31 October 2022

The Monday Briefing: Feelings Feelings

The Monday Briefing: Feelings Feelings

As I was contemplating the many facets of my role over the half term week, I happened upon a couple of articles which drew immediate interest.

One, entitled ‘Happiness in schools starts with the head teacher' was from back in 2015, and another, which put forth ‘35 Things Great Headteachers Do’, a little more recent, in 2019.

The first article asserted that a headteacher or principal had a vital role to play in lifting the mood of all staff, suggesting that ‘Positive and upbeat head teachers create a "ripple effect" leading to positive and happy communities’ and making the point, in a very scientific manner, that, as a Principal, "If you're really happy and positive, then every single person you meet during that day is going to be a minimum of 16 per cent happier."

In fact, Dr Andy Cope, the subject of the article, went further by claiming that the power of a Principal to change mood does not end at the school gates. "As a head teacher, if you think about the number of people you will come into contact with, then all the kids could be 16 per cent happier, all their parents could be 10 per cent happier, and the communities the parents live in could be 6 per cent happier, simply because the head teacher has decided to be happier and positive."

Whilst I’m not entirely convinced by the percentages and numbers - I find the concept of measuring happiness quite difficult to comprehend - I see some merit in the argument. I’ve taught in schools where inspirational leadership has led to a cohesive staff body - and I’ve taught in others where a Head who seemed bereft of contentment oversaw a staff body struggling for togetherness.

Being happy, and staying happy, particularly towards the end of a busy half term, can be a challenge. The almost relentless nature of the job, which brings to the fore a multitude of day-to-day issues to solve: student adherence to the rules of the College, and how they interact with one another; staff morale and ensuring everyone on the team feels supported and valued; parental contentment, particularly when things may start to go awry.

I recall very early in my career one of my mentors during my PGCE telling me that teaching was really just a form of acting - convincing the students that you know the role, and that you can perform it effectively. He took this to extremes, taking on several personas whilst teaching History and enthusing all of the students in his classes. His incredible positivity led to almost unanimous happiness amongst the children who left his lessons. You could see it in their faces. I recall asking him if he maintained this kind of mood all of the time. ‘Of course not’, he said, ‘that simply wouldn’t be possible’.

‘Do you think comedians go around making jokes all day?’ was his final thought on the matter.

He was an actor in every sense of the word. I never saw him outwardly depressed or upset. Perhaps he was also acting for my benefit as a new teacher. He would have agreed with Dr Cope’s assertion that "happiness isn’t real, it’s not a thing that you can put in a wheelbarrow and cart around, it’s an emotion, it’s in your head. You are only ever one thought away from happiness." 

This seems counter-intuitive to me - and I’m not terribly good at masking my feelings.

Earlier this academic year, our students were given some excellent direction about overcoming ‘imposter syndrome’, through assemblies delivered by B.A.T.H Coaching. As part of an earlier collaboration with them, all staff took the opportunity to undergo a review which assessed their strengths and weaknesses. It was incredibly encouraging to hear from specialists that I held the necessary facets of emotional intelligence with which to handle the role. It’s one of the reasons why I regularly promote the virtues of improving one’s powers of resilience to those who attend College. I would always advocate discussing one’s problems, finding solutions and digging into one’s reserves of resilience to move forward; it seems a better solution than masking it all with a smile and a joke.

My estimation is that I’ve been really happy as Principal of the College for around 99% of the time. I haven’t needed to ‘fake it’ so to speak. I’ve approached the job with confidence and happiness because that has reflected my general mood. I’m also keenly aware of just how important it is to get as close as possible to the elusive ‘work-life balance’ which we all seek in order to enable this state of affairs.

That makes self-awareness and self-management vital. I knew that towards the end of term I felt drained. It has been an incredibly busy one. Numbers of students at the College grew exponentially - and each one of those needs to be interviewed. My teaching load is high - and my adherence towards the highest of standards won’t let me ‘take it easy’. That also goes for ensuring that standards of behaviour across the College are conducive to ensuring the highest levels of progress. 

All of these issues made the need to take a real break over the holiday essential for me. I’m pleased to say that a week of quality time for myself - running the Valencia half-marathon last Sunday - not my fastest effort but I got around - and time spent with my daughter - it’s her half term too - as well as my wider family - being able to invite them for lunch or dinner at my new home - has re-energised me.

The gruelling grind of life can lower one’s defences, and create scenarios where small issues have greater adverse effects than they should, and larger issues make one question whether it is all worth it. Such an accumulation of pressure, strain and struggle, is surely the key reason why more than one in four primary school leaders, and more than one in three secondary school leaders, leave within five years of being appointed, whilst around half of middle leaders in both the primary (46 per cent) and secondary schools (44 per cent) depart within the same time period.

I think it would be pertinent to close with an excellent excerpt from the second article I mentioned. It’s something which I will retain as something to aspire to:

Sir John Dunford, the former general secretary of ASCL, said that successful leaders at all levels need four Hs: hope, humanity, humility and humour and is someone that knows how to “water the plants.” A headteacher who is a “people person” stands out a mile and for all the right reasons. They don’t go out of their way to be liked but they do go out of their way to get to know everyone. They are visible, they know their school and as such, they are often well-liked and highly respected.

No Headteacher or Principal can manage this laudable feat if they, themselves, are not inwardly happy. Happiness starts from within before it can be radiated out. To do the job well, you must have comfort in it.

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