Before I started my new role – my first headship after being a pastoral deputy for four years – I wrote an article on the transition between the roles of deputy headteacher and headteacher. In the spirit of self-reflection and six months since appointment, writing this article provides me with a perfect opportunity to, in the words of Confucius, “learn wisdom”. Confucius stated that reflection was the noblest way to learn wisdom, followed by imitation (the easiest) and then experience, “which is the bitterest”! So, what have I learned since my role began? What would I tell the ‘six month younger’ me and, am I indeed any wiser?
Well I hope that I can say that there have been some successes! One of the best things that I feel that I did before taking on my role in September was to research. I was very fortunate; my predecessor was very happy for me to come into school and to meet the girls and their parents. I was aware of their views and how strongly they felt about the school. Indeed, I remember one parent telling me that whatever I did, I must not change the ethos of the school. And, he was right to say that – it is the ethos of my school that does make it special – and I am glad that I listened to his advice. However, what this research enabled me to do was to start the role with a good understanding of the school and its context. As staff, we were able to talk about a collective vision from the outset and I have been consistent in marketing this vision since the first week of September.
Getting to know the staff, so that the ‘I’ of talking about the school becomes a ‘we’ has been very important to me.
I have had personal one-to-one meetings with every single member of staff at the school. Although time-consuming, it has been an invaluable process and has been a surprising drive for future planning and marketing. Furthermore, giving staff time to describe their own perceptions and their own context, has been of huge value and has been worth every minute of the time I have dedicated to it.
There have been some surprises though. I have come to realise just what a difference there is between being a senior leader and a headteacher. Staff look to the headteacher for strong leadership and for decisions to be made swiftly and with transparency. I am certainly not saying that I have made no mistakes – it would be foolish to say I haven’t – but I have stopped looking over my shoulder when someone asks me to make a decision. For some weeks at the start of the year, I had to remind myself, “Yes – it’s you they are waiting for,” not someone else. I have also realised that the majority of these decisions have a cost implication; I never thought that I would become such an avid fan of spreadsheets and budget projections.
There is, also, the constant debate about change and whether, as a headteacher, bringing in too much change can be overwhelming for staff. I recognise this issue but also know that in our current climate, we cannot stand still. Standing still leads to complacency and I have felt strongly that we have to move forwards so that we continue to have a strong place in an extremely competitive market. We have to be the best we can be and if making changes is in the interest of the pupils, then we have to make them. As Socrates said, “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new,” and I have to agree. We can’t look back at tradition to reinforce our current position but look forward to how we can progress and change to maintain relevance.
I always knew that I would end up relying on a team around me and I am incredibly fortunate to have a fantastic senior team and outstanding administrative support. However, headship is – or can be – lonely. Ultimately, the headteacher is accountable for decisions made and this responsibility is huge. Nevertheless, I have found the network of other headteachers the most incredible source of support. The GSA has a fantastic mentoring system where new heads are paired up with those with experience. This is an outstanding system which has enabled me to have the support and advice I have needed at various points through the year so far. Indeed, this has been crucial to my development of the so-called ‘professional courage’ one needs to shape an institution which reflects the shared vision of the staff and parents.
Finally, headship has reminded me of my love for teaching. Being a headteacher can take you out of the classroom and I have missed sharing my passion for my subject with students. It is easy to forget – when we are involved in general school issues as we invariably are as leaders – that teaching was what brought us to this point. However, being aware of this makes those opportunities I do get to teach a real treat. I am convinced that my Head of Religion & Philosophy thinks that I am completely deranged when I react with huge enthusiasm when asked if I would like to teach a revision lesson on the ontological argument! But this is what, in part, being a leader in a school is all about – building a school community which has a two-fold focus; the welfare of the child and learning. As a headteacher, I am determined I am not going to forget my love of the latter!
I am not so arrogant to assume that I will not and do not make mistakes and I certainly do not feel that I have achieved any sort of wisdom – despite my reading of Confucianism.
However, just as I recommend to my pupils: “Every endeavour pursued with passion produces a successful outcome, regardless of the result. For it is not about winning or losing – rather, the effort put forth in producing the outcome.” (Matthew Syed)
This doesn’t only go for the pupils but for me too. Bring on the next six months!