On the 1st February 2019 I made one of the biggest decisions of my career. It followed a visit to school that was led by a friend of mine. At the time I was Head of School at a two-form entry primary school in Woolwich, south London and to be fair, I was pretty content with my lot. I’d been there for almost two years, got on with the staff, had a pretty good handle on curriculum stuff and had manage to make an impact on behaviour within the school. The school was a challenge, but I enjoyed the challenge and if things got really challenging, I could always turn to my executive co-headteachers for support.
The idea of headship wasn’t one I’d ever given serious consideration to but the visit to my friend’s school provided some food for thought. As Head of School, I was already responsible for recruiting staff for my campus, I dealt with staff development, parent complaints and attendance issues. I was responsible for implementing changes relating to behaviour and along with other campus leaders within the federation I also led on curriculum development. The only things that I didn’t really have a lot of responsibility for was finance and budget setting and working closely with governors.
Sitting in my friend’s office, listening to her tell me about the changes she was implementing at her school, I suddenly had what I can only describe as a epiphanic moment (I had to look that up to make sure it was a real word). It was a moment of thinking ‘why not…what’s the worst that can happen?’ and at that point I decided I was going to apply for headship. The following Monday I went into work and told my executive co-headteachers what I had decided. The rest, as they say, is history.
In September 2019 I took on my first headship and as you would expect, there was a lot I didn’t know. I was suddenly responsible for planning the dates for all the governors meetings throughout the year. Who knew? With the introduction of the new Ofsted Framework, it was down to me to lead the discussion with staff on how we were going to map out the curriculum to ensure we ticked all the right boxes. How was I supposed to know? I had to read through termly budget reports and work with my school business manager to decide where we needed to cut back and how we were going to make funds stretch with a falling roll. I wasn’t sure. To top it all off I had to work out how I was going to get my school through a world-wide pandemic at a time when I still getting to know how to run a school. Where was the manual that had all the answers? Oh of course, there wasn’t one!
There were so many things that I had to learn as I went along. Thankfully I still had a hotline to my executive co-headteachers and could have asked them if I got really stuck, but I knew I there were a lot of things that I just had to work out for myself. I had a great team around me, individuals who knew the school well – the parents, the children, the routines – and this made a big difference. I had a supportive chair of Governors who trusted my judgments, understood the pressures (being an ex-headteacher herself), and was able to guide me through certain things. And most of all, I had a lot of common sense, which is something that can be greatly underestimated, but is a characteristic which has seen me through many difficult decisions and moments of uncertainty.
The last three years have been the most demanding in my 20-year career in education. However the 35 years I’ve spent working in various roles in different sectors including retail management and church ministry, have all provided me with a range of skills and a depth of knowledge that have come in handy in my role as a headteacher. You can and should never underestimate all the things you already bring to your leadership role. Just because you haven’t done it before doesn’t mean you’re not capable of doing it, it just means there is more to learn. At times, that learning curve can become pretty steep and very rocky but climb it you must if you’re to get to the next level. There may be moments when you wonder what on earth you were thinking of even applying for the job, but the answer will surely be, you were thinking you’d be able to go a good job and you’ve got to remind yourself of that from time to time. If necessary, take out your supporting statement and read through all the wonderful things that you wrote that impressed the panel enough to invite you for an interview. Re-read your offer letter and remind yourself of how pleased the Chair of Governors or Board of Trustees were to offer you the job. Mentally take yourself back to the end of your first day as a headteacher, when you felt so chuffed to have made it through the first day and then remind yourself of the first time you got through a challenge that you thought was going to defeat you but didn’t.
Becoming a headteacher is a big thing and the enormity of the role should never be underestimated, but you shouldn’t beat yourself up for not knowing all the answers, are unsure of what to do in certain circumstances or sometimes feel like you’re in over your head. The fact of the matter is, every headteacher would have felt like that at some point in their career. Headteachers with 20 plus years’ of experience still have times when they’re dealing with a situation for the first time and will have to turn to their professional networks and exercise a double dose of common sense to navigate round it. The bottom line is, no-one really has it all worked out – but this makes you no less of an effective headteacher than the person in the school down the road.
So, as you set out on your journey of headship, don’t worry if there are times when it feels like you’re stumbling around in the dark, there will come a point in time when you find the switch, the light comes on and it all becomes just a little bit clearer.