Gráinne, what should I do? #7


Leading Your International School today shares our weekly Q&A  for international school leaders and teachers. Questions are answered by Gráinne O’Reilly – founder of 13 schools around the world. Today we share Naomi’s question. 

Naomi: How much time do international School principals typically spend working each week? 

Gráinne: My Dear Colleague,

I must say, this is probably an impossible question to answer accurately or to which to reply in a general manner. Responding to this, I feel I can only answer from my own experience. Perhaps other Heads and Principals might like to comment on how they have managed this issue.

I would divide this into 4 separate Headship experiences. The first being the workload when one first becomes a Head and the next being a Head or Principal leading a very established and well-organised school, with years of experience. The other 2 would be undertaking a start-up or taking on one’s first International Headship.

During my first year of Headship – a very high-performing school in North London with extremely privileged and outspoken parents- my first year or so was simply a blur. I felt as if I worked almost 24/7, I was constantly attending performances, matches, competitions, fundraisers, governor’s meetings… The list in addition to running the school itself went on and on, due to the type of school and its ethos and expectations of me. I was probably putting in about a 60-hour week in the first year and well into the second. As I got the school into shape and was able to create a Leadership Team some of that time commitment was shared and I would say once I felt the school had grown and was established and organised, I was able to cut back to about 45 to 50 hours a week. One of the benefits of that school was that the office did not stay open during holiday periods so unless there was an emergency on site, or I had to do planning/paperwork etc., I did get real rest and downtime during the holidays.

Once I started working in start-ups, I didn’t just feel I was working 24/7- there were times when that was almost literal! Allowing for exaggeration there, I would say that my most challenging start-ups were certainly 7 days a week at times – sometimes for long periods of time – and a 70-hour week was pretty standard. Again, as each school grew, became more structured and a flatter leadership structure developed, some of that work could be shared and much of the time commitment too.

Sharing the load is not just more healthy and of course, more professional, but it is absolutely vital that one steps aside – not just figuratively, but literally. I look after a number of schools for my school group now, but I am still based in a school – the school I founded. The new Principal ( who, incidentally, is brilliant!) could never have learned to take on the role of Principal if I had constantly been hanging around like a spectre at the feast! Of course, I step in and help, of course, I still undertake some things that keep his load a little lighter or a little more manageable, but fundamentally, throughout his apprenticeship, I had to stand aside and let him actually do the job.

Stepping aside has given me the opportunity to undertake so many other roles on behalf of the company and also, to have a little distance mentally. I can see the wood for the trees now, and this allows me to be a little more strategic and I hope to give better, more measured advice and guidance.

So, to answer your question- I would say that Headship is probably between a 50 to 70-hour-a-commitment with evenings and weekends being part of the deal depending on the role of the Head, the stage of school growth and development and also, how you develop your Leadership Team. If you get a good few weeks off a year and a break in the summer that is certainly manageable. If however, your school markets year-round and you have rolling admissions ( as one finds in all start-ups and in many international schools) the lack of true downtime or time away – completely away from the school can be minimal.

This is not healthy either mentally or physically and will lead even the most robust, passionate or industrious of Principals to burn out. Be warned- burnout is real-  I have seen it ruin so many lives. None of us as Leaders would allow it to happen to our staff, would we? We would ensure support, help, rest and space for any staff member who looked to be heading down that lonely road. Give yourself the same respect and care that you would give that staff member. You cannot help fit anyone else’s oxygen mask ( family, loved ones, children, friends or staff) if you have not fitted your own oxygen mask first. Please remember that. It isn’t a competition to work the most hours – once you know what you are doing, once you’ve got a bit of experience behind you and you’ve built up a team that you trust – share the load.

Best and fondest wishes to you for a great week ahead!

Thank you for reading, if you have any questions for Gráinne to answer about Leading Your International School, email them to: 

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