I am the headteacher of Marlborough Primary School in Cardiff. I have been a headteacher since 2003, and Marlborough is my second headship.
I feel so truly fortunate to have a job that I absolutely love. Marlborough really is my dream school; I am so blessed to have such wonderful pupils, colleagues, parents and community. I find headship uplifting, a privilege, joyous, and yet….
This job that I love almost broke me physically, emotionally and mentally. I had ignored all of the signs and symptoms of stress for way too long, until I started to have a series of terrifying seizures and blackouts. These attacks were the physical manifestation of chronic stress; my body’s way of letting me know enough was enough.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see how I had got to this point. At this time, back in 2016, I was five years into my second headship, and had recently undertaken a temporary executive headship of another large primary school.
Being a headteacher had become everything, I had allowed it to be all-consuming. I never really switched off. School consumed all of my thoughts and energy. I stopped being ‘present’ for my partner, family and friends. I had no time or energy for anything other than work. Slowly, I lost sight of who I was as a person, the ‘real me’ vanished and I was just a headteacher. I worked increasingly long hours. There were times when I would still be sitting at school at 9:00pm at night trying to compose an email and just making mistake after mistake.
I had become a shadow of the person I used to be. Yet, each day I would put on my leadership mask and try and plough through. I buried my head in the sand, but I was beginning to unravel physically and emotionally. That is when the blackouts and seizures started. I was suffering from burnout and was subsequently diagnosed with chronic stress and clinical depression. I clearly remember lying in a hospital bed back in 2016 and deciding that if I was going to continue in this job that I loved, I had to find a way to do it differently.
This was the wake-up call I needed and the start of my journey to meet my own well-being needs.
My first step was to start looking after my physical health. I started walking to work, I joined a running club, and I started going to weekly yoga classes.
I started to re-establish proper work / home boundaries. I removed work emails off my iPad (no more checking school emails when I was on holiday in France). I forced myself to leave work by 4:00pm once a week so that I could get to my running club.
I then emailed Viv Grant from Integrity Coaching. I had read her book Staying a Head. I admired her honesty in writing about what had happened to her and how she had moved forward. I engaged with 1:1 leadership coaching sessions with Viv, attended a leadership retreat and subsequently completed my coaching training.
I also engaged a leadership consultant, Sally Evans (Perform and Grow) to collaborate with me and my team. This partnership grew and developed over a period of five years. We transformed the school culture through the establishment of our reciprocal high performing team behaviours, we realigned roles and responsibilities, moved to a flat structure, developed trust and positive relationships. I began to see how when I am at my best, I get so much more out of those I lead.
Here I am now, still a headteacher … a happy, flourishing and healthy leader. I continue to be ferociously protective of my well-being and I am equally proactive in supporting my colleagues and school community in meeting their well-being needs. In sharing my leadership story, my aim is to provide hope. You absolutely can thrive in leadership, rather than just survive, you just need to start putting yourself first.