School leaders: Top tips for keeping your morale high

Jill Berry

Following a 30 year career in education, during which she taught English and assumed different leadership roles across six schools, Jill finished as a full-time head in 2010. Since then, she has divided her time between studying for a Professional Doctorate in Education, working as an educational consultant and serving as an Associate within the International Division of the National College for Teaching and Leadership. She lives in the Midlands.

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Leading a school is a privilege, and a tremendous opportunity to have a positive influence – to lead in the way you think it should be done, to focus on the priorities you believe to be the right ones and to create an environment where it is possible for those you lead to be their best selves. You have the chance to make a difference to the lives of students, and of staff, on a scale unlike any other you have ever known. There’s huge reward and satisfaction in this, and, in my experience, joy.

But it’s tough! You will be mindful of the extent of the responsibility you have, and you will be faced with some significant challenges and difficult decisions. There will be times when, whichever path you choose to take, some people will be unhappy and critical of you. You will deal with sensitive issues which take their emotional toll. And you will work hard – I would suggest harder than you have ever worked before (and you may always have worked hard…).

So how do you sustain yourself? “You will deal with sensitive issues which take their emotional toll.”Where can you go for support and encouragement, and how do you ensure you stay positive when you are sorely tested? You want to ensure the morale of those you lead is positive – that they feel valued and supported. What about your own morale?

These suggestions are based on my own experience of ten years of headship. I hope some of them may resonate and perhaps some of these strategies might work for you.

      • I was the head of a 7-18 school and, although I am a Secondary specialist, it was a privilege to work within a school which included younger learners. I had huge respect for my Primary colleagues. And I would do a regular duty in the Junior School section of the school. I always appreciated this, especially on tough days. Watching the youngest members of my school at play was one of the best ways of lifting my spirits. It reminded me what it was all about, and always made me smile.

      • In my first year as a head, I decided to go to as many extra-curricular activities as I possibly could, as I thought this was the best way quickly to get to know the pupils and the staff, as well as the parents and members of the wider community. It did, but it also reinforced for me that there was a great opportunity for pleasure and pride in the achievements of the school beyond, as well as within, the classroom. So for 10 years this was what I continued to do. I sang with the school choir. I took part in the staff pantomime. I attended as many events as I could – drama, debating, music, sport, Young Enterprise presentations, clubs and activities of all kinds – whatever I could manage. Sometimes, because of clashing commitments, I couldn’t stay to the end, but it was hugely enjoyable to be part of such events, and my presence was appreciated, I knew.

        • Similarly, I was keen to accompany staff trips. Over the years I travelled widely with pupils of all ages and the staff who had organised and supported these activities, because they were committed to giving our pupils the widest possible range of experiences and opportunities for success. Being an accompanying member of staff was a great pleasure, and a learning experience.

        • A head I knew advised a group of us, aspiring heads and heads-elect, to keep what she called a ‘Positive Book’, to retain and preserve those cards, letters, copies of emails, news clippings – anything affirming about the school community or our leadership of it. I chose to call this my ‘Happy File’, and by the time I left my headship I had three Lever Arch files full of memorabilia which had the capacity to lift my spirits. We need sometimes actively to remind ourselves of the good stuff. Keep it and relish it, especially when you need to refill your own reservoir of hope.

        • Showing gratitude and appreciation of the efforts and achievements of others was another strategy which always made me feel better, whatever other challenges I was dealing with. Have a face-to-face chat with someone to whom you need to communicate a positive message. Send a handwritten card giving specific praise and feedback for what a member of staff has done, or a pupil, or write a positive message about a pupil to a parent. You will lift them and, in the process, give yourself a boost.

        • And lastly, I was always keen to build supportive networks, personal and professional, of individuals I could draw on if I needed advice, or even just someone to listen. And look for opportunities to reciprocate. Supporting and championing others is also a good way of reinforcing our sense that we do make a positive contribution. Our professional role has a purpose, and there is great satisfaction in that. So through collaboration we both give and gain. I do love a win/win…

School leadership has its demands. It also has its rewards and its joys. Ensure you look after yourselves, as well as serving those you lead and all those who make up our wider school communities. Keep your head up, and ensure your spirit is nourished and your morale is protected.

Are you a school leader? Share your morale-boosting tips below!

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