Life is short – a realisation

Last year I allowed my anxiety to get the better of me. I sat hour after hour at the kitchen table, after my family had gone to bed, trying to second guess what was in the mind of the Ofsted inspector I’d never met or even knew the name of. We were awaiting the call and I was at the very end of my “Ofsted Cycle of Courageousness” (some of you may recognise this from a presentation you’ve heard me give).

I made myself ill because I wanted to make sure that the staff that work so very hard were rewarded and not punished for choosing to work in our context. They deserve recognition and not to be made to feel inadequate and I didn’t want to be the thing that let them down.

I didn’t know I’d made myself unwell. I haven’t spoken to a professional about it… yet. I hadn’t realised going to bed feeling nauseous and waking up after a few hours of disturbed sleep feeling the same way was an issue. It obviously got a bit better after our inspection which was led by an empathetic human and a team that happily followed his lead. However, it took until after Christmas this year to really start to take a hold of my anxiety and the lifestyle I was drifting in to.

A few things happened to help me come to that realisation.

A routine blood test this summer returned abnormal results and further tests over the next few months. The end result was not the news that everyone dreads but it was a shock to my own indestructible view of myself.

A very dear friend, Darren, was told that the cancer he thought he’d beaten had come back and he had months not years to live. Our children went to school together. We worked together in two different schools. He has just been admitted to an hospice today and it’s what has triggered me to write this. A wonderful teacher and person who deserves so much more from life. I will write more about him when I feel able to.

In January a colleague at work came and spoke to me about how worried she was about me. She told me I looked unhealthy. I looked puffy. She was worried for me because I’d put on so much weight. She was right. It had been happening over a few years but really accelerated recently because I’d taken to eating crisps and chocolate, and all the other tasty but not great for you food, in order to stay awake longer to try and get even more prepared for the visitors we were expecting. I am so pleased she felt able to tell me what she was thinking and I’ve thanked her since.

At about the same time my good friend Stephen Tierney (@leadinglearner) released the news that he was retiring. If you hear Stephen talk about it he mentions a comment his wife said to him about his passion for education. Stephen recounts “She said I wish I’d been your passion.” That is like a dagger through the heart for anyone that’s dedicated their professional life to helping others. It really made me think about my own priorities.

The last piece of the jigsaw of change came from an unexpected source – Stuart Lock (@stuartlock). I have known Stuart for a number of years through a mutual connection. We shared some rounds of golf a few years ago. I know how hard Stuart worked to become a Headteacher and when he blogged about losing weight and looking after himself better it hit home because it was hard not to notice how he’d grown in to the job shall I say! He made me want to take control too. Thanks Stuart

So why on Earth am I writing all this? Well it may not need saying but being a Headteacher right now is quite tough. We have a funding crisis being rubbed in to our faces by different government officials. An accountability system that has far too often not recognised that the choice to work in disadvantaged areas is one that should be supported; by understanding that it takes longer to get to where we want to be with our students sometimes. Teacher recruitment at an all time low and a Department for Education that has been only too happy to try and make it all about retention and therefore nothing to do with them.

What I’ve learned over the last few months is that if we, as heads, don’t look after ourselves we are generally rubbish at allowing others to do so. In order to do my job well I need to be healthy. To serve my community to the best of my ability I need to have the energy to do so.

I also know that I want to see my son become the extraordinary man I know he’ll be. I want to make it to retirement with enough energy to go to a Boxing Day test in Australia and to follow the British and Irish Lions on tour (don’t get me started on this wish list as it would take a while) with the people I love.

So I have vowed to get healthier. To make the choice of looking after myself. Thanks to Stuart’s inspiration I have lost a couple of stone since January (still plenty to go though) and feel better for it already. I know it is easy for me to say, now I’m back at the start of my OC of C, but I vow to not let myself become that ill in a couple of years time when it comes round again.

So to my comrade heads and teachers please make sure you have your outlets and support. If you don’t look after yourselves you can’t look after those around you. Find the time to do the things that give you balance.

I am now going to take a break from Twitter and other similar stuff whilst I say goodbye to my friend Darren. Don’t feel you need to comment or say nice things. It’s all good, I just needed to get this out of my system.

21 thoughts on “Life is short – a realisation

  1. As a former head teacher and director from the Netherlands, I fully understand your blog. And the lesson is indeed to take care of yourself … in order to take proper care of others. Being a teacher or head teacher requires a 100% healthy mind and body. I have also gone through the puzzle of change – since 2017. And – like you – lost a lot of weight since January. Both physically and mentally. Education is also my passion and that flame does not burn you. What burns professionals in our sector is the limitation of our professional space, either through rigid supervision and / or by overloading the expectations that are cast on us. Both are fatal to the image and attractiveness of our profession. Hence work pressure, burnout, self-dispatch, lack of teachers, and so on. Education is the best place to work and it should pay off instead of causing anxiety and stress. Good luck with your journey back to the valuable resource that once made us passionate about education.

    1. Well said, Sir. We all need to recognise that we are in a “people profession” and as such our greatest resource is the people not the test results or the inspection outcomes. It is our people we worry about both big and little. If we ignore them or take them for granted then noone learns anything valuable!

  2. Having now retired from headship, you realise that you gave everything to the job at the detriment of other things. Despite what we think at the time, we are replaceable and that really hurts but then you know that you’ve done your job right! Enjoy a well earned breather and keep a focus on a healthier future.
    Take care.

  3. Thank you. I’m going to print this out to keep and read over and over. I don’t know Darren but your words about him have the potential to reset the thinking of so many of us for a better us, and ultimately a better world. Thank you for writing.

  4. Thank you, Vic. Now retired from headship but I recognise the description re the OC and C. I have been there twice. Sat at that kitchen table too. Felt exactly the same for my wonderful staff. Luckily I had/ have a wondeful partner who understood and therefore stood by me during those long hours. Wishing you good health too!

  5. Vic we never spoke but I remember you way back from Essex heads meetings. How true this is. My moment of revelation was when the inspector came in on day 2 and closed the door behind him – the moment ‘OCC’ goes through the roof. But what he said to me wasn’t ‘inadequate’, it was ‘ If you go on like this you’ll kill yourself’. And I pretty much did. I never wanted to leave headship, I got out too late, but doing so has saved my life. And I doesn’t have to be like that.
    Keep well

  6. Hi vic,
    Kirsty murray here we went to college together at WSIHE all those years ago. I’m a deputy head now and everything you said rang true. It’s great to have passion and drive but not to the detriment of you, your body and your relationships. In this day of constant communication and ‘switched on ness’ it’s easy to forget we all still have bodies that need care, people around us that love us and need our attention and that life doesn’t have to be a single focused work mission. I’ve been the person who has said I wish I was your passion, or a version of that, and it’s a hard, quite lonely place. Teaching and leadership in education can be all consuming but it’s vital to remember yourself, and importantly, those around you. Well done for receiving and acting on the life messages you cite in your blog, I hope they enable you to make the changes you want to… sounds like you’ve already begun. Passion is great but balance is the key to a happy life. Take care and thanks for being honest enough to share your thoughts. Xx

  7. Thankyou for speaking my mind again Vic.
    As a fellow former WSIHE student and current Headteacher your openness and honesty remain an inspiration.
    Go well.Take care.

  8. This all makes very good sense, Vic- a timely reminder for us all. A quiet and reflective time ahead for you. Take care of yourself- and thanks for making me think a little differently too.

  9. Wonderful article. I was a HT for 18 years and the tension between me doing the job I loved and the job doing me led me to leave at 54 and to become a LA school adviser for the last three years. My wife would likely leave me were I to suggest a return to school leadership. It’s a job at the end of the day. Hold your loved ones close and remember that no one wishes they’d worked harder on their deathbed.

  10. Written from the heart Vic. My husband passed away at a young age. A reality check – enjoy life and have no regrets.

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