Portrait of Sarah Hussey

A guest blog by Sarah Hussey.

Teaching is tough, headship is hard – those of us who work in education know these things to be true! As a head teacher of 12 years and counting I cannot argue with these facts. Yet… I find sheer joy in my job pretty much every day. How you might well ask? By changing the narrative.

In 2019 a heady mix of many factors led me to be signed off work with chronic stress and anxiety for almost 6 months. Impending inspection, results that were far from ideal, managing staff, budget worries, a pretty hideous parental complaint that had me filing harassment charges with the police, and let’s not forget being peri-menopausal (that needs a whole blog in itself!). I was well and truly done and took to my bed where I stayed for some time! Then we had the first lockdown – a truly surreal time for us all.

I am happy and I love my job.

As I write this I am less than a week away from returning to school after our well-deserved break. I still have an impending inspection (God, I wish they would just get it over with), even more budget worries, and concerns about how my families and staff are going to survive the cost of living crisis. These are just a few of the things that are running through my mind. My mind, however, is at least working now as the wonder of HRT has defeated the damned brain fog and anxiety. But, I am looking forward to the new term. I would go as far as saying I am happy and I love my job. How have I got to this position?

The one thing about being mentally at rock bottom is that you can only move up again: I learned the hard way.

The one thing about being mentally at rock bottom is that you can only move up again. I thought for a few months that my passion, the fire that burned in my belly about doing the right thing for all our children had been extinguished and that made me really sad. The truth was that it had become a tiny, flickering ember which grew as I began to feel stronger. Now, I am not advocating that anyone should become this ill because of a job: well-being is vital and should never ever be an afterthought or a bolt on to your curriculum. I learnt this the hard way.

Dig deep and remember your values.

When things get tough you need to dig deep and remember your values – your reason for leading your school. I don’t mean the values that NPQH tell you to have; I mean the things that make the fire in your belly stay alight. I do this job because after 25 years in education I still believe education is a right for all children and can and does open up their world. I believe that a good school is a place where children, their families and your staff feel that they belong. The core of a good school is not necessarily zero-tolerance uniform/behaviour policies etc. It is relationships. Without these, progress will never be made.

Change the narrative – flip that switch.

I know it is tough and I know there are days when you would rather be doing anything but running another parent’s session about phonics or internet safety, but if you try to change the narrative, flip that switch in your head, it can and will make a difference.

What a privilege it is to be in this position.

When I complain about being all things to everyone – teacher, mental health worker, social worker, counsellor – I remind myself what a privilege it is to be in this position. We cannot change the lives of all our families, but we can go some way to helping them. Sometimes just listening to them is all that is necessary. Our support can lead to a family leaving an unsafe home and changing their own narratives. How wonderful that we can have a hand in creating excellent teachers, either being a part of their training or their ECT years. That is the future of teaching in our hands. Don’t you get an immense feeling of satisfaction when a learning support assistant grows in confidence, learns from your mentoring and the CPD you provide, and goes on to become cracking teacher? How amazing is it that we can encourage the curiosity of our children, that we can teach them to read, which opens up the world around them. I love it when ex-pupils come back to tell us what they have achieved and tell us about the part we played in that – priceless. In what other job can you leave the boring paperwork on your desk and go and find thirty four-year-olds to play with. Their energy and view of life is really inspirational!

I allow my staff to attend their children’s first day at school, their school plays and concerts and their graduations – they are special memories to be treasured.

Headship is a hard job. One of the ways to do it well is to learn not to listen. Don’t go ignoring everyone, but learn to choose the information that you think is important. Don’t be tempted to try every new initiative and if someone from your LA comes and tells you how to do something, ask them to show you the evidence it works. Remember no school is the same and your context will be different to others. Do what feels right for your school community. For me, the number one tip is look after your staff! I don’t mean organising meditation sessions or yoga with puppies, I mean creating an atmosphere of trust and support. Listen to them, let them know that you care but that you also care about the children. I started teaching when my daughters were very young. My head teacher would not allow staff time off for anything other than a funeral of your closest relatives. When I left an abusive relationship, I was given half a day to find somewhere for myself, the children, and 2 kittens to live! So, I allow my staff to attend their children’s first day at school, their school plays and concerts and their graduations – they are special memories to be treasured. It is worth it – for the one or two staff that might take the mickey, the rest give you their best every day of the week. They will enjoy working at your school in the environment that you have created.

If you want to do it, you can!

I cannot tell you Headship is the best job in the world (I mean being a cocktail taster on a Caribbean island sounds pretty good!) but I can tell you it is wonderful. It is joyous and I still love it. Don’t be put off by the bad press and those stories that you hear from others in the job. If you want to do it, you can! You can be a good head teacher and have a work life balance – but you have to do it your way and with integrity.

I believe in helping people be the happiest, most effective and most authentic versions of themselves. Through my work as a teacher, coach and wellbeing expert, I nurture self-belief and self-awareness and remind you that not only are you not alone, but you have more control than you might imagine. You deserve, not just to survive, but to thrive.

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