Unfortunately, you find yourself in a similar position to many other teachers at critical stages in their lives: torn between loyalty to your school, the children and your colleagues, and the demands of your own career or wellbeing. Holding a senior position in a school fighting against the odds simply adds two more pressure points.
You can't duck the obvious. One day the head will be asked for a reference and this should not come out of the blue. Any referee is entitled to feel disappointed at not being told that you were applying for a job, and you don't want to acquire a reputation for breaching professional courtesy.
You must tell the head, but what else you do is determined by the circumstances. It is tempting, if the boss is a tyrant, to slip a note under the door and then break the world 100-metres record down the school drive, but this is the coward's solution. Also, it depends whether the school is expecting you to stay longer, for example, if you have recently arrived, or just been promoted with the understanding that you will tackle some key responsibilities.
Drop the head a note saying you are applying elsewhere and want to discuss the matter, which is better than suddenly blurting it out. You will be asked why you want to leave. Be honest about it without appearing bitter or uncouth (for example, "I feel it's time to make a change", rather than "Who wants to work any longer in this hellhole with you?"). Also try to be as accommodating as possible, such as negotiating a start date in your new job that will give your present school the maximum time to replace you.
Taking the wimp's way out
I have no sympathy. Anyone who is too much of a wimp to tell their head they are applying for other jobs doesn't deserve to be a senior teacher, particularly in a "struggling" school, where the lesser-paid chalkface workers expect guidance and support from management. Ask for a reference.
Who knows, they might be glad to see the back of you.
Sue Gedge, Essex
Honesty is the best policy
If you have definitely decided to leave, you need to work out the best way of making the head aware of your plans. If you have a good relationship, you should be able to discuss this issue in a mature and respectful manner.
Make a formal appointment and think beforehand about what you are going to say. Be honest, open and transparent. Highlight the positive aspects of your time at the school and how much you have gained from working there.
Explain your reasons for wanting to leave clearly and precisely.
With an honest explanation, the majority of heads would be supportive.
However, some may feel upset and try to pressurise you not to leave. Do not be swayed, you could regret it later. Try not to feel guilty about your decision to leave. Sometimes you need to think of your own professional and personal satisfaction. I'm sure that the head will understand and respect you for this and be grateful for your honesty and hard work.
Nathan Davies, Exeter
Looking for an easy life
If you are a senior member of staff, then when your head is asked for references, the secret is going to be out anyway. If your head is supportive of continuing professional development, he or she will encourage you to apply, and may even give valuable tips on interview technique or applications.
There is the implication that because this is a struggling school you want to leave all the more. Surely it would be more beneficial to stay, make important contributions, see the school turn the corner, and make yourself more marketable into the bargain. If you have nothing more to offer, how do you see yourself working in any other school? I suspect that you are looking for an easier life and believe this will come by working in a successful school.
Gleyn Bawden, Bournemouth