Energy is essential in teaching. Energy is essential for school leadership. The business of education rightly demands of those who work within it to be committed, passionate, and hardworking souls. Teachers are all of that, and then some. Phrases like going the extra mile and working above and beyond contractual expectations are commonplace in analysis and comment of the noble teaching profession. Yet it needs to be properly understood just how demanding that is on individuals both physically and mentally. I received a post-midnight message from a school parent on Christmas Day which flashed up on my phone. The concern was genuine and immediate for that family. The solution was definitely not me or my school. And yet the fact I had notifications ‘on’ and went on to draft out a response is indicative of what goes on all the time in teaching and in school leadership. We are drawn to the profession as emotionally intelligent, sensitive people who want to put something back and make a positive contribution. Knowing when, why and how to step back from the enormous pressures we find ourselves in (and put ourselves under) is crucial to managing our own expectations, our own well-being and ultimately our own energy for leadership.
Managing expectations and being in control of one’s own agenda are crucial in this bid for energy for leadership. There is not much to compete with the drain on your energy as finding yourself constantly reacting, constantly firefighting and forever responding to events as they occur. Something’s cropped up – surely the most energy draining phrase of them all.
I’m minded to reflect back on the national lockdowns of the last couple of years and that almighty gargantuan effort made by school leaders and teachers up and down the country to switch to remote learning. If your house was anything like mine, the pressures of logging on to the internet each day, loading up our remote platform and delivering live sessions, recorded lessons, uploading and updating the school websites, meeting virtually with staff and sitting in front of a screen for hours and hours at a time will have taken their toll. Indeed, there were moments each day when other members of my household were logging on to their machines to meet their equivalent WFH requirements, and sometimes that affected what went on with my screen.
People and faces would freeze and notifications would pop up telling me my connection was poor and my bandwidth was too stretched. Tell me about it! This example perfectly illustrates what happens with a school leader’s brain when they try to do too many things at once; when expectations aren’t adequately or appropriately managed. One’s own personal bandwidth – working memory – reaches capacity. And your system’s own notifications start to ping in the form of increased stress, reduced ability and a lack of clarity of thought. Tiredness, weight gain, greyness and sleeplessness are the system reports sent from your crashed programmes for all to see.
The suggestions which follow are not intended to be exhaustive or definitive, and, indeed, may not be for everyone. I’ve attempted to avoid ‘well-being’ activities as my central message is around (i) managing your own expectations and (ii) regaining the agenda as crucial elements for energy for leadership; but I certainly do subscribe to the idea that focusing on well-being is absolutely essential too.
Sir Tim Brighouse is one person known for talking about radiators and drains in the staff room, though it is a familiar philosophy – read more here. In a nutshell, radiators are those colleagues who enthuse about the school and its onward journey, the people who up for a challenge and who view each day as an opportunity to learn. By contrast, the drains are the staff room cynics, those who either publicly – or worse, BTS – undermine the school, new initiatives and undo impact, delivery and also reputation by talking down the actions of leaders and teachers.
Avoiding drains is not always possible, but owning your agenda is. Move people on, build a team where new recruits are absolutely tested not just for ability but for attitude, teamship and morale. Build a team of radiators. As a headteacher I’ve never been afraid to move people on. The bus is always moving and the passengers on it want to travel this particular route. If that’s not you, get off at the next stop. Division at the idealogical level in a school leads to cliques, unrest, and sometimes, wilful defiance. I explore more on this theme in my blog Prime Ministers vs Headteachers: Who Do Make The Best Leaders and Why? For school leaders to maintain a healthy reservoir of energy they must remain optimistic in their quest to win hearts and minds. The more you associate with the warmth of the radiators the fuller that reservoir remains.
Consider the where’s and when’s of when you are at your best for work. A fascinating interview with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos rings home the fact that we can most effectively draw on our energy at very certain moments. It’s in our own gift to recognise those bespoke moments for each of us.
I’ve also learned to walk away when something isn’t “working.” Perhaps you’ve been sat writing a pupil report for 2 hours and have very little to show for it. Take a break. Switch task. Change focus. And in any respect, its always good practice to allow periods of respite between intense concentration on complex issues. Energy does come back. It needs the time and conditions to replenish. Cars don’t run on empty, they need to go regularly to the petrol station or electrical charge points; the same is true for educationalists.
Consider also the ‘how’ of your personal operation. An open-door policy has many advantages for the school leader – much has been written of it – but is there a counter narrative which says if you’re constantly available to others are you in danger of contributing to a culture of dependence?
Think back to recently. How many people’s difficulties did you hand back to them with encouragement to find a way forward, and how many did you just pick up?Julia Steward 2018
I’m much more comfortable now operating a mix of open-door (when it’s open, come in, disturb me and I’ll give you the time and space you need) and closed-door (please don’t come in right now, my full bandwidth is required on a particular task which is now underway). I’m also more confident with the structures I’ve built in my schools which allow me to work from home from time to time, mainly for paperwork/admin tasks, which increase my capacity for getting them done distraction-free and therefore increase my energy reserves a for when I’m in school or at the chalkface. I accept that finding the right balance for all of this is a challenge, but it’s a ‘nice problem’ as premier leagues managers would call selection issues from an abundance of talent, rather than the trickier problem of a constant stream of other peoples problems lining up at your door and distracting you from your core job.
Scientists far more intellectual than me watch the cosmos and monitor for meteors. We know they’re out there and we know they exist. So often in education though, we let the meteors crash-land rather than act like the scientists who watch and deal with them in a managed way.
Take email for example. How many of us leave our email clients permanently switched on? We might be in the middle of something important, but for many of us, that tell-tale ‘ping’ will divert our attention away from the task at hand and straight to our inboxes. Email can become all-consuming – but only if we let it. It needn’t be a constant crashing meteor and I explore this in more depth in my blog Manage Your Emails To Cut Down Your Workload.
And what of being on call 24/7? How many school leaders have their mobile devices glued to the hip, even when supposedly relaxing and unwinding – or when lying in bed and about to go to sleep? The best piece of advice I have ever followed is putting a time-limit on opening your inbox or either messages or texts or whatever. We know the meteors are out there. But many a night I have ruined by opening a contentious email just before climbing into bed. Sleep gone. Worry up. Energy drained. By morning, when you need that energy to actually tackle the meteor, its sadly lacking and the whole issue has even more potential to go the wrong way.
Putting in place your own system of support is important. Coaching, counselling and mentoring can all help, as they provide a regular space and time to talk through the challenges you are facing. Taking control of the type of conversations you have throughout the working day can also be useful. For many headteachers, their days are often a series of difficult conversations, which can lead to heightened states of nervousness, self-doubt and anxiety. Research has suggested that the emotional impact of difficult conversations can minimised by actively building in time during the day for at least one positive face-to-face conversation. This could be constructive dialogue with a pupil, parent or teacher.
School leaders and teachers should make time for reflection. Headspace. Its how one can renew the energy reservoir and ensure it rarely runs dry. People sometimes equate being busy with being effective. But all too often this approach leads to mindless engagement with the role, overload and burnout.
It’s easy to normalise symptoms of stress, which can also include problems with sleeping, loss of appetite and mood swings. You tell yourself it’s part of the job. We’ve probably all done this to some degree in headship; I know I have and I see many others doing the same thing. But these kinds of problems can be a physiological response to stress and anxiety, and should be taken seriously. Build a support system: I explore this notion in more depth in my blog You Are Not Alone.
Professors Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee, international experts in leadership and emotional intelligence, found that to combat the negative impact of stress, leaders must take time to reflect. They call this the renewal cycle. Headteachers who have tried this say it improves their energy for leadership and makes a positive impact in terms of their decision-making and wellbeing.
Try to schedule regular times to pause and reflect. These moments can help you to feel balanced and more mindful of who you are, and allow you to consider how you’re engaging with different roles.
So if you’re finding your energy levels are dipping or running dry, and if you want to better manage your own expectations of yourself and the role, and regain control of your own agenda – have a go at implementing some of the suggestions featured in this post. Schools rely on having an energetic workforce ready to tackle the challenging demands of working in education, so it’s imperative school leaders and teachers give consideration to this area.
What are your thoughts on Energy for Leadership? Have some tips and suggestions of your own? Share them with us in the comment section below!
Bakker, A. B., & Costa, P.L. Chronic job burnout and daily functioning: A theoretical analysis. Burnout Res (2014), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.burn.2014.04.003