This much I know about…the challenges for early career headteachers: establishing a position on teaching & learning

I have been a teacher for 31 years, a head teacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about the challenges for early career headteachers: establishing a position on teaching & learning.

I am in my seventeenth year as a state school secondary head teacher. Recently I was interviewed by an organisation exploring the biggest challenges for early career head teachers. I began the interview with the knotty question, “What do you mean by head teacher?” We settled on the traditional definition of the head teacher who runs the school with a significant level of autonomy, both challenged and supported by a traditional governing body in a critical friend role.

I identified eight major challenges for early career head teachers:

  1. Forging your relationship with the chair of governors (CoG);
  2. Managing the fact that the buck stops with you;
  3. Understanding the finances;
  4. Establishing your core purpose;
  5. Being patient;
  6. Establishing a position on teaching & learning;
  7. Understanding change management;
  8. Coping with the loneliness.

In this current series of short blog posts, I am addressing each of these challenges and providing some tips which might help early career head teachers to meet them. This post explores, establishing a position on teaching & learning.

 

Establishing a position on teaching & learning

Considering your title as an early career head teacher is head teacher, it is deeply ironic that, in the first few months of being in post, the last thing you’ll have time to think about is the quality of teaching in the school!

Overwhelmed by the buck stopping with you, by the time you have decided on your electricity and gas supplier, how to respond to the proposed change in your catchment area, what to do about the Facebook campaign opposing your change in school uniform, and whether or not you are going to make the call on a wet break, who is teaching what and how in room W17 on a windy Thursday afternoon in November is the last thing on your mind.

But if you are an early career head teacher today, now, in November 2019, when it comes to teaching and learning you have a huge advantage over us old lags. The support out there to help you understand which teaching techniques best help students learn is better than it has ever been since the school system began. Truly.

Recently, I have been doing a talk called 25 years of hurt. Looking back, my PGCE training was poor. Consequently, I taught for a quarter of a century without really knowing what I was doing – I got by on force of character and sheer enthusiasm. Students enjoyed the lessons. They were engaged. Results were OK. But looking back, it could have been so much better. Only in the last six years, since I have learnt so much about teaching and learning, have I begun to employ teaching strategies which have the best chance of helping students learn. And it took me the first ten years of headship before I grasped what I should be doing as a head teacher.

So, when I was first a head teacher, I didn’t know what I didn’t know about teaching and learning. I was a feather for each wind that blows. I was Dylan Wiliam’s magpie, made real – a snapper-up of myriad shiny teaching and learning techniques which one training course after another said would transform examination outcomes overnight.

Some elements of the KS3 Strategy were useful and have stood the test of time. Dylan Wiliam’s Inside the Black Box came out the same week in 1998 that I began as a Deputy at Huntington and I even bothered to ring Dylan up to chat about it with him. I have heard him repeat what he said to me during our ’phone call on that autumn morning in 1998 at conferences for the last twenty-odd years. But when I became responsible for everything in a school on 1 September 2003, I hardly knew anything about teaching and learning.

The thing is, it is easy to make token gestures to help you feel like you are doing something. In my first headship, we bought every teacher a copy of Paul McGinnis’ tremendous book The Teacher Toolkit. It was a big deal. The book is great if you use it judiciously, over several years and work on one or two elements of practice you need to improve. Just throwing books at teachers and thinking that is all you need to do will do diddly squat to improve teaching. Goodness knows how much that initiative cost us and goodness knows where those books are now.

Looking back, I don’t reckon that gesture of largesse had any impact whatsoever on the quality of teaching and learning. But it made me feel a bit better. I could tell governors that we had bought books and had had a whole training session launching the initiative. What I didn’t tell governors was that there was no follow through at all on the Teacher Toolkit initiative, just an after school launch session. The thing is, I didn’t know I was being so rubbish.

If I had my time again, I would have done things very differently. So, if you are appointed to lead a school for the first time and you haven’t had a moment to think about improving teaching and learning, here are my top five tips for early career head teachers for establishing a position on teaching & learning:

WARNINGof all the ones in this series of posts, this has been the most difficult set of tips to define and put in order, maybe because establishing a position on teaching and learning is damned hard. And I could have gone on and on…

1. To begin with, read nine essential publications on teaching and learning. There have been more books on teaching and learning published in the last five years than you can possibly find time to read. However, if you feel like you need to get up to speed so you have a position on teaching and learning, this admittedly subjective selection will help enormously:

      • Daniel Willingham’s Why don’t students like school?;
      • Dylan Wiliam’s Leadership for Teacher Learning;
      • Vivian Robinson’s Student Centred Leadership;
      • Graham Nuttall’s The Hidden Lives of Learners;
      • Tom Sherrington’s The Learning Rainforest;
      • Daisy Christodolou’s Making Good Progress?;
      • Mary Myatt’s Gallimaufry to Coherence;
      • Barack Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction (or Tom Sherrington’s brilliant explanation of the principles); and
      • Adam Boxer’s Explicit & Direct Instruction.

As a head teacher I think you have to take responsibility for your own professional development, and these nine publications are a great start. You have to know what you are talking about. And to keep you up-to-date there are so many good resources online. People like Tom Sherrington, Harry Fletcher-Wood, Kate Jones, Adam Boxer, Mary Myatt, Mark Enser, David Didau, Ruth Walker, the Education Endowment Foundation, Alex Quigley, Christine Counsell and so many more, are publishing their ideas on a daily basis. And this guide for how to teach teachers the science of learning, overseen by Harry Fletcher-Wood is, as far as I am concerned, an absolute game-changer. And published only this month.
2. If you need to, sort out behaviour before you do anything else in school. Until you have good student behaviour in lessons right across your school, you cannot focus upon developing teaching and learning. You may never get student behaviour perfect in every lesson, every day, but you have to establish consistently good student behaviour before your colleagues can begin the challenging work on improving their teaching. Even at Michaela School – Britain’s strictest school according to press reports – they still advertise for a “detention director”.
3. Watch everyone teaching in your first two terms. Be ruthless. Once behaviour is sorted out, make this a priority. And emphasise that you want to see every day lessons, nothing fancy. No show lessons. Just what we do in our classrooms, day-in, day-out. Feedback swiftly and dialogically. No judgements, just have a discussion about what people think about teaching and why they choose to teach the way they do. Reflect upon what you have learnt and engage in professional conversations and teaching frequently, both formally and informally. But, remember, you can only do that if you know what you are talking about. This process will help you understand what needs to be done to improve the quality of teaching in the school you are leading school, in its context. And show wilful humility, something Jim Collins defines as, “tremendous ambition for your school combined with the stoic will to do whatever it takes, to make the school great. Yet at the same time display a remarkable humility about yourself, ascribing much of your own success to luck, discipline and preparation rather than personal genius”.
4. Prioritise professional development. Tom Bentley said at a NCTL conference in 1996 that once you have found your core purpose, change your school’s existing structures to accommodate your core purpose rather than accommodate your core purpose around your existing structures. The development of teaching and learning is your priority. In essence, find the hours during the school week for your staff to work on their practice. You must not expect them to do it all in their own time. And any logistical barrier can be overcome. Just because half your students come to school on buses does not mean you cannot finish early once a fortnight for training: just sort it out with the bus companies and with your parents. No logistical barrier should stop you in improving the quality of teaching.
5. By the end of your first year, aim for everyone to understand the relationship between curriculum content, pedagogy and assessment. If you accomplished that, it would be an enormous step forward. Once that is clear in everyone’s mind, you can begin to shape a professional training and development programme which is tailored around the needs of each subject area in your school, something that will take you five years to mature. You might need to begin with curriculum content, or it might be that you need to focus on the teaching of domain specific vocabulary, or you may need to reset the assessment regime. Whatever it is, do not overwhelm colleagues. One step at a time. Implementation over years is the key.

 

 

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This much I know about…the challenges for early career headteachers: being patient

I have been a teacher for 31 years, a head teacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about the challenges for early career headteachers: being patient.

I am in my seventeenth year as a state school secondary head teacher. Recently I was interviewed by an organisation exploring the biggest challenges for early career head teachers. I began the interview with the knotty question, “What do you mean by head teacher?” We settled on the traditional definition of the head teacher who runs the school with a significant level of autonomy, both challenged and supported by a traditional governing body in a critical friend role.

I identified eight major challenges for early career head teachers:

  1. Forging your relationship with the chair of governors (CoG);
  2. Managing the fact that the buck stops with you;
  3. Understanding the finances;
  4. Establishing your core purpose;
  5. Being patient;
  6. Establishing a position on teaching & learning;
  7. Understanding change management;
  8. Coping with the loneliness.

In this current series of short blog posts, I am addressing each of these challenges and providing some tips which might help early career head teachers to meet them. This post explores, being patient.

 

Being patient

A new Headteacher usually assumes that s/he has to come into a school and make his/her mark. Schools are notoriously vulnerable in the wake of regime change. A new Headteacher can lead to a significant modification of the values and educational philosophy of a school. And perfectly good systems are suddenly abandoned for the new boss’ favoured alternatives, without a shred of evidence that in this new setting his or her old favourites will work. So, out goes setting, in comes mixed prior attainment; goodbye SIMS, hello BromCom; exit Year Groups, enter Houses. And the rest of the staff just have to suck it up and watch whilst what worked stops working…

The context of each headship is different and each requires a different leadership style. My guess is, however, that if you have been appointed to your first headship, you will have been appointed to a school which is in reasonable shape. If a school is in some turmoil, then the governing body will usually want a seasoned leader who can act decisively; conversely, a school which is bobbing along quite nicely is more likely to appoint a first time leader who can take their time in shaping the school.

The early career headteacher has lots of onlookers tracking their every move.  They have myriad voices trying to influence them, telling them several different versions of the school and how it works. They feel pressured to do something which changes the direction of the school. That pressure builds. As my opening paragraph made clear, they instinctively want to make their mark, which is understandable but misguided.

What many resort to is a change in the school uniform. Such a step requires a significant time investment and achieves little. The first day I stood on the main corridor as a headteacher I called over a girl called Sarah and told her politely that her tailored shirt, with three-quarter sleeves and no top button, would have to be changed. She also looked like she had just ram-raided Ratner’s the jewellers.

Sarah, in turn, politely pointed out that every other girl in the corridor was wearing the same style of shirt and was similarly bejewelled. There then ensued a six month process of uniform-change, during which I managed to upset the whole school community. And I also stopped Year 10 going into town for lunch. That made the front page of the local newspaper.

I felt confused but desperate to appear proactive. I didn’t know which battles to pick. I instigated a move to a Faculty system, solely on the recommendation of a Local Authority adviser. The Faculty system introduced another expensive tier of leadership – we retained subject leader posts within the Faculty structure(!?!) – without improving the quality of teaching at all. But I was doing things. I appeared incredibly busy. By the end of my first year I felt exhausted and isolated. I had upset people without moving the school on at all.

We had a full OFSTED inspection eight days into that first headship; sixteen inspectors for four days. It was a perfectly timed review of the school and gave me a blueprint for improvement. My fruitless activity-for-the-sake-of-it stopped early in my second year when we began focusing upon the quality of teaching, as the OFSTED report had suggested we should do. We also began tracking students’ progress more accurately. We refrained from doing things peripheral to improving what was going on in the classroom.

My four year long first headship saw the school move from 38th out of 47 schools in North Yorkshire for KS2-KS4 progress, to 3rd out of 47 schools. But I learnt the hard way; the whole process wore me thin. When I began my second headship, I was the epitome of patience. We drew up a ten year plan and, whilst we did not follow the plan to the letter, we hit every milestone at the right time; ten years later, OFSTED popped in, almost unannounced, and declared we were Outstanding.

Such long-term planning can seem impossible for the early career headteacher who feels the need to do things immediately. But if they can resist such pressure and be patient, it will turn out best for the school – and for them personally – over time. So, if you are appointed to lead a school for the first time and feel compelled to introduce blazers with gold braiding on the lapels, just to look like you are doing something, here are my top five tips for early career head teachers for being patient:

  1. Explain to your Chair of Governors that you intend to be patient and that s/he should not expect significant change any time soon. Explain your timeline for change over the first three years.
  2. Spend your first term getting to know the school. Speak to everyone. Be about the place. Question what everyone says. Analyse performance data. Triangulate. Then over the Christmas holidays, formulate your own version of the truth about the school, based on the most robust evidence. Then take a day with your senior team and go through a process with them to establish their truth about the school compared to yours, so that, by the end of the day, you agree as a whole team the current state of the school and the one or two things that need to be done, when and how, in order to improve the school.
  3. Be careful what you say. When I had been appointed to my first headship, a York headteacher said to me, “Be careful of what you say because people will remember it and quote it back to you months, even years, down the line”. And he was dead right.
  4. It is the best ideas for improvement that count most, not yours. Have the confidence to develop others in your team and give them the chance to accept responsibility and accountability for their improvement initiatives. Leadership is best measured in the leadership you develop in others.
  5. Focus on teaching and learning. You have to build from the bottom up, starting in the classroom. Support your frontline staff. Have conversations about teaching with everyone who teaches in your school. And no matter how busy you might be, you must teach, really well. Be patient; you teaching well matters more than you might ever realise.
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This much I know about…the challenges for early career headteachers: establishing your core purpose

I have been a teacher for 31 years, a head teacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about the challenges for early career headteachers: establishing your core purpose.

I am in my seventeenth year as a state school secondary head teacher. Recently I was interviewed by an organisation exploring the biggest challenges for early career head teachers. I began the interview with the knotty question, “What do you mean by head teacher?” We settled on the traditional definition of the head teacher who runs the school with a significant level of autonomy, both challenged and supported by a traditional governing body in a critical friend role.

I identified eight major challenges for early career head teachers:

  1. Forging your relationship with the chair of governors (CoG);
  2. Managing the fact that the buck stops with you;
  3. Understanding the finances;
  4. Establishing your core purpose;
  5. Being patient;
  6. Establishing a position on teaching & learning;
  7. Understanding change management;
  8. Coping with the loneliness.

In this current series of short blog posts, I am addressing each of these challenges and providing some tips which might help early career head teachers to overcome them. This post explores, establishing your core purpose.

 

Establishing your core purpose

I had no idea where the school was heading when I began my first headship. All I could do was replicate some of the behaviours I had learnt from observing the several headteachers I had served under. I made some awful mistakes in that first term, nearly all in how I interacted with people. I was quite hapless, in so many ways. And it was all short-termism. I just dealt with the next issue confronting me.

As JFK said, Effort and courage are not enough without purpose and direction.

Fortunately, at the end of that first term, Sue Ellis, one of the deputy headteachers, attended a newly developed Investors in People leadership course. She returned insisting that we establish a core purpose for our school. I had completed my NPQH in 2000 and I remembered being told something about Pepsi’s core purpose being “Beat Coke”, but beyond that I was clueless about what a core purpose was and why we might need one. Sue said, pithily, that a core purpose should encapsulate the reason we get up in the morning and come to work.

After some false starts and endless consultations, we came up with the distinctly unpithy core purpose: “To inspire everyone in our school community with a love of learning and, by doing so, maximise their life chances.” About a year after we had splattered this core purpose around the school and over all our literature, Di Fitzgerald, head of Drama, pointed out that it was grammatically incorrect and should have read “…maximise his or her life chances”. Despite our illiterate ways, our core purpose really stuck, and three years later it resonated throughout the school, to the point where, according to one of our students, at the beginning of the “Romeo and Juliet” Lord and Lady Capulet wanted Juliet to marry Paris to maximise her life chances…

Huntington’s core purpose, established as soon as I began my headship there in 2007, is, “To inspire confident learners who will thrive in a changing world”. It has stood the test of time. It influences everything we do.

And every word counts. We all strive, not just to teach, but to inspire our learners; building confidence is essential for all of us to succeed; we are all learners, including the staff; rather than just succeed we would rather thrive which suggests that we are happy both in our career and in our relationships with other people; as technology develops we find ourselves in an ever changing world.

We did have students but replaced it with learners. Many schools have a line about everyone being a learner, but we really mean it. Learning something helps you understand as a teacher what it is like to be a learner and to struggle at learning something. Teacher learning is central to our school’s success and every single member of staff has to accept the professional obligation to try to get better at what they do if they work at Huntington.

We really worked on getting the wording of our core purpose absolutely right. It was pedantic stuff. The students chose the word thrive, where we had used the word succeed. I like the word thrive. Think about it – plants thrive when the conditions for growth are right. And I think the job of Headteacher is to get the conditions for growth right in a school; when the conditions for growth are right, students and staff will thrive.

So, why is a core purpose so important in your day-to-day running of the school? Well, the process of establishing that core purpose was crucial in helping me understand how to lead a school. When I had to make a tough decision, I returned to the core purpose and considered whether taking that tough decision was aligned with our core purpose; if it was, then that gave me the courage to make the decision, no matter how tough it might have been. And now, 17 years on, that still holds true.

Most importantly, however, defining your core purpose allows you to put learning at the heart of everything you do – surely the core business of every school.

Truly great schools will have a core purpose that is timeless and was established way before you begin your headship. That said, there are many schools that are purposeless. Literally. So, if you are appointed to lead a school which has no discernible reason for existing, here are my top five tips for early career head teachers for establishing your core purpose:

  1. Avoid developing your core purpose within the four walls of your office, the way Headteacher Stuart Simmonds developed his mission statement, “To seek to ensure that each pupil shall maximise their optimal potentiality”…
  2. Consult everyone who might have the remotest interest in your school doing well. It matters that everyone is involved in shaping your core purpose. That process takes weeks, and, whilst the creative process is messy, it is essential. When developing your core purpose, brief the governors on your intentions and then begin with your staff – every single one of them. Your colleagues need to contribute their understanding of why they work at their school if they are going to unite behind the new core purpose. If you get the process of developing a core purpose right, when the caretakers are putting out yet another 250 chairs for the morning’s assembly they’ll tell you they’re helping the school fulfill its core purpose.
  3. Make your core purpose pithy, memorable and easy to recite.
  4. Strive to articulate a core purpose that belongs precisely to your school. I know it is really hard to avoid developing something clichéd. As I demonstrated above, every word counts.
  5. Every chance you get to publicise your core purpose, publicise it! I know it’s prosaic, but good signage is worth every penny. And your core purpose should be one of the first things anyone sees when they access your website.
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This much I know about…the challenges for early career headteachers: understanding the finances

I have been a teacher for 31 years, a head teacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about the challenges for early career headteachers: understanding the finances.

I am in my seventeenth year as a state school secondary head teacher. Recently I was interviewed by an organisation exploring the biggest challenges for early career head teachers. I began the interview with the knotty question, “What do you mean by head teacher?” We settled on the traditional definition of the head teacher who runs the school with a significant level of autonomy, both challenged and supported by a traditional governing body in a critical friend role.

I identified eight major challenges for early career head teachers:

  1. Forging your relationship with the chair of governors (CoG);
  2. Managing the fact that the buck stops with you;
  3. Understanding the finances;
  4. Establishing your core purpose;
  5. Being patient;
  6. Establishing a position on teaching & learning;
  7. Understanding change management;
  8. Coping with the loneliness.

In this current series of short blog posts, I am addressing each of these challenges and providing some tips which might help early career head teachers to overcome them. This post explores understanding the finances.

 

Understanding the finances

Back in the days when he was director-general of the BBC, I heard Greg Dyke say to an assembled audience of senior school leaders: “Don’t leave the money to anyone else, it’s too important.” It was one of the greatest pieces of advice I had ever heard. No matter how idealistic new headteachers might be, how determined they are that improving teaching and learning will always be the priority, if they don’t have a really good understanding of the money, they will come a cropper.

If you want to be a headteacher, ensure you have a great grasp of the budget and someone to manage it for you who knows what they are doing, preferably from a business background.

Things have changed remarkably since I began my first headship. Back in 2003, heads had a great deal of autonomy over school spending. Many modern headteachers have no direct responsibility for spending the school budget. Even if you have to apply to the Trust board to buy a box of paperclips, it is essential, as Dyke said, that you understand the budget and the relationship between decisions of spending the budget and students’ outcomes.

What I didn’t understand when I began as a headteacher was the hugely important relationship between your school budget and the education that you provide for the students who attract that money in the first place.

I soon learned. My first taste of headship came with the rather unsavoury task of balancing a budget. Before I was appointed, the governing body had already done their sums and predicted a £300,000 year-end budget deficit. They had made the irrevocable decision that we had to reduce most year groups by one whole teacher’s-worth of classes. It meant Set 4 and Set 5 being combined in certain subjects in a number of year groups.

It was then that I had my first glimpse of the educational impact of financial cuts: behaviour in those combined groups, especially in Year 9, was predictably shocking. It was absolute chaos.

Seven months later, the financial year end saw a £150,000 surplus. The governors had been £450,000 out in their financial predictions. Those classes hadn’t needed to be combined. Those students suffered because amateurs were in charge of the finances. I pledged not to let that happen again. I made a promise to learn how to run a multi-million-pound budget.

When it comes to understanding the school budget, nothing quite beats hands-on experience. Good headteachers trust their colleagues to manage budgets. I was lucky to work under Chris Bridge, a headteacher who gave me total responsibility (and accountability) for spending the erstwhile Technology College budget, some £150,000 p.a. It helped me understand finances and was the best preparation I could have had for the moment when I was responsible (along with the Governing body) for the whole school budget.

Developing great teachers is your priority. As school budgets tighten across the globe in this age of austerity, you have to resist the urge to squeeze every last hour of teaching out of your teachers; rather, you must give your teachers time and space to work on their practice and target the budget to allow that.

We have to stop guessing about what works. School budgets are getting tighter and tighter; consequently, it is even more important that every penny we have left to spend impacts positively upon improving the quality of teaching and through to student outcomes. So, focus on what the evidence says has the best chance of working.

So, here are my top five tips for early career head teachers for understanding the finances:

  1. Find a course which unpicks the relationship between curriculum planning and budget. There are good ones. Sam Ellis, ASCL’s erstwhile expert of all things budgetary, used to run such a programme. He was superb.
  2. Have a funding expert you meet once a week, and brief your trade union reps regularly on budget issues. A Finance manager needs to tell you warts and all what is happening with the budget. I have told mine I cannot tolerate budget surprises. Simple things like adding 3% for inflation, and calculating moves up the pay spine, all see your costs rise by significant sums annually. Ask your Finance manager to explain all these simple nuances to budget management.
  3. Keep in touch with all the DfE’s budget announcements. You have to work hard at this. It is hugely complicated, especially at the moment. Beware of pay increases which are only funded for one year by a special grant, which you might well have to pick up the tab for in the following year. Right now, at Huntington, we estimate that we might just receive an extra £200,000 p.a. if certain promised funding increases come to fruition, but it looks like our costs will increase by £240,000 p.a. when specific pay and pension grants cease. The DfE seems to ignore the fact that school budgets are impacted by rising costs – all we ever hear about are the so-called increases in funding, not how those increases are reduced in real terms by significant increases in costs. Be vigilant, and always budget for the worst case scenario.
  4. Understand the difference between revenue and capital. In revenue, the impact of a budget-related decision multiplies down the years, whether you are spending or cutting. If you cut staffing next year by 1 FTE teacher, that saves you c.£45,000 next year, and three years on it will have reduced your balance by c.£135,000. The reverse is true if you plan to have one extra teacher next year. Capital comprises one-off payments that do not, usually, have an impact beyond the year in which the spending takes place. Unless you are in a PFI contract
  5. In the end, ensure you have enough to pay the wages. The rest you can get by on, but the wages are the thing. Staffing is your biggest spending commitment. The thing is, if high quality teaching is the key to great student outcomes, then spending money on great staff is a good thing. Without great staff in front of students, aided by a great support staff team, you are going to struggle to provide the high quality education your students deserve. I have always appointed the best teacher on the day when recruiting – even if there was an almost as good cheaper one available.

And if I was allowed a sixth tip, it would be…treat your school’s money as preciously as if it were your own!

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This much I know about…the challenges for early career headteachers: managing the fact that the buck stops with you

I have been a teacher for 31 years, a head teacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about the challenges for early career headteachers: managing the fact that the buck stops with you.

I am in my seventeenth year as a state school secondary head teacher. Recently I was interviewed by an organisation exploring the biggest challenges for early career head teachers. I began the interview with the knotty question, “What do you mean by head teacher?” We settled on the traditional definition of the head teacher who runs the school with a significant level of autonomy, both challenged and supported by a traditional governing body in a critical friend role.

I identified eight major challenges for early career head teachers:

  1. Forging your relationship with the chair of governors (CoG);
  2. Managing the fact that the buck stops with you;
  3. Understanding the finances;
  4. Establishing your core purpose;
  5. Being patient;
  6. Establishing a position on teaching & learning;
  7. Understanding change management;
  8. Coping with the loneliness.

In this current series of short blog posts, I am addressing each of these challenges and providing some tips which might help early career head teachers to overcome them. This post explores, managing the fact that the buck stops with you.

 

Managing the fact that the buck stops with you

The first time the buck stopped with me it came as a bit of a surprise. It was late August 2003, a week before I began as headteacher at Lady Lumley’s School, when the deputy told me we didn’t have a psychology teacher for the start of term. My first thought was “Why is he telling me?” And then it suddenly struck me that, ultimately, it was my job to ensure we were fully staffed.

The thing is, no-one forces you to become a headteacher. If you have chosen that career path you need to have secure coping strategies in order to survive in the role. You certainly have to be able to control your thinking. The mantra I try to live by is from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so.

An appreciation of one’s own insignificance is, generally, a good thing. There are 32,000 schools in the UK and approximately 3 million schools in the world; as a headteacher, you lead just one of them. Keeping things in perspective, but not too wide a perspective, is an important facet of running a school and leading a contented life. Certain things have to matter, but not too much.

If you find yourself taking yourself too seriously, go and scrape some chewing gum off the carpet in the school reception. Or take a walk around your local cemetery.

On occasion, I respond to situations inappropriately. I once broke down hopelessly at a colleague’s packed funeral and people couldn’t look me in the eye at the wake. For them it must have been deeply unsettling, like when you see your dad cry for the first time. Colleagues need to feel they are in safe hands, especially when there is such uncertainty and fear in our professional world. You have to hold steady.

So, here are my top five tips for early career head teachers for managing the fact that the buck stops with you:

  1. Shun self-pity. Recently I was asked which human characteristic I most despised and I replied, self-pity. When things go awry, I never ask “Why me?” Rather, I ask “Why not me?” Once you accept that being human means you will suffer pain, life becomes significantly easier.
  2. When things go wrong in school, learn to step back and laugh at your predicaments. You can choose to train your brain that way. As Frankl says in his life-affirming treatise, Man’s Search for Meaning, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Take a helicopter view of life. In a week, a month, six months, a year, what appears a huge issue now will seem a mere trifling inconvenience.
  3. Get a good night’s sleep. I once heard Stella Rimington, erstwhile Director-General of MI5, say that the only advice she could give to headteachers is to get a good night’s sleep. She thought it impossible to make sound decisions when you are fatigued. And when it comes to sleeping, invest heavily in the best mattress for your bed you can find. Seriously!
  4. Remember that every single challenge that you have faced until this point in your life, you have met. No matter what life has thrown at you, you are here now, you have endured. When we have an unexpected fire alarm I stand in the centre of the playground, as 1,700 people mass around me, and I tell myself that this too shall pass. It really helps. Especially if it is raining.
  5. Finally, when you find yourself in the eye of the storm, when the crisis you are dealing with tests you to the limit, when the buck has not just stopped with you, but has sat with all its crushing weight upon your chest so you can hardly breathe, remember that you only have to deal with the next 60 seconds. And once you have survived those 60 seconds, you can cope with the next 60, and then the next. One. Minute. At. A. Time.
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This much I know about…the challenges for early career headteachers: forging your relationship with the chair of governors

I have been a teacher for 31 years, a head teacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about the challenges for early career headteachers: forging your relationship with the chair of governors.

I am in my seventeenth year as a state school secondary head teacher. Last week I was interviewed by an organisation exploring the biggest challenges for early career head teachers. I began the interview with the knotty question, “What do you mean by head teacher?” We settled on the traditional definition of the head teacher who runs the school with a significant level of autonomy, both challenged and supported by a traditional governing body in a critical friend role.

I identified eight major challenges for early career head teachers:

  1. Forging your relationship with the chair of governors (CoG);
  2. Managing the fact that the buck stops with you;
  3. Understanding the finances;
  4. Establishing your core purpose;
  5. Being patient;
  6. Establishing a position on teaching & learning;
  7. Understanding change management;
  8. Coping with the loneliness.

In a series of short blog posts, I will address each of these challenges and provide some tips which might help early career head teachers to overcome them, beginning with, forging your relationship with the chair of governors.

 

Forging your relationship with the chair of governors

Now, all my previous chairs are still very definitely with us, so what follows is my collective learning from having worked with them…

No-one explained to me the importance of the head teacher’s relationship with the chair of governors. It is the most important relationship for a head teacher because, if for no other reason, your chair of governors is your boss!

And you have to forge your relationship with your CoG – it takes some work to get the shape of your relationship right.

Your CoG is there to hold you to account. At Huntington we have an annual budget of over £8m of tax payers’ money. Every penny has to be spent to provide the best possible education for the students who attracted that money to the school in the first place. The school’s governing body, and especially the CoG, must hold me to account for how that money is spent and the quality of education we provide.

The CoG is also there to support you as you pursue the strategic aims of the school. The CoG can help you by sharing that weight of responsibility which can be overwhelming for early career headteachers. Of all the stakeholders to whom you are responsible, if you get the relationship right your CoG can be your greatest ally.

And remember, your CoG is a volunteer, almost certainly unpaid. They give of their time freely and, with 30,000 governors vacancies nationally, we need to look after them.

So, here are my top five tips for early career head teachers for forging the relationship with the chair of governors:

  1. Establish who is accountable for what from the outset. An open conversation with your CoG, using the Governance handbook and competency framework can be helpful in ensuring both you and your CoG understand both your remits;
  2. Meet with your CoG regularly: I have found that once a fortnight is frequently enough to update them on key issues and shape the agendas for upcoming meetings;
  3. Tell your CoG everything – good, bad and ugly – about what is happening. I don’t mean every inconsequential detail of school life, but if you are unsure about whether to tell your CoG about an issue, tell them – it will help you sleep more comfortably at night;
  4. Establish protocols for dealing with complaints about the school. CoGs are key members of the local community and can often be approached, for instance, by unhappy parents. It is important that, in the first instance, they direct those parents to you, as head teacher, and to explain that a clear procedure for complaints exists which must be followed. It helps strengthen the level of trust in your relationship and prevents the volume of school-related issues becoming overwhelming for the CoG.
  5. Keep the relationship on a professional level. A healthy professional distance between CoG and head teacher ensures that nothing gets between you working together and your focus on making your school as good as it can possibly be. There is no need to meet beyond your fortnightly meeting for any other reason than urgent, unavoidable school business. That said, if an issue crops up that you deem important, tell them straight away (see tip number 3 above!).
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This much I know about…Mortimer & Whitehouse and their motivational tomatoes!

I have been a teacher for 31 years, a Headteacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about Mortimer & Whitehouse and their motivational tomatoes!

Mortimer & Whitehouse: Gone Fishing is the BBC’s unlikely jewel. It follows two ageing comedians as they go fishing, chat nonsense and eat good food. Its success is rooted in the way its simplicity combines with moments of profundity, when the idle chatter suddenly gives way to wisdom. Here, right at the end of a recent episode, Mortimer and Whitehouse suddenly discuss what motivates them to get up of a morning.

So, as the vast majority of us who teach prepare to return to work tomorrow, be sure to identify for yourself a motivational tomato or two…

One of my tomatoes
Just to my left a trout, no more than four inches long, hurled itself out of the shallow water.

I had been fishing just outside Danby village deep in the North Yorkshire Moors. I am not sure there is a place on this planet where I feel as content as I do when I stand on the bank of the Yorkshire Esk, spellbound by the prospect of catching a wild brown trout. There is nothing quite like it.

I began the afternoon session at the Beggar’s Bridge, having bought a pork pie for lunch from Ford’s the butchers in Glaisdale. Like the fishing, Ford’s pork pies are beyond compare. At £1 a pie, the more you eat, the more you save. I then worked my way along the wooded stretch of the Esk at Rake’s Common and finally fished the winding stretch towards Danby upstream from Duck Bridge.

I took three rods: fly, float and spinner. I found success on each one. At Rake’s I caught a perfectly formed small wild brownie on a dry fly. I had seen the trout rise several times; the moment my black gnat hit the river’s surface the fish obligingly rose to take it. It was one of the day’s many highlights.

Wild brown trout live their lives in streams and rivers. They are fine, slim line predators and sparklingly beautiful. From the preternaturally large, coal black eye, the tapered array of innumerable black spots gives way to a carefully arranged pattern of a dozen or so red counterparts. The gills emit a mother of pearl shine. The dappled grey flanks merge into a creamy underbelly. And the red adipose fin is a sure sign that the trout is a wild brown.

By the time I had plonked myself down amongst the meadow grass to fish a small but inviting pool, I had landed more than a dozen wild brownies. They fight hard, no matter how minuscule, wriggling intensely. When they are spent, they lay across your hand in all their aesthetic glory.

My float was dancing about indeterminately when the trout jumped. The fish’s belly-flop re-entry made a larger sound than one might have expected. It was enough to attract my attention. A heart-beat later, from upstream and around the corner, I heard a much bigger splash and two airy wafts. A heron appeared fleetingly before stepping into the cover of an overhanging tree, directly opposite where the leaping four-inch brownie had landed.

I kept watching. It wasn’t long before the heron began tip-toeing elegantly towards its quarry. Its delicate, grey-fawn neck feathers were perfectly groomed. It was a picture of predatory elegance. Four steps in, it stopped. Its amber eye caught mine. For the briefest moment it could not compute what it saw. Its stare dolly-zoomed towards me until it was inches from my face. We were locked together, eyeball to eyeball, beak to nose, bound by the pursuit of the same prey. I held the bird’s glare. The river flowed on.

And then the heron beat its broad, grey wings and was gone.

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