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.

Why is the School Principal’s Role so Emotionally Draining?

There is considerable evidence that school leaders find their work stressful and that, for many, this is impacting on their individual wellbeing. A study into the recruitment and retention of Scottish head teachers (MacBeath, 2012) found that only 9% of respondents felt their personal health and wellbeing was not a concern, while a US study of school principals in 2007 (Shields) found that 83% of respondents reported moderate to high levels of stress. Research from England, during the same period, found that the prevalence of work-related stress of head teachers was double that of the general population and that head teachers suffered significantly worse mental health than other managers and professionals (Phillips et al, 2008). This was mirrored in the 2017 Australian Principal Health and Wellbeing Survey, where school leaders were shown to experience 1.7 times the emotional demands and 1.6 times the burnout of the general population.

Until a decade ago, the conversation about school leader stress focused upon the heavy workload and long hours. This remains relevant with the England Workload Survey 2013, demonstrating that the average UK head teacher works 63.3 hours per week with 20% of their work being carried out at home. However, there is a much greater understanding today of the emotional demands of the role and the impact this can have on wellbeing. There is now much wider recognition that leading schools is an inherently emotional practice, primarily due to the people-centred nature of schools, placing relationships at the heart of the head teacher ́s role. Researchers have focused upon the pivotal position of the principal, around whom all relationships in school oscillate, in order to understand the emotional aspects of the role. The head teacher is an emotional conduit or buffer for the emotions of others, whose role it is to soak up the difficult or unwanted emotional states of the school community. Principals find themselves at a crossroads of different interests, acting as gatekeepers.

The nature of the leadership role, particularly in the high accountability climate of recent years, places high expectations on the leader, which can create fear and anxiety, rendering leaders vulnerable and insecure. This is compounded by the lonely nature of the school leader ́s role, with the necessary boundaries of leadership meaning that a degree of isolation is inevitable.

The complexity and intensity of these experiences means that school leaders are confronted on a daily basis with a range of emotions, both their own and others, which need to be managed. A key part of the leadership role, therefore, concerns managing the emotions of others and ones self, involving emotional labour, as leaders manage their own emotional display by suppressing their feelings in order to emotionally support others or by faking positive emotions to raise the spirits of the community.

Suppression of emotion, to detach from one ́s true feelings, may be a crucial tool to enable school leaders to protect themselves from the emotional demands of the role but, over time, disengaging from the emotions they feel may make significant inroads into their sense of self, leading to them losing the capacity to regulate their feelings and causing emotive dissonance. Burying emotions can be very draining, leaving school leaders vulnerable to emotional exhaustion and burnout, as emotional resources become depleted.

School leaders are also vulnerable to sustaining  wounds, caused by the emotional fall-out of day-to-day decision-making. This is compounded by an overdeveloped sense of personal responsibility that many principals feel, where they are unable to balance their own personal needs with those of the role, attempting to live up to the myth of the heroic leader while placing their health at risk.

Why Principal Wellbeing Should Matter to the Whole Community

Employees today, across a range of industries, are experiencing increased work-related stress. The intensification of work, as technology speeds up the movement of data and increases time and deadline pressures, and the increasing complexity and pace of life, are making work-life balance more difficult to achieve for many. There is plenty of evidence to support the view that, like many others, school leaders around the world are experiencing increased levels of stress. This impacts on their wellbeing but may also have implications for their effectiveness in the role and even their tenure.

A number of studies in the field of work-related stress show a negative relationship between job stress and job performance. Research supports an individual as having a  zone of optimal functioning, with a preferred level of stress for optimal performance. Beyond this level of stress, their functioning is impaired and their effectiveness reduced. Healthy employees have also been shown to be more committed to their job, tending to work harder and provide higher levels of high-value customer service, more resilient and better able to cope with change, uncertainty and ambiguity.

Several studies have linked workplace stress with turnover of staff, with individuals reporting high stress levels more likely to resign their posts. In public school systems worldwide, we are currently witnessing a crisis of recruitment and retention of school leaders, which many are now linking to increasing stress levels. In the USA, only half of newly recruited principals remain in post for as long as three years, with less than 30% remaining for five years or more. In England, the crisis in recruitment and retention of head teachers is being increasingly linked to excessive workloads and high levels of stress. International schools are also exposed to challenges retaining leaders, with the average tenure of an international school head teacher being only 3.7 years. The cost of replacing lost staff can be considerable. While there is no standard formula, experts estimate that the total replacement cost of a leaver can be as much as 100% of the annual salary.

In addition to the cost, there are other factors to be taken into consideration when assessing the impact of school leader stress on the organisation. According to the OECD, as the key intermediary between the classroom, the individual school and the education system as a whole, effective school leadership is essential to improve the efficiency and equity of schooling. Stable school leadership matters to school performance based on a number of indicators. School leaders contribute to improved student learning by shaping the conditions and climate in which teaching and learning occur. Effective and stable school leadership impacts student outcomes, with grades increasing with the length of tenure of the head. It also influences teacher turnover, which decreases as leadership in a school becomes more stable. Leadership even affects teachers’ attitudes to change. Michael Fullan describes how teachers are much less likely to implement change in their classroom if they know that the principal is leaving, preferring to wait the leadership out rather than press forward with new initiatives.

Taking care of school leader wellbeing is not just about individual health and happiness. It can have much wider implications for the school as a whole and for students and staff. It is in everyone’s interests to ensure that school leaders are fit and healthy enough to maximise their own performance and the performance of the school.

Why are Middle Leaders in Schools so Stressed?

The demands on middle leaders in schools are increasing, accompanied by increased levels of stress. In the past, the middle leader role was often defined in one of two ways, coordinator or head of department. A coordinator was tasked with managing the administrative needs of the subject area, ordering resources, keeping the stock cupboard tidy and organising field trips. A head of department has traditionally been an expert in their subject, with exceptional knowledge and teaching skills, who was tasked with writing the curriculum, assigning classes, monitoring teaching and learning and advocating for their subject area in budget discussions.

That is rapidly changing as the role of the middle leader has shifted to focus much more upon people and change leadership, with an emphasis upon trust and culture building. Middle leaders are expected, not only to act as models of exceptional classroom practice, but to inspire others to realise their potential and create healthy and collaborative team dynamics. The distribution of leadership from senior to middle level has raised the expectation of what middle leaders should achieve and passed down many elements of leadership that were previously the responsibility of the senior leadership team. This attempt to empower those in the middle, while mostly well intentioned, has led to increased stress being experienced by those in middle leader roles, much of which is going unacknowledged.

While there is a paucity of research on the stresses of middle leadership in schools, what we do know is that there are a number of significant factors that are bringing greater pressure to bear upon middle leaders. The first is role ambiguity. In many schools, senior leadership teams have redefined the role of their middle leaders, while poorly communicating this to the middle leader team and providing little guidance or clarity on what is now expected. The intersection of roles between senior and middle leadership, or between different roles at the middle level can also lead to confusion.

The increasing complexity of the middle leader role leaves many middle leaders wearing a range of hats, many of which are new. Middle leaders may still be expected to fulfil the traditional coordinator or head of department role, placing orders and managing budgets, while also taking on fresh responsibility for people leadership and complex change management. With the limited amount of time available to carry out the middle leader role, this can lead to exhaustion and the feeling of being overwhelmed. This may also lead to role conflict, with middle leaders failing to balance the demands of their classroom teaching with the expectations of the leadership post.

Middle leaders often find themselves being pulled in two directions, managing both up and down, trying to meet the needs of their departmental colleagues, while at the same time fulfilling the expectations of those above. SLT may view the middle leadership team as a buffer between themselves and the wider teaching staff, able to translate the school’s vision and implement it in the classrooms, effectively doing all the hard work while the senior team pulls the strings. Seldom are middle leadership teams included in the vision building process. This can result in middle leaders implementing strategic goals with which they do not agree and into which they have had no input. Conflict between the middle leader’s values and those that underpin decisions taken at a higher level might arise, which can cause enormous stress for some.

Building collegiality is now considered a key component of the middle leader’s role, a process that requires trust building and an understanding of how to tap into human emotions. Creating a highly effective and collaborative team from a disparate group of individuals, many of whom may not get along with each other, is a highly skilful process, requiring training and years of experience. Trust and collegiality may also be hard to build while middle leaders are at the same time expected to monitor the work of their colleagues through their involvement in the appraisal process.

Middle leaders are increasingly responsible for leading and implementing change, encouraging colleagues to jump from the known to the unknown by adopting innovative teaching practices and stepping outside of their comfort zone. Senior leaders fail to acknowledge that they are tasking those who have the least authority in the leadership hierarchy with this complex and demanding process. Without this authority, middle leaders are left to rely upon their relationships and the people skills they have acquired to bring people on board with change. Seldom are they provided with training in how to motivate, nurture and support others. This skills gap can lead to unpleasant and stressful conflict with team members, which may erode trust, collegiality and motivation.

While the push to distribute leadership is often well intentioned and rooted in current research, schools are at risk of creating teams of middle leaders who feel isolated, overwhelmed, and unsupported and who may be simply unable to fulfil the expectations of the role. If leadership is to continue to be distributed for the benefit of the organisation, then middle leaders should be provided with time and training and support to enable them to flourish in their roles.

Why Relationships Matter Most in Maximising School Leader Wellbeing

Research shows that the interpersonal demands placed on school leaders bring just as much stress, if not more, than the workload demands of having too much to do and not enough time to do it. Relationships with adults, particularly teachers, are one of the most challenging aspects of a senior or middle leader’s role. Conflict most commonly occurs during periods of change, or over staff competency or discipline issues.

Many leaders are frustrated by the amount of time and energy they perceive as being “wasted” doing people work. Time that is taking them away from the “real work” of improving the school, through the development of the curriculum, systems and policies. Reshaping our thinking to place relationships at the centre of our leadership practice can significantly reduce stress levels and enhance our wellbeing and resilience.

Positive relationships are a central pillar of human flourishing. Human beings are hardwired for connection and the isolation and loneliness that many school leaders experience can have damaging effects on our long term health and wellbeing. Acknowledging the importance of connection and taking time, on a daily basis, to nurture the adult relationships in school is key in reducing stress and maximising our wellbeing.

So how do we build positive adult relationships in our schools? The first step is to acknowledge that school leadership is, first and foremost, people work. People work is the real work, rather than something that takes us away from the real work. The second step is to shed the leadership mask, take off the armour and present ourselves to others as authentic human beings. Making ourselves vulnerable by sharing our hopes, fears and challenges allows others to relate to us on a human level and provides an environment where genuine connections can be fostered.

Making time to connect with others is crucial, creating opportunities to develop an authentic relationship with every member of our team, enabling us to know them as individuals and providing time for them to get to know us too. Finding ways to show that we care and demonstrating the empathy and compassion that brought us into teaching in the first place is also key. Admiring others and letting them know they are appreciated, through sincere gratitude and praise should also be a part of our daily leadership practice. Building individual connections in this way builds trust and models for others the transformational potential of supportive relationships.

By improving our connection with others, we increase the number of positive emotions we experience each day, allowing for the release of happy hormones such as dopamine and oxytocin. During challenging times, this can counterbalance the stress hormones coursing through our bodies, which can be highly beneficial to health. More significant, however, is the impact of positive relationships on the emotional climate in which we work. By prioritising the people work and creating a culture built upon vulnerability and trust, the interpersonal demands of the role will decrease, allowing us to work in greater harmony with those around us, maximising not only our own wellbeing but that of everyone else.