Heads Up 1: Live It. Learn It.

Posted on September 3, 2014


To paraphrase John Thomsett, I’ve been a Headteacher for just three days and this much I think I know already!

1. Being out of ‘limbo’ is good.

Ever since I knew that the former Head was retiring I’ve been in a state of limbo. Initially this was because of waiting for the job to be advertised, feeling caught between thinking about what to say and waiting until the governors laid out what it is they wanted from their new Head. Then the limbo-like state was during the application and interview process, torn between the confidence of being an in situ, ready to roll replacement and the nervousness of being one of many applicants, all of whom would have much to offer to the post. After the appointment I was caught firmly between the stools of being a legacy Deputy Head and a Head-elect (although my predecessor was wonderful throughout this time, it was a strange feeling to be leading on improvement planning for the coming year in someone else’s school). Finally, the summer break and exam results made for a rather uncertain period of interregnum (forgive the royal metaphor, and take heart from the fact I am an unreconstructed republican – and not one of the Oliver Cromwell variety!!).

It took me a couple of days to realise that this six month period of limbo was over, and for some confidence in my new role to seep in. I’m rather hoping that this confidence will grow, and am sensing an exuberance welling below the surface as I write. Being an internal promotion, I know that I can rely on my colleagues (not to mention the ever-grounding students) to prevent this becoming overconfidence. But it is good to feel that the job actually is mine at last. I hope that I can do it credit.

2. “We’re tough because we care”.

A core theme running through the School Improvement Plan for this year is “Challenge for all. Expectation of all.” and so I have placed these two words at the heart of my assemblies with each year group for this week. Going back to the etymology of the words, I have told the children that challenge, as derived from Latin, is a form of slander and must therefore be tough (be that challenges from adults or from within themselves). On the flip side of this, I pointed out that expectation, also derived from Latin, is about hope and must therefore be caring (again by staff and from within).

This afternoon I received an email from a colleague who took up the theme with her form in PSHCE. She sent me some quotes from the students, one of whom said:

“I really liked his explanations of why sometimes teachers shout at us. It’s because they have our best interest at heart.”

And whilst none of us would advocate (or utilise) shouting as a default strategy, the word “sometimes” is telling, as is the word “heart”.

3. FigureHead or MastHead?

This is the one I haven’t figured out yet, but I’m keen to think about further. Whereas the role of a Deputy is as instrumental as the pilot of a ship, the role of Headteacher is intriguingly different, placed as they are between the school and the outside world. Already I’ve come to realise that there is a wonderful figurehead element to the role (like the carved statue at the front of the ship) that crucially involves being out at the gate, being around lessons and corridors to hustle students, to be in the staffroom to catch up with staff and to be at meetings with parents, LA types, community representatives and the like.

But, of course, with a further reduced timetable and line management constrained to Deputies and the Business Manager (great people one and all) rather than Heads of Department and Heads of Year, there is a slight feeling of being in the masthead (the topmost part of the ship where sailors were often sent in inclement weather as punishment). I guess I’ll have to come to enjoy the view from here and take heart from the knowledge that at least I’ll be the one to see the rocks in good time, upon which we might otherwise founder as a school.

4. Don’t believe the hype!

On Friday I had my first real bout of nerves and self-doubt about taking up the role of Headteacher just three days later. Bizarrely enough, it came about as a result of being out for a drink and a meal with a large group of tweeters and bloggers who, one-by-one came up to tell me how brilliant I would be as a Head. “How do you know?” was all I could think. Sure, my blogs say all the right things (or mostly do, I hope), but the same is true of any self-publicist (in both the literal and figurative senses of the word).

And that was when all of the shadows crowded in: handling a budget of many millions with no real comparable experience, ensuring compliance with brand new SEN regulations with no significant pastoral roles on my CV, maintaining and extending levels of achievement in a school already within the top 5% nationally for value-added, and so on and so on. I’ve a lot to learn and in some areas I’m starting from scratch.

5. But do believe in yourself!!

And then, facing a couple of tricky situations on Tuesday, when I had to make a call in areas that I had never made a call in before, I realised that nearly twenty years in schools and nine years in various senior leadership roles, has given me enough experience to fall back on. I also realised that having a relatively coherent philosophy (in part shaped through the process of blogging) about what kind of school I want to lead, and some principles (going right back to those inculcated within me by my lovely mum and countless others) about what I know or believe to be right and wrong, I made calls of which I am proud. Even if they prove to have been the wrong calls, I know that people will understand why I made them and, if leadership is about anything, surely it is about that.

6. The warmth of colleagues (real and virtual) is sustaining.

And finally, not really something I have learnt this week, but something that I have long-known and been repeatedly reminded of in my short tenure as Head. Alongside all the well-wishers from the ever-giving twitter, more colleagues than I can count at school have taken the time to email nice comments, pop in to my office for a natter (the open door policy is working well so far), catch me around the site for a reassuring word or even just smile at me warmly. In the same way that kids make a classroom teacher feel valued by the small things they say or do, a staff member who makes room in their day to offer an act of kindness to a Headteacher (particularly one who hasn’t a clue if they’re getting it right or wrong) is a blessing indeed. For my sake, but more importantly for theirs, I hope that they will continue to do so as I grow further into this role.