Diary of a headteacher: How open is my open door?


Our headteacher diarist has an ‘open door’ policy – but what does this mean in practice and how can he ensure that he isn’t overwhelmed by visitors?

One of the first things I said to the staff when I started my headship was that famous old line: “My door is always open if you want to come and speak to me.”

I have seen too many senior leaders hide behind their office door, avoid the staffroom or dodge difficult conversations with staff and I was determined to ensure that I was both visible and accessible to staff.

The reality is that the door is never entirely open – I have to conduct many meetings in my office that are confidential or are of a sensitive nature. There are also of course, several weekly meetings that I schedule with staff that I am loathed to re-arrange just because someone “urgently” needs to speak to me.

So in practice, the open door actually signifies to staff that I am willing and prepared to sit down and speak with them about anything, and I think this is the really important point in order to establish credibility with regard to my open and honest approach to leadership.

I know there are pros and cons to this approach. I have worked with heads who purposefully make it quite difficult for a teacher or support member of staff to see them, and to an extent I can see why they do this.

From my perspective, though, I want to make sure my staff go through the correct channels and use the line-management structures that are in place appropriately. I also want to make sure that the members of staff below me in the hierarchy are empowered and feel confident to perform their roles effectively. 

What I don’t want is for middle and senior leaders to get leapfrogged and missed out of the process because members of staff come directly to me too often. This would mean that I am not performing my strategic role effectively and quite frankly I wouldn’t have time to do what I need to do as head. However, there is a balance to strike here – it is important for me to be available to staff, but I have found that I am continually having to exercise my professional judgement very early on in a meeting, as to whether this person should be speaking to me about the issue or whether I need to suggest that in future they discuss this with their line manager first.

However, I did not turn anyone away in my first term (although we are a large school so they may have had to wait for an appointment) and I felt that it was a good way of getting to know the staff, finding out about their concerns and about them as individuals.

I listened to CfBT Education Trust’s chief executive Steve Munby speak at the Inspiring Leadership conference last year and something he said really resonated with me. 

He spoke of effective headteachers who “walk into the wind not away from it”. He also said that the best headteachers regard crisis “as the norm” and “complexity as fun”. If I am to truly become a great headteacher then I know I need to keep these kind of mantras at the forefront of my thoughts. 

Secondary schools are undoubtedly among the most complex and diverse of organisations and recently the level of complexity has only become greater with the level of reforms that have been introduced. 

However, one thing is really clear for me in terms of the way in which I want to lead – regardless of how complicated, uncomfortable or unpredictable things might get, I am committed to remaining open, honest and accessible to my staff and having my door open is absolutely crucial if I am to achieve this.

  • SecEd’s headteacher diarist is in his first year of headship at a comprehensive school in the Midlands.



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