report from afull Teaching and Learning Review with the senior school improvement advisor and an Inspector stated that we had a long way to go to ensure the school was no longer deemed to be ‘at risk’.

Tragically, at the beginning of the summer term, a parent was murdered and subsequently two other parents were arrested and then convicted of the murder. Dealing with the fallout of this tragic event was all consuming from managing the grief of the children, staff and community to protecting the school from the media to safeguarding the children in the families of the victim and the perpetrator. Looking back, I now see that I underestimated the impact this had on me. I made sure staff had access to the crisis team and got emotional support, but I didn’t access any myself. Even when I then had to go through a domestic homicide review, I didn’t access the support, I was too busy making sure everyone else did.

Throughout this time, I had several periods of significant illness, enough to end up in hospital twice that year. This should have been a warning. My family certainly took it as one, but I just felt that giving the job my all was what had to be done to get the school where I hoped and prayed it could be.

Over the next year, we took on some interesting projects. What followed was what felt like a good year, one of team building in my own school and learning from another school.

We started the next academic year with some new staff and some changes in approach and it was at this point that we reached what would be described by Tuckman in the phases of team development as the ‘Storming stage’. I wouldn’t expect anything else in the stages of managing change, other than it had taken a bit longer for us to get to this point than I would have expected.

However, I began to feel weighed down by the increasing pressure of the many day to day occurrences; parental complaints to Ofsted, staff complaints about each other, staff complaints about decisions made by the senior team, and a small group of very challenging pupils who were having a big impact on the day to day running of the school. The building was crumbling around us, the roof was leaking in many places (including my office) and the hall regularly flooded. Not forgetting that we had to demonstrate significant improvements in outcomes for children.

I knew at this point that I really needed help. The HR team that I had been working with were really supportive but there were so many issues that I started to feel utterly swamped. It was like a relentless wave of daily challenges, on top of the day job of running a fairly large organisation.

I did start talking to people. I was very open and honest with my new school improvement advisor (who had been appointed for a term). I was very honest with my SLT. And their response was that I was doing a good job. I responded to an email abut booking a free session with a coach for Head Teachers but missed the appointment because I was dealing with something.

And then we were inspected. A new framework was about to be implemented and we seemed to be being inspected with a hybrid of the old and new. One of the inspectors even said to me, “what a shame, we’ve come a year too early”. I had been the Head for two years and two terms. I was experienced enough to know that the school still had a lot to do but there were green shoots of improvement – which the inspectors agreed that they could see. But apparently it wasn’t enough and not quickly enough. This was the point that I reflected on many times after the judgement. Was there something I didn’t say that I should have? Would it have made any difference?

What followed were the hardest few months of my professional life. I had support from my MP and entered into correspondence with the Minister of State at the DfE. I prepared pages and pages of information for Governors, parents, staff and the local authority. This was cold comfort when the judgement remained the same. It was soul destroying to repeatedly have to acknowledge that the report said my leadership was inadequate. The stress of this is immense. I ended up physically ill again, shingles, heart palpitations and severe anxiety.

By the end of October, I knew the fight was pretty much over. An academy order had been issued and the RSC were discussing what was going to happen next.

One lunchtime, I went into my school business managers office, and she made a kind remark about what a good personI was to work for and I started crying and didn’t stop for many hours. Such was the level of my distress, I frightened myself and my family.

This is when my timeline gets a bit muddled. I now know I was weeks, if not days away from total burn out and break down. I was fortunate to have amazing support from my GPand I was signed off the next few months. I researched schools who had been in similar situations to see what action they had taken and then stumbled upon James Pope and the HeadsUp organisation. There were so many parts of his narrative that resonated with me. I wish I had contacted him then, but I didn’t.

I went back to work far too early, but I really wanted to be in school for the due diligence meetings with the incoming academy group.

And then there was Covid. I spent the next two terms managing the crisis that unfolded with staff bubbles, school open for the vulnerable children throughout the holidays and days and days of delivering food to our families in need of support.

As we started to get children back into school, involvement from outside started to increase. I found myself feeling like I was taking part in a very long interview. Every meeting I went to, every document I prepared, I felt I was being assessed as to how well I could perform. I have read other people’s accounts of how it feels to be gaslighted and I recognise those feelings. The daily questioning of yourself and in response to suggestions and instructions for school improvement, I just wanted to say, “Don’t you think I’ve tried that” or “Don’t’ you think I’m doing that”.

The next part of my journey can’t be shared other than to say, by the beginning of the next academic year, I was no longer the Head.

It was then that I contacted James through the form on the website. I had a rapid response offering me a confidential conversation. I poured my heart out to him, and between sobbing and trying to put words together that made sense, I had the opportunity to share my story and for him to share his… there is always someone else who’s had it worse!Through his empathy and coaching I began to see that there was nothing I could have done or said differently at the timethat would have changed what happened. It was a set of circumstances that came together that led to a result over which I had no control. He also helped me to realise that it wasn’t my personal failings or ‘inadequacy’ that led to the judgement. Sadly, it also appears that my story is not uncommon. All of this helped me to get on the road to recovery.

I often wonder what would have happened if I had been able to access support from people like James and the HeadsUpteam when things first started to unravel. On reflection, it might not have changed the series of events but I am in no doubt it would have helped me to respond to the situations differently and also help to prevent me from becoming so personally scarred.

There is a happy ending to all this. Despite the immense sadness of making the decision not to return to being a Head, I’m glad to say that again, through coaching, I haverecognised that there are many transferable skills that lead to a life after Headship, but perhaps more about that another time.


Physical and Mental Health: Work-life balance after the pandemic

Finding a work-life balance after the pandemic

 

Ok, so the pandemic isn’t over but during the various lockdowns and stages of it, there was time for me to reflect and reset some ways in which I work as a school leader. What do I value most in my life and how can I get the balance of work and home right?

 

I have always been a keen gardener, but the mini heatwave of April and May 2020 meant I spent even more time in the garden because I wasn’t in school until 6pm each day (and yes, I was in school during lockdown like most teachers because schools were not shut, we had key worker and vulnerable children in!). I have always found the outdoors a great distraction from other issues that might be going on around me and massively helps my wellbeing. With gardening, you focus on the job in hand be it sowing seeds or mowing the lawn. But that first lockdown meant there was hardly anything you could do as we were instructed to stay home and I was extremely grateful to have a garden. I honestly do not know what I would have done without one.The garden is my sanctuary to get away from it all. So now that there is some return to normality what now? Well I still try and get home whilst it is light in the months that allow it in order to spend even just half an hour in the garden pottering about. I do not take any physical work home with me as I learnt long ago that when I did this I just couldn’t be bothered or was too tired so what was the point? Family and health come first. Always. School should not be your entire world and I won’t let my school life define the other aspects of my life. One thing that helps is having no other friends or family members who works in education! I don’t talk shop outside of school as no one else really gets my job, just like I don’t really get theirs. This actually helps me a lot to switch off and concentrate on other things and not always be thinking about school. If I want to engage in this conversation then I go to Twitter but this comes with a warning. I often have my wife telling me to get off of it as I can get into a scrolling frenzy and spend ages on their just reading educational threads, some of which are interesting and useful, but some are not conducive to good wellbeing. It is easy to be gas lighted or incensed with a chain of tweets. It is important to keep reminding myself that Twitter is not real life and loads of teachers are not on Twitter. It can be too polarised at timeswith quite a bit of SLT bashing. So a Twitter break is often the way forward. The block and mute functions are also essential!

 

Alongside all of this, I moved schools in September 2020 having secured a Head of School role in February 2020, right before the pandemic struck with an almighty bang! This was tough in itself to change schools at such an uncertain time. Itdid have some benefits. I was able to take more time to get to know school policies and staff whilst al lot of the hustle and bustle of school life and strategic thinking was put on hold as we stuck to our bubbles. But it was hard. You can’t do a lot of things you would want to do in the early stages of a new leadership job. Things like face-to-face assemblies to make your mark and having parents in school or events to build those relationships. These all led to times of imposter syndrome or frustration but I am fairly patient which helped. I also moved to a school closer (much closer!) to home. This of course means it is now even easier to get home in time for a spot of gardening! Moving forwards, I want to make more of some weekday evenings, perhaps going out for a meal or the cinema to help break up the week. I truly believe the school I help lead and all other schools need leaders who are refreshed and on an even-keel with their wellbeing. Otherwise the whole school will suffer due to poor decision making or inconsistent moods that help know one. 

Leading through a pandemic has been exhausting. Emotionally more than anything else. It is the weight of being responsible for the whole school community who look to you for answers and direction in what was and still is (at the time of writing) an uncertain time. For many of us in education, this has taken its toll. So now I just hope the wider powers that be can shift towards making staff wellbeing, and especially that of school leaders, even more of a priority. This is still severely lacking with leaders often having to fend for themselves with no one looking out for them on a regular basis alongside what I view as a toxic level of accountability coupled with cuts to other sectors that now make schools a one-stop-shop for community support. Until things change, I shall keep on gardening and keep on leading but family and health come first. Always.

 

Alex Baptie

Head of School

East Sussex


Physical and Mental Wellbeing: I even tried hypnosis to cope with stress

When asked about my job, I sometimes describe being a headteacher as similar to being in an emotionally abusive relationship. I read a definition once, which described it as ‘a consistent pattern of abusive words and bullying behaviour that wear down a person’s self-esteem and undermine their mental health.’ And without diminishing the terrible experiences of people who have been in emotionally abusive relationships, I can’t help but find a correlation between the cycle of emotional abuse and the cycle of experiences I have working in education.

Some days I feel like I can handle it, and on others I feel completely crushed. No one in teaching needs me to tell them that being a headteacher isn’t easy. The past two years have added another dimension of difficulty to an already tricky job. The chances I used to have to refill my resilience-cup have dwindled and so, all it takes at the moment to make me spill over in despair is one more complaint from *that* parent, one snide comment from someone about how little teachers work, or one more child or family remaining un-helped by Social Services, CAMHS or one of the other over-burdened support systems out there.  

There are delightful bits, of course there are, my passion for pedagogy and bearing witness to a child’s development are the bright spots in my working day. I enjoy assemblies, hearing children sing, chatting to the children in class and on the playground, reading stories and just having the chance to love the little people for who they are. Sadly, this is being buried in the putrid swamp of outside pressure and lack of funding. New curriculum, over-testing, new inspection frameworks, less funding, less support, less resourcing. At times it feels overwhelming.

I never would have described myself as a political animal, but the current situation has certainly forced me to be more aware and to speak up against the injustices being done to school staff, school budgets and the families and communities we serve. But, it is hard to stand against the continued media barrage against teachers, the head of Ofsted criticising us for helping children and families eat when no one else would, and the endless and ridiculous amount of information that is shovelled at us by the DfE.

My job as headteacher is to be a protective umbrella over my school, taking care of the bigger picture so my teachers can teach, my teaching assistants can assist, my children can learn and my families can flourish. In my 12 years as a head, I have faced tough times, deficit budgets, bonkers parents and challenging children. I have had death threats levelled at me and I have had a mentally ill parent actively try to strangle me (I was saved by a wonderful teaching assistant who held a door shut with her bodyweight so I could escape and call the police). I have had parents formally complain to the Local Authority about me for ridiculous reasons. I have had so many Ofsted inspections (including one from an inspector who brought a pink silk corset with honest-to-god nipple tassels on it into my school in her briefcase!) from which I have learned nothing about my duty to school, although I did learn a great deal about my capacity to cope with stress and keep a straight face!

I coped with all these things. I cried sometimes, I comfort ate my way through barrel-loads of junk food sometimes, I ran miles and miles, I composed and deleted my resignation letter, I even tried hypnosis to cope with the stresses. The thing is, these tough times would pass and I would have a chance to recognise the joy in my job, find my equilibrium and come back stronger and more positive.

Lately, however, it feels like there is no let up between the punches- I’m not able to fight back, I have no recovery time between blows… I feel like I’m being bludgeoned into a paste. I have put on weight, I hardly sleep, when I do sleep I grind my teeth so badly that I shattered a molar, I don’t exercise, I cry in my car on the way home but I can’t seem to explain exactly what it is that has tipped me over the edge. I feel like I shouldn’t feel like this. I have a job, a home, a family. I have so much to be grateful for, and so much that brings me joy. My staff are wonderful. They are amazingly supportive, genuinely good people. They try so hard and do their work magnificently. My governors are great and do so much to help me. They ask me how I am and how they can help me. They are the spokes in my umbrella, keeping me up and open over my school but my fabric is being torn to shreds.

I would love to do something else- at times I wish I could do anything else- but I am so worn down and burned out that I believe it when I think there is nothing else I know how to do. I’m trapped in this relationship, waiting for the good times that seem to be fewer and further apart.


Physical and Mental Wellbeing: I haven’t got time for lunch

I haven't eaten today. I've got no time for lunch.

 

We are nearing the end of a challenging and taxing half term and we all know the score by now. The dark mornings and afternoons and the feeling that time, instead of being on our side, is actually our enemy. There's just never enough of it. For senior leaders, this pinch point is all too clear, the mental exhaustion comes from balancing everything from the strategic to the seemingly trivial, managing budgets of millions of pounds one minute and then managing the Year 8 lunch queue the next. The toll on our brains and bodies becomes evident at this stage in the year, but it’s this time where our colleagues really look to us to see something completely different. 

 

The only answer for senior leaders seems to be to work harder, for longer. We sacrifice precious moments and time with friends and family, sacrifice break and lunchtimes in a desperate attempt to catch up and to squeeze everything in. Unused gym memberships, broken social engagements with friends and fatigue beyond words becomes the norm. You forget your body’s need to fuel and refuel during the day, because even eating or drinking a glass of water gets added to the bottom of your growing to-do list. 

 

This would be the case if this was an ordinary year, but it isn’t- for so many reasons this year is extraordinary. But even so, there are bigger issues that need to be addressed here in order to ensure that senior workload is manageable and that we are able to serve the teachers and colleagues in our schools to the best of our ability. 

 

Being in leadership is a public affair, you’re on show, performing, walking the walk during every waking working moment. In our cars being the last on the staff carpark, in working through lunchtimes and breaktimes we are sending a message, loud and clear to future generations of senior leaders that in order to retain your position and be proficient in your role, work has to be prioritised ahead of your own health and wellbeing. 

 

We need to shift that narrative, to stop promoting martyrdom as a glamorous pursuit. To stop telling colleagues what time we shut the laptop the night before. 

 

This is easier said than done, particularly if it’s all that our colleagues have ever seen or all that's been promoted by their leaders. As an NQT, I remember feeling the weight of expectation when I and 12 other colleagues were asked to prepare a presentation, summarising our learning for the year. We spent weeks preparing, trying to source the time around planning our lessons and learning how to be teachers. In the end, we decided it would be best to just stay in school until it was done. We camped out in a computer room until around 9:30pm, ordered pizza and planned for our lives. After we had done our presentation to the whole staff the day after, we were praised for our dedication and the additional hours we had spent putting the work together- we were congratulated on the sacrifices we had made. 

 

I don't remember exactly what was in that presentation but I do remember that that experience created an unhealthy work ethic that I still battle against, 12 years later. 

 

I'm more and more aware now of the language I use around my impressionable colleagues, and I'm trying more consciously to ensure they don't perceive me as somebody who can fit a week's worth of work into a day. 

 

The key here is in developing those around us more successfully and modelling the sort of leadership behaviours we would want to see in them. A greater focus on distributing leadership capacity into middle leader posts is crucial in building sustainable change and in ensuring the healthy working habits of future leaders. Developing opportunities to have honest and candid conversations about the challenges of managing your time at senior level is so important. 

 

In 12 years time, I hope that the next Assistant Head says they learnt from somebody who made time for their lunch, drank plenty of water and picked up their child rather than their laptop in the evenings. That's when we will know we've been successful. 


Physical Health and Wellbeing: Women’s Health

Why do senior leaders need to make improvements for women’s health in the workplace?

Not least because pregnancy and menopause are a normal part of women’s lives. As such it can be an equality and safety issue, women could very well need flexibility, reasonable adjustments to work patterns and the workplace environment and support but overall better knowledge and understanding by their line managers and colleagues.

Women’s health can incorporate pregnancy, early motherhood, menopause, fertility treatment, miscarriage, still birth and gynaecological issues. All of these have the possibility of causing physical, emotional and mental health issues for women. Conditions in the workplace can have a detrimental effect and make symptoms worse.

Menopause it is still a taboo topic, one that is rarely spoken about, particularly in the workplace, unless through jokes and banter. The lack of awareness by employers of the impact symptoms may have to our capacity to complete activities at work and which affect our well-being. We need to start speaking up; challenge negative menopausal stereotypes and encourage our friends and colleagues to do the same.

There is a significant lack of understanding and knowledge we all hold around the menopause and its symptoms. The period of time leading up to the menopause is actually called the peri-menopause, being the period of transition leading up to the menopause where women experience a huge variety of symptoms, but few people are aware of the term. Most of us will have heard about hot flushes, heavier periods, frequency changes to periods and starting to get hair where we don’t want it, but how many more symptoms do you know about even if you are currently in the transitional stage of peri-menopause? They can include: difficulty sleeping; low mood or anxiety; skin irritability; palpitations; panic attacks; joint stiffness and problems with memory and concentration.

Did you know this period of hormonal change can last for 4 to 8 years and for some up to 12 years?

All women will all experience some symptoms and for some they can be severe and have a significant impact on the quality of our personal and working life. It is said 1 in 4 women will experience severe symptoms! These symptoms affect working life and we try to manage tiredness, memory changes and poor concentration plus the stress and embarrassment, which may be detrimental to confidence levels.

New and expectant mothers are covered by specific requirements under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. The term ‘new or expectant mothers’ includes pregnant women, mothers who are breastfeeding, mothers who have given birth in the last six months and women who have miscarried after 24 weeks of pregnancy.

However, it is harder to pin down the legislation for women undergoing fertility treatment, miscarriage before 24 weeks, menstrual difficulties and the menopause. The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 requires employers to ensure the health, safety and welfare of all workers. Under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations, employers are required to undertake general risk assessments which should include specific risks to pregnant and menopausal women.

The Equality Act prohibits discrimination against people on the grounds of certain ‘protected characteristics’ including sex, age and disability. Conditions linked to the menopause may meet the definition of an ‘impairment’ under the Equality Act and require reasonable adjustments.

Every workplace needs to be committed to ensuring that women feel confident in discussing pregnancy, menopause and female health symptoms openly, without embarrassment and are able to ask for support and adjustments in order to continue to work safely in the organisation. For this reason, pregnancy, menopause and female health at work is an issue for men as well as women.

Workplaces need a positive attitude towards the menopause, pregnancy and female health treating all individuals with dignity and respect during this time and ensure that the workplace does not make symptoms worse.

Workplaces need to aim towards:

creating an environment where women staff members feel confident enough to raise issues about their symptoms and ask for support and adjustments at work.
ensuring that conditions in the workplace do not make menopausal, pregnancy, fertility treatment or female health symptoms worse and that appropriate adjustments and support are put in place, recognising that pregnancy, fertility treatment and the menopause and perimenopause is an individual experience and therefore there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution.
reducing sickness absence due to menopausal, pregnancy, fertility treatment or female health symptoms and retain valued staff in the workplace.
Educate and inform managers and colleagues to be ware how pregnancy, fertility treatment, menopause and female health can affect working women and about the potential symptoms of female health and how they can support women experiencing them.

Everyone who works has a role to play in ensuring a comfortable working environment for all staff, including women experiencing the menopause or female health difficulties.

These could include simple measures such as:

leaving doors open
ensuring that windows can be safely opened
ensuring that it is possible to regulate the temperature in a classroom or other room by turning down radiators (as long as the temperature does not drop below 18 degrees Celsius, this will be comfortable for all occupants)
provision of fans
fitting blinds to windows
provision of safe spaces and fridges for breastfeeding mums or fertility drugs
establishing a system that allows cover for women who need to access toilet/ washing facilities while they are teaching (to deal with heavy and recurring bleeding during the peri-menopause or administration of medication for fertility treatment)
considering requests for changes to working arrangements, e.g. temporary part-time working
swift permission for absence to attend fertility treatment or menopause-related medical appointments

Not being proactive in this area may lead to the staff member suffering from physical and mental health issues and being on sick leave, which could be long term and potentially resigning or taking early retirement when reasonable adjustments could have retained valuable, experienced staff.

We can also pledge to share important points about the topic to ensure everyone is better informed and the subject does not remain taboo.

Bretta Towned - Jowitt


#HeadsUpBookClub: Permission to Feel

Permission to Feel: unlocking the power of emotions to help our kids, ourselves, and our society Thrive. Marc Brackett, Ph. D Celadon

In our inaugural Book Club session, we were privileged to discuss this book with the author who kindly joined us from Yale University. Marc asked us, 'How many of you would share that you are reading a book with this title?'

Our discussion around the contextual connotation was just one of many fascination aspects of the evening. What sat quietly in the corners of our minds were a range of questions around vulnerability, trauma and our own judgement systems related to emotions, our social upbringing and inhibitions that tell us when it's appropriate to share our emotions.

As leaders and educators, the more pressing matters of how to use this were bubbling in our minds, and how our current climates would benefit from this learning.

Marc’s book explores the social expectations and conventions around the simple question, 'How do you feel?'

 

How often is our response to this a mask?

How often do we ask it without considering what we really want to know?

Do we really hear the answer?

 

One simple question introduces us to the roots of Marc's book and life work, rooted in the theories of emotional intelligence and backed up by extensive research.

Last week's inaugural Heads Up Book 'club began with this book because this question is integral to all we prioritise as an organisation. Recognising our own emotions is also the first in Marc's RULER approach, which is at-the foundation of the work he undertakes at CASEL (Collaboration for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning), Yale. He explains how the integration of Social and Emotional learning is essential , and shared the basis of his research to press home the interdependence of emotional and academic intelligence.

Central to this is the RULER curriculum he developed with his Uncle Marvin, a long timesuccessful educator. Their framework underpins  a systemic approach that is widely used around the world by schools and organisations:

Recognise  the occurrence of an emotion-noticing changes

Understanding the causes of emotions and  how they influence thoughts

Labelling emotions: connecting experience and precise description, increasing self-awareness and communication.

Expressing: know how and when to express

Regulating: monitor, temper and modify emotional reactions. Accept and deal, not ignore.

raises questions around who we trust, who our children trust enough, and are there people we can speak to...

'Who gives us Permission to feel?'

What's pressingly evident is Marc's key message that we all need to develop an awareness of the science of emotions, rather than bringing our judgements to bear on them. This takes us into exploring the aspects of behaviours, and the complexities of responses to behaviour.Marc used his own experiences to highlight key concepts surrounding culture, environment and the impact of emotions on our ability to interact.

We kept coming back to this idea, and how now more than ever, we recognise this to be true.

To some observers, emotional intelligence or emotion skills signify something fuzzy and touchy-feely, like a retreat from reality, This is especially so in the business world. In fact, just the opposite is true. These are mental skills, like any others- they enable us to think smarter, more creatively, and get better results from ourselves and the people around us. (Permission to Feel, p.54)

I was fascinated by the research around educator judgements and mood. Not an easy listen, but crucial to understand that the way feel affects our judgements.

So what do we do?

Developing the emotion skills necessary to survive and thrive is rooted in so much of our work as educators and Marc’s framework offers a clear curriculum approach .

He offers this advice to schools:

The best SEL approaches are systemic, not piecemeal
The best SEL efforts are proactive, not reactive
The most effective approaches integrate SEL into the curriculum and provide skill building across ALL  grade levels to reach ALL children.
The best SEL approaches pay attention to outcomes: Is what you are doing working?

What strikes me if we are considering approaches to wellbeing in isolation for children, staffor families, surely a more cohesive and coherent whole school and community approach would be more effective?

As Marc states,

When we unlock the wisdom of emotions, we can raise healthy kids who will both achieve their dreams and make the world a better place.’ ( Permission to Feel, p.218)

Such a mesmerising and thought provoking session and sincere thanks go to Marc for giving us his time and such a great read.

We rounded off the session with a couple of images from Oliver Jeffers’ book, A Child of Books, Walker Books. This offered a chance to consider ways in, ways we could share and stimulate some discussion around emotions with our staff and children and make some pledges to give ourselves, and our community Permission to Feel.


Case Study: The Impact of HeadsUp4HTs; Without the network, I would not be where I am today.

Back in 2019, I suffered what could only be described as a breakdown. Seventeen years of teaching, 8 of which had been at senior level, I left my job, I left the profession I loved.

As I began to heal from my experience, I considered my options and decided that I would work on a supply basis in a school out of area. The anxiety around me stepping back in to a school was intense and this took several more months before I would pluck up the courage to do this.

I was introduced to the HeadsUp4HTs network a few months into my new role supporting a leadership team. Those that know about Imposter Syndrome will understand the levels of doubt I faced and lack of self-belief. I haven’t spoken of my breakdown here, and I choose at this point not to, however, I would like to get across that without the HeadsUp4HTs network, I would not be where I am today.

I started by attended weekly coffee mornings on a Saturday; this quickly became part of my weekend ritual as I drew comfort and strength from the genuine, caring people who too, had suffered for a profession they loved. Imagine that! People suffering! Meeting James, Kate and others I cannot mention, helped me to realise that values-led leaders are ones who ‘suffer’ the most. We are the leaders that care beyond the school gates, the ones that see children and staff as human, we see beyond outcomes and strive to truly transform the lives of children for a brighter, better future.

As the network grew, the need to support as many leaders as possible was something that all members were keen to support and so Saturday morning coffee increased to Wednesday evening drinks night.

At Headsup4HTS has created a truly wonderful, unique network for headteachers and school leaders. I have been a member since March 2020 and am now proud to be part of the advisory panel. The impact? I am now back in the saddle, a senior leader, now striving for headship. I know that with this circle of people around me, and with the support of the HeadsUp4HTS network, I will be successful in the next few years. I have learned from the experiences of others, have played a supportive role for others and will continue to use this network for guidance, strength and advice. They say headship is a lonely profession. It doesn’t have to be and HeadsUp4HTs has shown that by providing the right space for our leaders, many will stay in the profession and considering the staggering rates of Headteachers leaving, we cannot afford for this to happen. Our children deserve this. Our leaders deserve this too.


Case Study: The impact of HeadsUp; ‘HeadsUp4HTs has given me confidence to lead in challenging circumstances.’

Since becoming a HT 4 years ago, the challenges have been immense, from staffing, to buildings, contractors. The operational side of running a school has also dominated my life at times and taken over, at times giving me no time to focus on why I am there, for the children. It is actually very difficult to sum up in a few words the challenges I have had-there are so many, but one of the main ones for me personally has been leading on my own without a strong SLT at times.

I am very lucky that my school has funds to pay for my coaching and supervision-but what about schools in a financial crisis who have a deficit budget? HTs need to know there are places they can go/contact without worrying about how much it will cost.

I felt I was in a serious crisis-I had no idea what to do, who to turn to when I was the only member of the SLT leading the school during the pandemic. I felt very alone and isolated and believed that I was the worst HT in the world doing a rubbish job and I had no idea how to get myself out of the hole I was in.I cried a lot, on my own, in my office and when I got home.

Headsup is amazing! I had a crisis call with James, and I have also had a call with Kate when I was at a low point. I have led a school without a DHT through the pandemic which has challenged me-Headsup has given me confidence to lead in challenging circumstances. I attend the Saturday morning meetings and now believe I have an amazing network of people who will support me if needed. I don’t feel as alone. I have a HT “buddy” who I speak to regularly and we support each other and celebrate each others achievements.

I have somewhere to go if needed. There is always someone to listen, talk, understand. It has made me realise that I am doing a great job, I do know what I am doing, I am an authentic leader, I lead with confidence and compassion and that all I do is for the benefit of the children. I also feel I have supported others in Headsup too, making me realise that I do know my stuff! I know it is OK to cry too and to say if I’m not having a good week.

Headship is lonely. Headship is hard. It drains you, consumes you and at times makes you feel like there must be something else that I can do. BUT, it is the best job in the world-however if HTs don’t get the support they need then they will go under. There will be a shortage in leaders moving forward due to the immense pressures and external accountability that HTs face on a daily basis. HTs need support and it should be available for all HTs.

The last year has made me reflect a lot-no Y6 SATS, no EYFS baseline tests, no phonic screening, no KS1 SATS, no multiplication checks- great! I have had time to think about what matters and run a school successfully through a global pandemic. I am proud of my role and would love another year of zero accountability-who wants to test a 4 year old in September?

Because of HeadsUp4HTs, I have the strength to try things a bit differently, to go with what I feel is right for my school, children and community as we move forward.


Case Study: The impact of HeadsUp4HTs; I am supported and challenged, but never judged.

I am currently the Acting Headteacher of a one form entry village school that serves 180+ pupils in Buckinghamshire, on the edge of Slough and Maidenhead. This primary school is now part of a Multi Academy Trust (2017) as it was placed in special measures in 2016. I joined the school in 2018 as part of the senior leadership team. It is awaiting its first Ofsted inspection as a new entity. The school has had changes in leadership in the last four years which has affected the stability this primary school requires.

I started my current leadership position in September, at the start of a new academic year already affected by the pandemic and lockdown. Although the Trustees offered some support, it was a difficult landscape to meander, let alone lead. Every single member of the school community had been impacted by Covid, and it was my role to ascertain what was required to support every pupil, family, and staff. The amount of and the lack of guidance from the DfE were both challenging as I had to make decisions, not just based on limited guidance, but in the best interest of the community I served.

The lack of support from the DfE for Headteachers such as myself during the pandemic has been astonishing. The opposite seemed to be true – Schools and Headteachers were threatened with the Ofsted card if parents felt their children have not been supported through remote learning. The lack of understanding of what and how schools were operating and the hardships many communities were facing was disappointing. The last-minute guidance and closures of schools, the lack of devices for our pupils, usually the most disadvantaged ones, the hardships faced by many families from ill health, unemployment and isolation were all issues that schools had to deal with. School leaders, such as I, offer our aid willingly, but when we feel we are not being consulted, listened to and supported well from central government, the effect is damaging not only for the job that we do, but also for our wellbeing. This ultimately may negatively impact on the well being of our staff and pupils.

There is also the narrative of a standardised curriculum and provision recommended for all schools irrespective of demographic and context – a one size fits all, traditional model of, and for education which seems at odds with a modern world that demands curiosity and creativity. I find this unsettling, and this has become a major challenge for many Headteachers and leaders who know that this is not the best model for their school or community they serve. Igrapple with this challenge.

Many Headteachers feel that they operate in silos or in isolation. There are not enough hours in the day to dedicate time for reflection and personal nourishment. The pandemic has certainly not helped as Headteachers are on guard all day every day, thinking about the next burst bubble, or children who have faced even more trauma due to the impact of Covid. There is little respite and what we require are safe spaces to explore our personal and collective experiences. We also require autonomy to make choices and decisions that benefit our community. We need to know that we are trusted and supported in our decision making. I know of no Headteacher who does not feel accountable for the safety, and progress of their community. I also know that there must be a better way of holding schools and leaders to account for the public trust that they hold. I think the condition is right for the DfE to consider better ways to support all Headteachers, no matter how experienced they are.

I wanted to listen and learn from leaders and Headteachers across the country. I wanted to understand what the landscape of education is and what it might be if we had a better national vision for education.

The knowledge that I am not alone. I am supported and challenged, but never judged. It is being in the same room with leaders who hold the belief that our roles empower lives beyond the walls of our school. The events are inspiring and the space is a safe space to air your views and debate with respect. It is a place where you can remove your leadership mask for a while and share the emotional journey that is leadership. Leaders hioold the stories of their communities and some of those stories are peppered with trauma and sadness – HeadsUp is a place you can share these surrounded with other leaders that understand.

It has enabled me to be a stronger leader, one who is more reflective, who now knows she will always have a listening ear, and support from other committed and dedicated leaders. I like the predictability of knowing they will always be there. There is no judgment, only care, nurture and support.

Headteachers carry the ‘tomorrows’ in their hands every day. They nurture pupils, staff, and families to enable them to succeed. Who nurtures the Headteachers and show them compassion? Surely it is in the best interest of this system to support all Headteachers in the role that they play. This will require dedicated time, training, and funding. There are many routes to headship but not many ways to sustain it when you get that Headship. It cannot be down to individual schools, Trusts, and Local authorities for this sustenance as this will be inconsistent.

It is in all our best interest to do the right thing in education. One of the rare, positive outcomes of the pandemic, is the networking that has happened. Headteachers and leaders have had to source out organisations such as HeadsUp for support and the connection has been empowering. There is a belief that together, we can build a better future for all our children. However, we cannot do this is silos, without autonomy and transparency, and without the proper support. I really believe this is possible because it is already happening without the system. It would be so much better if this could also happen within the system.


What happens to those who unexpectedly come out of their jobs? Is there life beyond Headship?

What happens to those who unexpectedly come out of their jobs? Is there life beyond headship? If so, how to find it? Former headteacher Alex Atherton of Heads Up seeks the answers.

It is an unfortunate fact of life that careers do not always work out as planned. On occasion, this can result in a headteacher moving on from their post. There is a perception that once someone has left a headship in difficult circumstances there is no way back. On the evidence of the many conversations I have had in recent months, the truth is very different. The good news is that in nearly every case there is a positive outcome. This narrative needs to be articulated more often.

Heads Up @HeadsUp4HTs is a free support service set up by former headteacher James Pope. It is led by headteachers for the benefit of their peers. Initially the remit was to support those in crisis, particularly colleagues either in the process of leaving or had recently moved on with no idea of what might come next. Over time this has extended to those who can see the end coming in the near future, are wrestling with their conscience about whether to stay or go or just need someone to listen. After engaging with Heads Up some of those headteachers went on to leave their posts, but usually of their own volition and feeling they had made a positive choice. As one Head who made contact put it, “if you want to leave it will be for a reason; listen to yourself.” Others stayed in post with a clearer sense of what they really wanted and turned a corner.

There is an overwhelming consensus amongst those who have experienced difficult circumstances that it is wise to take some time out if at all possible. For some it was a couple of months, for others a year. Few stuck to their original plan and found their instincts guiding them. Almost all realised that their final months in post had taken more out of them than they thought. During this time one person realised that he had ‘done too much bargaining’ with himself in his previous post and ‘compromised’ on things he shouldn’t have. This was not obvious to him at the time.

Some applied for headship posts too soon and without being in the right frame of mind. It was only at interview, the realisation came that they had not invested enough in their recovery. Others found a hybrid position, where the opportunity arose to work on a part-time or interim basis at an equivalent level to their previous post. ‘Dipping a toe back in’ was a theme and commonly led to a surge in confidence. Sometimes this led to a realisation about what they definitely wanted to do, and sometimes the opposite, but all valued the experience.

For everyone came an opportunity to reassess their lives and their health and see what they really wanted for the years ahead. After years of working with multi-agency teams, plenty found it second nature to organise a team around themselves of family, friends and specialists such as coaches, counsellors and mentors. As another put it ‘bouncing back requires resources’, particularly if what was described by many as a ‘burning sense of injustice’ could still flicker from time to time. One commented that, ‘you aren’t the best person to comment on your own well-being.’ The most difficult moments were often not those anticipated in advance. For some it can ‘take longer to process the nature of the departure more than leaving itself’, particularly ‘when everyone else goes back for the next term and you don’t.’

Some concluded that they wanted to get back into headship, and others opted for a change of tack. For the former group the much feared reputational damage was not the issue they had imagined (people know less about your story than you think), even when a simple internet search showed the details. There are those who found themselves waiting for a job longer than they might have expected and others, to their surprise, got a job they really wanted at their first attempt. The kudos of having once been chosen to run a school, despite other circumstances, outweighed more recent events, particularly, when they could describe their positive impact and ‘own their truth.’ Those who held out against ‘downgrading yourself in terms of your own expectations’, including an inaccurate assumption that they would have to take a step backwards to move forward, reaped the rewards in the end.

For those who wanted to look elsewhere the possibilities turned out to be broader than anticipated. The modern educational landscape offers more in terms of career opportunities than was the case ten years ago. Networks and contacts came through as vital time and again, emphasising the importance of building them on the way up. Some gained permanent work as a result, others a growing range of assignments. Those whose career had all been in one organisation found it could be more difficult to get going, but never impossible in the end. Some found their ‘capacity to work and absorb pressure’ was a significant asset in other settings. A high proportion of their knowledge and skills was also transferable beyond a headteacher’s desk.

Heads Up’s services are now growing to a broader agenda that is now pro-active as well as reactive. They provide nation and local authority intentional support which is vital to those both in and coming out of, and going into headship. It is an established network that enables heads to sustain each other in the job for longer, and where coaching and professional development are on offer. It also encourages heads to be ‘positive disrupters’ in the education system and think beyond how they lead and look beyond a narrow range of accountability measures. Having peers to talk to beyond sector, local authority or MAT boundaries can make all the difference.

Written by Alex Atherton @alexatherton100 a former Headteacher and HeadsUp Advisory Member who has interviewed a number Headteachers for this piece.

James Pope (@popejames) leads Heads Up alongside Kate Smith @MrsKatieSmith. Both are former headteachers.