New headteachers – here are 9 things you need to know

Former secondary head Isabelle Boyd shares her advice for those starting out in a headteacher job

Isabelle Boyd

New headteachers - here are 9 things you need to know

Dear new headteacher,

It seems a daunting task to be responsible for a large school of perhaps 1,000-plus young people, 100-plus staff, not to mention being accountable to the local authority, families, communities and inspectors – but it doesn’t have to feel that way.

Here's my advice to you:

1. Be clear about what kind of school you want to be the leader of

What defines your school? Create this vision for your school – know it, live it – and make everything you do be a step towards it. Every decision must be aligned with it. The full school community will be watching when you make a decision, therefore consistency is crucial. Walk the corridors, be in the social area, be available. You know that you want your school to be one where people feel happy to say "yes" and where decision making is shared.

2. To make progress, you always have to take risks

Ideas that teachers or pupils present may seem a little unsafe and crazy, but say "yes" and sweat the detail of how to make it work later. Policies, processes and procedures, although tedious and unexciting, are necessary drivers for innovation and change. So, devise processes and procedures to give all stakeholders confidence in the basics and in the direction of travel. 

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3. Being headteacher is not a one-woman show

Create and nurture alliances and networks within your school but never underestimate the authority of your office; learn to live with and accept your new persona. Ensure clarity when consulting with stakeholders so that everyone knows the parameters of their influence. You want to avoid Napoleon’s "veneer of democracy", so work to consult stakeholders in real decision making early on, to demonstrate the vision and your willingness to collaborate and build community.

4. Do not waste energy and angst on those who do not want to participate

Instead, reach out to those who are willing to get involved.  Do not be hidebound by an individual’s status, positions held or job titles.  For example, if you want to drive curricular change in a particular way, and the volunteers are unpromoted class teachers and not curriculum principal teachers, grab these volunteers, nurture them, grow them and they will be the future of the school for the benefit of all children and young people – and their own colleagues.

5. Consensus is overrated

Some evidence suggests that 20 per cent of people will be against anything. When you realise this, you avoid compromising what really should be done because you stop watering things down. If you always try to reach consensus, you are being led by the 20 per cent. The cynical corner of the staffroom will eventually dissipate in influence and membership. The reluctant and the cynics will come along when you either hit on the idea that speaks to their heart  – or when they realise they are out on a limb while colleagues are making progress and feeling satisfied.

6. Do not neglect yourself, family or friends

Keep in mind the five  balls of life speech by Coca Cola’s former CEO Brian Dyson, where he says:

"Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling some five balls in the air. You name them  – work, family, health, friends and spirit   and you're keeping all of these in the air. You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls   family, health, friends and spirit are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged or even shattered. They will never be the same."

7. Nurture alliances and networks outside your school

This is what will see you through the rough times – and there will be rough times – and help you celebrate the successes.

8. Do not apologise...

...for taking care of your own health and wellbeing, for taking care of your own professional learning.  Go to the headteacher conferences because everyone there will be grappling with similar issues and it’s a great way to collaborate and grown ideas.

9. Most of all, make the most of it

This will be the most difficult and challenging job you will ever have – but it will be by far the best and most rewarding.  Enjoy it.

Isabelle Boyd is a former secondary headteacher and local authority assistant chief executive in Scotland

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Isabelle Boyd

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