Review by Martyn Reah

1 May 2016, 19:00

Leading from the Edge: a school leader’s guide to recognising and overcoming stress

James Hilton’s new book, which arrived after a busy week, drew me in instantly with a great introduction.

Hilton’s inspiration was the 2012 comment that Sir Michael Wilshaw made about headteachers not knowing what stress is. He skilfully addresses the “elephant in the room” by explaining his views and personal experiences as a primary head within the first few paragraphs.

By the time I finished the introduction, I was aware of what to expect from the ten chapters to come and was reassured to be reading about the valuable experiences of someone who has done the job rather than someone who is paid to advise others how to do the job.

Working with Chris Roome, Hilton has made an accessible guide to the challenges of leading a 21st century-school. Roome, who has worked as a mental health therapist, acted as a consultant: together their insights prove to be page-turners from the start.

Hilton backs up his open and honest explanation of his experiences of stress and anxiety with a practical “how to take control guide” at the end of chapter one, full of valuable points for me to consider about my own working practices. In fact, in some cases, he could be writing about some of the things I have seen other teachers suffer in all of the schools I have worked in.

To demonstrate to Wilshaw that the issue of stress isn’t a personal battle, he has included interviews from a variety of teachers, with more practical tips at the end of each chapter. These contain a wealth of ideas and suggestions to take back into classrooms and could be used as CPD sessions on their own.

He takes Wilshaw to task in chapter two, using data to back up the argument that we understand a little about stress in the teaching profession. In fact, there is an argument, which Hilton presents, that the chief inspector might be part of the problem. A range of sources are used, from unions, to external research – even the Department for Education gets a mention.

Rather than just a rebuke, however, Hilton rises above the personal and provides useful activities to try in school, to start the conversation with colleagues about what is still a difficult and sometimes taboo subject.

He then addresses the real issues that cause stress in our profession and writes with sensitivity about dealing with difficult parents and challenging staffing situations. The less than developmental process of an Ofsted inspection, which some might suggest has caused the most stress in our day-to-day lives over an extended period, is tackled under the banner of dealing with the “ultimate uncontrollable”.

A “before, during and after” approach provides a great set of ideas that will help all heads and leadership teams to develop their planning – and could to be used to take on the men and women in suits with confidence and vigour.

The highlights for me, however, are the chapters that are the most personal. They deal with recovery from difficult situations, developing positive habits and working in sustainable ways in an increasingly stressful profession. My favourite chapter, and one that rings more than a few bells with the ideas behind Ross McGill’s #teacher5aday, is based on staying positive.

It is a book to be read from cover to cover or skimmed in small chunks. It will make you think and to help others. Something Wilshaw might ponder in his next incarnation: supporting and challenging his staff.

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