There’s a rhythm to the highs and lows of the school year, which is accepted as part of the job. Colds strike in the first day of the Christmas holidays, when there’s finally space to relax. By the end of the summer term, people are just about clinging on: there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Like singers humming a sustained note for too many beats, somehow they squeeze the last ounce of breath from their being, and hold on until the end of the piece. If you’re a school leader, you’ll probably be trying extra hard to thank people for all they’re doing, to keep them motivated, to remind them of everything they’ve achieved. One of the things we know about school leaders is that they rarely stop to acknowledge their own achievements (TES, 3rd July p14). Resilience is a crucial attribute of school leadership. It’s well known that well-being and work-life balance support resilience, yet school leaders are often too busy to notice the messages that they need to slow down. Ironically, those requiring the greatest resilience because of particular pressure on the school (challenging community, Ofsted ‘requires improvement’ imminent Ofsted which might lead to such a judgement) are the least likely to take time out to build it. Taking care of self can feel like a luxury afforded only to those confident in themselves and their school community.
It doesn’t have to be like this.
If you were an athlete, you wouldn’t dream of entering a race without any training; yet the majority of us do no training at all for the times when suddenly we find ourselves running on empty: when everything happens at once and our resilience tank is already dry. What’s more, running on empty can become normal: that doesn’t mean it’s healthy.
The saying ‘what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger’ is, in fact, verified in research. Going through tough times can make us more resilient – but only if we stop, reflect and learn from them. Although schools purport to be learning organisations, expecting adults to find time to stop, reflect and learn without allocating time and space to do it and getting them to focus on the learning rather than what they too often perceive as ‘letting others down’, is like asking the sun not to rise.
After several years researching into resilience for school leadership (see articles) I’ve been undertaking a research project which helps to answer the question ‘is it possible proactively to build resilience?’ A headteacher who understands the importance of setting aside time to build resilience signed herself and her whole leadership team on to a programme focused on ‘sustaining and developing resilience for school leadership’. We met 6 times over the course of a year. The majority of sessions were twilights, and together we looked at what supports resilience, what undermines it, and why those working in schools in particular find it hard to prioritise their own needs, or even listen when their bodies are telling them ‘enough’. We looked at the importance of physical well-being, the actions required to maintain physical health (like getting enough sleep, taking exercise, eating healthily and drinking enough water) and why we discount our own needs to look after the needs of others. We also explored how our habits of thinking can undermine our sense of wellbeing and the drain on our energy if we’re working against our values. Participants completed the same diagnostic questionnaires each term during the programme.
The result? Despite the end of school year tiredness, resilience showed a measurable increase for nine out of 12 participants between September 2014 and June 2015. Of the remaining three, one stayed the same, and two went down. The year-long programme had given them time to absorb the messages from the programme and to practise, and in some cases even establish, new habits. The participant who gave up trying to drink more water after failing at the first attempt announced on the last day that he’d ‘cracked it’. One had realised that she was putting herself under unnecessary pressure in needing everything to be perfect. Others had accepted the need to take time for themselves. I plan to catch up with them in a year, to find out how they’re doing.
Participants completed the Subjective Vitality Scale (SVS), the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS) and the Connor Davidson Resilience Scale (RISC). As their vitality went down over the course of the school year, stress increased slightly (rather than significantly, as they became more tired) and their resilience increased.
I’ve run short sessions to highlight the importance of resilience. They rarely have long-term impact. Building resilience means taking a long look at yourself. It takes time and commitment. We can’t just take a pill, or wave a magic wand. We have to do the work.
It was risky putting a whole team together on a programme like this: would they be brave enough to be really honest about their private thoughts and feelings in front of colleagues? No, I don’t think all of them were. But they learned together and they now have a common language, even if some speak it more fluently than others. They are better prepared for the tough times because they’re not running on empty.
Next year, I’m running further programmes for participants from different schools to come together. If you’d be up for the commitment, or would like to hear more about what I discovered through the research I’d love to hear from you.