I was recently challenged to express my advice on the early days of being a Headteacher. The person who had asked me had just been appointed in his first headship and had the slightly crazed, daunted yet inspired look in his eye. I started with a simple reflection in the 6 steps animation but have thought it probably deserves more!!
Be the person you are called to be…
On the road to Headship at times we are lured into the trap of looking to become the person we are expected to be. We almost try and play a role – what do the Governors recruiting want? Which Headteacher we respect can we be the same as? What is a Headteacher supposed to be like? Ultimately the answer to this is a Headteacher is supposed to be like you… I came to the startling conclusion that the only answer is to be true to yourself. This requires two key steps.
Spend time working out what you really stand for and in contrast what you really won’t stand for!
Be confident you will be the perfect match – the right person, the right school, the right time.
You cannot play the role for long if you are not true to yourself as the sharpest people I’ve ever met are the students we serve! It is equally clear that making this realisation is liberating – you can be who you are called to be.
Do what matters first
It’s easy to come into a school and not take the golden opportunities given to us in the “honeymoon period”. There is a collective holding of breath when change happens… What happens next is up to you.
My brother started in Headship and was appointed 5 months before taking up the post. He made a great decision to ask for a picture of every member of staff and information about them. This meant he could walk through the door and have a head start on the most important thing in getting to know the people around you.
You need to be clear on your core principles from Day 1 and stick to them. A key challenge is to look to initiate and prompt change as well as evaluating all that works well. Some headteachers become too cosy with staff, eager to please and avoiding challenge or conflict – this can be where you lose sight of your principles. Take people with you and recognise your attitude shapes the culture so you must be willing to embrace and initiate change.
What people want most is someone who is consistent and fair. It’s easy to end up with your favourites – people who are “up for it” or seek out opportunities to get involved. I would suggest it is worth going out of your way to speak to everyone and avoid “doing deals” for people either by giving them extra pay, time or responsibilities. People need to know where they stand and as school leaders we need to be predictable and positive.
It is worth investing time in getting to know your students – do the small things like cover, duties and the buses. It is worth every minute…
Be clear on what “outstanding” is all about. Spend time getting into lessons and seeing the diet for learning in the school. It’s really important to know what is happening each and every day in the school – it’s how I take the temperature in our culture. If you don’t do it you will very quickly lose touch.
The quality of the leadership team is essential – you can’t carry anyone. It is really important they are respected, capable and committed to doing all that is right for the school. It is equally important to have a wide variety of skills and personalities however tempting it may be to surround yourself with people just like you.
The quality of teaching needs to very high – find where it is best and expose this to everyone. If anybody is struggling look to support and develop them. If it doesn’t work you need to do something about it. My litmus test is “would I want my children in this class?” I believe it is my moral responsibility to ask this on behalf of all parents.
A key task is ensuring you get the best teachers to your school. Interview every person who is coming to join the team at your school. Be imaginative and relentlessly committed to finding the right person for the job!
It is likely in the first year of headship you will find there are some “critical incidents”. This is where you will earn your stripes as people watch how you will deal with challenge. If you deal with this well people will understand what you are all about. If you don’t it may take some time to win people over in the future.
Think carefully about how to get the message across… make it simple and repeat it. Think about how to get people to “buy into it” so it’s not just your idea. Doing your groundwork helps by talking ideas over with the key people to give them ownership. Find opportunities to articulate your ideas – staff briefings and meetings are a great opportunity.
Don’t rely too much on email – you can never replace the value of face to face discussions. People will actually watch what you do far more than listening to what you say! Find time for people 1 to 1 as this builds the best foundation for your professional relationships.
Extend your mobile phone contract and make sure the best people you know in education are on speed dial – you need to have critical friends who can challenge and support you every step of the way.
Time is what matters most
Your most precious commodity will be time. You will have some choices about how you spend it! When I first started Governors had eight committees and most of them met each term for three hours in the school day. We now have three committees that meet after school and dynamic working parties if needed to work on specific issues. So protect your time in the school day and prompt changes to the “way things are done around here.”
You will also be invited to a multitude of meetings, conferences and glitzy events. You need to learn to say no and attend only the events that you have to go to or you believe will genuinely move the school on. I have encountered people who specialise in not being in school. As my Irish wife would say “don’t be a stranger” to your own school! Get into lessons every day, work with your office door open, be a visible presence. For me I ask myself “can I do this after the school day?” If the answer is yes I will stick to this.
You also need to be confident to know when you have done a “good day’s work”. I aim to leave my laptop at school – the invention of the iPad may not have helped this. I used to describe Headship and school improvement as the Forth Bridge, a never-ending challenge … They then painted the bridge with a “new and improved” paint that will last 25 years. Rest assured this solution will never be the fix for schools. Ultimately each day it is about knowing you have used the time well and as you put your head on the pillow feeling you have done all you could to live out your vocation.
Meet the parents
Parents like seeing you out and about in primary schools, church (as a faith school!) and at school events. I also do “Open Door” where once a month where I spend 4 hours (4.30-8.30pm) available to discuss any issues, the timings are planned to suit working parents too. At times it can be a question about life at school, a concern about learning or even a chance for positive feedback. It is like a GP’s surgery – no appointments, all will be seen. Ultimately if any parent has a big issue and doesn’t use this opportunity it can’t have been that important. It sets the tone of honest, open relationships between home and school and often resolves any issues before they become a problem.
One challenge is to ensure that you trust people to do their job really well. Do you delegate tasks or responsibilities? If it is only tasks you will limit peoples’ potential. It is worth investing time in developing others – be really clear about your expectations but show that you believe in them and trust them to make decisions. Sometimes we can flatter ourselves into believing that we have all the answers – this creates a culture of dependency where people have to ask for your opinion on every decision. I have been in meetings with other schools where senior leaders repeatedly say “I will have to ask the Head” – ultimately this says “I am not trusted to make a decision.”
I try to stop myself launching into to offering an instant solution by asking “what do you think?” or discussing the options with someone so they can make their own decision. This takes longer but takes us all further in the long run. It also builds capacity and confidence in people.
Look to spot the talent in leadership, sometimes taking a leap of faith with someone. You need to ensure that anyone in this position can really deliver in the classroom including their results each year. This will give them the “cultural capital” to lead others as they are not asking anyone to do something they can’t do themselves.
The best Headteacher I ever worked with used to say “it’s not enough for you to be a good Head. I want you to be a great Head!” This led to some robust conversations along the way but definitely was a turning point in ensuring I was challenged and shaped as a senior leader. If you choose to work in an environment where you are comfortable you will feel flattered by positive feedback but never really be pushed to develop and grow.
I will be eternally grateful for this experience and I would advise you to seek out opportunities to work with great people like this. I have sometimes challenged people to choose their next job not on the school alone but on the match with the Headteacher. This is especially important in senior leadership, particularly as a Deputy Head.
Are you the lead learner?
I believe that being a Headteacher is in fact all about being “lead learner” – not by being a relentless academic but simply by being open to new challenges, adaptable and passionate about learning. You will probably have someone who leads learning and teaching but be informed and engaged in current debate on pedagogy and educational issues. One key way to do this is online especially by effective use of twitter where there are some excellent links to interesting, thought provoking discussion. Another excellent new addition to the culture in teaching has been the emergence of TeachMeets and LeadMeets where people can choose to spend time discussing meaningful issues in a relevant, short and sharp way.
I know that in reality I’ve probably got another fifteen years in Headship. I hope I have strong enough people around me to tap me on the shoulder if I lose my love of learning. I also believe you need to find new challenges that will keep you fresh.
The first subject leader I ever worked with had a file full of lesson plans and resources and each September would ceremoniously return to the start of the ring binder, surrounded by the settling dust, to start the year again. If we just start going through the motions this is when we should all just call it a day.
Starting your first headship is a time of immense opportunity, excitement and promise. You “set the climate” in the school. It is an amazing, inspiring job but equally demanding. Believe in yourself and you will do a great job – no pressure!