One of my favourite Private Eye covers, from October 1976, is this one – Gerald Ford is saying “There are no Russians in Russia”, and Kissinger is leaning across saying “Nearly right”. In the same way, Michael Wilshaw is “nearly right” about the stress that teachers are under. In his Alpha male way (and much of Wilshaw can be understood if you remember that his is a choleric, Alpha male personality), he said on Thursday that teachers who complain that their jobs are too stressful are making excuses “for poor performance”. At the time, he was talking to a group of private school heads in East Sussex, so this probably will compound the unions’ predictable reaction to what he said. He also (because this is obviously part of his brief) had a good whack at headteachers who moan about the same thing. And like nearly everything he says in public – the means we have to judge him – it contains a grain of truth wrapped up in choleric verbiage born of the frustration that comes from asking the question “Why can’t all heads be like ME?”
Perish the thought. One is just about enough.
But of course, there is the grain of truth here as well. We chose this profession, are relatively well paid in it, and we arestill largely in control of our destinies within it. However, even if teachers weren’t performing poorly, they still feel the stress of the job. That is what teaching involves – we are dealing with growing people – and this is of necessity a source of stress. Then of course, heads of the ilk of Wilshaw create stress around them. Reading the section in Melissa Benn’s School Wars about him at Mossbourne Academy is an eye-opener – none of this distributed leadership rubbish, just get out there and lead – and is a salutary reminder to those who are well-motivated for the success of their schools (and I would count myself among those) need to be gentle in their care and support of those who are feeling the stress our motivation causes around us. In the words of the redoubtable Larry Rosenstock, be hard on content and pedagogy, soft on people. Do the things that make it easy for people to follow us, even if we have to use challenge to help them do the following. But the embracing of and preparation for stress, and the means we have to deal with it in the day to day, are vital skills of leadership. Von Moltke’s dictum “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy” is perhaps a slightly wrong-headed way of looking at primary school education, but the source of stress will meet you, unexpectedly or otherwise, and preparation for that is fundamental, and all about identity. Are we clear about who we are, who we stand for, who loves us and where our security lies? And for those of us fortunate enough to lead (and hence more in control of our destinies than the teachers who work hard in our schools) are we doing the affirmation, clear thinking, people skills and care that the mantle of leadership contains within it?