For many in middle management, senior leadership beckons: you’ve worked hard to establish yourself in a demanding profession, and you now feel ready for the next adventure. Here are some top tips to help you through the challenges ahead.
The trickiest thing about promotion is getting to grips with the school’s culture, quickly. Have a plan, but talk to others (especially the headteacher). Meet people. Find out who your allies are and work with them.
Su Gill, deputy headteacher at Haughton Academy in Darlington, believes that preparation is essential. “Take the time to read through statutory policies,” she says. “It is crucial that staff, parents and students see you as knowledgeable and confident.”
As a senior leader, you need to see the bigger picture outside your school, too.
For Robert Campbell, executive principal at Impington Village College, Cambridgeshire, research is vital. “Read more and talk to others,” he says. “Use social media to help. On Twitter, #sltchat is a must for any aspirant senior leader.”
The benefit of establishing such networks is that you are able to engage in conversations beyond your own school’s context. It also helps to know that your battles are not unique.
“It is all too easy to focus on yourself and your own career,” Campbell says. “However, all senior leaders have made this leap at some point and there will always be valuable lessons to reflect on.”
It all takes time, so be prepared to work hard. It sounds obvious, but if you don’t want to work long hours, senior leadership is not for you. When you start in a new role, even the easiest task seems to take forever. This will change as you become more familiar with your role, and your school’s unique systems. Be patient: it will get easier (and quicker) with time.
Remember: you got the job because of who you are. Remain open to others, listen carefully, and be as affirmative as you can without lowering your standards. For Gill, this means telling people when they have succeeded and acknowledging when you get things wrong.
However, she also advises: “Be clear about what you are apologising for. It’s part of the learning process. How you handle yourself after the apology is just as important – learn from your mistake but hold your head high.”
This is important because you are being scrutinised all the time. For the deputy head of a London state school (who preferred not to be named), this was one of the biggest shocks: “You need to be prepared to be constantly alert, constantly on duty and to maintain a cool and composed attitude at all times – others really will read which way the wind blows from your behaviour. The intensity of the step up should not be underestimated.”
So, be yourself, but also accept that you will be “on stage” for much of your working day. You will have to meet a lot of people, and often at very short notice.
Be disciplined in your time management: know what you want from a meeting, and make sure you stick to it. If you don’t, you will quickly lose control of your day and your week. And yet the door to your office should always remain (metaphorically and often literally) open: the best senior leaders are approachable, and they always make time for others.
Don’t forget the students
It is inevitable, and regrettable, that the best teachers are promoted out of the classroom. Over time they can become strangers to their colleagues and the students, and also to the subjects that they once loved. Guard against this, because much of your personal capital springs from your visibility and your ongoing presence in the classroom. It keeps you in touch with the students and everything you do as a senior leader is, ultimately, for them.
Keep talking to the students and don’t limit yourself to just the difficult kids or the high achievers. Instead, seek out the rich variety of human life that exists in every classroom and in every school. Keep teaching; keep marking; keep meeting parents as a teacher of your subject. And when you close the classroom door, think only of the lesson, and the students in front of you. For that short period of time, nothing else should matter.
Remember to laugh…a lot
Education is about joy, and any good school leader brings that to the role. Schools are many things, but they are seldom boring.
So if you begin to feel weighed down with the troubles that leadership brings, go to the playground, the corridors, the dining hall and talk to the children. Before you know it, one of them will remind you why you went into teaching all those years ago.
Dr David James is deputy headteacher academic at Bryanston School in Dorset (@drdavidajames) and Jane Lunnon is headteacher at Wimbledon High School in south-west London (@Head_WHS)