'I watched, helpless, as a high-performing school leader fell apart'
(Find out how the Teach Well Alliance's Teach Well Toolkit enables schools and school leaders to identify sources of stress and improve staff wellbeing at www.teachwellalliance.com#teach-well-toolkit)
29th October 2017 at 16:48
'It ended in the most tragic way possible' – one senior school leader remembers the tragic downfall of an outstanding headteacher
10 years ago I watched a headteacher self-destruct.
It was my first leadership post, I was naive, inexperienced and had no idea how senior leadership teams should operate. But I was keen and grateful for the opportunity. It was never a forever job. In fact, it was a coldhearted career move on my part, in the days when the National Professional Qualification for Headship was a morally acceptable reason to springboard your way through struggling schools on the way to the top job. Nonetheless, I wanted to make it work. It started well: I got on really well with my new headteacher, himself only months into the job. He made it clear that I was in his circle of trust. We became close: he shared his passions, his woes, his ambitions for the school, for himself, for me, along with his thoughts and worries about headship, about how he longed to change the world.
It was a tough school, run by the staff for the staff, yet he managed to inject an astonishing passion and vigour for learning that I've seldom since encountered. Children followed him around the school like the Pied Piper – they adored him. He ran around the school throwing bags of metaphorical fairy dust into lessons, bringing colour, excitement and energy to the most staid and stodgy pedagogues.
But while he was doing this, I started to notice that there wasn't always anyone at the helm. Emails went unanswered, phone calls weren't returned. But grades were improving. Staff were rewarded and encouraged. Many were promoted. In fact so many were given pay rises and Teaching and Learning Responsibilities that our once-triangular staffing structure now resembled more of a squashed hexagon – everyone seemed to have a responsibility for something. The staffing budget was splitting under the strain. I tried talking to him about it, many, many times, but he batted me away with arguments about the need to invest in staff, to create great learning opportunities and, above all, to have faith in him. And I did, I did, I honestly did.
I ignored my inner doubts and did all I could to paper over the cracks that were starting to appear. I was as horrified as he was when another member of the SLT wrote to the chair of governors, complaining that his behaviour was erratic and he failed to adhere to correct HR processes. We discussed at length how difficult and obstructive that person was being, and wasn't it a shame that they didn't share his vision. Our vision. They moved on to another school soon afterwards. In fact, most of the people who didn't share his vision seemed to move on too, but that was a good thing, surely? As months passed I became increasingly concerned about him. His reports to governors were, at best, embellished – at worst, deliberately misleading. He had reportedly spoken aggressively to members of staff when they had challenged him. When I tried to speak to him about his own wellbeing he slapped me down, he said I was being negative and unsupportive, and it was my job to support him. So I did, but with increasing concern.
In fact, without realising it, we had come to a place where his mantra of positivity had created a world where he could only tolerate unswerving support. Any hint of a challenge was seen as almost sacrilege. In fact, when I stepped back and looked at it, it felt almost cult-like. Eventually, unable to get through to him without provoking either tears or fury, I confided my concerns in another member of the team. She immediately confessed a huge list of worries, similar to mine, but she had been too scared to speak up because, like me, she'd been severely spoken to when she had raised them with him. She had spotted patterns that I hadn't, like him missing appointments and going off-site secretly during the day. It also seemed that alcohol was disappearing from a locked cupboard. There were rumours of school funds being used inappropriately. There was so, so much more that I can't put into print.
But still the school was soaring, the local authority were delighted with student outcomes, Ofsted came and went and praised his outstanding leadership and passion. In those circumstances it felt that we had no option but to keep plugging the gaps, to keep covering for him, to keep tolerating the emotional outbursts and increasingly aggressive rants and bizarre behaviour. Then the late-night emails and phone calls started. Tearful, rambling, alcohol-fuelled rants that careered from paranoia to aggression back to thanks for my ongoing support and friendship. He told us, repeatedly, how much we owed him, how he had supported and invested in us, now we had to support him. Always. Unequivocally.
It was utterly and completely exhausting. It took over my life. Scared of being discovered talking about him at work, my colleague and I spoke for hours on the phone each night, trying to work out how to help him. We tried everything we could think of. But the denials and lies were overwhelming, the outbursts so draining, the covering up so enormous. It had become endemic. The whole school was unwittingly – and, for some, wittingly – part of a cover-up operation to gloss over the gaping cracks in our leadership because everyone, in some way, had a vested interest in keeping it as it was. Either to maintain their salary band, or because it would be career suicide to speak up.
Eventually, after I caught him in the act, he admitted to having an alcohol dependency and he agreed to go to AA. I think he went. He said he went. He probably went. He would have been drawn to the drama of going, certainly. He said he was accessing counselling services. Things got better for a while – and then they fell apart spectacularly. To the point where his homelife imploded, and SLT were banned from talking to each other outside of his office, without him present. Paranoia had taken hold and his mental health was breaking down before my eyes. But still the wider school community were either in denial or truly didn't see it. I'm still not sure, to this day.
We spoke to governors and they seemed to ignore us. We spoke gently to other SLT colleagues, but they didn't trust us. To them we were on his team and had been sent to test their allegiance. It sounds like something out of a horror movie. It was. The strain was telling on me. My family were concerned.
Finally, when I had exhausted all other options, I called an ex-headteacher and mutual friend, a wise and experienced man. He listened, he sighed, he pondered, and then he told me to get myself out as quickly as I could. He said, "look at the battle you're fighting: a successful school and a successful head. Why would anyone – governors, local authority or Ofsted – want to spoil that? And look at the man: charismatic, loved, hugely intelligent and with the honed deceptive skills of an addict. You'll never beat those odds." He told me to put myself first and think of family and my career. Regardless of the morality, who would ever employ someone who had taken down their own headteacher? He was right, of course. He said he would do all he could to help.
I got another job quite quickly, but by this time I had become the headteacher's enemy. We didn't speak for six weeks during my notice period and I was in constant fear of explosive confrontations. One day I was summoned to his office and told to say nothing. He shouted at me for 20 mins, full on, about how I had let him down, how I was disloyal, unsupportive and how I lacked the emotional intelligence to see how much he had done for me and how much I owed him. The biggest regret of my life is that I sat there and took it.
Eventually, the peace of the summer holidays descended and I was almost free. On my last day I posted a letter to the chair of governors and the local authority. I whistleblew with every breath in my body – and then I walked away for good.
It's taken me all this time to be able to write this down. To share my experience, but I'm now in a secure and happy place and that time seems a very long way away. It ended well for me, eventually. It ended in the most tragic way possible for him. Two years later he took his own life. I don't know what support he was given, I don't know who gave it. I do know the friends I left behind are still haunted by those last two years, which by all accounts were far worse than I had known and which were horrific and tragic for everyone.
I see and hear so much discussion about mental health in education now, I'm so relieved that as ed professionals we feel able to discuss and support colleagues who are going through difficult times. I wish that support had been in place then, for me of course, but mainly for him. It may never have got to that point if he had been able to ask for help early on. So I suppose my message is this: keep talking, keep caring, keep asking, keep learning. Don't close your eyes, or turn away, or ignore the signs of mental health problems. You won't always be able to help, but you just might – and at least you will have tried.
And to you, my lost friend, I'm sorry, I let you down, I did all I could, but you were killing me. I had to let you go.
Madeleine Marsh is a pseudonym. She is a secondary senior leader.
Find out how the Teach Well Alliance's Teach Well Toolkit enables schools and school leaders to identify sources of stress and improve staff wellbeing at www.teachwellalliance.com#teach-well-toolkit
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