The Loneliness of the International School Leader

The loneliness of headship is a commonly recurring theme in the literature on school leader wellbeing. What MacBeath (2009) calls “structural loneliness” results from the lack of external support available to school principals and the absence of a trustworthy peer group to confide in. Isolation leads to considerable emotional strain on heads (Crawford, 2007; MacBeath, 2009; Ackerman and Ostrowski, 2004; Beatty and Brew, 2004) that may have wider implications for their wellbeing.

“We can say that it is still, unfortunately, lonely at the top for school leaders…a kind of isolation that is not born of solitude… (and is) shared by school leaders everywhere” (Ackerman and Ostrowski, 2004).

Loneliness may be something school leaders have come to accept as a consequence of the role but the negative impact of this isolation on our wellbeing should not be underestimated. The Grant Study, a 75 year longitudinal study of 268 Harvard graduates, concludes that, above all other factors, “warmth of relationships throughout life has the greatest positive impact on ‘life satisfaction.” Loneliness is closely associated with anxiety, depression and suicide, as well as physical ill health, and may be linked to increased aging at the cellular level (Wilson, 2018).

It can be argued that the loneliness school principals experience is compounded for leaders of international schools, who are often isolated from the normal physical and psychosocial support systems that heads are able to rely upon in their home countries. In my own doctoral research into international school leader wellbeing, more than half of the participants interviewed referred to the emotional strain placed upon them by the isolation and loneliness of the role and the impact on their personal and professional lives.

This may be particularly so in the first 2-3 years after taking up a new role, as administrators struggle to come to grips with the demands of the job and are left with insufficient time or energy to build social connections. For international school teachers, colleagues often form the basis of their social support network but this is not the norm for school leaders. Many find the challenges of their new role overwhelming during the first few months and experience difficulties building personal relationships or developing a social life outside of school, yet there is little evidence of any support being provided to new heads (Hayden, 2006).

Those who arrive without a family to support them can be the most vulnerable. In my study, several interview participants describe considerable personal loneliness during their transition to a new country. One describes his transition as “very hard and frustrating and much lonelier than I thought it would be.” He describes a situation where staff confronted him over a new initiative he launched in the first few months of his tenure, when he was subjected to “personal attacks”, which “were sustained over several weeks” and left him feeling “incredibly isolated.” He describes the staff during this time as “extremely resistant, volatile and unforgiving”. 

“That has an emotional toll, which has been really quite difficult to deal with. Feeling judged all the time, being under a microscope, being torn apart. There is no sense of team no one helps me out.”

Loneliness for some may last well beyond the transition period. One study participant describes having spent most of the last nine years, since she took up her role, alone. She shares negative experiences when trying to socialise with both staff and parents.

“I have been burned a couple of times having friendships with parents. One woman moved away after five years and it was a good thing as she was taking advantage.”

“Being the principal is the loneliest job in the world. You know you go to a function and the staff are drunk and come up in your face all glassy eyed and I don’t want to see it… So I don’t go to these things or I go an hour late and leave after an hour.”

For this participant, life outside of school consisted of evenings and weekends playing spider solitaire and watching DVDs, with a weekly massage as her only social interaction.

“You know I have had a massage therapist come to my house once a week for a couple of years now… I have noticed that if I do not have a massage I become tactilely deficient and kind of flinch when the kids touch me. I do it so I remain comfortable with touch.”

For those new to headship, the isolation of the role can come as a shock.

“In the past two years, since becoming a head, I have found it more stressful as there is no one else to go to…There are very few people you can talk to as a head. You cannot be friends with the staff… You have to be comfortable in your own company. It is an oxymoron as it is such a sociable job but you have to like being alone too.”

For some, professional isolation may be just as big an issue as personal loneliness.

“There is no network to look to for support. You have to create your own network. There is no infrastructure for dealing with problems outside the school and so you have to create all of this inside the school and deal with things you would not have to deal with ordinarily.”

More experienced heads, with a wider professional network, are more likely to seek support from colleagues outside of their own school. Many noted that they enjoy the opportunity to connect with other school leaders during conferences and recruitment fairs and some described the importance of these opportunities to sit down with others, who understand the pressures they are under, over a drink or dinner to discuss the challenges they are encountering and seek advice.

For those with less of an external network, senior colleagues within their school are a valuable source of support.

“I am lucky that my current boss has a happy character or I would have no one.”

Humans are hard wired to connect and social connections are consistently demonstrated as a major factors supporting happiness, health and longevity. Professional and personal isolation is a very real issue for international school leaders. If we are to avoid the longer term health implications that loneliness brings, we need to start taking the isolation we experienced more seriously and find ways to connect and support each other, particularly young colleagues new to the role.

15 thoughts on “The Loneliness of the International School Leader

      1. Leo Thompson

        I can only agree with the observations in this well written and researched article. The point about it being a structural outcome is valid. One runs the risk of favouritism almost as soon as a leader chooses confidents within one’s organisation. Good friends on the outside, a healthy family and a network of those in similar positions are antidotes but everyone had to find their own panaceas.

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    1. Mira Ahn

      I am not a principal, but as an international school teacher, I can relate to this issue. We need to find our supporting group, so we can over come loneliness and isolation from the local communities.
      I believe, and I am thinking making Bible study group with other teachers. Pray for each other and do some activities outside the school.

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  1. A clear and concise perspective that presents an issue that not only affects the leader(s), but in turn definitely affects the teaching staff and the community if the loneliness is tough to cope with.

    In the ‘giving’ role of leaders, I find that most leaders make moves to ensure that incoming teaching staff are well cared for in their transitions.

    In our schools, the first two weeks of school orientation for new teaching staff is all about promoting connections with other staff; ensuring connections with the framework/programme, and assisting with accommodation, visa issues communications and the like. I remember when I moved into my current school, in which I have been for five years, I did all mentioned myself. While this was taxing, it enabled me to work the system so I could share experiences and understandings of how our host country works. Even to the point of flying out to my current school’s location two months earlier (which I paid for myself) than my contracted date, to find accommodations and to ensure my family’s comforts would be met. I remember organising my own visa and bank accounts and communicative operations. Failing with some items and wasting further funds along the way. I organise medical checks at this time so my check would not impact on the time I needed to set the stage for the school year.

    Now, at our school, we do all of the above (and more) for incoming teaching staff. We bring all local operators (banking, real estate connections, medical insurance, etc) to our school so new staff are not taxed in finding how the local systems work. We organise transport for medicals during the school day and cover classes if required. We organise a few social events and purchase communication sim cards, specific to the new staff’s device, so new staff can call home as soon as they have arrived at the airport (when we collect each new member). We place new staff in accommodations close the school, with transport arranged to and from school, so staff do not need to worry about arranging such.

    We lead, we care, we listen, we problem solve, and we straighten crooked lines. But we are not part of the crowd. We are like the ‘dutiful parents’ of the group and as parents do, we selflessly act to ensure the school in check for the first day and there-on-after.

    This is the life of the international leader.

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  2. Mira Ahn

    I am not a principal, but as an international school teacher, I can relate to this issue. We need to find our supporting group, so we can over come loneliness and isolation from the local communities.
    I believe, and I am thinking making Bible study group with other teachers. Pray for each other and do some activities outside the school.

    Like

    1. Looking for groups who share common interests outside of school is always a good idea Mira. The internet makes that much easier these days. We do not need to be isolated. Just reach out to others.

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  3. David Miles

    Whenever I learn about these sorts of things, I immediately start thinking on the sustainability of the system and whether there are changes we can make that would improve things. I would suggest that a good starting point would be some contractual basics which enable/require school leaders to interact (physically) with their leadership peers – particularly through conferences or meetups/job-a-likes. Although not all school owners will perceive things in this way, they are part of a network and the heads will roam, which means that it is in their interests to invest a little in this sort of thing to attract quality applicants.

    I would also suggest that access to external counselling/supervision might well be recommendable, and with the internet this is a lot easier than it might once have been.

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    1. I recommended both these things in my thesis David. It’s just finding a way to engage with owners and boards so they are aware of the issue and the value brought by supporting heads better.

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  4. Barry Mernin

    Thank you for this article. I am feeling particularly isolated at the moment, as we near the end of the year. Your body of work is helpful.

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