Learning to Lead: reflections on a new role.
Ten years ago I was in an interview with my then headteacher. I was on a temporary fixed term contract and had written to him asking to be considered for a permanent post prior to the job going out to tender. I had done this on the advice of my then HoD, and it turned out to be the right advice. The head gave me a new contract and told me he was pleased with the progress I’d made as an NQT. But his final question really threw me: “Where do you see yourself when you’re my age? Where do you see your career going?” This wasn’t something I could answer as I had never given it any thought, and I believe I had good reason for this.
The first two years in any teaching career are hugely challenging. During my PGCE and NQT years I’d taught in three different schools, dozens of different classrooms, learned myriad new skills and ways of working, gone through several interviews and come into contact with thousands of different students and colleagues. The amount of flux and change in those years for any new teacher is pretty phenomenal, and so my long term goal at that time was simply to secure a permanent post and become a good, solid, established teacher, never mind having any thoughts of ascending the school hierarchy. As such, I could only answer in the negative: “Errrm, well, I don’t see myself in your position, put it that way.” The head chuckled knowingly and replied that he had felt the same way at my age.
But a few years ago I did start to develop yearnings to have a bit more clout about the place, and this stemmed from a growing belief that I could do as good a job as many of the people who were in leadership and middle leadership positions. From years of watching how others coped with these roles, I began to develop my own ideas of how things ought to be done. A couple of years ago I began applying for roles with more responsibility, and this time last year I landed my first one, beginning in September 2014.It’s a slightly ambiguous role – the official job title is “Director of Progress for Communication and Literacy”, essentially a HoD role but with some SLT responsibilities. It’s a great job in a lovely little school where there is massive potential and scope for good ideas to be developed. I find it mind-boggling that I’ve been there 6 months; the learning curve has been huge and challenging and I don’t know where the time has gone, and yet I feel like I’ve been there forever.
Recently, I looked back over my application letter; I wanted to see if I had lived up to all the things I claimed in there. I can honestly say that I still have a long way to go to fulfil the things I wrote in that letter. However, one thing did stand out. I wrote:
“I like to think that every colleague’s ideas should be listened to and discussed on every subject of school life, regardless of their experience or status, and I would especially apply this to faculty teams. I have worked under several heads of department whose approaches I would describe as everything from anarchic to autocratic to democratic, and it is my opinion that a mixture of all three of these is the best way of leading any organisation or team. Colleagues must have a say in the process leading to any decision, but ultimately the head of the team must make their own firm decision in light of others’ opinions and take responsibility for that decision. Team members, in my experience, value democratic discussion coupled with firm and fair leadership. The “Leading from the Middle” course taught me that a team leader must also endeavour to know the individuals in a team on every level, from their personal interests and details of their home lives to their strengths and weaknesses as teachers and colleagues. Only with this depth of personal knowledge can a leader hope to deploy their team in the most successful way that allows for the best possible outcomes with the means at their disposal.”
I think this extract contains the underlying principles that have driven my work in my new role, and I hope it’s something that my new colleagues see me putting into practice every day. In previous roles, I saw examples of fantastic and terrible leadership. I can remember leaders who refused to allow others to speak in meetings; on the other hand I remember meetings that just became forums for a good natter or a whinge about the next tier of leadership, which was a frustrating waste of time. I have known senior leaders that won’t speak or acknowledge staff in corridors, unless firmly put on the spot. Equally, I’ve known leaders that will bend over backwards to try and make everybody happy regardless of the priorities and needs of the school and its students.
So what are the most important things that I have learned so far?
- Get to know everybody as quickly as possible and take a genuine interest in their professional and personal lives. Schools are social organisations and relationships are the grease that keeps them running smoothly.
- Regardless of how you feel, always take the time to speak to and listen to colleagues. Despite the fact that I have a never ending to-do list, it’s important to put others first. Solving colleagues’ problems so that they can function happily and successfully is a major priority in any leadership role and the thing that makes for a happy department. (I remember a leader who used to simply raise a hand in a Nazi style salute if you were interrupting them in the middle of something. This person wouldn’t even look up; what a terrible way to treat people!)
- Keep what happens in your classroom as a priority. Regardless of the jobs you need to get done, schools are only really about delivering high quality learning experiences for their students. Never let planning and delivery of lessons and the marking of students’ work move to the back burner. It should always remain the priority. (I still teach 18 hours a week, but this should still be the case of a headteacher who only teaches a few lessons a week).
A decade on and, if asked the question by my old head, I still wouldn’t respond that I see myself as becoming a headteacher. There are several reasons for this, but the main one is I still don’t have enough time to fit in everything I want to do around my job. On weekends and holidays, my family and I like to read books, visit interesting places, go for long walks, ride our bikes and eat and drink well. But I don’t get to do any of these nearly as much as I would like. I draw the line at working more than 50-55 hours a week, and I know that many headteachers work a lot more than this. Still, I don’t suppose we should ever rule anything out.