Why we must protect head teachers' mental health too

Lisa Fathers, Director of Teaching School and Partnerships at Bright Futures, and Adrian Bethune, founder of Teach Happy Blog, blog about headteacher and leadership wellbeing on World Mental Health Day (10 October).

As a school leader there is a lot of pressure to get it ‘right’. This is tough in normal times with variable approaches to national policy and of course tight budgets. Everyone thought GDPR was a challenge and then Covid hit and changed everything overnight. 

One thing we can all agree on is that we are ‘better together. Everyone needs to know they are not on their own, there is always someone struggling with the same issue and, therefore, someone who can help and offer advice.  

“Great leaders don't see themselves as great; they see themselves as human.” (Simon Sinek) 

In addition, there needs to be an acknowledgement from absolutely everyone that headteachers and their deputies are under real pressure. All leaders and all teachers are too but the weight of responsibility at the moment is very heavy.  

We often talk about the need to understand what it means to be a headteacher today but now we are really having to re-frame that. Head teachers' wellbeing and welfare is crucial. Running a school in the current climate is feeling more like crisis management in ways that we have never ever seen before.  A daily battle and a constantly changing set of circumstances to navigate.  

There are no easy answers or solutions, but we can control the controllable. Here are some reminders of how we can support head teacher’s wellbeing:  

1. Be human 

It is important to understand that no one person can solve this problem - it is a global pandemic! All you can do is continue to try your best but do ask for help, do tell people you are tired and struggling, do go home on time. People are looking for leadership and guidance but being ‘real’ is authentic.  

2. Information overload  

There are too many changes and too much information from all sorts of places. Divide it up, take turns reading & summarising with other school leaders or in your own team. Sometimes you have to share the load and delegate in order to keep things manageable. You cannot do everything yourself, nor should you.  Skim read emails for the priorities and let some things go at the moment.  

3. Relationships and people matter most 

Communication is everything and regular communication with all members of the school community will be welcomed but clarity and consistency of messages is everything.   

4. Remember it's a senior leadership TEAM 

Although the weight of responsibility lies heavily on headteachers, responding to the challenges of Covid-19 must be a team effort. Make use of your deputies and, if you have them, assistant heads, year, phase and subject leads. Governing bodies need to step up too and support the school's efforts to keep everyone safe, happy and learning.  

5. Keep moving 

It's likely stress levels will be higher for senior leaders at present and one of the best antidotes to stress is physical activity. Being active means we use up the extra adrenaline and cortisol our bodies release in response to stress. This not only keeps us healthy and more balanced, it gives us a greater sense of control in our lives.  

6. Re-fuel 

At times of stress it is easy to reach for unhelpful coping strategies like wine or chocolate but you have to be disciplined in order to complete this marathon, this means exercise, it means nutritious food, not biscuits, and it means water and SLEEP. It means that as far as possible you need to switch off in the evening and at the weekend. For World Mental Health Day, we are asking you to do one thing for yourself - what will this be?  

7. Post Covid 

At some point this will be over so do not lose sight of the future, having an end point in mind and what that looks like helps us stay on track and stay positive. There will be challenges ahead but talk honestly about them with colleagues and focus on the future and how you want things to be when this is behind us.  

Lisa Fathers and Adrian Bethune are Chairs of the Well Schools movement. Any school can become part of the Well Schools movement and access resources for free by pledging to put wellbeing at the heart of their teaching and learning, connect with other schools to share effective practice, and championing school outcome measures which go beyond academic performance. To get involved visit www.well-school.org  

Published on 9 October 2020