10 Things I Wish I’d Known Before I Became A Head

1. You are responsible for more than you could ever imagine.

The list is never-ending. My neck is on the line for things I never even knew existed. I am still surprised by things that come at me that I am responsible for even three years on. It’s a constant whirlwind. Most of them won’t ever be an issue, so don’t need worrying about – until they do! A colleague recently suggested I should write a list of all the things that I am accountable for. This would go on forever and ever just thinking about school performance not even including Health and Safety, HR, DSL, finance. Try not to let it daunt you though, I try not to worry about things I can’t affect. You will be accountable for so many things – fires, injuries, results, behaviour, school reputation but if you dwelt on it all you would be overwhelmed. Build a team of experts around you who can take responsibility for those things. Even if you can’t delegate the accountability, delegating the responsibility can remove a lot of the burden. Focus on what you can change, what you can have an impact on and see those things through.

2. It’s harder than you’d ever imagined…but you a stronger than you ever imagined.

I began my headship with three (hopefully!) ‘once in a career’ issues within my first year. It was tough, really tough. Legal threats, teaching issues, safeguarding issues and a whole lot more. I was tested through that more than I have ever been in my life. There were lots of tears, lots of frustrations and a whole heap of anguish and anxiety. However, although they were difficult at the time, they proved one thing to me – I am strong and things can be dealt with. Obviously, there may come a point where things are more than we can bear, but I found reserves of strength and resilience that I didn’t know I had. It’s not until we are tested that we know how we will react and I am sure a lot of us are far stronger than we give ourselves credit for. We go through trials every day and use those experiences to make us stronger. It’s not just about being thick-skinned, it is about having the confidence and belief that what you are doing is right and is so firmly rooted in your values that there is no other option but to carry on and stick to it. It goes without saying that we have to listen, be flexible and willing to change, but on issues of our values, that is where we have to stay strong.

3. You can’t do it all by yourself.

Don’t fall into the trap of trying to cover every gap by yourself. My previous head did that – she micromanaged the whole school and not only did it burn her out, but it is also meant she was de-skilling other members of staff to the point where they would just hand everything over to her as they knew she would a) do it and b) change what they had done anyway. All of this knowledge was kept in her head. This meant that when she went off sick while I was deputy, people at first didn’t know what to do. They had been so used to deferring that when I was asking them to do things (as I was teaching and acting up) they were flummoxed. However, over the weeks they suddenly came to realise that they were able to do these things, they could have confidence in themselves and they could do things well. They started to take back responsibility. When I became head I told them I would be following in the previous head’s footsteps. I was giving them the professional freedom to take responsibility for their class and everything that went alongside it. I involved them in decision making and rationale, I told them what I get up to on a daily basis. This made them better informed, with a better understanding of the thought processes that go into decision making. I know of headteachers who are so worried about going out of school in case something goes wrong and they aren’t there to deal with it. I don’t have that anxiety. I fully trust my senior staff to make the right decisions and to deal with what comes their way. We have worked through things together, as a team so they know what to do. They know when to contact me and when not to and this all comes from being given the chance to take part and understand the workings of the school.

4. Never plan to do anything vital during a day – something always comes up!

“I know, I’ll do that headteachers report on Tuesday morning”. No, you won’t. Tuesday morning will be the morning two teachers are ill and you have to cover. “It’s OK, I’ll take some time on Wednesday”. No, you won’t because you’ll be investigating a safeguarding incident. Distractions and interruptions are par for the course. The number of decisions you will need to make in a day is mind-boggling and all of these can interrupt the flow of trying to get stuff done.

How have I counteracted this? I have realised that if I have a big project, work I need to get done with no distractions, it is OK to be off-site. I have worked from home on several days this year and been so much more productive. I am still at the end of my phone and email, I am only 15 minutes from the school so can be in if I need to be, but the difference it makes is huge. I allow teachers to take their PPA time at home, why shouldn’t I allow myself the same thing (the same goes for going to see your kids nativity, or being there on the first day at school by the way!)? There is so much going on in a day that sometimes you just won’t be able to concentrate at school. When I first started I wondered how I was going to fill days in my office – how naive! The thing is, that every time someone goes to knock on your door it is because they have something important to ask you. It might not seem important to you, but to them it’s big. They wouldn’t interrupt the headteacher if it wasn’t so you need to give them the time and respect they deserve. Often this means your own work gets pushed back. This can’t happen indefinitely, you’ll be buried under everything to do, so make some time for you to work quietly and without interruption – it could make a huge difference.

5. It’s lonely

Even when surrounding yourself with a great team, no one really understands the pressures that go with it. My deputy says to me that she is more than happy being a deputy because at the end of the day it is you who makes the decision and your neck on the line. She’s a great deputy and really supportive, but this is true. There are decisions only you can make. There will be input from other people, but the decision is still yours. This is where it is lonely and you feel like no one can help.

Having someone away from school to talk to helps. I pester my wife with all sorts of things. She doesn’t fully understand all of the ins and outs all the time, but she does offer an objective opinion of someone looking from the outside in. She can offer a point of view that is removed from worrying about budgets and others things – she can just see what the best decision is overall. Having someone like that has been invaluable to me in tackling this – try and find your own.

6. Imposter syndrome looms large

I suffer from this hugely. in my first couple of years every course, meeting and phone call would leave me feeling out of my depth, inferior and just not good enough. It wasn’t until I spoke to someone who’d been doing it for ten years and said they still feel like they were winging it every day that I came to terms with it. I struggled a lot with imposter syndrome and still do. It’s tough and it’s only now I’m starting to feel more confident in my ability to do the job.

Joining Twitter last year has been wonderful and opened my eyes to a lots of good things, but has always made me think “my school won’t be that good” or “I’ll never be as a good a head as that person”. Imposter syndrome is par for the course in teaching I think. We always feel like we can be doing better and that is a good thing – it means we won’t just settle for mediocre. However, if an bring you down after a while…which brings me on to…

7. Decide how you will judge your own achievements.

I know we can set data targets and performance targets and appraisal targets and all other manner of targets, but when it boils down to it, when you move on from your current post how will you know if you’ve e done a good job? I could pass my appraisal targets but still not be overly happy in myself with how I am doing. I give myself one very simple test – is the school better than when I started? If I can answer yes to this then I’m satisfied. Are the children happier? Is the curriculum better? Are staff more settled and involved?

Having someone who can remind you of this things is important. This is where my deputy is great. She often says “look at how far we’ve come and look at what we’ve achieved.”. When you are in it say to dayit’s hard to step back and look at things from a wider viewpoint. We get caught up in the problems and don’t see the positives. Stepping back and looking to see just what you’ve done and everything you can be proud of makes a huge difference and increase your confidence in the job you are doing.

8. It’s OK to switch off

Yes, it is. It might be hard, and it might take practice but you need know when to say enough is enough and to walk away from it for the day. Worry, doubt and anxiety are par for the course, but we can deal with them (I wrote about it here https://secretheadteacher702390687.wordpress.com/2019/08/17/mind-consuming/ ).

Sometimes we just need to give ourselves space and time and give ourselves the authority to do that. It will be better in the long run if you do. No one can run a school when they are burnt out. Allow yourself time to rest and to enjoy your hobbies. Not everything has to be done all at once with work – what is the worst that could happen if something doesn’t get done tonight? Can you affect change by worrying? If not, then try to let it go. Easier said than done, but made a huge difference to my state of mind.

9. Be confident in yourself, you are doing the right thing.

This comes back to your values and consistently applying them. You know what is right and wrong. You know when to make a stand for what you know is right. Don’t be deterred from that. People will respect you more in the long run than if you back down and compromise yourself. Establish these values before you start, emphasise them to your staff and then model them. Expect others to stick to them and encourage them to filter through. You’ve got to give respect to get it. Show kindness and compassion, fight for justice for children who you feel are being let down. Don’t back down when a parent wants you to change a decision because it doesn’t suit them or their child – you know it is right for the majority. Explain the process, explain why you’ve made the decision, listen to them. Of course, this doesn’t mean we are always right. If you get it wrong, say so. Be up front about it. You set the tone in your school – make sure that tone matches your values.

10. It’s the best job there is.

Despite all the pressures, decisions, sleepiness nights and everything else I wouldn’t do anything else. I enjoy it. I enjoy making a difference,I enjoy watching people grow and take on responsibility, I enjoy seeing children become confident, we’ll mannered young people. At the end of the day I played a part in making that happen. I’m not in class, no, but if I’ve helped to create a culture in a school where young people can flourish then what could be better? It’s a different job to teaching, but no less meaningful, no less fulfilling and you make no less of a difference. We are privileged to lead schools and the teams we work with. Appreciate that, tackle it with enthusiasm and make the most of every day.

Published by @secretHT1

Primary HT. Using this as a space to write honestly and freely about the state of education currently.

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