From education to employment

Stress: A Survivor’s Story

Chris Thomson, Education Consultant and former sixth form college principal

Chris Thomson draws on his experience of senior management to offer some first-hand strategies for tackling stress

Three months into my first senior management post I received some extraordinary advice. The doctor turned to me and said, ‘I don’t usually say this but you need to put on weight.’ Now hearing this, what I should have thought is: ‘Why am I losing weight?’ But as it was the week before Christmas what I actually thought was: ‘Yippee!’

Looking back I can see I was under a lot of stress. The symptoms were there: not just weight loss; digestive complaints and day-dreaming of a completely different way of earning a living – anything not to do with a college. Why couldn’t I see something was wrong? A different kind of doctor – Dr. Johnson – diagnosed that one: strength of character? No sir, stark insensibility.

Throughout the next two decades I probably remained just as out of touch with myself but became increasingly focused on a very simple professional purpose: how to make things better for students. Selflessness, then? No sir, stark insensibility still, just with an outward focus.

But curiously, as even I was aware, the more I progressed with that purpose the more any symptoms of stress subsided and the better I felt. Indeed in my last couple of years pressure of work had diminished to the point that I sometimes wondered if anything very much depended on me being there at all. What was I for?

So what was the relationship between these things: stress on the one hand and on the other a personal professional drive that increasingly pervaded the whole college?

Part of the answer relates to an impression I formed in my earliest days of teaching, one which you perhaps share. I remember visiting a college that was labeled ‘outstanding’ and contrary to what I expected – that it would be a highly-pressured environment – I was struck from the moment I crossed the threshhold that the atmosphere was relaxed and people seemed happy and calm. It very distinctly wasn’t a stressed place.

This seemed to me something of a paradox

How could a college be simultaneously tranquil and high-performing? Pondering this on and off throughout my career I eventually concluded that actually there was no paradox at all: it was just what one should expect. You can’t get top performance in any organisation unless everyone working there is inspired with an identical purpose. But when that happens inevitably it becomes a happier place to work because colleagues are working with rather than against one another.

So ironically my focus on students did my stress levels a great favour. Over time I found myself working in a much more contented as well as a much more productive college. In effect an unwavering focus on the best interests of students created an environment that worked in the best interests of staff, too. Me included.

So much for the internal environment. But what about matters not in our immediate control?

Everything in running a college is reducible to one or both of two questions: How secure are the finances? and How good is the quality of provision? And a college principal is likely to feel both are under threat from time to time from external sources: the funding body and Ofsted.

For me Ofsted was a small black hole and funding a super-massive black hole either of which threatened to suck me into a very dark world of worry. Ofsted was the lesser problem for reasons I’ve already mentioned. Students’ best interests were at the heart of everything we did and in return for total clarity on how well we were doing the governing body gave us its complete support. This neutralised the stress-potential of Ofsted. If Ofsted provided us with criticism that helped we’d seize it with both hands. If it didn’t, we’d continue on our own way.

Funding was different and at times genuinely worrying. I mean wake-you-up-at-three-in-the-morning worrying. The technique I hit on for uninterrupted sleep was simply to plan the living daylights out of it. First, I’d take all the advice I needed to be sure I understood whatever financial black hole might be looming. That gave me the confidence to know there’d be no sickening realisations later on that I’d overlooked something dire.

Next I would think about the event horizon (I apologise – but the metaphors in astro-physics are irresistible). I’d work out all the places we could possibly wind up. What if we did nothing? What would happen then? The answer was generally the scariest scenario of all. And what if we did x, y or z instead?

This exercise made discussion possible and the discussion generally produced a consensus about where on the horizon we wanted to wind up. We could then get to work, first by consulting with governors and staff and then by implementing necessary change.

Looked at from the point of view of stress-management I was simply taking back control

A determination to understand the very worst and an equal determination to create options in face of it left very little space for anxiety because the unknowns had either been removed or else replaced with best guesses – all of them just on the pessimistic side of reasonable.

All very good, all very true. But the best advice I can give? Actually no. The wisest thing to bear in mind in times of stress may be nothing I’ve said but the words of a tribal leader I once saw interviewed on tv. In response to some question of ethics he spoke animatedly for some while before the subtitles came up: without pigs, a man is nothing. For me that sets Ofsted, funding, the whole kit and caboodle in an altogether saner perspective.

Chris Thomson
By Chris Thomson, Education Consultant and former sixth form college principal

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