‘I watched, helpless, as a high-performing school leader fell apart’

10 years ago I watched a headteacher self-destruct. Madeleine Marsh is a pseudonym. She is a secondary senior leader writing in the Tes. 

It was my first leadership post, I was naive, inexperienced and had no idea how senior leadership teams should operate. But I was keen and grateful for the opportunity. It was never a forever job. In fact, it was a coldhearted career move on my part, in the days when the National Professional Qualification for Headship was a morally acceptable reason to springboard your way through struggling schools on the way to the top job. Nonetheless, I wanted to make it work. It started well: I got on really well with my new headteacher, himself only months into the job. He made it clear that I was in his circle of trust. We became close: he shared his passions, his woes, his ambitions for the school, for himself, for me, along with his thoughts and worries about headship, about how he longed to change the world.

It was a tough school, run by the staff for the staff, yet he managed to inject an astonishing passion and vigour for learning that I’ve seldom since encountered. Children followed him around the school like the Pied Piper – they adored him. He ran around the school throwing bags of metaphorical fairy dust into lessons, bringing colour, excitement and energy to the most staid and stodgy pedagogues.

But while he was doing this, I started to notice that there wasn’t always anyone at the helm. Emails went unanswered, phone calls weren’t returned. But grades were improving. Staff were rewarded and encouraged. Many were promoted. In fact so many were given pay rises and Teaching and Learning Responsibilities that our once-triangular staffing structure now resembled more of a squashed hexagon – everyone seemed to have a responsibility for something. The staffing budget was splitting under the strain. I tried talking to him about it, many, many times, but he batted me away with arguments about the need to invest in staff, to create great learning opportunities and, above all, to have faith in him. And I did, I did, I honestly did.

In fact, without realising it, we had come to a place where his mantra of positivity had created a world where he could only tolerate unswerving support. Any hint of a challenge was seen as almost sacrilege. In fact, when I stepped back and looked at it, it felt almost cult-like. Eventually, unable to get through to him without provoking either tears or fury, I confided my concerns in another member of the team. She immediately confessed a huge list of worries, similar to mine, but she had been too scared to speak up because, like me, she’d been severely spoken to when she had raised them with him. She had spotted patterns that I hadn’t, like him missing appointments and going off-site secretly during the day. It also seemed that alcohol was disappearing from a locked cupboard. There were rumours of school funds being used inappropriately.  There was so, so much more that I can’t put into print.

I see and hear so much discussion about mental health in education now, I’m so relieved that as ed professionals we feel able to discuss and support colleagues who are going through difficult times. I wish that support had been in place then, for me of course, but mainly for him. It may never have got to that point if he had been able to ask for help early on. So I suppose my message is this: keep talking, keep caring, keep asking, keep learning. Don’t close your eyes, or turn away, or ignore the signs of mental health problems. You won’t always be able to help, but you just might – and at least you will have tried.

And to you, my lost friend, I’m sorry, I let you down, I did all I could, but you were killing me. I had to let you go.

Read the full article ‘I watched, helpless, as a high-performing school leader fell apart’

How much mental health support is available for you and your colleagues? Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin


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