First impressions last

12th July 1996 at 01:00
As if starting a new job wasn't hard enough. Mike Fielding has some advice about how to win friends and influence people, without causing an upset.

As he tidies his classroom, updates his mark-book and works steadily through all the normal end-of-term chores, Alex can't help thinking how different it will be in September when, like thousands of others at this time of year, he moves to a new job.

After eight years at his present school - the last three as second in department - he is to become head of department in a large comprehensive 200 miles away.

While excited at the prospect, he has some obvious worries. Will he fit in? Can he work with a new bunch of people? Will they take leadership from him? He and his partner, Laura, will be separated until she can find a job in the new area. There are obvious concerns about living miles apart and meeting only at weekends.

It is not so bad for Carol. Although in a different authority, her new headship is within commuting distance of home so she only has the job itself to worry about. But still there's enough to make her nervous.

In some way her concerns are Alex's writ large. While he worries mainly about the reaction of six other people in his department, she has the whole school and its community to carry with her. But their basic problems are the same: how to establish themselves in a new environment and ensure the impact they make in the first few weeks will stand them in good stead.

The way newcomers are perceived initially can have long-term effects. Two years into my first headship, a colleague said: "What really impressed me when you came was that you knew my name on the first day." What had seemed to me a matter of ordinary courtesy had assumed an unexpected significance for him and, I discovered later, for many others.

So Alex and Carol will need to be more than usually aware of what they say and do in the first few days. Of course, they have already spent a couple of days in their new schools and given colleagues some insights into the future. But then they were visitors. In September they'll be accountable.

Both would like time to take stock. "I intend to listen a lot and find out how you do things here before I suggest changes," Carol told her future senior management team during one of her visits. From Day 1, however, people will be expecting decisions from her and these, however apparently trivial, will give an indication of her thinking and begin subtly to transform the culture of the school.

Alex wants to focus on his teaching at first. He knows that colleagues will judge him initially on how good he is in the classroom. But he will have to make his mind up on various issues, usually with limited briefing, straightaway. If he decides too quickly and gets things wrong he will be accused of poor judgment. If he takes too long, his staff will think him indecisive.

Both, too, will have to beware of what advice they take. Those first few weeks when the new leader is most vulnerable are an opportunity for the unscrupulous or self-seeking.

Of course, many people genuinely want to help the newcomer and a rebuff at this stage can alienate a potential ally. So Carol and Alex will have to find a way of responding to suggestions that puts a brake on the devious but doesn't discourage the real supporters.

In Carol's case this will also apply to the multitude of invitations she's likely to receive. As well as children asking to interview her, governors wanting her to know their views and parents anxious to re-run complaints refused by her predecessor, she will be asked to visit or speak at all the partner primary schools; address local business clubs; attend multi-agency conferences; open numerous fetes and other fund-raising events in the community. These, on top of the normal run of local authority meetings and visits from colleague heads and sundry officers keen to know what she's like.

While Alex will have fewer temptations, he'll also have less time to devote to getting to know his team. It's not just a question of knowing their professional strengths and weaknesses but also their personal concerns and career intentions. Fortunately, no-one in the department applied for the job so that particular kind of fence-mending will not be necessary but there are bound to be other potent issues which he will have to tease out before he can be fully confident of his ability to lead them.

Alex and Carol must also be prepared for the inevitable tiredness. At present, they are exhilarated by the prospect of their new jobs and the adrenaline will keep them going at first. But towards the end of their first term, when the novelty is fading and the effects of massive change catch up with them, they will hit the wall of exhaustion.

That will be the point to remind themselves of these last few weeks, when they glowed from the congratulations of colleagues and the future was full of promise.

Mike Fielding is principal of the Community College, Chulmleigh, North Devon.

Lonely leaders

A sense of isolation is a common initial difficulty faced by new heads, according to those featured this year in the TES "Talking Heads" series.

"At first I found it difficult to cope with the fact that there was no one after me - I was in charge," Susan Scarsbrook, Sudbourne Primary, Brixton "It is the realisation that the buck stops here and you have to do something about it."

John Williams, Pen Y Dre High School, Merthyr Tydfil "The most shocking thing was people expected me to know things."

Peter Munro, Greenvale School, Lewisham "Young teachers think I can resolve the problems of the universe...There was no one to ask what to do when I had a problem. Everyone expected me to be in control all the time."

Gloria Gott, St John's First School, Bradford "The isolation and loneliness is the most difficult thing. I underestimated the pressures from all the different audiences you have to respond to."

Huw Salisbury, South Camden Community School, London "I hadn't appreciated the business of being perceived as an all-powerful figurehead. Wherever you are in school people are checking you out. Your words have a significance."

Helen Metcalf, Chiswick Community School, Hounslow

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