How can school leaders look after their wellbeing?

Pebbles and waterfall

When you have a leadership position within a school, at any level, there are two aspects of wellbeing that need your attention: your own, and that of those you lead. The two are related: if you do not safeguard your own wellbeing, you are less likely to be fully professionally effective, and you are not modelling the approach to wellbeing you want those you lead to adopt.

Even if you do find a healthy balance between your personal and professional responsibilities, you may still find there are members of your team who struggle to follow your example. You need to be aware of this and support them. Leaders are essential role models for teaching teams, so it is important to focus on how you can protect your own health and wellbeing.

I want to begin by saying that, in my view, teaching and school leadership is an important job – but it is a job, it is not the sum total of who we are. If it isn't possible to do a committed, successful job and to have a life, then there is something wrong with the job, not you. I am a fan of flexible working – including, though not only, part-time hours – but it shouldn't be necessary to make this move so that your work and life are manageable. You should be able to be a strong, effective teacher/leader while still enjoying personal commitments to family, friends, hobbies, and your physical and mental health. Those in education work hard, but we need to acknowledge the difference between taking on something which is challenging, and taking on something which is impossible and which jeopardises the elements of our lives which fall outside the professional sphere.

As a teacher and a leader, I was dedicated and industrious. But I was also protective of other aspects of my life and my relationships with those beyond my job. For the last 10 years, when I was a leader, I always knew that if you took the "headteacher" out of me, there would still be a person left behind. I loved my job, but I am also relishing my #lifeafter, which is rich and full.

So here is some advice for serving leaders who are trying to ensure they get the balance right and that their wellbeing is not jeopardised by their commitment to their job:

  1. Protect some time where you try very hard not to even think about school. The worst situation is where you're not working, but you're worrying about the fact you're not working – or you find yourself dwelling on related issues. Identify times in the evenings, weekends and holidays where you will focus on resting and relaxing. Don't check school emails or Twitter at those times or you will be sucked back into educational preoccupations.

  2. Ask yourself what is a reasonable amount of time to spend on work outside the school day. Be proactive and not reactive. Allocate time to marking, planning, reviewing, documentation – whatever your role demands – but decide, in advance, when you will stop. That can't be "when the work is done" because, in reality, it is never completely finished and perfect. You have to know when good enough is good enough. Give yourself a break, don't drive yourself unreasonably hard and remember, guilt is an unproductive emotion.

  3. Know when you're too tired to do a job well. Many jobs require energy and clear-thinking so it is best to rest first and then go back to it. Whenever we broke up at the end of a half-term/term I knew I needed several days' rest before I could tackle whatever needed finishing off/sorting, and what I needed to plan for the half-term/term ahead. Usually I needed to sleep quite a lot before I was in the right frame of mind to focus on schoolwork.

  4. Work out what activities help you unwind. For me, reading good fiction has always been a great escape and a very good way to stop me drifting back to thinking about school. Similarly, daily exercise, singing in a choir, cinema, theatre and time spent with my husband, family and friends have always been restorative. What works for you? Whatever it is, be fully present and not mentally elsewhere. This usually means putting the phone/laptop aside.

  5. Think about #lifeafter. Plan for the stretch of your life beyond full-time work when you will have greater choice, flexibility and freedom to do what sustains you. Look forward to it. Make sure, whatever you do, that you maintain contact (even if it's infrequent) with those you intend to spend more time with when you have the opportunity. I have written about my time to "exhale".

Work is an important part of our lives, but it isn't all our lives and it isn't all we are – it's only a part of who we are. It can help to keep that in perspective.

This is an edited version of a feature that ran on Jill's blog here. 

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