Diary of a Headteacher: Live for the challenge

Written by: Diary of a Headteacher | Published:
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Having always worked in schools in challenging circumstances, our headteacher diarist reflects on what it is about these difficult contexts that motivates her to succeed...

My first role as a member of a senior leadership team began back in 2006. That feels like a lifetime ago. And soon I will clock up two years as a headteacher.

Two years. I can’t quite believe it. It has gone by so quickly and so much has happened. After two extremely packed years, I’ve definitely got enough anecdotes for at least one book; possibly a serialisation of the chronicles of headship. With everything that’s happened, this could be a best-seller. My only problem: readers would think it was a work of fiction if I really told the full truth.

Some of us like a challenge. I think I am one of those people. I can probably trace this back to my first ever teaching job. With a late August birthday, I was still 21 when I finished my PGCE and embarked on my first interview.

I travelled to interview on a sunny day in May 1995. Wearing a proper suit. I’d been invited to arrive at 4pm. Even as a 21-year-old, I appreciated that this was a very strange way to interview for a teacher; surely you’d want any potential candidate to actually meet some of the students they’d be teaching? Not at this school.

I got the job. The school had only eight per cent of students achieving five A* to C and these were the days before English and maths were included. Even at the beginning of my career, I knew I needed to do my bit to try and change things.

My leadership journey was many years in the making. My first senior leadership role 14 years ago was an extreme learning curve to say the least. I was a young assistant headteacher in a school in Tower Hamlets. It was a school that was then in trouble (it seems like I’m attracted to the “fixer-uppers”).

I should have known all I needed to know when I was invited for interview. I was kept well away from most students and staff at the school. It was quite funny to see the existing leadership team try to deal with what was incredibly poor behaviour while pretending to potential candidates that everything was rosy. It clearly wasn’t.

I got the job. I started in the September of 2006. There was a riot on the third Thursday of term. When I say riot, I really mean it. I don’t use the word lightly. This comes from someone who as a secondary school child myself, literally walked through the Poll Tax Riots on my way home. I know a riot when I’m in the middle of one.

I learnt my first leadership lesson on that day, and it wasn’t one I expected. I learnt how strongly I felt in my gut that children and staff should not be harmed while at school.

That idea should have been a given. However, in this place, it wasn’t. Experience has taught me that the leadership team in schools are vital in keeping children and adults safe. That, and ensuring that students learn and thrive.

My riotous school back then was graded “satisfactory”. As everyone there knew, it really wasn’t. It was far from satisfactory. Ofsted caught up with the notion that there’s no such thing as satisfactory when it comes to education in 2012. By that point I was an associate head in another fixer upper.

My first foray into school leadership did something to me. It changed me. It put a fire in my belly. A drive that I haven’t lost. It was a fire that was sparked that first summer when 92 per cent of year 11s failed to achieve five A* to C GCSEs.

I’ve been a head for nearly two years now. I can honestly say that I believe I’ve made a difference, and I know the role has definitely changed me. Before I became a head, a friend brought me a mug as a present. It pictured a woman holding her head in her hands, looking rather desperate. The tag line: “Be a head, they said – it’ll be fun, they said.” “Fun” – how apt.

That’s definitely one word for it. As long as, like me, you really do enjoy the challenge.

  • The author is a headteacher in her second year of headship at a secondary school in east London.


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