The key to headship? Find your happy place

From rural independents to inner-city academies, the variety of schools means every leader can find their perfect fit
13th February 2015, 12:00am
Oliver Joseph


The key to headship? Find your happy place

In Woody Allen's 1983 film Zelig (pictured, left), the eponymous lead character has the fantastic ability to morph into the people he is talking to, mimicking their speech, looks and idiosyncrasies. It's a pretty useful skill and, if it were real, it would be taught on every headteacher training programme.

In reality, however, school leaders cannot be everything to everyone. Rather, we are suited to leading certain types of schools; to working at our natural social level. If we venture too far away from that level, things get trickier, our leadership is less assured and the job becomes overwhelming. Finding the right level is crucial if you want your headship to be successful - both for you and your school.

I'm fortunate enough to know what I'm good at. I can take schools that have a significant capacity for improvement to the point where students are at least getting the results they should have achieved all along.

I love leading a comprehensive school - I feel at home. On a typical day, my schedule includes: meeting a middle-class parent who is demanding that her drug-dealing son be reinstated in school; charming a local employer to sponsor the new art block; taking a professor who is a prospective parent on a tour; dealing with a complaint from a parent whose free school meal-receiving daughter didn't get haddock on Fish and Chip Friday; planning with the thoroughly middle-class governors' strategy team; and teaching a mixed-ability class.

Know what you're good at

I have worked in schools for almost three decades and most have been pretty similar to the one described above - comprehensive schools in the truest sense. I found my social level early. I know I couldn't survive in the extremes. I'd be hopeless at tackling a deprived inner-city sink school. I would be equally inept at leading a fee-paying school.

As a headteacher, you will probably have come up the ladder by moving schools regularly, so you will have a sense of what you are good at and, just as importantly, what you enjoy.

Making connections with other headteachers is also enlightening. A friend of mine leads a very tough inner-city school. Situations I encounter with perhaps one or two students a year are everyday occurrences there. And it suits her. She is a force of nature. She tells the toughest-looking parents how to look after their children - without flinching. She is born to do what she does; she is in her element improving the lives of young people living in the most difficult circumstances. I couldn't do her job.

She came to see my school and said that, likewise, she could never take my place. She explained that she wouldn't know how to handle the demands of the aspirant middle-class parents, that she would miss the challenges her school presented, and that she would simply not enjoy the experience of being outside her comfort zone.

I also know the headteacher of a large private school. He deals with his particular challenges in an urbane, measured way, and moves through the world with an assuredness I can only dream of. I couldn't be the headteacher his school needs, just as he wouldn't be right for mine.

Some will claim that we are less skilled headteachers if we can't adapt to the students in front of us. But that would be to miss my point. Of course a headteacher should be able to do their job in any circumstance. They should be able to adapt to the situation around them and do the best for the kids. I'm sure that I and my two headteacher acquaintances could acquit ourselves perfectly reasonably in each other's schools if we put the work in and forced ourselves to change.

But forcing yourself to change is not always enough. As a headteacher, you have to react naturally to the situations in front of you and do so with confidence. You need to enjoy what you are doing. You need to embrace the challenges. If you truly want to thrive and be successful, you need to be in a situation where you feel comfortable.

Honesty is the best policy

This is not a justification for the snobbishness - in both directions - that is often found in schools. Nor is it a call for headteachers to work only at schools that serve pupils of their own social class. Quite the opposite.

Of course, it will be harder for a privately educated student to become the headteacher of a tough inner-city school, and vice versa. But that doesn't mean that the leaders who make the leap aren't at their ideal social level. It just means that when they find the right level, it may be more challenging for them to become a successful headteacher.

Finding your level simply depends on knowing yourself and being honest about why you want to be a leader. If you are driven by ego, it is likely that you will end up in the wrong school having grabbed the first headship you were offered. As headteacher and author John Tomsett recently wrote in TESS, being a headteacher is "not about you and your ego, it's about the community you serve. It is, ultimately, about the children." ("We must rescue the reputation of headship", Professional, 4 November 2014.)

If you are certain that you want to be a leader, take your time. Think about what you want to achieve and why, and then find schools that can help you to meet those aims. Visit lots of schools and you will soon be able to sort the ones that "feel" right from those that don't.

At interview, always be true to yourself. Say what you genuinely think rather than what you think the interviewers want to hear. If you have to lie to get the job, then the job is not right for you, no matter how suited it may feel.

If you fail at interview, don't rule out all schools of that ilk. Your rejection is probably down to your personal disposition and value system not being entirely aligned with the school's. And in that case the refusal is a good thing; being appointed would have been much worse.

Mahatma Gandhi said: "Happiness is when what you think, what you say and what you do are in harmony." Headship is a tough job, but despite the challenges it is entirely possible to be a happy headteacher. You don't need to be Zelig; you just need to seek your natural fit. And if you don't find your social level - if you can't be yourself in the job - happiness will be just that little bit more elusive.

Oliver Joseph is a pseudonym. The author is a headteacher in the North of England

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