To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?
Now I’m not saying that life as a Head is a “sea of troubles” by using this quote at the start of a blogpost. Far from it, although at times the phrase “outrageous fortune” resonates. Instead, I start with this quote because life in a school (for all staff in that school) at the end of September, can feel like a long old slog ahead. We have been blessed with a little glimpse of summer in the past three weeks, but the moisture on the windscreen in the mornings, the need to flick on my lights towards the end of my journey home and the presence of the X-Factor and Strictly Come Dancing all tell me that the “slings and arrows” are just around the corner. In short, the honeymoon period, where we draw on the last reserves of the six week’s holidays, are almost at an end.
This week I have had a stark personal reminder that we are entering the period of suffering in that I have been battling with a fairly robust (I had to get that word in, divorced from the context of machismoid leadership) chest cold. As usual, it has hit hard at two of the things I love the most; my sleep and the sound of my own voice. But unusually, it has happened only two weeks into the school term when, normally it doesn’t start stalking me until a month or more in, before pouncing and ravaging me during the week of half term. I guess I should be looking at the silver lining, that this means I am less likely to be ill during the mid-term break, but the internal pessimist is taking bets with Paddy Power that this will not be the case.
To cut to the chase, my illness this week has made me reflect on my developing thoughts about the role a Headteacher has to play in ensuring the wellbeing of the staff of a school because, to go back to a familiar refrain of mine “if schools look after their staff, then the staff will look after the children”.
But, at risk of alienating the reader with another diversion from the path, I want to repeat a point I have made previously in this blogpost that I have an inherent distrust of the term ‘wellbeing’ as a management construct.
As a child growing up in a time of limited explicit grammar teaching, I was uncertain and fascinated in equal measure by finding out that ‘to be’ (Ahhh, now you see the real reason for my starting with Hamlet – cheeky minx that I am) is a verb. I had previously been led to believe that verbs were meant to be active, like ‘walking’ or ‘throwing’ or ‘vomiting’, and the notion of ‘being’ being a verb was quite a headbender.
As an adult, I now see and understand that ‘being’ is the most important verb in our language.
As a school leader who has lived through, and led, ‘staff wellbeing’ initiatives I have come to realise that the ‘well’ part of that term is simultaneously nonsensical and counterproductive. The ‘well’ is a sticking plaster on the sometimes open wound of staff ‘being’ at the worst of schools, and at its best (in schools that genuinely look after the ‘being’ of staff) it is an utterly redundant prefix.
So, what have I learned this week about putting the ‘being’ into ‘wellbeing’?
This week I held the first Staff Forum. Between 3.30pm and 5.30pm of the most central Wednesday of each month in the school year, members of staff can make a fifteen minute appointment (as individuals or in groups) to come and see me about any issue that they wish to discuss. There’s no expectation on them to tell me what their topic for discussion is going to be, and nothing is off limits.
As it happened I only had three appointments. Whether this is because we are still in the honeymoon period remains to be seen (I’m guessing I’ll know the answer by the November Staff Forum). It may be that staff are still uncertain, or even wary, of the purpose of the meetings, but I am hoping that the colleagues who did come to see me will speak freely and positively in the staffroom about their perception of the conversations (probably a more appropriate term than discussions for what actually happened). Again time will tell.
In case you are thinking that this feels more like a ‘wellbeing’ initiative than a ‘being’ practice, I should also say that the doorstop I had made at the start of term is still the most used object in my office. Many, many colleagues have popped their head around the door and have pleasingly distracted me from my new work on budgets and the like. And I am making a point of spending time in the staffroom every day that I can, which is balm to my being, even if it isn’t to theirs.
For these reasons, Staff Forum has the potential to be a redundant offer, but if I am to play a positive role in staff ‘being’ I’d rather be wearing the belt as well as the braces.
I was delighted to get an email this week from a colleague who had read my last blogpost and wanted to thank me for giving a shout out to pastoral leaders within the school. The delight was for two reasons. Initially I was just happy that at least one member of staff had read it. I post publicly and speak as honestly as I can on this site because I have strong values as a school leader (and human being) and I want these to be challenged where they are more strong than valuable. To know that staff (and parents or students) might be amongst those reading and challenging doesn’t fill me with dread. Quite the opposite. I relish the idea that my actions as a Head, where they deviate from my values, are held to account against my words.
More importantly, though, I was delighted that this colleague emailed me because it is they who are teaching me the most as I settle into my new role. I have an absurdly tiny portion of my CV dedicated to pastoral leadership and, schools being schools and children being children, this was the element of being Head that I was most concerned about.
This week has seen more pastoral issues emerge, and more students who have needed to be brought into line (a handful amongst the hundreds who have started term beautifully). The Heads of Year and our appropriately named BeST (Behaviour Support Team) have guided this relative novice through all their processes so supportively that my ‘being’ has been enhanced even when dealing with the thorniest of issues. I hope that the points at which I have had to make key decisions at key moments that they too feel that their ‘being’ has been enhanced. If not, I’m bloody sure that they will tell me so. Of course, underpinning that is the ‘being’ of the dozens of members of staff who will never know what we say at those meetings, and who may not know what we decide, but for whom the behaviour, attitude and effort of students is a key element of their ‘being’. I hope that they feel a positive impact of what we say and do.
If we are going to take the ‘well’ out of ‘wellbeing’, we will need to address the many threats to staff ‘being’ that lurk within our everyday practices. For this reason we have created a ‘Partnerships and Professionalism’ team within our SLT (although it incorporates some of our Grassroots Leaders – more on these in the near future), alongside our more traditional ‘Students and Achievement’ and ‘Curriculum andPedagogy’ teams. A real highlight of this week was seeing their finalised Team Improvement Plan. Our staff won’t yet be feeling the benefit of their work, but I am absolutely certain that they will.
The plan includes learning from what good line management (within the school and possibly beyond) looks and feels like so that we can establish it as a right and expectation for all staff. I’m with them all the way on this one, because I firmly believe that effective line management (I outlined my approach to it in this post) is at the heart of a happy and healthy staff ‘being’.
This team will also be looking very closely at the systems and processes we have for exploring staff effectiveness in ways that are more holistic for the individual (ie move away from snapshot judgments) and for the institution (ie equalise opportunities for support and teaching staff). I can’t wait to see where this team, made up of teachers and support staff, go with this, but they are already off to a flying start by announcing to staff that our Whole School Review (a two-week snapshot of the school in November, focused primarily on teaching) is to be replaced with something better. That something will be developed with staff and will (must) put the ‘being’ of our beings first, for there is no opposition between school effectiveness and individual happiness, whatever some might say.
‘Being’ the Head
And finally, given my illness this week, I’ve reflected on the importance of my own ‘being’ this week. On Tuesday I was feeling so unwell that I very nearly backed out of attending the match offered by the local football club, but at the very last minute I decided to swallow a couple more pills and go along. If I’m being honest, the match was as much of a stinker as my cold, but I’m glad I went. It gave me some time with the colleagues who endured it alongside me and we managed to bagsy a very large amount of tickets for our students later in the year (hopefully they’ll get to see the cracking match and a win we missed out on).
I also attended a 7am meeting following the most sleep-disrupted night I’ve had in many a year. The topics of procurement and other academy matters weren’t exactly the ones I’d have chosen to enhance my ‘being’, but the bacon sarnies and the fact that a fellow Head looked after me throughout were.
And then there was the rather stressful Friday morning (following a second consecutive night of broken sleep) when I was late to welcome visiting ‘Pedagogy Leaders’ from two schools who had come to learn from our trailblazing work in this area. I had been held up in a very lengthy meeting with a family and rocked up realising I didn’t have a clue what to say. I took a deep breath, remembered that I don’t need notes to talk about the school I love ‘being’ at, formed the biggest smile I could muster (which wasn’t that hard) and let it all flow from me.
‘Being’ a Head is tough at times, but utterly rewarding in so many ways. The same is true for all of us working in schools. Sometimes the more that we think and worry about it, the less ‘well’ we feel. But we don’t need bolted-on ‘wellbeing’ initiatives to turn that around. We need simply to be allowed to ‘be’ the support staff, teachers or leaders we want to be and need to be. I am aware that in this new role I need to visibly model that, but most importantly of all I need to do everything I can to clear a path so that every human being in the school can do so for themselves, and simply enjoy ‘being’ at Canons.