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How Can We Persuade School Governors/Trustees to Take School Leader Wellbeing Seriously?

Blog Post by Dr Helen Kelly, 2nd November 2020

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/trustees 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.