Diary of a headteacher: Getting your hands dirty

Written by: Diary of a headteacher | Published:
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With plenty of plans for his schools, our headteacher diarist is frustrated when circumstances force him to take on more teaching duties than he'd like

A headteacher’s job is a challenging one. I was even told by someone recently that we currently have the most challenging role in society.

I am not sure I agree with that, but I do know it is becoming an increasingly difficult role due to the financial and accountability pressures of the English education system.

I am in my fifth year of headship now and I feel like I am entering a phase that is beyond “newbie” but not quite “experienced”. Each year has been very different, for a variety of reasons, and I guess that is partly why I enjoy the job. It is incredibly demanding but I love it and I feel incredibly privileged to be in this position.

I have always been able to stand back from things, observe from a distance and take a “helicopter view” of a situation in order to assess what the issues are and what strategies should be used to address them.

Having this level of strategic oversight as a headteacher is a critical aspect of successful school leadership, and a common pitfall for new heads is to become too immersed in the minutiae of a situation. This can lead to a distorted perspective on what needs to happen and it is hard to achieve the clarity of thought required to make calm and objective decisions.

I have been frustrated this year however, because I have found myself having to become involved in issues and decisions that should be handled lower down the school system.

Due to long-term staff absence and unexpected mid-year retirements I have picked up two separate GCSE classes to teach. A key member of my senior leadership team has also been absent for long periods due to ill health.

This has had a significantly detrimental effect on my workload and I have felt at times that I am not being as effective in my role as head due to having to deal with these additional time-consuming tasks.

I work with a leadership coach on a weekly basis who helps me reflect and “press pause” in order to take a balanced view of a situation. In a recent session I explained my frustrations; I felt my strategic leadership of the school was becoming compromised by having to plug these gaps in staffing.

As ever, he provided me with the clarity of thought I required at a time when I was struggling to see the wood for the trees. He said: “You’re the head, and therefore you make the decisions about what needs to happen in the best interest of the school and the pupils. In an ideal world, this means you take the helicopter view and lead the school strategically, but sometimes it means you have to roll your sleeves up and get stuck in to solve the problem.”

It was exactly what I needed to hear. A head’s role is diverse and unpredictable; it can swing from glorious moments of beauty when you observe a child flourish to horrendous moments of despair when you have to deal with a serious safeguarding issue.

Right now, I know I need to get my head down, work a few more hours than I would normally work and involve myself in situations a headteacher would not normally go anywhere near.

I need to do this because at the moment, due to absence, there is no-one else who can.

The shining light at the end of the tunnel though is the knowledge that I have a long-term solution – a plan is in place and I know that within a few months I will have my sustainable structure back.

  • The author is a headteacher in his fifth year of headship at a secondary school in the Midlands.


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