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Who looks after the headteacher? – How to be a supportive colleague in stressful situations

They’ve weathered some truly testing storms recently so let’s make a conscious effort to support our amazing leaders, says Chris Harrison...

  • Who looks after the headteacher? – How to be a supportive colleague in stressful situations

Imagine, if you will, trying to run a large-scale organisation with anything from five to 500 employees, from 10 to 10,000 children and access to tens of thousands of relatives and friends within the community.

Now imagine the terror of knowing that one wrong decision could prove fatal for one or more within that community. Imagine the mental strain of trying to carry this burden while keeping your stakeholders informed, happy and feeling safe.

Imagine the sleepless nights, the agonising decisions; all alongside a lack of support and clarity from higher powers.

Recent times have been hard for everyone and headteachers, in particular, have weathered some truly testing storms while carrying the weight of their school communities’ health and safety on their shoulders.

I, for one, couldn’t have managed that without breaking down into a blubbering mess. This led me to thinking: who looks after the headteacher?

I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to many school leaders, both digitally and in person, and the subject of loneliness often comes up: being a head can be a very isolated place to be, especially when you’re fighting battles that nobody in our profession is trained or prepared for.

In these challenging times we need to make a conscious effort to look after our headteachers, but how can we do this in a sensitive and supportive way? Here’s how I’m going to show my thanks:

Check in

Asking how someone is doing can have a significant impact on the trajectory of their day. Popping by with a cuppa and a smile can bring people out of dark spots quickly. In my experience, the kindest heads always bounce these questions back and ask how you are too.

Back them up

Heads are making incredibly difficult decisions – some potentially life or death – and need their school communities to be 100% behind them. When a decision has been made, we should do our best to see it through as positively as possible.

We, as school staff, are able to be islands of calm in a world of panic and it is our duty to always do our best.

Challenge them sensitively

Many people are at breaking point. Tempers are short and patience is wearing increasingly thin. There are going to be decisions that not everybody agrees on.

However, there are suitable ways, times and places to have those conversations. A private chat with your head can clarify things both for you and them.

They’ll appreciate your input too – if you have reacted in a certain way, chances are that other people have too. Challenging publicly and harshly or, heaven forbid, bitching about decisions in the background, can eat away at the foundations of a school’s spirit.

Spread the load

Asking what you can do to help can significantly reduce pressure on your headteacher, even if it’s something small like a phone call or lunch duty. That extra five minutes of thinking space can have a really positive impact when heads are trying to juggle so much at once.

Send them home

Many senior leaders work ridiculous hours. Sometimes what a headteacher really needs is someone to pop in and suggest they call it a day. They can then tackle problems with a fresh mind in the morning.

This is easier said than done, of course, but it’s really unhealthy to lose time with loved ones. Alongside this, I strongly advise leaving headteachers alone on evenings and weekends – that email can wait until the morning!

Chocolate goes a long way

If your head is tied up in meetings, especially endless governing body discussions, leaving a sweet treat on their desk can give them the energy boost they need to power on. Brownies definitely work best, in my experience.

Praise them

It takes no time at all to say well done to someone. A (socially distanced) pat on the back and a thank you can take the weight of worry off a headteacher’s shoulders.

Many of us do all of these things with those we manage or work alongside, but sometimes heads beaver away, trying to keep everyone happy and healthy, without anyone checking in on them. Make a point to try out one or two of these strategies and give your headteacher a much needed boost – I know I will be.

Chris Harrison is assistant head at Grove Road Community Primary in Harrogate. Find him at mrhtheteacher.wordpress.com on Twitter at @mrhtheteacher.

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