Developing Resilience as a School Leader

Introduction

Resilience is an essential trait for school leaders, especially in the fast-paced and ever-changing landscape of education in the United Kingdom. Resilient leaders are better equipped to handle the challenges that come their way, learn from their experiences, and maintain an optimistic outlook, even in difficult circumstances. According to a guardian article are “Exhausted, broken, at risk of heart attacks”. The national picture is extremely challenging and with no sign of getting easier. In this article, we will delve into the importance of resilience for school leaders, examine the factors that contribute to resilience, and offer practical strategies for building this critical skill. At best this may mitigate some of the external influences. Long term it is not a solution to the problems facing the education system in England.

Importance of Resilience for School Leaders

Resilience is the ability to adapt and recover from setbacks, stress, and adversity. It is a crucial trait for school leaders, as it enables them to:

  1. Navigate change: Educational policy and practice are constantly evolving, and school leaders must be able to adapt and implement new initiatives, even when they face resistance from staff or the community.
  2. Manage stress: School leadership comes with high levels of responsibility, and resilient leaders are better able to cope with the stress and maintain a healthy work-life balance.
  3. Lead through crisis: Whether it’s a natural disaster, a tragic event, or a financial challenge, resilient school leaders can guide their staff and community through difficult situations.
  4. Foster a positive school culture: Resilient leaders model optimism and perseverance, inspiring their staff and students to follow suit.
  5. Enhance personal well-being: Developing resilience can help school leaders maintain their mental health, preventing burnout and supporting their overall well-being.

Factors Contributing to Resilience

Developing Resilience as a School Leader

In the education system where leaders often face high levels of stress and numerous challenges. Here are some research-backed strategies that school leaders and headteachers can use to build their own resilience:

  1. Fostering Relationships: Strong relationships can provide emotional support and a sense of belonging, which are key to resilience. Leaders can build and strengthen relationships with colleagues, mentors, and their own teams.
  2. Promoting Efficacy: Believing in one’s ability to make a difference and reach goals can enhance resilience. Leaders can foster this by setting inspiring goals, tracking their progress, and celebrating their successes.
  3. Cultivating Positive Affect: Experiencing positive emotions can help reduce stress and increase creativity, thereby boosting resilience. Leaders can foster positive emotions by creating a positive work environment, recognising and appreciating the efforts of their team, and maintaining a positive outlook.
  4. Embracing Learning: Learning from challenges and setbacks can help leaders grow and become more resilient. After-action reviews or reflective practices can be useful tools for learning from experiences.
  5. Implementing Resilience Programs: Programs like RISE (Resilience in Schools and Educators) can be beneficial. RISE is a whole-school social-emotional learning program that builds trauma-responsive school climates and promotes resilience in staff and students.
  6. Practicing Mindfulness: Mindfulness can help leaders manage stress and maintain focus, thereby enhancing resilience. This can be achieved through practices like meditation, deep breathing, or simply taking a few moments of quiet reflection each day.

Practical Strategies for Building Resilience

Here are some practical strategies to help you, as a school leader, develop resilience:

1. Cultivate self-awareness

  • Engage in regular self-reflection to better understand your strengths, weaknesses, and emotional triggers.
  • Seek feedback from trusted colleagues to gain additional insight into your leadership style and areas for growth.
  • Consider using tools such as personality assessments or 360-degree feedback to further develop your self-awareness (although this does take some resilience to start with!)

2. Foster optimism

  • Challenge negative thoughts and reframe them into more positive and constructive statements.
  • Set realistic expectations for yourself and your school while maintaining a positive outlook on the future.
  • Celebrate successes and acknowledge progress, even in small increments, to build a culture of positivity.

3. Develop problem-solving skills

  • Embrace a growth mindset, viewing challenges as opportunities for learning and growth.
  • Encourage collaboration and open communication with staff to generate creative solutions to problems.
  • Seek input from a diverse range of stakeholders, including students, parents, and community members, to gain new perspectives on challenges.

4. Manage emotions effectively

  • Practice mindfulness and stress-reduction techniques, such as meditation, deep breathing, or journaling, to help regulate emotions.
  • Develop healthy coping strategies, such as exercise, hobbies, or spending time with loved ones, to manage stress and maintain well-being.
  • Seek support from a mentor, coach, or mental health professional to help navigate difficult emotions and situations.

5. Build social support networks

  • Cultivate strong relationships with colleagues, both within your school and in the wider educational community.
  • Engage in professional networks and associations to connect with other school leaders facing similar challenges.
  • Prioritise quality time with friends and family to maintain a strong support system outside of work.

6. Clarify your sense of purpose

  • Reflect on your personal and professional values, mission, and vision to develop a clear sense of purpose.
  • Align your daily actions and decisions with your larger goals and objectives.
  • Communicate your vision and purpose to staff, students, and the wider community, inspiring their engagement and support.

A School Leader’s Story

As a headteacher in a state primary school in England for over 15 years, developing resilience was not an option but a necessity. The pressures and challenges seemed to mount each year – stringent curriculum requirements, regular inspections from OFSTED, increasingly strict safeguarding laws, budget cuts that never seemed to end. There were many mornings I would awake with a sense of dread, wondering how on earth I would get through the day with sanity intact.

Despite the stresses, I was determined not to become another statistic of headteacher burnout. I realised the importance of building resilience through self-care and a strong support network. I made sure to start each day with exercise, as a morning walk helped clear my head and boost my mood. I also maintained hobbies outside or, and unrelated to school, continuing my book club.

One of the biggest barriers was learning not to be deterred by obstacles that were out of my control. When yet another government initiative was introduced that promised to “revolutionise” education but only added extra paperwork, or when an initiative that I had spent months planning had to be scrapped due to budget changes, I learned not to waste energy on frustration. I focused on the aspects of the job I could influence – like supporting teachers, engaging with students, and driving school culture. Over time, this ability to compartmentalise difficulties and not take challenges personally became second nature.

Looking back, that perseverance and commitment to work-life balance allowed me to lead the school for as long as I did. The stresses certainly did not disappear, in a way I was able to gain proper perspective and find greater meaning in my role.

Conclusion

Resilience is a vital skill for school leaders in the U.K., enabling them to navigate change, manage stress, and lead through crisis. By cultivating self-awareness, fostering optimism, developing problem-solving skills, managing emotions effectively, building social support networks, and clarifying their sense of purpose, school leaders can strengthen their resilience and enhance their ability to lead effectively, even in the face of adversity.

References:

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. W H Freeman/Times Books/ Henry Holt & Co.

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House.

Thapa, A., Cohen, J., Guffey, S., & Higgins-D’Alessandro, A. (2013). A Review of School Climate Research. Review of Educational Research, 83(3), 357–385. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654313483907

Roorda, D. L., Koomen, H. M. Y., Spilt, J. L., & Oort, F. J. (2011). The Influence of Affective Teacher–Student Relationships on Students’ School Engagement and Achievement: A Meta-Analytic Approach. Review of Educational Research, 81(4), 493–529. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654311421793

Reivich, K., Gillham, J. E., Chaplin, T. M., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2013). From helplessness to optimism: The role of resilience in treating and preventing depression in youth. In S. Goldstein & R. B. Brooks (Eds.), Handbook of resilience in children (p. 201–214). Springer Science + Business Media. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4614-3661-4_12

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