“I came into teaching slightly late, after a brief foray into research – and fell in love with it immediately. I worked my way through a succession of roles in some very different schools, moving from maintained to independent schools, co-ed to single sex. Ultimately, I found my niche in girls’ schools,” said Gwen.
Being a headteacher, Gwen stresses, takes resilience – and a great deal of stamina. “Even on your most challenging days the ‘game face’ must go on, and you must present your best self to the community. However, it is also vital to be yourself and not some constructed ideal of what a headteacher ‘should’ be: if the role’s right for you, you will give your heart to it. A sense of humour (and a finely tuned sense of the ridiculous) is also essential!”
The job may be demanding and the final responsibilities rest with you alone – but Gwen has never found the role a lonely one. “Build a good team and they will support you as much as you support them. Sometimes, I suspect the ‘loneliness’ is actually an awareness that a decision has to be made and that the buck always stops with you. Those are two different things, though, and life becomes easier when you recognise this.”
“One of the most powerful leaders I know gave me some excellent advice: as a leader, you need to be thick-skinned about your own feelings, but thin-skinned when it comes to the feelings of others. Put on your ‘game face’, but remember that what you say and do can have a profound impact on colleagues, pupils and their families,” said Gwen.
When it comes to encouraging others to unearth their own leadership potential, Gwen also knows that self-belief is key. “In encouraging leadership in others, particularly in women, I have lost count of the times I’ve said, ‘I wouldn’t be offering you the role if I didn’t believe you could do it’. ‘Impostor syndrome’ [a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud] can be particularly destructive, and it’s really important that we encourage people to make the leap into leadership.”
Gwen feels that education can learn much from other sectors when it comes to the challenge of growing strong leaders for the future. “Being a great teacher doesn’t give you the skills to be a good middle or senior leader, and we could do more to structure leadership programmes to develop excellent leaders at all levels. That’s probably my next big school project!”