When you take up your first headship there are two things that I guarantee will happen to you.
First, the weight and the enormity of the role, the burden of accountability and level of responsibility that sits at your door will be greater than you expected. You can be a long-serving deputy, even an acting headteacher for a period of time and think you might know what this feels like, but you don’t.
Not until you close your office door, sit in your chair and reflect on the fact that you are responsible for all the students in your school, all the teachers and support staff who you lead, and carry all the expectations of families in the community who look at you as the focal point of the organisation.
It is a real privilege being a head, it has undoubtedly been my favourite job that I have had in education since becoming a teacher, and I know that it comes with a tremendous amount of responsibility, pressure and expectation.
I have written in this column previously that I have seen a real shift in recent years in terms of the way that headteachers work and how they are perceived. I have seen many headteachers in the press this year leave their post because of a poor Ofsted inspection. I have seen heads leave because they have not been able to work with a particular governing body or sponsor. I have also seen heads leave because their face didn’t fit, or it was “right for the organisation”. I used to joke that headteachers were becoming more like football managers, but now it appears that this is really the case.
If you aren’t involved in education you might refer to the head as a “headmaster” or “headmistress” and have a hugely outdated perception of what the job entails, probably influenced by your own school experiences. For those of us who are privileged to work in schools with young people, and for those who work in leadership teams, we know that the role has changed dramatically, along with most aspects of education, in the last decade.
Which brings me onto the second guaranteed thing that happens: you get advice. Lots of advice.
Recently I have reflected on the advice that I received before taking up my headship and I tried to decide what I might offer to a new headteacher myself. One of the most pertinent pieces of advice that was offered was from the head I previously worked for. He said to me: “Do not doubt your ability to lead people and to do the job well, you wouldn’t have gotten this far if you weren’t any good.”
He added: “Be self-aware and constantly evaluate what you do and the impact it has. However, in order for you to be able to do the job to the best of your ability you need to look after yourself.”
Initially I don’t think I understood this advice fully, and I even think that my first instinct was to think that this was a little bit selfish. However now that I am two terms into the role, I completely get it.
I have always tried to maintain a healthy work/life balance throughout all the roles I have performed before becoming a head. “Work hard, play hard” was always a good motto that we shared in the department I worked in as an NQT. However, since becoming a father, getting married and starting my headship I have undoubtedly become more conscious of ensuring I look after myself, so that the burden of responsibility that I carry does not affect my family, or my ability to be a great headteacher.
Exercising, reading for pleasure, and most importantly spending valuable time with my family are what I have identified as my “wells of happiness” that keep me balanced and enable me to perform my role to the best of my ability. It is something I have shared recently with my senior leadership team to ensure that they understand the importance of achieving this balance, and it is unquestionably the guidance I would give to anyone who is embarking on their first headship in the very near future.
SecEd’s headteacher diarist is in his first year of headship at a comprehensive school in the Midlands.