Climbing the last rung of the ladder

In the final part of our series about career development, we look at the character traits needed for successful headship
12th June 2015, 1:00am


Climbing the last rung of the ladder

In the early years of my teaching career, I couldn't see the appeal of headship at all. I was aware of the pressure, the responsibility, the stress - dare I say, the unpopularity.

The headteachers I knew usually didn't teach. They seemed to have relatively little contact with students, which to me was the joy of the job. They were, in the main, relatively remote figures (one was nicknamed the "hologram head" by pupils).

In retrospect, I think I was overcritical (teachers tend to be, have you noticed?), and lacking in real understanding of the role. Over the years, as I moved up to be head of department and later head of sixth form, I worked more closely with headteachers and senior teams, which developed my appreciation for what they did. I learned from some good examples and, arguably, even more from negative examples. And I honed my vision of the kind of headteacher I would be, were I to get that far.

For colleagues also beginning to consider headship seriously, I hope the advice below proves useful.

Stepping up

It was when I was a deputy that I realised I wanted to be a headteacher. When my boss was out of school and I stepped up, I enjoyed the challenge. The experience 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 never regretted it.

Be under no illusion, though: it is challenging. The responsibilities are considerable, and you will face difficult days and demanding situations. As a public figure, if you get it wrong (and, inevitably, there will be times when you do), you must be able to cope with criticism, some of it unfair.

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 ever before, 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, as well as your family, friends and life beyond headship. For me, 10 years as a head felt long enough, much as I enjoyed it. I paced myself throughout those years and was ready, at the end of that time, for a new challenge and a different balance in my life. I know that my life is richer for all that headship has taught me.

It was definitely the best job I did over a 30-year career and I would recommend it to anyone who has the drive for it. The skills will develop as you go - you "build the bridge as you walk on it", as author 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 in my experience you have never "cracked it". This is part of the role's appeal.

Model behaviour

It's important that headteachers strive to be positive role models to less senior colleagues if they are to encourage and inspire future generations of school leaders. We need to be mindful of how others see us: if we never smile and seem constantly stressed, unapproachable or remote, we risk giving the impression that headship has only a downside.

I wouldn't want to mislead anyone into thinking that the role is easy, but I found great joy in it. As a school's leader, you have the capacity to make a difference on a scale unlike anything you've known before. You have the opportunity to improve teaching and learning, to protect the well-being of staff and to lift others. You can support parents and make a positive difference to some of their lives, too.

You have to accept that you won't win them all. It isn't a popularity contest. Although you need strength and self-confidence, you must be able to leave your ego aside and recognise that it's about the school (past, present and future), not you.

Towards the end of your time, in particular, you should think about the legacy you'll leave and what you can do to ensure that the school continues to grow in strength after you've moved on. We are all caretakers and there should be a degree of humility that comes with that.

We should do all in our power 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.

Jill Berry is a former headteacher and has worked across the independent and state sectors. Find her at @jillberry102

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