Life’s strange sometimes. I’d been thinking about the impact of a school having a sick colleague, when, for the first time in over eight years, while arriving for a platelet donation session, I met the son of a teacher who had died of cancer during my last year of headship. We each expressed surprise at the sheer coincidence and pleasure, in part because life’s been kind to us both. He’s married with two children and I’ve remarried after my wife died that same year.
We all know what it’s like to feel a bit under the weather. The effects can range from just being a little off colour to being debilitated, especially if it is a little more than a cold. I’m not including man-flu, which obviously means instant medicalisation at the least.
Headteachers may often feel that they are married to their school; it can certainly be a 24/7/365 role, meaning that schools are like extended families, often sharing a member’s pleasure or pain. A happy event is celebrated together. A sick colleague attracts support, either within, keeping a close eye in case of problems, or without, with visits to check up on progress. However, like all sickness this can become pervasive and can eventually distract the whole community, in extreme cases pushing individuals or the collective to virtual destruction.
In another post, I’ve speculated that the level of distraction within a school will have a correlation with the school ability to make progress. If a head’s door is regularly knocked with requests for five minutes, this soon adds up to significant disruption, distracting the HT from frontline issues and from development needs.
Reflecting back to my headship, of 16 years, I can recognise periods where there were significant strains, as well as extended periods of development, supported by very active, fit and longer serving colleagues.
Coping with staff change can be seen as a form of institutional illness, in that there’s a phase akin to bereavement for some, while the change offers opportunities to others for new relationships. It is, however, the impact of actual illness which can cripple a school, especially if the illness is terminal. Seeing the impact on my own school over a relatively short time scale, of the death of a colleague, brought home the realities of life and headship. You are often in a lonely position as a head. To be the central figure through which significant information is passed, and being required to pass this to the rest of the staff, is a burden, as your messaging has to be tactful and supportive. That was February. In the April, my first wife entered the terminal phase of cancer. To say it knocked me would be an understatement, but for a couple of months, work-life continued, “as normal”. It was the hospice phase that finally meant time off, with a subsequent knock on to the DH and needing a temporary cover teacher for an unknown timescale. Eye on which ball? Life’s ball came top.
Ofsted, according to very many insightful blogs can have a similar impact, especially if the judgements mean some form of further intervention or worse. The school capacity to deal with this will determine the speed of recovery, if that time is available.
I was fortunate that the Local Authority was strong and prepared to intervene as needed, so there was a plan in place for issues which might arise and specific staff were alerted to the need to act with urgency if asked. With significant changes at LA level across the country, I am not sure if that support is easily available to every head.
I’d certainly counsel every head to put in place an emergency plan. The classic interview question to a prospective deputy as to their thinking in case of headteacher illness can become a rapid reality.