How to avoid the pitfalls in your first year of leadership

1st March 2018 at 00:00
Your first year as a headteacher can be a minefield of self-made problems. Lisa Jarmin asks experienced heads for a roadmap to help new leaders find their way

You’ve all done the training. You’ve all made it through a rigorous interview process. And you have all done your research on the school. And now it’s time to lead a school for the first time. What could possibly go wrong?

Plenty, as it happens. Much of it will be out of your control, but there will be numerous ways you can create problems all of your own making.

This article is all about the latter. According to experienced heads, it is surprisingly easy to slip up, despite your best preparation and promises that you would never be that type of headteacher.

So if you are a new leader – or if you are a leader-in-waiting – here is some advice from experienced heads about what to watch out for in your first year of headship.

1. Having an enormous ego

“It takes a certain amount of self-belief to be confident that you can lead an entire school and this self-belief is what gets you through the inevitable challenges and enables you to cope with self-doubt,” says Jarlath O’Brien, director for schools at the Eden Academy.

But, if you’re not careful, this self-belief can get out of control and lead you to develop an over-inflated ego – particularly in those first months after being given the keys to the school. This can result in self-serving decision-making, short sightedness and the alienation of staff.

Ask yourself: when was the last time you gave praise, used someone else’s idea, asked for advice – or simply said “thank you”?

O’Brien suggests that school leaders embrace humility.

“This has been one of the most important qualities in the best leaders I have worked with,” he explains. “They don’t shirk from making tough decisions, but this doesn’t stray into a misuse of power. They recognise the contributions that their teams make and ensure credit is spread, without trying to hog the limelight themselves.”

2. Trying to please everybody

“It is impossible to please everybody and be liked by all,” says Sam Hunter, executive headteacher of Hiltingbury Junior School in Hampshire.

Not only is trying please everybody a “waste of time”, it can also cause “frustration and ill will”, she explains.

Rather than trying hard to be liked, new leaders should act in the best interests of the school and trust staff to do the rest.

“It is the leader’s responsibility to be professional and friendly and to put the children first,” says Hunter. “It is the responsibility of colleagues to accept professional decisions made by personable and child-focused leaders.”

3. Not delegating

Although it might be tempting to try to solve every problem that someone brings to you, even the very best school leaders will not be able to put the whole world to rights, warns experienced headteacher Keziah Featherstone.

People will come to you with questions about everything from the curriculum to pastoral issues, but you shouldn’t be afraid to pass these people onto someone with specific responsibility for that area, she advises.

“Don’t try and do everything yourself,” she says. “If people are hopping over colleagues to get to you, guide them back down. Don’t let them grab the heaviest stick first.”

An important part of being a school leader is bringing out the best in the rest of your staff. So, delegate wisely, direct people to the correct colleagues and give other members of you team a chance to shine.

4. Being an island

Leadership can be a lonely place and – if you’re not careful – you can end up taking the weight of the world onto your shoulders. It is important to seek out support.

“Don’t be afraid to ask for help from other heads,” advises Christina Zanelli Tyler, headteacher at West Cliff Primary School in Whitby. “There is no problem you are grappling with that somebody hasn’t faced before. Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.”

She suggests networking with leadership teams from other local schools, to ensure that you always have someone to ask for advice.

“Sometimes just touching base with others juggling the same issues is enough to lighten the load,” she says.

5. Not admitting mistakes

Everyone gets things wrong sometimes, headteachers included. In fact, according to Matt Shillito, a headteacher from North Yorkshire, the best headteachers might get things wrong more often than others.

“Good heads get it wrong more often because they don’t stick to playing it safe,” he explains. He adds, “great heads admit when they’ve got it wrong and explain why and how this happened”.

Knowing when to admit to a mistake is an important lesson to learn, not only for leaders, but for pupils, too. And if nobody is modelling how to take sensible risks and admitting when they don’t go to plan, it won’t occur to pupils to do the same.

“As long as the risks that you take are informed and do not compromise children’s safety or progress, it can only be good for a school to be led by someone who challenges themselves and their colleagues and is willing to lead by example when dealing with decisions that do not go to plan,” says Shillito.

6. Overusing acronyms

“TIP, SIP, SEND, CIC, PP, FSM, HOH, EWO, QA, FFT, PAN, BME, TAC are just a fraction of the acronyms that I am expected to recall in any given meeting,” complains John Stanier, assistant headteacher at Great Torrington School in Devon.

He advises that headteachers cut down on acronym-laden management speak, because it can create a culture of those “in the know” and those who are “outside the circle of trust”.

“When I hear management using these acronyms at staff meetings, I know they are alienating the rest of the staff,” Stanier says.

By over-using acronyms, you risk sounding pompous and superior, he warns. Instead, use the full terminology as much as you can. This is more likely to get results, because everyone will know what you’re talking about.

7. Don’t forget your roots

You may have reached the top of the career ladder, but don’t lose sight of where you came from – and never place yourself above others. To do so is to commit the greatest school leadership sin of all.

“Never think you are too important to change a nappy in the nursery or clean tables in the dining hall,” says Zanelli Tyler. “The part that you play in your school is different to that of teachers, dinner staff and cleaners – but it isn’t more important.”

Lisa Jarmin is an early years teacher and freelance journalist. She tweets @LisaJarmin

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