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Eleven ways to succeed – and stay - in leadership

Always smile, create a strong school ethos and hire a deputy who will tell you when you're wrong: one seasoned headteacher shares his tips

Leadership, school leadership, becoming a head, headteachers

According to research, 31 per cent of secondary headteachers stay in role for less than three years. I’ve recently gone past that milestone and have some words of wisdom for anyone starting out who would rather be in the 69 per cent that don’t get ground down by the long hours, public accountability and heavy responsibilities.

  1. Don’t expect it to be easy. As a deputy, you can look at your boss and think that you could do her job better than she can (I know I did), but when you get there. it’s a different story. It’s not meant to be easy – if it were, then everyone would be doing it.
  2. Accept that you’ll make mistakes: be ready to apologise, fix what you can, and resolve to do better next time.
  3. Take joy in being the figurehead for a group of amazing people – both students and staff. Being able to stand in front of them and speak, share their troubles and successes, and plan their experience is a huge privilege. Remind yourself of that and take pride in what you do.
  4. Don’t forget your mission but don’t expect it to sustain you. Always do your absolute best for the students in front of you. Being a headteacher is a great calling and a wonderful thing to invest your time and energy in, but it will grind you down if you rely on it. You can’t be perfect and nor can the school – striving for a high goal won’t sustain you when things get hard.
  5. Create a school ethos that satisfies you: if the mission is the final goal then the ethos is the basis for making daily decisions. Ask: how do we treat people? How do we prioritise? How do we allocate resources? Shape this and share this, and you’ll find senior and middle leaders making decisions you agree with without you having to get involved.
  6. Develop a joyful idiom. If the ethos is the shape of decision making, then idiom is its colour. Idiom is idiosyncrasy, uniqueness: it is the way in which you celebrate, it is the shared joke, the shibboleth that binds the community together.
  7. Employ people who take your ideas, ethos and idiom and make them better. Good people will help you to make your goals reality – the best people bring their own skill and talent and do the job better than you ever could.
  8. Get a deputy who will tell you when you’re wrong. Being a headteacher means making hard decisions and having confidence to stick with them when others disagree. But how will you know when you’re wrong? You need someone on your side, who understands the vision, how you work, who will tell you when you’ve bitten off more than you can chew or when prejudice, misjudgement, or emotion have got the better of you.
  9. Take lessons from Bagpuss and Annie. When Bagpuss went to sleep, all his friends went to sleep too. When the head smiles the whole school smiles, when you’re grumpy the mood sours. Before you leave your office, no matter what’s occupying your mind, remember the advice of Annie: “You’re never fully dressed without a smile”.
  10. Make time for the things you enjoy. If the best bit of the day is standing on the door at hometime saying goodbye to the students, then make time to stand on the door at the end of the day. Carve out an hour in your week to run an after-school club based on your particular enthusiasm, go around the classrooms after school and talk to the teachers, create school traditions that make you smile. These are just as much part of the job as struggling with the budget and dealing with recalcitrant parents.
  11. Expect to get deskilled. As a deputy, you would be able to do everything in your area of responsibility, and if you couldn’t, then you’d find out how. As a head, you take responsibility for all of the hardest decisions while completely delegating things you would one have taken pride in doing. If someone else can do it then you can save brain space for the things that they can’t.

Being a headteacher certainly isn’t easy, but it’s an incredibly rewarding way to spend your best years. Good luck.

James Handscombe is headteacher of Harris Westminster Sixth Form

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