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Headteachers need support too

Headteachers need support too

Bernadette Cahill

Bernadette Cahill

Specialist Trainer – Bernadette is a trainer with Place2Be, delivering and developing our training for school staff, and for our clinical staff and Counsellors on Placement. She also provides clinical supervision for some of our school-based staff. She has been a psychotherapist and Clinical Supervisor for over 22 years.

Bernadette Cahill, one of Place2Be’s specialist trainers, reflects on her work with Senior Leaders in school, and the challenges that many of them face.

In my work with Senior Leaders in schools, there is often an uncomfortable silence in response to this question - 'What support does your headteacher have for their mental health?’. It is as if the mere mention of headteachers and stress in the same sentence could bring the whole cat and caboodle down!

As leaders, headteachers act as ‘emotional containers’ for the rest of the staff team.

Staff members come to headteachers when they are overstretched, overwhelmed, or coping with life challenges such as divorce, illness, and bereavement. Parents come to headteachers, sometimes distressed, and sometimes abusive, looking for them to soothe, listen, contain and work magic.

A headteacher must always maintain that professional veneer, smiling for parents, being positive and upbeat in the face of negative and burnt-out staff, and in control and on top of the detail for governors and inspectors alike. In addition, there are the complex, unpredictable and countervailing pressures involved in running a school, the resolution of constant difficulties, and challenging decision-making landing on your desk on an everyday basis. This is high-octane emotional work.

Phillips and Sen in 2011 describe these stresses as the ‘hidden cost’ borne by school leaders who do not speak out due to the fear of being seen as vulnerable, wanting, weak, or not suitable material for leadership.

The consequence of maintaining this façade of being strong, invulnerable, and constantly putting one’s own feelings aside, can result in the deterioration of both mental and physical ill-health over time. The potential for headteachers to end up taking extended sick leave or premature retirement due to poor mental or physical health is a threat faced by too many schools in the UK.

In a piece of research undertaken by Chris McDermott in 2021, headteachers identified the following, in order of severity, as causing the most stress:

  1. Accountability (Ofsted)
  2. Staff
  3. Parents
  4. Poor relationships with Local Authority or Governors

 

The headteachers in his study identified the following factors as crucial to longevity in their role:

  • The involvement of others within the school team
  • Time away from the job
  • Physical and temporal boundaries
  • Developing a sense of self

Surely it is time to ring the bell on the persuasive cult of ‘super headteacher’ which reinforces the idea that if a headteacher feels stressed, they are just not tough enough? Becoming tougher is a byword for denying vulnerability and neglecting the opportunity to recognise our unmet emotional needs.

Although challenging relationships are the cause of many of these stressors the only way to reduce their impact is by working on our own emotional and social literacy. Developing a supportive relationship with ourselves, colleagues, family, and friends.

This means not tucking inconvenient feelings away but making sure that we extend the wellbeing imperative to headteachers as well.

Heads too need at least one supportive containing relationship, somewhere that stressful experiences can be explored, reflected upon, and learned from.

In mental health this is called Clinical Supervision and it is an ethical requirement not a ‘nice to have’. This space enables therapists to stay focused on the client because there is an opportunity to reflect and explore in another space. We are not alone, with challenging feelings and challenging relational dynamics. In schools, this might be referred to as Reflective Practice, supervision, or mentoring.

So earlier I posed the question; ‘What support does your headteacher have for their mental health?’ In my view we cannot afford to leave this question unanswered!

 

Bernadette is one of the trainers on Place2Be’s Senior Mental Health Leads training programme. It’s not too late to book your place on this CPD certified, Department for Education approved training. The programme will support you to develop your whole school approach to mental health and enable you to prioritise staff wellbeing.

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