In the early years of my teaching career, I couldn’t really see the appeal of headship (or, in fact, senior leadership) at all. I was aware of the pressure, the responsibility, the stress – dare I say, the unpopularity? The heads I knew (and I worked for 10 heads over a period of 20 years in five different schools) usually didn’t teach. They seemed to have relatively little contact with the students which, to me, was the joy of teaching – though it was often, of course, the root cause of the challenges too. These heads were, in the main, relatively remote figures (one was nicknamed ‘the hologram head’ by the pupils). I remember watching the head and senior team dancing at a school Christmas party in my first school, and consciously thinking, “I’ll never be a head. I really can’t dance like that.”
In retrospect, in the arrogance of youth I think I was over-critical (teachers tend to be – have you noticed?) and lacking in real understanding and empathy. Over the years, as I moved to be second in department, Head of Department and then Head of Sixth Form, I worked more closely with the heads and senior teams and developed my awareness and appreciation of their role and how different individuals fulfilled it. I learnt from some good examples and, arguably, I learnt even more from negative examples. And over the years I honed my vision of the kind of head I would be, were I to get that far.
As a deputy head I was fortunate in the two heads I worked with, from whom I learnt a good deal. It was when I was a deputy that I realised I really did want to be a head myself one day. I recognised that when the head was out of school and I was ‘it’, increasingly I enjoyed the challenge and the opportunities that gave me. The experience of being a deputy also helped me to decide what type of school I would like to lead. After five years as a deputy I moved to lead such a school, and over my ten years there I have to say I had a ball.
Yes, it is challenging, the responsibilities are considerable, and you have difficult days and demanding situations to try to find a way through. You are a public figure and if you get it wrong (and, inevitably, there will be times when you will) it will be obvious and you will attract criticism – sometimes unfair criticism which you have to be able to cope with. You have to develop your resilience, keep your integrity intact and remember what your core values are, even when (especially when) they may be sorely tested. You will work harder than you have ever done, and you can never complain about that – who would sympathise? You have to be aware that the job is potentially overwhelming and all-consuming and you have to protect yourself (and your family, friends, and your life beyond headship – you really do need one) from that. For me, ten years as a head felt like enough, much as I had enjoyed it. I paced myself throughout the ten years and was ready, at the end of that time, for a different challenge and a different balance in my life. I have no regrets about making that decision, and know that my life is richer for all headship taught me.
It was definitely the best job I did over a 30 year career, and I recommend it to anyone who has the temperament and the drive to do it. The skills will develop (you “build the bridge as you walk on it”, as Robert Quinn says) – you can prepare in a number of ways, practically and psychologically, but ultimately you learn the job by doing the job. And you never stop learning – you have never, in my experience ‘cracked it’. This is part of its appeal.
I do think it’s important that heads (and senior leaders too) consciously try to be positive role models to teachers who are at an earlier stage of their career if they are to encourage and inspire future generations of school leaders. We need to be mindful of how others see us, and if we never smile, seem constantly stressed, unapproachable and remote, we risk giving the impression that headship only has a downside. I wouldn’t want to mislead anyone into thinking the role is easy, but I have to say I found great joy in it, and considerable satisfaction when you DID resolve an issue and move forward. As head you have the capacity to make a difference on a scale unlike anything you’ve ever known before. You have the opportunity to improve teaching and learning, to protect the well-being of the staff (teaching and support) and to lift others. You can support parents and make a positive difference to some of their lives, too.
You won’t win them all, and you have to accept that. It isn’t a popularity contest and, although you need a degree of strength and self-confidence, you have to be able to leave your ego aside and recognise it is about the school and all in it (past, present and future) and not about you. Towards the end of your time, in particular, you have to think about the legacy you are leaving and what you can do to ensure the school continues to grow in strength and success after you have moved on. We are all, in fact, caretakers of the vision for a finite period and there should be a degree of humility that comes with that. We should do all in our power to try to leave the school a better place than we found it, and that involves supporting, encouraging and inspiring leaders of the future.
That’s a privilege.
Here are some additional posts to add to this one on why be a head
- The Head’s briefcase.