Leadership: There are many things I love about leading a school. It’s a diverse role that calls on many different skills and qualities – often all in the same day, sometimes the same hour. One of the greatest privileges a headteacher has is the responsibility of setting the tone and building and maintaining a school’s culture – something that influences every aspect of school life and the experiences of everyone involved with it.
At the school I lead, there are things that we work hard to encourage and instil in our girls – a sense of curiosity, the confidence to take risks knowing that failure is an essential part of learning, the support and kindness to keep you going through tough times, and a belief that anything is possible if you put your mind to it.
These things are all equally important for everyone who works at our school: because we are all role models of these attitudes and behaviours every day and because staff need these things too, especially a sense of togetherness when things aren’t going to plan.
The chance to play a part in staff career planning is a highlight for me and I often share my own stories of failure and success. It is incredibly rewarding to sit down with colleagues and help them work out what they want to achieve, and why.
“All our roadmaps should change over time, just as our lives change.”
Understanding the drivers and motivations behind their ambitions is the starting point, and often these conversations lead to new thoughts about ways to approach things. I always say that it’s important to have a plan or a goal, but it is even more important to be willing to change these plans if new opportunities arise. All our roadmaps should change over time, just as our lives change. One huge advantage of working in a school is that it is possible to do, every day, something that ignites your spark – there aren’t many jobs which can boast this!
Careers advice is clearly essential for our pupils, and it’s just as vital for the staff teams we build and lead as headteachers.
Best and fulfilling years
When I started out in my career, I can honestly say I had no idea that being a headteacher would give me the best and most fulfilling years of my working life. Teaching wasn’t written in the stars at all. Frankly, when I left university, I just took the first job I could get and, from this, I grew to understand that what I really wanted to do was run a business. I was drawn to the idea of bringing people together to create success and having responsibility for all I imagined this to involve. The idea felt exhilarating to me rather than daunting. I was also sure that, whatever I did in my career, it had to be worthwhile and in pursuit of something more than money alone.
My route to educational leadership was not linear or conventional, and I took time to get to where I wanted to be. I was appointed to my first headship at 48 with the conviction that if I didn’t make it by 50 I’d be too late. Things are different now and I would challenge the assumption that there’s a time limit on achieving career goals, especially when the age of retirement is what it is today.
We should take the pressure off ourselves to be in senior leadership positions by a certain age. Of course, not everybody wants to be a headteacher. The choices we make, sometimes by design, sometimes by chance, all bring new perspectives and qualities that are important in life generally, as well as in educational leadership roles.
“We should take the pressure off ourselves to be in senior level positions by a certain age.”
My first job was in a very different sector: I worked for a big management consultancy firm (great training for headship, although I didn’t know that at the time). Naively, I quickly set my sights on being a senior partner – the fact that there weren’t any female partners at that time didn’t feel like a good enough reason not to have the ambition!
But I fell out of love with the job long before I made partner, and moved into my second career, convinced once again that I wanted to run the charity in which I was a fundraising manager before realising that wasn’t for me either. Embarrassment forced me to re-assess my future more carefully. I didn’t want a third boring outcome and so at last set my sights on headship – step one: train to be a teacher!
Making a genuine difference
One thing I did realise, after eight years in consultancy and two in corporate fundraising for an international development charity, was that I wanted to be part of an organisation that was making a genuine difference. The idea of belonging to a community really appealed to me. It turns out fundraising wasn’t for me as a full-time job in the long term, but the values that had drawn me to that type of role are ultimately what led me to teaching.
When I started my career in education in 1996, I knew that my goal was to lead a school. School leadership brought together all the things I wanted in a career. To me, there isn’t a more worthwhile sector to work in because what we do contributes to all areas of society, and because schools are such joyful places. It’s not always easy, but the work we do always matters.
“To me, there isn’t a more worthwhile sector to work in because what we do contributes to all areas of society.”
As teachers, one of our jobs is to equip children and young people with what they need to be successful in the future, not just in terms of the academic subjects they study, but also in the skills they develop which they will draw on no matter what role they choose in life.
We are often reminded that we are preparing pupils for the jobs and opportunities that don’t yet exist and which, in the not-too-distant past, would probably have been trail-blazed by men. If there’s something that fires me up every day, it’s the idea that I can help shift a mindset towards naturally thinking “of course I can do that” about anything. This isn’t limited to the pupils at my school; I feel every bit as passionate about supporting staff, regardless of their gender, to think and act this way.
Laugh while you work
To lead successfully in education, one of the most important skills needed is the ability to create a culture that values and harnesses the power of the community and which role models togetherness and kindness every day and at every level. It’s important that staff support pupils with compassion and understanding, and so we should support one another in the same way. Schools need to be places where you can laugh while you work and, during tougher times, find people around you to lean on and help you get through. A shared sense of purpose is also key. In a school, whatever role you are in, when you have a shared vision the everyday becomes far less complex. No matter what is going on, there is a simple question at the heart of every decision. For us, it’s always “is this good for our pupils?”.
Fear of failure
Something else I challenge in every aspect of my role is perfectionism. There is a lot to be gained from being imperfect and from failing. It is really important to give things a go, take that risk, even if you are unsure of success. And once again, this applies to everyone in the school, from pupils to teachers, to all the other staff. For staff, it is particularly important when thinking about career next steps. I’ve had eight jobs in my life, but more than 70 interviews – that’s how often I’ve failed. I applied for 14 headships before I was offered one – and then I was offered two in same week.
“Diversions can be a springboard and can help us look at things through a different lens.”
The most important learning for me was to get back up, to keep trying, and not give up. Feedback to interview candidates is incredibly important and I do sometimes share my own experiences to reassure others that setbacks don’t have to be permanent roadblocks. There’s always another way around or through. Diversions can be a springboard and can help us look at things through a different lens, often helping us gain more insight than we realise in the moment.
Have a go, don’t allow fear of failure to put you off, and remember that the route to your end goal will rarely be a straight line.
This article first appeared in the latest School Management Plus print magazine, out now.