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The Loneliness of the International School Leader

Blog Post by Dr Helen Kelly, 17th March 2019

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.