What a brain injury taught me about being a head teacher

The world turned upside down for Alison Willis in March 2015.

The popular head teacher had had a busy spring term getting ready for an Ofsted inspection that loomed somewhere on the horizon. She felt achy and tired and thought she might have been coming down with the flu: “I was just a typical teacher at the end of term,” she says. 

What happened next was anything but typical. Alison’s condition deteriorated fast and she was rushed by ambulance to Northampton hospital with a suspected stroke. The neurologist diagnosed her with encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain, which affects an estimated 4,000 people in the UK every year.  

Her recovery has been slow and frustrating at times, but Alison is determined to get back to school and the career she loves. Here she tells Education Support Partnership why her approach to being a head teacher will never be the same again.  

Anything can happen

When I think back to before the encephalitis, I was just a normal teacher working at least 15 hours a day, plus more at the weekends. This has been a wakeup call. I’m determined not to do that again.  

I had taken over as head at my school a year and a half beforehand and we were working silly hours, partly because we were due an Ofsted inspection. I was putting every second into the job; I gave it everything. My life was on hold because of my career.   

The doctors don’t know exactly what caused the infection, but we had a lot of chicken pox at the school that term. It’s possible that rather than get chicken pox, the virus travelled to my brain. My immune system was low and I was really tired.  

It was hugely scary. I think the only reason I’ve been so lucky is because I was taken to Northampton General Hospital. It’s not the closest one but they’re stroke specialists and they knew immediately that that’s not what it was. They treated me for encephalitis and meningitis, just in case. I really believe getting the drugs so quickly helped enormously.   
  
I have to look after myself

My recovery is slow and it can take up to two years to really know what permanent damage has been done. At the moment, I have daily physio to help me deal with the loss of balance. I struggle to bend or turn around, and I’m a nightmare passenger because of the movement of traffic. I get horrendous headaches every two to three weeks and I can’t sleep anymore; I only get about two hours a night. That’s very common. 

I’m back at school for 10 hours a week at the moment and I’m hoping to increase that to 15 hours. The staff and governors have been brilliant and are letting me ease back into it slowly. I’m the worst one for knowing when to go home, but they’re forcing me out the door when they have to.  

The school has also provided an occupational health therapist that I meet with every few months to talk about a guided, sensible return to work. That’s been invaluable and I’m more realistic about my return and what I can handle.  
 
It’s not all on my shoulders

When something like this happens, you immediately think that you’ve got to get back. Sometimes I feel like a massive burden to the school – both in terms of resources and the financial implications. As a head teacher, I’m very aware of budgets and that the money they spend on supporting me should go to the children. I would like to be able to push myself to come back quicker but I can't at the moment.  

But I’ve realised that I’m part of a team. We’re quite a small school and it was just me on the leadership team before; now we’ve appointed a deputy head. It’s nice to have someone else to talk to. Being a head teacher can be quite a lonely job. 

Ofsted turned up in the end while I was ill and I couldn’t be there. The staff handled it brilliantly and we were rated ‘Good’, which was fantastic.     
 
Support flows both ways

There’s been some damage to my auditory memory, so I can’t retain information to recall it later anymore. That’s been really hard because it’s a huge part of my job. I would often go to conferences or meetings and deliver the information back to staff. I can’t do that at the moment.   

We’ve educated the children and the parents about what’s happened, what it is and what’s happening now (without scaring them). I was a teacher here for five years before I became the head teacher, so we have a good relationship. They know that I’m the type of person who would be here if I could.  

I think it’s made me understand the children more. When I’m in a meeting and I’m so overwhelmed because I can’t process the information, I think this is how the children can feel in lessons.  

And while I look fine, I’m dealing with a lot. I see parents coming onto the playground and they too could be facing challenges in their lives. You don’t have to physically look like something is wrong to be struggling.  
 
I won’t let it beat me

You do have days when you think, do I need to stop letting everyone down and give up the job? Should I let someone else who is capable of doing it take over? 

But I’m only 35. I still have a long life to live and I’m still very early into my headship. I didn’t plan to be a head teacher, the opportunity came up and I went into it with all guns blazing. I want to develop the career I love.