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Should I stay or should I go?

According to the TES (‘Headteachers are leaving schools’, 23 June 2023), school leaders are leaving the profession in record numbers. I’ve just posted a poll on LinkedIn in the last few days, and only 26% of respondents in the ‘Headteachers’ group said that they were definitely ‘staying put’ in their roles. The rest were either thinking of leaving or had definite plans to leave.

I worry about the amount of experience and expertise being lost from roles in schools, but I’m also optimistic about new leaders coming through. I coach participants on the NPQH and am regularly impressed by the commitment and integrity of those who are moving into or aspiring to headship.

I have an interesting perspective on this, having left my role as a headteacher just over 3 years ago, and well before retirement age. I now work as a leadership coach, coaching mainly headteachers. I talk to lots of people who are considering their future in their role. Helping to make the role more manageable and sustainable is probably the most popular topic we explore in coaching sessions. It’s something I feel passionate about. I believe that it's possible for headteachers to achieve work life harmony. I’ve learned much from my own experience as a leader.

The recent, very public, exit of Jurgen Klopp from his role as manager of Liverpool really resonated with me, and reminded me of the feelings and thoughts I had around the time of my own departure from my leadership role. He spoke from his heart when explaining his decision, and I think there are important messages in his words for school leaders and those interested in school leadership.

‘You dedicate your whole life to it. That’s what I did. I don’t want to wait until I’m too old to have a normal life.‘

Klopp clearly poured his heart and soul into the club over a period of years. That’s what many heads do. In that situation, your life isn’t ‘normal’. Often, you make choices not based on what’s best for yourself and your family, as most people do, but based on what’s best for your school community. Sometimes that’s not a problem, but sometimes it is. In my case, I regret all the time I lost with my own kids when they were little because I was working such long hours.

Does ‘headteachering’ have to be like that? Can we have a ‘normal’ life and still be a good headteacher?

‘The one thing I didn’t know and I underestimated was the fact that my energy source is not endless.’

Sometimes, as heads, we feel as though we have to be invincible, almost superhuman. We hold things together, we push through, we sacrifice ourselves for the greater good. We forget that we’re only human: we can get ill and we will get old. I lived with that story in my head for too long. Getting ill was a wake up call for me. I couldn’t do that ‘superhuman’ thing any more, my physical energy levels wouldn’t allow it. The interesting thing is that I actually became a better leader when it was less about me powering through and more about the team I was nurturing and supporting.

Can we do more to look after our physical and mental wellbeing? Can we lead in a way that’s less about us as individuals and more about the team?

‘I have to make this decision by myself. Everything tells me I’m not the right one for the future.’

Sometimes we reach a point where there’s a mismatch between what the organisation needs and what the individual leader can offer. I used words similar to these when I told my team that I was leaving my role. I had a very strong sense that the school needed someone with more energy than I currently had to give. That realisation was actually helpful in giving myself permission to move on. I knew that it was the best thing for the school as well as for me and my family.

So, if you’re a headteacher who’s considering their future, here are a few points to bear in mind:

1.       What brings you joy? What is still lighting you up about this job? What parts of the job drain your energy? Is it possible to get a better balance of these things in your working week?

2.       Are you carrying some stories in your head that aren’t serving you? For example, the one about having to bear the brunt of everything in order to protect the staff in your school. Or maybe the one about being paid the most so you need to work the longest hours. Or the most destructive one – you haven’t got time to feel the difficult emotions that are coming up, so you’d better push them away.

3.       Are you systematic about your workload? Spend some time getting organised, developing the ability to say no and giving yourself permission to take some distraction-free time to get focused on the most difficult tasks.

4.       Finally - it’s up to you! I think too many of us feel guilty about leaving a role in school. There’s a strong sense of vocation that might actually keep us in the role longer than is actually good for our physical or mental health. If you decide that leaving is the right thing, good luck and best wishes to you. Thank you for your amazing service to the children and young people of our country thus far.

If you’re feeling unhappy in your role, or wondering how long you can keep doing it, I hope you can take some action to help yourself. Coaching conversations help people to understand where their own difficulties lie and make changes: either to make the role more sustainable or to take the decision to move on. Book in for a free consultation to talk about how coaching might help you.

If you want to get more systematic and organised with your workload, check out my ‘Workload Management Tool for Headteachers’. It’s a series of short videos (backed up by PDFs) which describe some simple steps you can make (takes around 2 hours to work through) to set up a personalised system for yourself, to really get on top of your workload.

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