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What I learned from my first term as a headteacher

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In September, Chris Townsend told TES about the experience of moving from a deputy head to a headmaster role at Felsted School in Essex. Here, he reflects on his first term in his new job

Having spent five years at Felsted as deputy head, I wasn't expecting many surprises when I took on the top job. In reality, there were many more challenges than I anticipated.

In the first week, people wanted me to speak publicly wherever I went. You do not become a headteacher without liking the sound of your own voice, but that doesn’t make it any easier to come up with new ways of saying similar things to different audiences. What’s more, those audiences suddenly expect you to be an expert on everything.

As a deputy, you are in a position where you can analyse a situation, consider the possibilities, and then offer sage advice. In other words, you are always right. But as a headmaster, your job is to take the advice offered by others and turn it into a final decision. This can be on anything from curriculum planning and catering, to choices of colour schemes. All of that is before you even get to the decisions that directly affect pupils’ life choices.

And yet, the surprises have not been all bad. The level of encouragement from parents and governors has blown me away. Felsted has a strong school community, so I had expected them to be supportive, but hadn’t anticipated just how welcome they would make me feel in this new role.

I have been asked a few times what I would do differently if I were to do this first term again. While I don’t have a definitive answer to this, there are a few pieces of advice that I would offer to other people in my position.

Firstly, make sure that you control your diary – instead of it controlling you. As a headteacher, there are so many demands on your time that you are in danger of becoming completely desk bound.  A meeting with one person in your office might take 30 minutes, but if you take a walk around the site, you can see 100 people in five minutes. 

Secondly, never be afraid to take advice and accept support. Before I started this role, I was not aware of how much support was available. Other headteachers are incredibly generous with their time, so reach out when you need to. And delegate! When someone offers to do something, take them up on the offer. 

My final piece of advice is to pay attention to your own wellbeing. This starts with making quality time for your family, who will provide you with sanity and stability. Also make sure that you take plenty of exercise in July and August to offset all the term-time hours at your desk.

Above all, take time to notice the good things. The negatives will take up a lot of your attention, but there will also be plenty of good things happening every day. These are the things to focus on.

Chris Townsend is headmaster at Felsted School in Essex

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