Leadership

What Taylor Swift taught me about school leadership

The Eras tour - and one song in particular - was a cathartic moment of reflection on the realities of school leadership

The Eras tour - and one song in particular - was a cathartic moment of reflection on the realities of school leadership

James Handscombe, executive principal of Harris Westminster Sixth Form, has told students to stop calling teachers sir or miss

3 Jul 2024, 17:00

I’m known to the Daily Mail as the woke headteacher who loves Taylor Swift and is unable to tell the difference between pop and philosophy. So it will be reassuring to their readers to learn I was at Wembley for the opening night of the Eras tour. At the risk of confirming their prejudices, I have come back with some thoughts on school leadership.

It struck me as I stood in the middle of a sea of pink cowboy hats that Taylor’s job is essentially to turn a crowd of strangers (89,000 of them) into a community – and I’m not the first to note that she does this rather well.

One aspect of school leadership is building communities, and so I think we can learn something – even if ours are smaller and have the advantage of time to get to know each other and create common purpose.

As I was watching for tips, I saw her sharing the story of her life (obviously edited for public consumption). I wondered what it must be like to emote like this, night after night, while behind the scenes your actual life goes on with the relational complexities that even absurd amounts of money can’t shield you from.

Fortunately for me, Taylor being Taylor has written a song about this exact experience.

It felt like everything we’d built was falling apart

I Can Do It With a Broken Heart hit me hard because performance is part of leadership: smiling through the worries, the fear; being unreasonably optimistic whatever comes your way; showing everyone that it’s going to be fine, that nothing can go wrong because you’re a real tough kid, you can handle it.

This is tricky enough when you’re fine inside; it’s worse when you’re at breaking point.

For me it was Covid, the autumn of 2020 when we were back in schools that were… just worse. It felt like what we had was both unsustainable and without use for the foreseeable future. It felt like everything we’d built was falling apart.

Outside school I was an emotional wreck: to adopt Swiftian language, I cried a lot, but I was so productive – and inside school I was hitting my marks.

Others have had it worse – at the time, before and since. My heart goes out to all the school leaders who are doing it with a broken heart.

Obviously I don’t have a fix for either the heart or the job. Not even Taylor is good enough for that, and she’s good. But I think there is strength in reminding yourself that you’re not alone, that there are tortured poets behind a lot of people’s smiles and sequins – and that you know you’re good when you can do it with a broken heart.

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