Learning to Lead

I’ve been a headteacher for 6 years now. That whole time has been a massive learning process. Every day throws something new at you, and every day you learn something new about yourself, leadership, people and education. Here’s a few thoughts on things I’ve learned about leadership over my time as a head and how it’s impacted on different areas of my working life and trying to help a school be as effective as it can be.

Challenges are Temporary

There are so many different challenges that you are faced with every single day. Some of them are small, swatted away with barely a thought. These can leave you feeling good, productive, effective. It actually makes you feel that you are doing a good job, like you know what you are doing and that you are making a difference. These are good days. The more you do, the longer you do it, the easier these challenges get. Experience obviously makes things easier.

Sometimes though, something comes along that you haven’t seen before that just seems huge. Something that you just can’t deal with, it just feels too big, too complex too full on. What I’ve learned is that all those things are temporary. They are intense when you are in them and they are time consuming, anxiety inducing and mentally draining. They do end though. There is always a light at the end of the tunnel and there will always be people who can support you, give advice and help you make good decisions. Use these people when you can and take their ideas on board, the extra brain power is invaluable. What I’ve learned most, looking back is that those hardest of times do pass and the pain they can cause does fade and when you come out the other side you are stronger for it and better prepared for the next challenge. When you are feeling down, when it feels like it is too much, consider what you have managed to achieve before, things if those things you have conquered that seemed insurmountable before and take confidence from those.

Some days, just getting through is fine

You can easily feel the pressure to feel like you have made an impact with every single day. Who did I improve? What did I do to improve outcomes? Whose life did I make better? Who professionally developed because of me? Those are all valid questions, and we’ll get on to that a bit more later, but it is impossible to achieve those things every single day. Sometimes, you won’t even achieve any of those things and do you know what? That is absolutely fine. Some days, everything kicks off. You get nothing done on your to do list, you’ve been firefighting all day and you just sit at the end of the day and wonder what you’ve managed to do. On those days you will have achieved and it will feel like nothing. There are two things with that 1) You will have done lots in the day, especially when you think about it. 2) Was everyone safe? Did they all get to lessons? Did they all make it home again? If you answer yes to those then tick it off as a job well done and move onto the next day.

Some days, all we can do is to make it through and get to the end of it. Days like that are just as worthwhile as any other.

Change takes time

You might have a day when you feel like you’ve really made a significant impact. A decision might be a quick win, solve problem instantly and make a noticeable difference. That isn’t every day. What leaders have to realise is that nothing will change overnight, nothing substantial anyway. Change takes time. New initiatives can be started, new procedures implemented but the biggest thing everything needs is time. Time for it to become habit and a way of working that everyone becomes used to. This is easier with procedural things, but even more so when trying to change a culture. Hearts and minds are the hardest changes to make, they take consistency, repetition and encouragement. There will be times when you take one step forward and two steps back, times when reflection and change is needed.

Being prepared to accept those set backs, the strength to see your vision through and to bring people along with you all takes time and you need to give it time. It’s easy to get something started and then move onto the next thing, but it’s so important not to do that. Let things live and breathe until you can see the positive impact and you know that it will continue to have an impact even when you shift your focus of improvement to something else.

Everyday is a school day

Experience is key. Even if you feel you are ready for leadership and you feel you have all the skills you need to do the job there will still be a plethora of things you don’t know. Learning every day is key to being a better leader. Reflecting on every conversation and interaction, every big decision and see how it went is key. It’s not always possible, but every experience you have feeds into making you a better leader. Seek the feedback of others and learn all the time. Learn about yourself, learn about the job and don’t be too proud to think you’ve got it all cracked. When things are going well try and understand why. When things are going badly, it’s not because you’ve become a terrible leader overnight/ but there may have been steps along the way that will effect how you deal with it next time.

Keep learning. Leaders are in a strong position to experience so many different things that you get to find out a little bit if everything and learn along the way. Take every opportunity you can.

Staying true to who you are

Your values are what makes you you. Don’t compromise on the ones that are key to you. You can’t pretend to be someone you are not. It’s exhausting and ultimately leaves you unfulfilled with the job you are doing. We all have different values that guide our thinking and guide our behaviour we have to make sure everything we do is in line with these. If we are going to be the best leaders we can be we’ve got to make sure we are acting in line with what makes us who we are.

We picked the schools we work in because they fit our values, and they picked us because we match theirs. So deliver on why they picked you. Stay strong. Some people will want you to be things that you are not. They might want to be harsher than you are inclined to be, or more of a soft touch than you think you need to be. It will be a tantalising thought because in the short term it might solve problems and make life easier. In the long term, it’s unsustainable. What people need is consistency of thought and approach from their leaders – be that person.

Mistakes are acceptable OK, just own them

You’ll want to get everything right. That won’t go away. You’ll want to please everyone all of the time. As soon as you come to terms with the fact that you can’t, and as long as your decisions are in line with benefitting the most people possible then it’s the right decision. You’ll know what the right decision is and what the right reasons for it are. Be at peace with it and know you’ve done what you need to do.

Sometimes though, it goes wrong. Sometimes we do make bad calls on things. It happens, we are human. The best thing a strong leader can do is admit that they made a mistake. Be honest and say what will happen to rectify it. People will think highly of your integrity and will be pleased you’ve been able to reflect and come to a solution.

Mistakes happen. Own it, be honest and upfront and make sure you make it better next time. Again, be at peace that you’ve done what you can and don’t let the guilt get the better of you.

Dealing with people

This is one of the hardest parts of the job. Whether it’s staff, governors, children or parents, it can be challenge. Schools often talk about respect, trust, honesty and compassion. We expect to see this from the children and ask parents to model these values as well. But, the one person who needs to model these values more than anyone is the leader who expects them.

You have to give trust to get it.

You have to give respect to get it.

You have to be honest to get honesty.

Dealing with people is tricky, but I’ve found that what they want more than anything are what I’ve mentioned above. Great people in this way you’ll find that confrontation can lessen, arguments can be diluted and progress can be made.

Keeping people informed is crucial. Let people know what you are doing and why. Ask for people’s opinions. Take them on board. Even if you don’t use their advice, or go in a different direction then let people know that you did listen but can to a different decision because of x, y or z. I’ve always found that people want to be listened to, respected and made to feel like their thoughts and opinions have value and matter in the organisation. Establish yourself as a leader who can do these things and your interactions and communications will become much smoother.

Be kind isn’t being weak. It doesn’t make you a soft tough. It makes you relatable and human, something people appreciate. You can be kind and also have strength in your convictions that will be respected.

Lean on others

It’s a lonely job. There’s lots to do and people often don’t get the extent of what the job means. But when you can get support from people, do. Two heads are better than one. You don’t need to be the best teacher in the school, you don’t need to know about everything but gut you do need to surround yourself with people who do. Then use their expertise. Delegate to it, work with it, learn from it. People like taking responsibility and leading on things, they enjoy being trusted / use this and build better leaders around you. This helps in the long run.

Find someone away from school who you can offload too. Get a different opinion, take things though when you can. A different perspective can lead to different solutions you would never have got to by yourself.

Find people you can trust, find people who are experts and share the load. You can’t carry it all by yourself.

It does get easier

It’s a hard job being a leader. It’s a thankless task sometimes, but it’s also a really important one. There needs to be leaders in the world and there needs to be people willing to step up. Day by day, experience by experience it gets better, it gets easier. The more knowledge you have the better equipped you are to tackle new things. Like everything, knowledge and experience is key. Think deeply about your role and what is achievable at any given time. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t get it all done

Look after yourself

You cut your staff some slack, I’m sure, so cut yourself some slack as well. Looking after yourself is key. Don’t burn yourself out / you matter. Your school and your family and friends need you to be as good as you can be. The only one who can make sure that happens is you.

The old adage of putting your own oxygen mask on first is absolutely right. Take time out when you need it. Listen to what you would say to your own staff – follow your own advice.

The best way to be a better leader? Give yourself the space to be better. Work from home if you need space. Set time aside to do something just for you. Allow yourself downtime.

Like anything, leadership is a journey. We can all always get better and always be more effective, hopefully this few ideas will help you on your journey.

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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1 Comment

  1. Thank you for this blog. I’m nearly two years into headship and can relate to everything you have said. Just finished half term with a very positive HT appraisal which had put things into perspective. There will always be problems- it’s how we deal with them that counts.


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