School leadership – indeed, the teaching profession as a whole – was not where James Hanson saw himself as a determined 21-year-old finishing a Maths degree at Oxford University. “I was sure of two things: firstly, that I would take up my city career following a job offer, and secondly that I would never teach,” said James.
A conversation with a housemate, and an offer of some well-paid teaching for an Easter revision week, changed all that. “Perhaps it was just in the genes after all, following on from generations of teachers on my mother’s side,” James reflected.
After teacher training at Warwick University, followed by a teaching role at his old school, James realised his calling in London after all and moved on to teach at Harrow for a decade, before taking on two headship roles – the second of which is his current post at Aldro Prep School.
“Working life helps you to understand who gets the best out of you, alongside your own strengths and weaknesses,” said James. “One headteacher I worked for always started interviews with a ‘strengths and weaknesses’ question. Not only does this allow for some frank candour, it also shows how well someone can reflect on how to develop themselves – the most important lesson in leadership. The second lesson I’ve learned relates to giving advice: learning when to simply listen, and not try to problem-solve. Two of the most inspiring leaders I have served with were also the best at listening. They had phenomenal memories too, and recorded key information in diaries, so that they could pick up a conversation weeks or months later.”
James also has his own take on ‘partnership’, a key word in current education circles: “Partnership to me is less how well someone works as a team player, more how they want to gain from complementary experiences and enrich others. I also endorse ‘servant leadership’: some of the best leaders know when to get their hands dirty. I have always loved voluntary work, and have learned so much from working in different teams. For instance, I have always been a governor in the state sector: we have so much to learn from the 93% and it seems only right to offer support to headteachers and other governors who face incredible challenges – funding and Ofsted being at the top of a long list.”
The leaders who still inspire James today are those who manage to juggle a variety of tasks well. “Headship requires such a versatile range of skills that you need to be great with tiny children, and soft and compassionate to some highly impressionable and sensitive youngsters – as well as knowing when to be direct, clinical, visionary and empathetic with a range of adults, from staff to governors and parents,” said James.
“Above all, headteachers today need resilience. Despite all the many rewarding moments, headship can be very lonely. The late-night email about an issue that has caught you off-guard; managing difficult staff or those lacking competence; leading an organisation through a period of change or in the run-up to inspection: all these are challenges that place you at the forefront.
“My final piece of advice is to find yourself a great career coach – an inspirational leader who not only gets your job but will take the confidential call or meeting when things get really hard – and will also challenge your way of thinking.”