As concerns grow over the shortage of headteachers and senior teachers, this book is not only timely, but necessary.
Grit, resilience, bouncebackability – call it what you will – has been a feature of edu-speak for some years now. James Hilton turns our attention to school leaders and in this well-crafted workbook seeks to help us develop the habits that will keep us going through the tough times.
Hilton has certainly walked the walk as a school leader, having served as a headteacher for 15 years, and suffered a nervous breakdown during that time, he is well qualified to talk about the effects of stress. However, this is not a memoir, it is a workbook, with carefully formulated exercises and questions (as such I think it would have been better without the attempts at parenthetical humour). It is also well researched and rooted in an understanding of psychology, leadership and the practical demands of running a school.
Hilton identifies 10 traits of resilience, giving each one a chapter in which he explores its meaning and psychological significance, shares stories from his own and others experiences, and asks questions to help the reader reflect on their own behaviour.
The central metaphor of the book is that leading a school is like piloting a hot air balloon and that the traits of resilience are separate balloons that we must keep inflated if we are to remain at a safe height. I must admit that on first reading I found this rather stretched and fanciful, and thought I would find it irritating as the book wore on. However, it is actually a rich and helpful image.
Throughout, Hilton stresses the importance of balance and moderation in focusing the separate traits – each balloon needs to be inflated, but equally so in order to prevent the balloonist from becoming unbalanced or floating off course. This allows him to deal with the complexity of the task of leadership without succumbing to simplicity (“You must always be decisive”) or meaningless “balance” (“On the one hand this, on the other that”).
Busy school leaders will be able to read it without letting other balloons deflate
This is illustrated in the chapter dealing with optimism. Hilton discusses the difficulties of remaining optimistic about the ability of staff to change while not becoming unrealistic or allowing yourself to avoid the difficult conversations that sometimes need to happen – the difference between the belief that obstacles can be overcome and the belief that nothing can go wrong. It would be easy for a book like this to turn into a collection of simple homilies, but the practicality of the advice – for example, don’t sit next to colleagues who always moan – stops it from descending into statements of the obvious.
One of the strengths of the book is its wide-ranging nature. While it is ostensibly about resilience, it also covers the range of tasks and challenges a school leader faces: there’s practical advice on preparing for Ofsted, thoughts on managing the wellbeing of staff and a discussion of school mission statements. As each chapter moves along briskly, with a range of lists, questions and stories, there are times when it can feel a little like pond-skating. I would have been interested to hear more from the author about how to embed cultural change in a school, for example. However, this is a product of the book maintaining its focus on building resilience and there is an excellent bibliography for those who want to read further. Moreover, I found myself enjoying being swiftly reminded of key ideas – like a good study guide it brought to mind things I already know but that had drifted out of my immediate awareness.
And, of course, the succinctness of the book means that busy, stressed and time-poor school leaders will be able to read it without letting other balloons deflate.