All posts by Helen Kelly

Helen Kelly is a former international school principal, having led three international schools in Bangkok, Berlin and Hong Kong over 15 years. She retired from work in July 2020 and is now pursuing her passion for vegetable gardening and building a campervan with her husband, while waiting for travel to become accessible again. Helen has a special interest in school leader well-being and resilience, which was the subject of her doctoral thesis completed in 2017. She continues to work informally to stay connected to, champion and support the wellbeing of international school leaders. www.drhelenkelly.com

Leading Through the pandemic: Is school leader loneliness increasing under covid?

My article The Loneliness of the International School Leader from 2018, is by far my most read and commented upon post, striking a chord with school leaders around the world. Since the publication of Is an Epidemic of COVID Burnout Awaiting our School Leaders?, I have been contacted by many wanting to share their own current experiences of isolation and desperation or express concern for leaders they know who are operating with very little support. In Is a Sense of Over-responsibility Harming School Leaders? I refer to the need for leaders to relinquish control and trust those around them to carry some of the burden, but the truth is that for some leaders this is not an option. Despite challenges on an unprecedented scale, many school leaders are leading alone, facing overwhelming stress and isolation with no light at the end of the tunnel. 

Who Experiences Loneliness?

Leadership isolation is a commonly recurring theme in the literature on school leader wellbeing. Loneliness results from inadequate external support, the absence of a trustworthy peer group to confide in and insufficient time to connect with others. For international school leaders, this experience may be compounded by the lack of personal and professional support systems that leaders are able to rely upon in their home countries. 

My own research shows that those most at risk are leaders new to their role, especially those who have moved to a new school/city/country and particularly those who have moved without family. Also at high risk are leaders of smaller schools who are operating without a senior leadership peer group and those in locations that lack a wider leadership network. Finally, leaders who lack hobbies or interests outside of work are more vulnerable to loneliness than those who have a focus for their social connections. Of course, membership of a large senior leadership team does not guarantee protection from loneliness. Toxic relationships in the workplace may leave leaders more isolated than if they were working alone and can bring with them a whole range of other stresses and strains. Even in situations where senior colleagues are on good terms, it takes a strong and trusting team to create an environment where leaders can be vulnerable about their fears, share their anxieties and seek support from each other. 

Isolation During COVID

Isolation can crush school leaders during the best of times. The weight of responsibility for the effectiveness of a school and wellbeing of a whole community can be heavy to bear alone. Since the COVID crisis began, however, the burden is even harder to shoulder for many, as they make daily, fast-paced decisions that may have serious consequences for staff and student safety, or business operations, while working a 16-plus hour day. Working from home scenarios are also placing many more leaders in situations of potential isolation as they operate at a distance from colleagues and miss out on the regular social interactions that daily school life brings. In the last few weeks, many leaders have reached out to tell me their stories of isolation and struggle. I suspect this is merely the tip of the iceberg. 

How Do School Leaders Overcome Loneliness?

So what can be done to support those individuals who struggle alone and what can they do for themselves? It is important to understand that we are hardwired to feel less sociable and more likely to shut down when we are under extreme stress as we move to a fight or flight response. It is not easy to overcome our natural instincts to maintain a sharp focus on the cause of a perceived threat and exclude our other needs. Taking steps towards addressing isolation may, therefore, prove challenging. In Overcoming Loneliness as an International School Leader I identify the starting point as recognising we are lonely, understanding its potential consequences and acknowledging the need to address it. Research shows the devastating impact of loneliness on long-term physical and mental health. In the short term it also makes leaders less effective in their roles, by impacting sleep and their ability to think clearly, problem solve and communicate well. 

Once we have acknowledged the need for change, there are a number of practical steps that can be taken to reduce loneliness. 

1. Make the Most of Existing Social Connections

How often do we make the time to reach out to family and friends at home? Just 15 minutes spent on a Zoom call touching base with those who know us best and love us most can have a startling impact on our wellbeing, kickstarting our happy hormones. It is easy to feel that we do not currently have time for maintaining these connections and give them a low priority or fall foul of our stress response by preferring to remain closed off to social interaction. However, we should view contact with our nearest and dearest as essential to our mental and physical health in the same way as we might view exercise and a balanced diet.

If you have a close relationship with a school leader, then check in with them on a regular basis and persevere even when they tell you they are too busy. During the lockdown in the UK, my brother took to video-calling me each week to catch up and seek and offer reassurance. Those short calls were precious moments of sanity and support, which I came to value enormously and believe made a real difference to both of us. 

2. Create Allies Among Those You Lead 

If you lack senior leadership colleagues or relations with them are not good, then seek succour from elsewhere in the school. Being honest about your vulnerabilities with those you lead can help you to build stronger relationships with staff and will create a more collaborative environment where everyone feels empowered and supported. A problem shared is a problem halved and there is no need to carry the burden alone.

If you have concerns about a school leader, reach out to them and offer support or suggest ways in which their burden may be shared. Despite having a strong network of leadership colleagues both inside and outside school, I know what a difference it made to me when staff (and parents) reached out to ask me how I am and offer support. 

3. Make Hobbies and Interests a Priority

Hobbies and interests may seem a low priority at the moment, but it is actually more important than ever that you allow yourself to have interests outside of work, especially if these allow you to connect with others. When stress places us in a fight or flight response, we feel less creative or open to new experiences, so we need to view these as essential to our wellbeing and be deliberate in ensuring that we pursue interests outside of school, if only for an hour a week. During the first period of working from home in Hong Kong, earlier this year, I made a jacket, which I worked on late each evening when the emails and WhatsApps abated. In order to seek support in this endeavour, I joined a number of sewing groups on Facebook and took great pleasure each evening, not only sewing but reaching out to more experienced sewers to ask for advice. I found myself eagerly anticipating this time arriving each day and became aware of the joy it was bringing and the good it was doing. 

4. Build Support Networks with Other School Leaders

Reaching out to colleagues outside of your own school is a key way to receive support and gain perspective. In my research, networking with senior colleagues in other schools, meeting socially to swap stories, empathise and offer advice was a real lifeline for many participants. In both Germany and Hong Kong, we had strong principals’ networks, which were not only a valuable source of information but helped keep me sane during tough times. It is reassuring to reach out to others who share a similar experience and realise that you are not alone in your struggle. Reaching out to former colleagues through Zoom is also a great way to stay connected to others.

If you can offer support to others then let them know. I try to make sure that I am available to former colleagues around the world and feel privileged when they reach out to me for support. 

5. Professional Coaching

In my opinion, all senior leaders should be provided with a professional coach. While this practice is becoming more widespread, it is still rare. Professional coaches can provide a buffer against hard times for any leader, no matter how experienced, and can provide a valuable safety net to those who are most isolated. Whilst expensive, the benefits far outweigh the costs and the provision of regular executive coaching should become part of every school leader’s contract.  I have coached many educators and leaders and have seen the benefits first hand. I have also sought the support of a counsellor on work-related matters on two occasions, once at the very start of my leadership career and once last year when I was diagnosed with burnout. It is hard to express the value of finding space to discuss your struggles with a professional and gaining new perspective. 

If you do not have a professional coach then ask if one can be provided or the costs reimbursed. If you are a Head of School or Principal, make contact with an executive coaching agency and negotiate a package for yourself and your senior colleagues. 

4. Rest and Recover

Lack of rest and time to recover from the daily onslaught of demands and challenges renders us more likely to be lonely and isolated. Studies show that lack of sleep causes social withdrawal, making people feel more lonely and less social around other people. Researchers also found that well-rested people observing sleep-deprived individuals rated them as less socially desirable. Rest, relaxation and sleep may seem low priority if you are desperately struggling to keep a head above water in the current crisis but you cannot expect to combat feelings of isolation, or be effective in your role if you are not well-rested. Leaders need relaxation, sleep and recovery time. This means taking time out during the working day to recover, taking a break on during evenings and weekends and taking proper holidays where you can completely reboot. 

If you notice that your senior colleagues are becoming exhausted and are reluctant to take breaks, gently encourage them to take better care of themselves. I once witnessed one of my middle leaders arriving home from school at 8pm. When I asked her about this, it became apparent that it was a regular occurrence and upon closer examination, I became aware that she was not taking care of herself and was close to burnout. It was hard to persuade her to work less and focus on her own needs as she was too close to the situation to realise its potential seriousness. With the help of another colleague we were able to support her and bring her back to a better balance. 

Loneliness is one of greatest public health challenges of our time, with damage to long-term health as significant as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. For many school leaders, isolation is real and may be impacting their ability to lead effectively as well as having long-term health consequences. Even for those not leading alone, stress can precipitate loneliness as stress hormones shutdown our natural social mechanisms. The isolation that school leaders experience should never be minimised or accepted as just being part of the job, especially during the current crisis, where the challenges of leading alone, or feeling alone, may more easily overwhelm people as so much is expected of them. It is possible to overcome loneliness but it requires a determined effort. Social connection should be viewed as a basic human need, vital to our short and long term health. There is no easy route out of loneliness but even small steps taken to interact with others and feel connected can make a huge difference.

Leading Through the Pandemic: Is an Epidemic of COVID Burnout Awaiting our School Leaders?

A year ago, at the start of the 2019-20 school year, I took the decision to retire from work at the end of the year, at the age of 56. I feel no shame in admitting that 15 years as a senior leader in international schools has taken its toll on me. In May 2019, I suffered some health problems that were exacerbated by stress and I was also diagnosed with an occupational burnout, a condition now recognised by the World health Organisation as an industrial disease. I missed the end of the school year 2018-19 due to ill health but felt confident that after 9 weeks away from school, I would return ready and robust. I was wrong. A month into the new school year, I had a headache that would not go away and ongoing chest pain, despite taking medication to address this. I suffered a panic attack in my office and thought I was having a heart attack. It was very frightening both for me and my colleagues. It was at this point that I knew I had to retire from my role and take time to focus on my health and happiness. 

Of course in September 2019, none of us knew what was round the corner. In Hong Kong, schools were grappling with the complex problem solving that came with the pro-democracy protests taking place across the city. Senior leadership teams were having to decide whether and when to open or close on an almost daily basis as situations flared up unpredictably. For many weeks, we were tasked with keeping our staff and students safe and addressing their fears and anxieties. At the time, we had no idea that this was a dress rehearsal for the challenges of leading a school through a global pandemic. 

COVID 19 hit Hong Kong before most of the rest of the world. It came from nowhere, during the Chinese New year Holiday and we had no time to prepare before the government declared that we would not be returning to school after the break. Every school leader has their own story of how the last 9 months have unfolded and impacted on their community. The situation remains ongoing, with no idea of when things may return to normal. Leaders in many parts of the world are contending with another extended period of online learning, while colleagues elsewhere are trying to find ways to bring staff and students into school safely, to allow for face to face learning. None of this is easy and school leaders face enormous challenges on an unprecedented scale. 

I am contacted on almost a daily basis by former colleagues and friends around the world who want to share their struggles of leading schools through this difficult time. Many seek advice on how to deal with the complex situations they find themselves in, others just need to vent or talk things through. Many have not had a proper summer break and a chance to fully rest and recuperate from the challenges of the spring and early summer. There has been no slow start to this year, with a chance to gradually ease into things. Instead, complex problem solving began on Day 1 or for some even before the official end of the summer break. There has been no chance to capitalise on the sense of well being and increased energy levels normally experienced in August. By September, tanks are already running low for many.

One thing my former colleagues and friends agree on is that I chose the right time to retire. COVID 19 has made an already tough job even more challenging. The expectations placed upon school leaders have always been unrealistic but leaders attempt to navigate them with absolute dedication and commitment to their roles. Some thrive, most survive, some battered and bruised by the experience, others fall by the wayside defeated, like myself.  Leading during a highly unpredictable, global health and economic crisis, however, requires next level skills and superhuman levels of resilience if it is not to take a personal toll on the physical and mental health of our leaders, most of whom are quite prepared to sacrifice themselves for the good of their students and staff.

If school leaders put the welfare of their community first then who is taking care of them? Who has the responsibility for ensuring that heads of school, principals, vice principals and other senior leaders do not burn out? Strictly speaking, boards of governors are responsible for the wellbeing of their heads and heads are responsible for the wellbeing of their team. I have spent the last 8 years researching, presenting and consulting in the field of school leader wellbeing and during this time I have learned that the majority of boards do not take their role in this regard seriously, while heads of school, many of whom are well intentioned, do not have time or energy to focus upon the emotional and physical needs of their team. 

So where does this leave our senior leaders? In an ideal world, heads of school will ensure opportunities are found to address the wellbeing issues of their team, establish new routines and provide time and resources such as leadership coaching, counselling or resilience training to help address growing needs. If this does not happen, then the best we can hope for is that senior leaders will themselves feel emboldened to raise the issue of their wellbeing and request that their needs are supported. Another option is for leadership teams to come together to identify the challenges they face and provide space for each other to discuss the toll it may be taking on them and provide support. This approach requires leaders to be honest about their vulnerabilities, however, something that does not come easily to many. Fear of humiliation prevents many from owning up to their frailties but failing to acknowledge and provide for the wellbeing needs of senior leaders from the start of the year will result in many leaders pouring from an empty cup as the crisis further develops. 

It is time for schools to accept that their leaders are their most precious resource during a crisis and a leader’s wellbeing should be managed carefully like any other major resource. If schools can provide access to external support resources or establish support networks within and between schools, they will weather the storm better than those who batten down the hatches and face the challenges alone. 

Being vulnerable and seeking and receiving support will enable leaders to emerge on the other side of this crisis stronger and more resilient than donning a red cape and charging into battle alone. 

Why School Leaders Need to Put Their Own Wellbeing First

www.drhelenkelly.com

I led a workshop last week for 25, mostly senior, leaders from schools around Hong Kong on school leader wellbeing. I welcomed each participant as they arrived and almost without exception they spoke of what they were hoping to get out of the workshop to take back to their school to support the wellbeing of their leadership teams, teachers and students. During the introduction, I thanked them for coming and praised them for prioritising wellbeing at such a busy time of the year. I mentioned that while their focus may not be on their own wellbeing, it should be. I reminded them that they were precious to their families and friends who cared about them and pointed out that they should care about themselves too. There was an awkward silence and people shifted uncomfortably on their chairs. I find it hard to understand why school leaders find it so difficult to address issues relating to their own wellbeing.

There is plenty of research to support the importance of the school leader to the success of a school. Strong, stable school leadership is closely associated with improved student outcomes, the goal of every school. We know that leadership performance is likely to be more effective when leaders are flourishing. In general, healthy employees across a range of industries, have been shown to be more committed to their job, harder working, more resilient and better able to cope with change, uncertainty and ambiguity. It it is in everyone’s interests that our school leaders are well and able to operate at an optimum level. I can understand why others may not be able to see the importance of this, but it shocks me that school leaders themselves are burying their heads in the sand and working themselves into the ground.

We know that school leaders are experiencing increasing levels of stress. This is not any less the case in international schools than elsewhere. In the UK, USA, Australia, New Zealand and other countries, education systems are experiencing a serious crisis in the recruitment and retention of school leaders. This is closely linked to the perceived challenges of the role and the stresses it brings. Many of the issues are systemic and governments can clearly do more but what responsibility are school leaders themselves taking for their own wellbeing and that of their senior colleagues?

Student and educator wellbeing are currently hot topics. More schools are adopting programmes to support student wellbeing such as Positive Education and there is increasing attention being paid, although still not sufficient, to supporting the health and building the resilience of teachers. I would argue that this journey needs to start with school leaders, if for no other reason than that we are role models for our communities. Improving wellbeing should be a community endeavour, which should start with adults. With the time pressure that teachers face fitting everything into the school day and the fast pace of educational change, the embedding of wellbeing into the programme of any school is only likely to be successful if teachers see its value. The best way for educators to see the value of any approach to wellbeing is by living it themselves first. Then when a programme is introduced to students, it will not be seen as an add-on but as an integral part of the school culture.

In order to get teachers interested in programmes like Positive Education, school leaders need to fully understand the concepts involved and be able lead through doing. Wellbeing is an attitude, a culture, a way of life. It is not a subject. Only by fully committing to improving out own wellbeing as school leaders can we begin to understand this and bring others along on the journey with us. Educators, parents and students are currently hungry for guidance on matters related to wellbeing but before we can satisfy them, we must first nourish ourselves. It is time to stop being selfless and putting everyone else first. School leaders deserve as much as the next person to be happy and healthy but the wellbeing of whole communities will be served best by us prioritising human flourishing and modelling what this can look like for all.

For more of educator and school leader wellbeing go to www.drhelenkelly.com