So after meeting with eight successful school leaders and asking each of them similar questions about their educational journey, what have I learnt about the role of a headteacher?
1) One size does not fit all
“There is no formula” is a phrase that was used on multiple occasions during the interviews.
All pupils are unique and, therefore, so are the schools that are there to help educate them. What works in one school may not work in another school and the real skill demonstrated by successful school leaders is knowing what will work for their community.
All guests talked openly about where they conceived some of their more effective strategies and interventions but, more importantly, how these were adapted in order for them to work in their setting. This methodology requires wisdom and a deep understanding of the rationale behind the practice so that its essence is not lost when it is adapted and implemented within your own school.
This finding is an important lesson for policy makers and Academy CEOs when they are considering rolling out a strategy to all schools under their trusted leadership. Furthermore, headteachers may occasionally need to be disruptive and speak out if they are asked to do something that will not work for their pupils.
Without facing the same pressures from both inside and outside school that headteachers face on a daily basis it is easy for me to make these observations, generalisations and recommendations. To question authority and challenge your superiors is not always the best career move. However, words from Jeremy Hannay seem very appropriate to close this first point:
A compliant teacher is not a teacher at all…
Are you a compliant head?
2) Be brave
Knowing what to do in the best interests of your staff and pupils is one thing. Having the bravery and focus to execute your plans is another thing entirely.
It is easy for school leaders to fall into a trap of copying what a school down the road has done because it worked for them. Not only is this lazy but it is only doing a disservice to their pupils who deserve more than this.
The school down the road is made up of an infinite number of different moving parts and trying to replicate their success with a replicate of their strategy is showing none of the synthesising skills that teachers demand of their pupils.
Often, school leaders need to deal with a number of internal challenges first before they can really stamp their ideas, philosophy and personality onto their new school. When they have the bandwidth to start doing this, researching effective practice locally, nationally and globally, and subsequently trying to embed this to optimal effect in their setting, is a creative challenge that many of my guests relished. Unfortunately, the constant deluge of day-to-day challenges often hinders many headteachers into a state of paralysis in terms of school progress.
An effective head will bravely create time for themselves to focus on tasks that will have the greatest impact on pupil outcomes. An ineffective head will be busy all of the time, often telling colleagues and visitors exactly how busy they are.
Are you an effective head?
3) You have to be passionate
This theme came through loud and clear in each and every interview.
People often say that teaching is a vocation and you have to really want to do the job in order to truly enjoy it. The same can be said for being a headteacher, if not even more so.
Examples of this include Rae Snape’s tweets, Andrew Morrish’s book and Cath Rindl’s support for a failing school. All school leaders interviewed invest long hours in their roles but do so out of passion and commitment. This drive and determination for the benefit of their pupils, staff and local community is why they joined the profession in the first place. They all appreciate and honour the important role in society that they have been given and work selflessly to repay the trust that others have placed in them by giving children in their care the best possible start in life.
If you were to ask them about why they are so committed they would question your own work ethic for even contemplating the question, let alone for asking it. They have a job to do and often give more of themselves to the cause than they should, making numerous personal sacrifices in doing so.
Yes, being a headteacher is more than a job: it is a way of life. Would they have it any other way? Probably not.
Are you a passionate head?
4) You have to look after yourself
Through luck or design, each of the school leaders interviewed has a life outside the school gates. Whether these lives are fulfilled with family time, hobbies or other purposeful distractions, the eight guests interviewed demonstrate the same level of commitment shown towards their profession to other aspects of their lives ranging from playing hockey to farming.
Whilst remaining humble, school leaders need to realise how important they are to their school and the pupils they serve. Being absent from school through illness, stress or for any other reason is not in the best interests of anybody, including themselves for whom they will be very frustrated and hard on themselves, compounding the matter yet further.
Your own wellbeing plan as a headteacher is equally as important as your school development plan and you should never be ashamed to display this on your wall for all to see. In fact, emphasising the importance of this for staff and pupils to see could be a very shrewd tactic and lead to an enriching culture of empathy and compassion.
Alongside health, education is one of the unhealthiest sectors to work in. Teachers realise that healthy children are better learners but they do not always apply this logic to themselves, i.e. healthy adults are better teachers.
A positive culture within school is another recurring theme and a strong sense of teamwork is something that all guests prioritised. In fact, this is the key strategy used by Cath Rindl when she arrived at her new school and realised that it was the culture that needed to be addressed first.
As a headteacher, change starts with you. If you can’t take control of your own life, decisions and behaviour it is highly likely that you will struggle to influence those around you. You need to be at your best in a high pressured environment for long periods of the year. In order to do this you need to be physically, emotionally and cognitively healthy. You need to look after yourself.
Are you a self-compassionate head?
5) You have to pay inspiration forward
There are numerous references to teachers and mentors who influenced the early careers of all guests. In fact, some guests chose careers in education as a result of parents or family members who inspired them.
The role that a positive mentor can play in any career is invaluable. Within education one is often limited to mentors within your own school and, in the typical school hierarchy, teachers look up to middle leaders; middle leaders to senior leaders and senior leaders to headteachers.
Hopefully, you have benefitted from advice, support and guidance from an inspiring and effective colleague. It is now your responsibility to do the same and pay this inspiration forward, or as Jeremy so succinctly puts it:
You’re not a leader unless you’ve created a leader who has created a leader.
Pupils learn from teaching others. Senior leaders will also learn more about their teaching colleagues by trying to inspire them. There is a lot of value in sharing pedagogy and teaching strategies from your experience as a school leader. However, teachers are human beings and often need different support to be at their best when they show up for work every day.
Giving them advice about managing their work-life integration (thanks Viv!) and getting to know them on a more personal level will give you more bang for your buck in terms of developing a teacher’s own learning behaviours and motivation to perform.
I certainly left every interview feeling inspired, motivated and energised and I am sure that staff fortunate enough to be mentored by my podcast guests will feel the same after a team briefing or an informal exchange in the school corridor.
Are you an inspirational head?
I have thoroughly enjoyed working on this podcast project. I always like talking to headteachers and school leaders about education and child development so recording these interviews allowed me to focus more of my time on this aspect of my work.
It has been a really useful CPD opportunity and the intensive programme of interviewing, editing and summarising the interviews has led to deep learning of new ideas, strategies and ways of being that I have already begun sharing with colleagues and friends.
My initial plan was to focus on a particular theme with each of my guests who were chosen on the basis of an area of their work that is highly effective. However, it soon became apparent that similar characteristics were shared by all eight guests, in different parts of the country and all serving very different school communities. It is with this learning in mind that I have made the above generalisations that I hope are useful and an interesting way to round off the series.
These interviews would not have been possible if it were not for the generosity of time, wisdom and spirit of my eight wonderful guests.
- Alison Kriel
- Rae Snape
- Paul Green
- Gilroy Brown
- Cath Rindl
- Viv Grant
- Jeremy Hannay
- Andrew Morrish
My sincere thanks to each of you and I am looking forward to continuing our conversations in the weeks, month and years to come.
You really are Heads Of Our Time….