Leadership and Management

10 things I wish I’d known when I became a Headteacher

Starting out in headship is an exciting time, but can be quite a daunting experience too. In this blog Max Kelly reflects back on his time as a headteacher and offers his insights for those new to the role by listing the top 10 things he wish he’d known when he was starting out.

1. Your mood affects everything and everyone

Your school will reflect your mood. That is a given. I had the misfortune of once working with a headteacher who would often start the day without speaking to anyone. They would blank colleagues, and quite often their body language was closed and suggested annoyance and stress. Occasionally the headteacher would come in with a more jolly disposition and the whole feel of the school would relax. It was palpable. Now, not everyone is a morning person. Not everyone is going to be super happy all the time. But leaders need to think carefully about how they present to the staff, the children and the whole school community because it sets the tone. The headteacher is the barometer for the climate and feel in the school. Sometimes this requires a certain amount of acting ability on the part of the headteacher. Paint that smile on.

But I also caution that those who are constantly having to act a happy mood are probably in need of taking some time to assess their situation. Headship is the best job in the world and the joy and positivity should outweigh anything else. If that balance is wrong, ask yourself why. You may be suffering from poor mental health, or perhaps the job isn’t for you. If it’s the former, there are some things you can do to help yourself (see next point, for example); if it’s the latter, be honest with yourself and don’t stay in something that is making you miserable – for more on this see my blog Prime Ministers vs Headteachers (Introduction section) here.

2. A closed door policy is needed as much as an open door policy

When starting out in the role, many heads adopt an open-door policy. At the drop of a hat, they’ll attend to any request made of them from parents, staff and children. While such an approach is good for building relationships, there is a risk of headteachers losing control of their own emotional needs and work priorities. You need structure and boundaries.

In my experience, many headteachers struggle with the notion of putting their emotional needs first. They seem to think that attending to these needs means ignoring the needs of others. It doesn’t. When heads attend to their emotions, they’re less likely to be weighed down or driven unconsciously by them, so are more effective.

3. Reach out all the time

It is often said that headship is a lonely job, and for those of us in it- and about to join it – it can certainly feel like this sometimes. The unique pressures of the role and the numerous people one comes into contact with, each with their own demands on your time, mean that confidential discussions and difficult decisions rest with you – and often there appears to be nowhere to turn for your own personal debrief or sounding board.

Mental health is rightly being talked about so much more openly in society and in the workplace – in schools the headteacher is always looking out for their team. But again, when it comes to your own mental health, who can headteachers turn to?

More and more headteachers are recognising that the lonely aspects of the job are unhealthy – and there are mechanisms you can explore to help counter this, which all involve reaching out: partnerships with employers, resources and discussion prompts, rants and raves, supervision and social media can all help promote a healthier state of mind. I’ve blogged about this in depth and you can read You Are Not Alone here for more information.

It is also a great idea to build your own network of people within the school, and within the locality – school leaders at schools just up the road, for example – who you can turn to for help and support. My advice: don’t think twice about picking up the phone and asking the question. Although it can feel like it, no-one actually expects you to know everything, and sometimes its better to chew the fat with a trusted confidant than make an unnecessary mistake.

4. Be visible every single day

Headteachers set the tone and climate in their schools. An invisible headteacher does this just as much as a visible one. Not being seen by parents on the yard each morning, not welcoming your pupils into school, not being seen on the corridors by your staff, having a constantly closed door or being frequently out of school at meetings and courses can give the impression of a rudderless school, a leaderless organisation and a headteacher who doesn’t care.

I begin every morning by standing outside the school and welcoming every parent and pupil who passes me. I stand not in the corner of the playground nor on the steps by the railing. I stand on the corner of the pavement – a strategic spot where I know everyone has to pass me. I shake the hands of parents. I know them by first name, and I smile as I speak to each child. Being visible like this is not a gimmick – it is without doubt the best thing I do each day because it sets the right tone, it creates the right mood and it makes the school personal. Of course there has been the odd call or letter of complaint during my tenure in headship, but I’m certain that my early morning routine captures 99% of issues early and allows me to nip them in the bud before they escalate into anything more serious.

C19 has undoubtedly been a tragic pandemic that has brought about many upsetting and unfortunate consequences. However, national lockdowns forced schools to rethink their approach, and there have been some surprising upsides. Remote learning and remote communication have offered even more ways for school leaders to maintain a visible presence, and this is something that the effective headteacher will recognise and build on. You can read more about Community Growth From COVID in another of my blogs here.

You can also read my blog Visible Leadership here for more thoughts on this important area of headship.

5. Eat the frog every morning

There are always issues, problems and difficulties in headship. Everyday will challenge you. The maxim “expect the unexpected” is a truism you have to come to accept. The secret to being effective is to learn how to manage this unavoidable truth.

If you put off speaking to that member of staff, or meeting that parent, or tackling that email then it hangs over you. You will already experience more pressure and responsibility than you know when you step into headship. It’s a weight that is always felt. This can be healthy, of course. I’ve always taken comfort knowing that the role is a part of me. I feel it helps prevent me from becoming complacent. However, if you let problems build up then that healthy weight of responsibility can quickly become quite unbearable.

My advice is to deal with things as soon as you can. Sometimes you can’t sort something out in one easy step – problems can be more complex than that. So start with simple things: write it down on a list. Make a phone call to take some advice. Reach out to someone else to discuss the issue. Devise a plan. But do do something and don’t let it fester.

This requires skills in prioritisation, and it also requires self-discipline. The urge to procrastinate can be overwhelming when there is something tricky to do. Resist that urge and make sure that the most challenging or unenjoyable known job of the day is the first such job you tackle – eat that frog for breakfast; there will be plenty more frogs lining up that you don’t even know about yet.

6. Spend loads of time in classrooms and around the school

This is vital. It is remarkably easy to find yourself holed up in your office as a headteacher. It is one of the more curious quirks of the job: as a teacher you can be forgiven for sometimes thinking “what do they do in their office all day?” but until you find yourself in the role it is difficult to understand.

The art though, once in the job, is to distinguish between that which must be addressed there and then, and that which can wait. The emails ping continually. Learn how to prioritise them and find a way to manage them that still allows you space in the day. Read more about this in my blog Manage your Emails to Cut Down your Workload here.

The pressure to have this done and that done, to have responded to letters, phone calls and email, to have met with people wanting a slice of your time – it is relentless in headship. That is why the ball and chain of the office can seem heavy at times.

Just never forget the core purpose of schools is education. The reason they exist is for children. The most important aspects of the job concern teaching and learning, and relationships with children. Get out every day into the school. Spend time observing, coaching, talking, listening, watching, commenting. Spend time chatting to colleagues, growing relationships on their terrirtory, laughing and being human. Spend time consolidating your philosophy, articulating your vision and embedding your message.

I work across two settings and often have guilt about not spending enough time in either school, and then guilt again about not spending enough time in the classrooms of either building. I’ve come to see this guilt as a healthy sign – it means that I haven’t lost sight of what is important. The guilt therefore serves a positive purpose if I spin the perspective on it – that’s all I can do because it certainly doesn’t go away. You can read more about my thoughts on managing the pressures of professional guilt here in my blog Executive Leadership: You Can’t Be in Two Places At Once!

7. Twitter

Twitter is an extremely valuable tool for connecting and networking with other professionals. It makes it easier for headteachers to be outward facing and open-minded. The opportunity to test out opinion, ask for advice, collaborate and learn from others is fantastic.

There is a wealth of experience to draw on out there, and lots of generous people share resources, policies and plans.

My advice is join in. “Sharing is caring” is an #edutwitter trait I often see. There is a health warning with Twitter. Sometimes it is in danger of blowing itself up over polarised views and it can be guilty of encouraging spats, pile-ons and judgmental statements. So go in with your eyes wide open – but do give it a go as the benefits mostly outweigh the negatives.

Check out my blog Twitter: The Best CPD Available here

8. Join a school leaders’ union

This is something you should do straight away. For a lot of people, being in a union is seen as some kind of “insurance policy” and you never know when you may need to call in the experts for advice and representation. The nuances of leadership, the greater (and overall) responsibility and accountability of the headteacher, and the frequency at which headteachers encounter complex issues means that one is more likely to reach for the phone and speak to the union rep. If that rep is part of a union that is well versed in those nuances and complexities of leadership, then all the better.

Of course, trade unionism can be so much more than “insurance.” I am a member of NAHT and I am proud of the voice it gives to education, the campaigns it runs and the influence it seeks to have on policy. There is ample opportunity to get involved and contribute so that the voice is not spoken for you but is spoken by you.

You can read more about a recent campaign I was involved in here which underlines why being part of a school leaders’ union is so important.

9. Shields up

Captain Picard would often give the “Shields Up” order when in command on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. As an experienced leader he sought to protect his vessel, and his crew, as much as possible.

The best shield for school leaders is the reputation of the school, so headteachers need to manage that reputation carefully, and grow and promote it at all times.

I know of a school not too far from where I work. After a health and safety incident had occurred at the summer fair, the local media started reporting it with a very sensationalised and very negative slant.

The parents were contacted by journalists and put on the spot to give their reactions. The parents only had good things to say. They trusted the school, they had been kept appraised of the situation throughout by a caring and committed headteacher. They had a forgiving loyalty to a good school with a strong reputation that had built up more than sufficient “credit in the bank” to help it through a minor setback.

The tone of media reports started to change, and in a remarkably short space of time, the tone of the reporting was much more favourable to the school.

Now imagine a school that didn’t enjoy a healthy reputation finding itself in a similar situation. Would the parents have been so quick to defend, or would they have taken the opportunity to tell the press “we’ve been waiting for something like this to happen, we’re actually surprised it hasn’t been a lot sooner. Something needs to change at this school.

That is why I recommend to headteachers to take a keen interest in the profile of their school and how it projects outwardly. The significant way in which one does this is with real substance: play an active role in the community. Engage in the community. Be a part and be a player in that space.

But don’t underestimate the role of presentation. An up-to-date website, an active social media presence, quality prospectus and literature; and make time to see parents and meet with them if they have questions, issues or concerns.

I explore this further in my blog Prime Ministers vs Headteachers (Section 3) which you can read here

10. Being an ambassador is a full-time job

Leading a school involves being a community leader. And that means you will need to be prepared to be involved in a myriad of things at local level. Just last month I represented our schools at a local Commissioners meeting, the Village Fair, accompanied the school football team to a weekend tournament, and attended an evening music concert involving our pupils.

You might not be prepared for the full time nature of the ambassadorial role of headship. And wider than this, your presence will be expected at all kinds of things at all times of the week, including weekends. Church services, village fâtes, sports fixtures, performances… these are all things which will appear in your diary.

It’s also worth noting that wherever you go, you will be seen. A shopping trip to Tescos, a Sunday pub lunch, a walk in the park… these are all times when I have been seen by parents and children. In that respect, you are always on duty with a smile and small talk. Being an ambassador is a full time job.

Did you find the hints and tips listed in this article helpful? What other golden nuggets of information do wish you had known before you stepped into headship? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below. 

And don’t forget, if you enjoyed this article, share it with your friends and colleagues!

REFERENCES

Grant, Viv (2017) “Tips for headteachers to help prevent burnout,” The Guardian Newspaper (sourced online at https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2017/jul/11/tips-headteachers-prevent-burnout-stress Accessed 30.8.2021)

1 comment

  1. I have been a HT now for over 21 years… thank you for sharing these lessons, which I can relate to immediately!

    Like

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