All posts by Helen Kelly

Helen Kelly was an educator and principal in Europe, Asia and Africa from 1999 to 2020, when she retired from her work in schools. From 2006, she led international schools in Bangkok, Berlin and Hong Kong. Prior to this Helen was member of the English legal profession, working in the field of industrial accidents and disease. As an optimist and futurist Helen believes that education holds the key to creating a better world. She is known for her work in transforming learning, wellbeing and leadership in schools towards this goal. Whilst working as the Lower School Principal of Canadian International School of Hong Kong, she led and launched a high profile, PreK-12 initiative to bring future-ready learning to the school and became an active member of a world-wide network of progressive school leaders and educators. She has consulted with schools and delivered presentations and workshops on school wellbeing, future-ready learning, progressive leadership and educational change. She writes for a number of well-known educational publications and enjoys guest blogging. Through her own blog, The Positive Principal, she aims to share her progressive thinking and ignite conversations about the future of schools.

School leader voices tell the real story of pandemic stress

In my recent study into school leader wellbeing during the COVID 19 crisis 70% of the 721 school leaders who took part say they have come close to breaking point at some time during 2020. Even allowing for a response bias, that figure is worryingly high and is worthy of closer examination. You can read the full findings in my report School Leader Wellbeing During the COVID 19 Pandemic 2020. For this post though, I am handing things over to school leaders themselves to tell their own stories. What is published below are their unedited responses to the question “what is challenging you most at the moment.”

“Putting on a brave face and leading every day when some days I’d rather stay in bed and cry. Feeling the weight of accountability for everyone’s health & safety. Feeling and being isolated and alone as HT in a small school with no other leaders.”

“I have completely disregarded my own well-being for the benefit of others.”

“Keeping up to date with the barrage of guidance. Supporting EVERYONES emotional needs, being the punchbag for people’s anxieties AND having to manage new educational remote learning requirements.”

“Trying to remain positive or at least pretend it’s all going to be okay for other staff.  I feel I’m doing the most work but teachers and TAs need to be told they’re doing an amazing job to keep going. They are, don’t get me wrong, but as the only person in leadership at our small school, I could really do with someone telling me I’m doing okay too!”

“Everyone…I mean, EVERYONE is angry…all.the.time.”

“Trying to continue to do everything that is normally expected and required while dealing with a significant increase in Safeguarding and Covid related issues. Staff anxiety and workload management, parent and pupil concerns. Bubble closures, staff absence due to Covid issues. There are not enough hours in the day. And the pressure of knowing we are due a full OFSTED and possibly as soon as Jan 21.”

“Making sure we systematically offer the best programme and support for all, from the students quarantined locally, those on campus, those quarantined remotely and those who have not made it back yet. Supporting the teaching and support staff so that they do not feel too stretched by this ‘best offer’ and burn out by the end of Term 1. Supporting our community when SLT chose to cancel the Oct holidays 10 days before it was due to start.”

“The pressure to continue school improvement, whilst managing everything related to the pandemic. Also dealing with disciplinaries, performance issues, appeals and restructuring staff due to budget. With the possibility of an Ofsted / HSE visit too. Completely overwhelming and beyond stressful.”

“Being everything to everyone and my own family (and kids) being neglected.”

“Managing the stress and anxiety of staff, students and parents whilst disregarding my own.”

“The constant uncertainty, shifting guidance and parents taking their stress and anxiety out on us for decisions we have no control over.”

“Staff feeling isolated and suffering with mental health challenges. Staff shortages whilst working in bubbles. Asking teachers to implement a remote curriculum and prepare resources for this alongside working in isolated conditions and managing increased workload. Pupil separation anxiety. Managing space for isolating bubbles during break/lunch times. Supporting pupils/families with no access to online learning. Keeping up with the volume of guidance and paperwork we need to read every day.”

“Reassuring everyone about being safe and supporting the emotional needs of staff and parents when I don’t felt safe myself and I’m also going through this myself. I’m a teacher not health care or h and safety expert. It’s just exhausting and so worrying- what if I get this wrong. Big responsibility! If a member of staff dies – not sure if ever sleep again.”

“Managing the wellbeing and mental health/ anxieties of all of the school community. No one is willing to make any decision about how to do anything which has had to be changed due to Covid so even the tiniest decisions have fallen to me. This is so draining.”

“Parents – not being rational, shouting, much more emotional.”

“Every day being in fear of what will happen if we have someone get seriously sick or die. Feeling a tremendous weight of the responsibility of keeping everyone safe.”

“The fact that the district’s plan is horrible and unsustainable. The fact that I have to do double the work because they couldn’t create a plan that actually works.  Telling me I need to completely reprogram the school because of covid testing. It’s all about communicating and their information streams are severely lacking.”

“Pressure of keeping the whole school community safe (staff, children, parents, governors, neighbouring residents, visitors and all families attached to those people who never even set foot in my school) and feeling like I need to be a COVID expert, whereas in reality I’m just a human being with a family who loves working with children and teachers.”

“Parents not following the guidelines and then swearing at you when they disagree.”

“It feels like you are working 24 hours a day with having to manage and juggle everything to ensure the constant safety of children, staff, parents and their families. No real rest of wind down time as something is constantly happening.”

“Keeping calm when being continually used as a dumping ground for others.”

“All of it… balancing my own life with COVID-19.  Basically, my personal life is wholly compromised, my partner neglected. I want out.”

“Most challenging: the number of high importance tasks which all need to be done at the same time( ensuring wellbeing and academic progress of children, curriculum, remote learning, keeping parents happy, SEF, SIP, updating website, educating , covering staff due to Covid absences, absorbing everyone’s anxieties whilst remaining outwardly calm and positive ).”

“Response from anxious parents and staff . Often they take this out on you as a senior leader. Trying to cope with restraints of guidance that doesn’t suit them. Quite a few have been very aggressive.”

“Living alone away from family and friends but leaving my baggage at the door in order to support my whole school community without any personal support.”

“It’s been very very confusing with mixed messages from government. It feels like I’m planning for something unknown, blindfolded and hand tied behind my back!”

“Parental pushback. The level of judgement and critique our teachers have been subject to and the sometimes threatening behaviour from frustrated, and often desperate families.”

“My workload has gone from immense to unmanageable.”

“Managing constant change, managing a wide range of expectations, managing comparisons, determining what is in fact the ‘best’ next step, ensuring continuity of learning while emotional well-being seems to hang in the balance for everyone.”

“Being understaffed due to having staff down Covid-19 was extremely challenging. Three members of my leadership team had the virus at the same time, leaving only me leading a team of 90 staff with 1100 children as we moved over to home learning.”

“When we returned to school, staff anxiety was high due to Covid having been in the building. At this point, and still working alone, my cup was full and I was not able to deal with their anxiety which I felt at the time was ultimately shifting pressure to other people.”

How Can School Leaders Manage Increased Community Anxiety During the Second European Lockdown?

Commentary in Pediatrics: Children Don’t Transmit Covid-19, Schools Should Reopen in Fall

As Germany, France and the UK move into new national lockdowns this week, the decision has been taken to keep schools open. Anxiety among teaching staff and parents has been climbing since the start of the school year, when the second wave of COVID began to build. As COVID deaths increase to levels not seen since May and countries shutdown, staff, students and parents are becoming even more fearful of going into school and anxiety levels are escalating. Isolation from family and friends during a lockdown, is also likely to increase the focus upon schools as a source of emotional support. This will place additional strain upon already struggling school leaders. 

In my 2019 post Why is the School Principal’s Role So Emotionally Draining, I outline how school leadership is an inherently emotional practice, due to the people-centred nature of schools, placing relationships at the heart of the leader’s role. The head/principal, plays a pivotal role, acting as a conduit or buffer for the emotions of others and soaking up the difficult or unwanted emotional states of the whole school community. The current crisis has made this more evident and school leaders are facing increasing demands for their emotional support. 

In my recent survey of 700 school leaders worldwide, 90% said they feel their work has become more emotionally challenging since the start of the pandemic and 94% feel they are supporting the emotional needs of others more. Two-thirds of leaders report experiencing events or situations of an emotionally challenging nature on at least a daily basis, . 

Only 22% of survey participants feel their training has prepared them for the current crisis. Most school leaders receive no training in supporting the emotional needs of others but 41% indicate they would like to receive such training. Only 32% of leaders feel they are receiving enough emotional support from home or school. Even accounting for response bias, this paints a picture of a significant number of school leaders struggling to manage others’ anxiety, feeling unprepared and unsupported. 

While the present situation is an unprecedented crisis, which we hope will not be repeated, the ongoing emotional demands faced by school leaders’ call into question the adequacy of headteacher/principal training in this area. It is time to acknowledge the role school leaders play in supporting the emotional needs of others and the importance to school effectiveness of managing this successfully. During my years as a school principal, some of the most valuable time I spent was with school counsellors, observing them in the act of supporting students, parents and staff. I came to understand the importance of the affective in school and learned key skills which improved my leadership significantly. In the first few months of the global pandemic, I witnessed how those with the right training can reassure others, provide clarity and share strategies to help all groups, including leadership, to manage their anxiety levels. Many schools do not have the luxury of school counsellors readily at hand to support school leaders, so it is crucial that headteachers/principals receive professional development, as part of their leadership training, in supporting the emotional needs of others. 

This is a longer term goal, however, that does not help with the immediate crisis. In the short term, schools need to consider tapping into external psychological support services. While some wealthy schools, in the private sector, are providing one-to-one sessions with a clinical psychologist for all staff, on demand, this is not an option available to most institutions. However, there are, cost-effective or cost-free ways to tap into services. For example here in Wales, the Regional Education Consortia has employed a clinical psychologist to provide professional development webinars on how to support the mental health of students and staff, while Public Health Wales has developed a free online course Activate Your Life to help those suffering from anxiety. An organisation in South Wales, Reading Well has also developed a “books on prescription” service, providing free access to a range of self-help books on mental health topics. The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), provides US-based workshops, and resources, including its PRePARE curriculum for school crisis prevention and response. They also consult and deliver bespoke services to schools around the world, via Zoom, to address more immediate needs. It is well worth exploring what other services are available in your area or online. 

In the short term, we also need to ensure that school leaders receive immediate succour in the form of regular professional coaching/counselling. The challenges of the role make coaching a worthwhile investment in the short, medium and long term but there is an acute need for such opportunities to be made available to school leaders now. For those struggling to justify this expense to boards of governors/trustees, please see my article How Can We Persuade School Governors/Trustees to Take School Leader Wellbeing Seriously?


On Thursday I led a Zoom town hall discussion with a large group of Montessori school leaders from across the USA who had reached out to ask for my support. The first question was “how can I make the board of governors/trustees listen and take my wellbeing seriously? The principal asking this question told the group that she had reached out to her board of governors about her increased workload and stress levels but it had been made clear that they were not interested in discussing or supporting her needs. She shared that the governors see their role very much as being limited to overseeing the finances of the school. Many others were nodding during this discussion to indicate that they may have had a similar experience. 

The current focus upon school leader wellbeing and resilience very much places the onus on the school leader to take care of their own wellbeing needs. The internet is awash with an overwhelming number of lists of strategies to improve wellbeing during the current crisis. Since I concluded my doctoral research in 2016, I have felt strongly that principal wellbeing will only be significantly improved when governments and boards of governors recognise their school leaders as a precious resource to be valued and nurtured. School leaders should of course reflect upon their leadership practices and personal habits and make necessary changes to improve the environment in which they operate and learn how to manage stress better. However, most of the issues facing our principals and heads of school are structural and cannot be solved through self-help approaches. 

In most systems around the world the role of the board of governors is three-fold.

  • To set the strategic direction of the school.
  • To provide robust accountability for the head of school/principal.
  • To ensure financial oversight.

However, the overarching purpose of any board of governors is to improve school performance and raise educational standards. It is, therefore, short-sighted of governors to fail to understand and acknowledge how the wellbeing of their head of school/principal may impact on the success of the school

There is plenty of research evidence to demonstrate that, second to teacher quality/instructional practice, the school principal is the most important factor influencing student outcomes. Additionally, there is a significant number of studies that show how stress impacts negatively on work performance in a wide range of employment roles. It is not hard to extrapolate from this that overwhelmed and exhausted school leaders are less likely to be able to deliver and sustain exceptional school performance than those who feel more physically and mentally robust. 

We know that schools around the world have been facing a crisis of school leader recruitment and retention for many years. It is not hard to link this to the stressful nature of the work. Work-related stress has been linked to turnover of staff in a number of occupations plus there is increasing anecdotal evidence that burnout school leaders are leaving the profession and that this is likely to worsen as a result of the COVID crisis. In my own 2017 research, only two of the ten highly stressed interview participants remained in the same role one year after their interview. Studies tell us that stable school leadership is a key factor in improving school performance and student outcomes and that both teacher turnover and teachers’ attitude to change all suffer are impacted negatively by principal turnover. 

So if school leader wellbeing impacts school performance and student outcomes, is it not well within the purview of the board of governors overarching purpose of raising educational standards in their school?

Even if we look narrowly at the role of governors as being only responsible for the finances of a school, there are a whole range of reasons for school leader wellbeing to be part of their agenda. After the school buildings is not the senior leader the school’s most valuable asset? Just as buildings need to be maintained should not the principal be the subject of a maintenance programme to ensure they are kept in tip top condition to enable them to fulfil their role to their maximum potential? Surely, draining this precious resource of its vitality is in no-one’s interests. And what of the cost and risk involved in replacing this asset when it is finally worn out and has to be discarded? In the USA, studies have established the cost of recruiting and training a new principal to be between $10,000 and $75,000. A new leader is also an unknown quantity, no matter how robust the recruitment process. Is it not better to take care of the leader that you have and work with them to build their resilience and the sustainability of their leadership rather than throw them away and replace them with a new model?

This may sound harsh as governors are, after all, volunteers with busy lives who are doing their best to support the leadership and growth of their schools for no recompense. There will also be boards of governors who care very much about the wellbeing of their head of school/principal and go to great pains to ensure they do not burnout. However, in my experience and that of the hundreds of school leaders I have come into contact with over the last two decades, this is not the norm. 

The truth is that we need to find ways to raise awareness among governors that school leader wellbeing is not a peripheral issue that falls outside of the scope of their responsibility but it is right at the heart of headteacher/principal recruitment and retention, school performance, student outcomes and the prudent management of school finances. If we can encourage governors to engage more fully in understanding the challenges their heads and principals face and acknowledge the key role that governors could play in improving leader wellbeing, this would benefits the whole school community.

The Future of Education: What is Future-ready Learning and Why Do Schools Need It?

I have been thinking a lot about the longer term impact of COVID on schools. I see a trend of prioritising foundational skills over 21st century skills, in the face of parental and other pressures. I am developing an article on this but I want to set the scene by sharing three articles from the archive that were published in TIE in 2018. This is the first one.

According to the World Economic Forum, we stand at the brink of a Fourth Industrial Revolution, with change happening at an unprecedented and exponential pace. Characterized by the integration of emerging technologies into all aspects of our lives, this revolution is disrupting every industry in every country around the world and will alter the way we live and work forever.  

Impact on Jobs

The OECD informs us that in the future, millions of jobs may be lost to automation but that new jobs will also emerge. We do not know which jobs will disappear and which will be created. The only certainty is uncertainty.  

It is highly unlikely that students graduating from college today will hold down the same job for life but will instead be employed in the “gig economy” on a series of short-term contracts, which will require them to adapt their skills throughout their lives to match the economic demands of the changing world. In order to remain employed, humans will need to capitalize on the skills and attributes that robots and artificial intelligence cannot replicate.  

To prepare us for this world, education needs to change to focus more on the development of skills and attributes as traditional education—which emphasizes the transfer of knowledge from teacher to student—decreases in relevance.  

We also need to focus on deeper learning for students, providing opportunities for them to think critically and apply the skills they develop to real-life contexts.  

Finally, we need to increase learner agency, empowering students to take ownership of their learning, increasing motivation and engagement and building initiative, allowing students to take responsibility for their learning and their lives.  REPORT THIS AD

Future-ready learning means focusing on the development of these skills and attributes, replacing traditional learning with a range of new pedagogical approaches that will provide our students with the tools they need to be successful, and producing curious, engaged, and resilient individuals who are able to take on the challenges of the 21st century and beyond.  

Three Pillars of Future-ready Learning

While working at Canadian International School of Hong Kong, I developed a model for future-ready learning, drawing upon the World Economic Forum’s 2015 model of 21st-century skills. This model brings together three areas of focus, which I call the three pillars of future-ready learning. 

The first pillar involves core skills and their application to everyday life. The development of literacy, numeracy, and science skills remains as important now as ever. In addition, students need to develop exceptional ICT skills and cultural and civic literacy, to enable them to understand the world around them.  

The second pillar draws upon the four Cs: communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking, supporting students in complex problem solving.  

Finally, the third pillar focuses upon the development of character qualities, to enable students to adapt to their ever-changing environment. These qualities are empathy, initiative, adaptability, curiosity, leadership, resilience, and social and cultural awareness.  

Pedagogical and Systemic Changes 

In order to develop these skills and attributes effectively, we need to emphasize more progressive pedagogical approaches in the classroom. These include inquiry-based and transdisciplinary/interdisciplinary learning, which are already key tenets of an IB education, but also include play, hands-on experiential learning, project-based learning, personalized learning, and increased student agency.  

The crucial starting point on a journey to becoming future-ready is a play-based approach to early childhood education. Play builds upon children’s natural curiosity and creativity, develops social skills, builds an understanding of how to approach and solve problems and encourages students to use their initiative from a young age.  

As students move through primary and into secondary school, inquiry-based, personalized learning approaches allow students to pursue their personal interests and passions, making sure they think for themselves and collaborate with others, while making the whole learning experience more powerful and impactful. Experiential learning provides students with opportunities to go outside of the school environment and into the local community, helping them to develop empathy for others and building social and cultural awareness. Hands-on learning opportunities—implemented through approaches such as a maker culture or a one-to-one robotics program—allow students to apply knowledge in a meaningful way and develop character qualities such as resilience.  

To be most successful, these approaches should be implemented through transdisciplinary or interdisciplinary learning programs, which model the real world much more effectively than single-subject learning. Project-based learning allows students to take this to the next level by focusing on solving real-world problems and providing them with authentic and meaningful work that is both engaging and allows for the development of collaboration and critical thinking skills.  

In order to provide the right context for this new type of learning to take place, many schools are looking at systemic changes such as flexible scheduling, alternative credentialing mechanisms, and redesigned learning spaces. There is also a continued push towards 1:1 computing environments and the use of adaptive software systems, which use technology to individualize learning for specific student needs.  

Hundreds of progressive schools around the world are already providing future-ready learning programs for their students. Thousands more see the need for change and want to know how this might be implemented in their school. There is no doubt that future-ready learning can be complex and requires significant change from what most schools are offering today. However, through building strong networks within countries, regions, and across the world, schools are able to tap into the ideas and experiences of those who are leading this journey.  

While the process of transitioning to future-ready learning is challenging for all, it is essential. Acquiring these future-ready learning skills and attributes will allow our students not only to cope with the fast-changing world and the uncertainty that lies ahead but will place them in a strong position to take advantage of the exciting opportunities that emerging technologies offer, not only to transform their own lives but to solve the problems that we face as humankind and make the world a better place. 

Leading Through a Pandemic: How Can We Support Middle Leader Wellbeing?

In my post Are Schools Asking Too Much of Middle Leaders? I examined how the current COVID crisis is leaving many middle leaders exhausted and disillusioned with some close to burnout. Since the article was published last week, I have been contacted by middle leaders from around the world who relate to the issues raised in my article and wish to share their own stories with me, as well as others who work alongside middle leaders and are concerned for their wellbeing. They describe how middle leaders feel squeezed and under appreciated and describe their position as increasingly untenable 

It is clear that the middle leaders’ role has brought increasing challenges in recent years as discussed in Why are Middle Leaders in Schools so Stressed?. The additional demands that leading through a global pandemic brings are causing overwhelming levels of stress for some. So what can be done to support our middle leaders during this time and ensure that they remain committed and effective? Below I outline a six-point plan for reducing stress on middle leaders and placing their wellbeing at the forefront of the school’s agenda. 

  1. Establish an Understanding That Middle Leader Wellbeing Matters

I cannot emphasise enough how much middle leaders in some schools feel overlooked and abandoned. Senior leaders can make a significant difference by simply acknowledging the crucial role middle leaders play in schools, the challenging nature of their role and the importance of middle leader wellbeing to the success of the school. This alone helps middle leaders feel seen, valued, understood and supported. Taking time to address these issues with middle leader teams and individuals will pay dividends as schools grapple with the current crisis. and should be a should major priority for all senior leaders. REPORT THIS AD

2. Make Middle Leaders Equal Partners in Decision Making

The relentless pace of complex decision making during the pandemic makes is more challenging for senior leaders to include middle leaders as true collaborators. Senior leaders must not lose sight of the fact that it is middle leaders who are responsible for implementing plans on the ground and that this implementation will be more effective if middle leaders are brought into the process earlier. Senior leaders need to ensure that school culture allows for middle leaders to be open and honest in their opinions about what will and will not work and that their views are taken on board before decisions are made. It is crucial, therefore, that senior leaders establish systems for collaboration and consultation with middle leaders on at least a weekly basis. 

3. Build a Middle Leader Team Identity

Just as heads and principals experience structural loneliness in their senior roles, middle leaders are vulnerable to feeling isolated. Forcing teachers to implement unpopular decisions or holding them accountable to unrealistic expectations, usually set by SLT, can drive a wedge between teams and their leaders, leaving middle leaders feeling alone and adrift. While senior leadership teams have a clear identity and can rely upon each other for support, schools often fail to establish an identity for their middle leader teams, missing out on an opportunity to create a self-sustaining support mechanism for team leaders. Senior leaders need to facilitate bringing middle leaders together to discuss common concerns and build relationships within the team so that individuals feel part of something meaningful within their middle leader role and have a forum for seeking support and advice. Where possible time should be provided during the school day for this to ensure that middle leaders are not overburdened with after school meetings. 

4. Provide Sufficient Non-contact Time for Middle Leaders and Ensure They Take It

Despite a recent increase in scope of the middle leader role, the amount of leadership time provided for middle leaders has remained consistent over the last decade or more. While some schools grant 20-25% release time to HoDs, many team leaders are provided with only 1-2 untimetabled periods per week to fulfil their grade or subject leader role. This is woefully inadequate and is further impacted by the reluctance of many middle leaders to ask colleagues to cover for them or leave their students in the hands of a supply teacher. Schools need to immediately review the amount of non-contact time provided to middle leaders during the COVID crisis, provide an adequate budget to ensure this time can be taken and check in with team leaders to make sure they are taking the time offered. Where schools remain closed, it is much more difficult to monitor the working hours of middle leaders and ensure they are taking time for themselves. The best senior leaders can do is raise awareness of the importance of work-life balance and act as role models in this regard by ensuring emails are sent and meetings scheduled only during “working hours” and making public the efforts they go to in order to maintain their personal balance. REPORT THIS AD

5. Make Coaching Available to All Middle Leaders

The creation of a coaching culture brings benefits to educators and school leaders at all levels but it also takes significant time to develop. Schools that have already provided coaching training and set up a system for peer coaching need to ensure that this is being fully utilised during the current crisis. I know of several schools that have made a considerable investment in coaching PD and left staff to their own devices to establish coaching networks that have quickly fallen by the wayside through lack of oversight and accountability. Those schools without an embedded coaching culture, should seriously consider the provision of professional, external coaches for all senior and middle leaders during the current crisis. The best case scenario for all schools is that coaching and collegial support comes from within the institution but where this is not possible, professional support for leaders needs to be seen as a major priority. It is common for professional coaching to take place by phone, Zoom or Skype so the current situation does not preclude coaching taking place for those working from home. 

6. Providing Middle Leadership Training Tailored to Current Needs

Middle leadership training is overlooked by many schools and until recently, there has been a paucity of options available to train middle leaders but this is changing. Comprehensive middle leader training for entire middle leadership teams is greatly valued by middle leaders and should be a priority for all schools. Schools that have already addressed this need, quickly see the benefits as middle leaders become upskilled in a range of areas directly related to their roles, feel valued and appreciated and are supported in establishing a team identity and dynamic. Where such PD has not already taken place, schools should seek out targeted training to provide middle leaders with a set of tools to support their work during the current crisis. Where face-to-face interactions are not an option, there are a wealth of online training providers offering support to school leaders at the moment. It is essential, however, that such training takes place in as a group, rather than on an individual basis, otherwise much of the benefit is lost. 

While many of the suggestions I have made above require funding, many need only a shift of thinking in order to be successfully implemented. Funding for improved support of the middle leader role is crucial, however, and needs to be viewed as a necessity for all schools. Middle leaders are the linchpins that hold our schools together and overlooking this will ultimately have a negative impact on student learning. Addressing the needs of middle leaders will enable schools to cope more effectively during the current crisis and provide a launchpad for future growth.

Leading Through a Pandemic: Are Schools Asking Too Much of Middle Leaders?

The COVID crisis has brought new and unexpected demands for already overburdened middle leaders in schools around the world. Middle leaders are the linchpins holding our schools together but a significant number are struggling to cope with unprecedented challenges of the current situation, leaving them feeling trapped between the expectations of their principals and the demands of their team. Many feel exhausted and disillusioned, while some may be close to burnout as their own physical and emotional needs go unmet.

In my article from 2018, Why are Middle Leaders in Schools so Stressed?, I highlighted the increasing demands experienced by middle leaders over recent years and the accompanying stress that this has brought. The role of the middle leader has transitioned from that of Coordinator, managing administrative tasks, or Head of Department, charged with writing the curriculum, assigning classes, and overseeing the budget, to the more complex role of leading teams and managing change. Since the onset of the pandemic this has become compounded by the even greater demands placed on middle leaders. 

Over the last 8 months, senior leaders have been tasked with daily, complex problem solving, in a highly volatile environment. They are managing the expectations of boards and parents as well as addressing the needs of students and staff through often rapid decision making. While some schools have robust systems in place to include middle leader input, the process does not always allow for a high level of collaboration with those in the middle, despite the fact that it is middle leaders who are on the front-line, managing unforeseen implementation challenges. In other schools, middle leaders may represent merely a convenient buffer between SLT and the teaching staff, translating plans into practice and fielding staff criticism. It is not unusual for middle leaders to be asked to implement ideas that they do not support, which they know will not work and which may be contrary to their values. This can be highly stressful for middle leaders, caught between wanting to support their principal, while at the same time doing what is best for colleagues and students and remaining consistent with their own values. The stress is compounded further for some as a push to implement unpopular ideas leads to alienation from their colleagues and social isolation. 

Physical exhaustion among middle leaders is another real concern. Most carry a 70-80% teaching timetable, while in some schools, very little release time is provided for the role. Especially during online learning periods, where it is hard to separate work and home, it is tempting for many to work relentlessly in order to fulfil the role expectations. Many middle leaders teach online classes during the day and then work well into the night, communicating with senior leaders, addressing the needs of their team, responding to parent concerns and catching up with lesson planning and student feedback. Some are consistently working 16 hour days in order to keep on top of everything. I know that while many have thrived in the face of recent challenges, despite the long hours, others feel they are failing in all elements of their role – failing students, failing their team and failing to impress their leaders.

I want to address the role that middle leaders play in supporting the emotional needs of others and the impact this may be having on their own wellbeing. The global pandemic brings anxiety for everyone at some level. For a small minority, however, who may have a history of mental health issues, it is very frightening and in schools we are witnessing the impact the crisis is having on those individuals. While senior leaders play a huge part in supporting the emotional needs of their community, the current situation is taking many away from front-line work, leaving middle leaders to shoulder the burden, especially in large schools, where principals do not have time to understand and address the wellbeing needs of each individual on staff. Instead, it is middle leaders who are providing emotional support to colleagues, whose issues may be complex and severe. This is particularly the case in international schools where most teachers do not have a traditional support network of local family and friends to rely upon and may not know how to seek professional help or cannot afford to pay for it. Most middle leaders feel a huge sense of responsibility towards colleagues in their team and want to do their best to support their needs but few feel equipped to do so effectively.

Finally, I want to raise the issue of parents and the additional burden currently placed on middle leaders fielding parent complaints. In some schools the responsibility for addressing parent concerns falls to senior leaders but in others, issues are referred to grade leaders or HoDs first. The sheer volume of the referrals that schools are seeing at present can be overwhelming for middle leaders already juggling multiple roles. Parent concerns often stem from unrealistic expectations of what school should look like at this time or are precipitated by a parent’s own anxieties about living through a pandemic and can, therefore, be hard to address. It is particularly demanding for middle leaders to address concerns that are borne out of decisions they have not been party to and do not agree with but are expected to take responsibility for. This is made worse when parent communications are angry or offensive, leaving middle leaders wounded and disillusioned.

It is easy to see how, in addition to feeling exhausted, some middle leaders are currently feeling disillusioned, cynical, critical or experiencing a lack of satisfaction from their achievements at work – all indicators of occupational burnout.  While most are highly dedicated to the role and many are ambitious to make their mark, the high levels of stress, combined with poor financial remuneration are leading some to question their ongoing commitment. Senior leaders are fighting their own battles at present and it is understandable that they may wish to push problems down the line to middle leaders, couching this in terms of distributed leadership and empowering others. Teachers struggling to cope with the constant changes thrown at them, cannot be blamed for focusing their disquiet on team leaders or looking to them for personal support. Parents need to have their concerns addressed and should be able to receive timely, constructive communications from middle leaders, where they are tasked with this role. However, school communities need to reflect on whether they are simply asking too much of their middle leaders, whose most important role, after all, is to look after the students in their care. 

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

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.

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