Notes from ‘Leading from the Edge: A School Leader’s Guide to Recognising and Overcoming Stress’

Stress is something that is prevalent in everyday life, and impacts all school leaders in one way or another. Not only is it important that leaders recognise stress themselves, but also in their colleagues and team members. This book is written by a former headteacher and shares personal anecdotes, information from interviews and structured advice. A quick read that has has a large range of practical tips and advice for all working in schools.

The author starts by stating “the pressures have been building for a while. Most people have higher imposed targets than ever before, yet fewer people to help them achieve them. The result is that most people are working harder for longer. There is an increasing sense of disenfranchisement, with school leaders experiencing a far higher degree of accountability set against a background of a decreasing sense of empowerment”. He states that pressure is part of work. It helps to keep us motivated and can improve our performance. However, excessive or unrelenting pressure can lead to stress and have a negative effect on performance. Stress is therefore a response to pressure. It can be costly to employers, but more importantly, it can make people ill. A good understanding of the nature of stress is central to maintaining our own personal resilience and to leading others effectively.

One headteacher interviewed stated his ability to cope with the role was linked to his ability to be able to unwind relatively easily; the techniques he listed were personal to him, but provide potential ideas for other leaders, these are:

  • Avoiding educational programmes on TV;
  • Taking his dog for long walks;
  • Listening to music, watching films and , increasingly reading stories;
  • Foreign travel.

One of the most important pieces of advice that this interviewee gave was ‘have the confidence to know that there are some things that you can ignore’

People tend to become stressed when they feel out of control in a situation. There is much in education which is unpredictable; so it pays to take control whenever you can, ‘control the controllable.’ Some tips for time management are listed below:

  • Preparation is key, so start well in advance with whatever task you are planning.
  • Build in quick wins, however small, into large projects allowing everyone to feel progress is being made towards the goal.
  • Plan long term so that everyone knows the key priorities for each half term and where the ‘pinch points’ will be be in terms of key tasks and deadlines.
  • Set yourself clear deadlines. We are usually more focused and productive when time is limited. Don’t let tasks drift on.
  • Have a master to do list and then daily ones broken down into ‘must’, ‘should’, and ‘could’.
  • Start each day by reviewing your list and by completing a short task that will allow you to get back into the work zone and give you an early sense of achievement.
  • Keep lists of what you have done as well as what you plan to do.
  • Be realistic about what you are likely to achieve each day. Work on the basis of five hours of ‘planned’ work. In education there will always be enough ‘unplanned work’ such as phone call or visits from parents to fill the rest of the day. Over-scheduling your day can leave you feeling frustrated and reduce your sense of control.
  • Give yourself short five-minute breaks during the day.
  • Getting things done is often better in the long run than achieving perfection. Sometimes ‘OK’ has to be enough.
  • Set yourself one or two nights a week to stay later and get through tasks with fewer distractions. Some people schedule that for Friday, so they can take less work home over the weekend.
  • Plan a regular no work evening at home, e.g. ‘No work Wednesdays’ to give  yourself a proper break in the week to socialise, spend time with the family, or to pursue outside interests. Do not compromise on this.
  • Try to reserve some time with no interruptions.
  • Don’t dwell on what happened yesterday, it won’t change it. Concentrate instead on today and tomorrow.

This quote gives the importance of maintaining positive behaviours “repeated ingrained behaviours, or habits, are generally accepted as the way in which your perosnality is demonstrated, so behaviours are often worth changing if they are unhelpful”.

Another key take away was this list of early indicators of stress in staff:

  1. Increased absence from work.
  2. Poor timekeeping.
  3. Failure to complete tasks on time.
  4. Rushing everywhere.
  5. Unwillingness to accept feedback or advice.
  6. Resistance to change.
  7. Inability to reach decisions or delegate tasks.
  8. Becoming withdrawn,
  9. Tearfulness.
  10. Irritability with pupils or colleagues.

The final quote from this book that is worth concluding with is:

“Positive thinking in itself will not change the world, it has to be combined with decisions and action. however, in itself it is a massive start and it has been proven that positive thoughts actually enhance our health – not surprising really, given that stressful ones clearly do not help us” – David Taylor – The Naked Leader