The New Year marks the completion of my second year as headteacher. The 700+ days in the post have passed in somewhat of a blur. I can confirm that it’s never been dull, predictable or lonely.
With 24 months of experience under my belt, I don’t qualify as a new head anymore; I am now squarely responsible for the school and its successes and failings. The prospect of ultimate buck-stopping, head-above-parapet-positioning accountability is the very thing that puts many would-be and could-be school leaders off of the role.
When making the leap, fellow deputies looked on with admiration, surprise and in some instances, horror. Why would anyone want to put themselves in the firing line and their neck on the block? (insert additional scare-mongering analogies here…) But what the past two years have taught me is that there are more reasons to be cheerful than fearful in Headship.
The joy and privilege of leading a school outweighs the reasons not to.
Like becoming a parent for the first time, the prospect of absolute responsibility can be overwhelmingly enormous: nothing can truly prepare you for never-before experienced challenges and life is never quite the same again – but you don’t look back.
Blogs, handbooks and collective wisdom can provide you with knowledge, advice and a steer on how the job can be done, but not everything will stick to plan and a large part of the joy is doing it your own way. As with parenting, most preparation hinges on the moment of arrival: the application and interview process; ‘visioning’; first assemblies and staff meetings… not much really anticipates what you’ll be facing several months and years into the role.
Being left in charge of a precious school community has parallels with cradling an infant in your arms on the hospital threshold. While it’s tempting to become paralysed by self-doubt (Am I really ready for this? What if I break it?), the huge amount of promise and potential is exhilarating. It’s far more helpful to be hopeful and optimistic in your leadership style, rather than panicking about possible crises.
While critical incidents and extreme events pose the greatest challenge in Headship and parenting, the right-eye moments (in which immense pride affects my more sensitive tear duct) make both roles unquestionably worthwhile.
Teething issues and tantrums can rock your resolution and question your capabilities, but holding your nerve, trusting your instinct and staying true to your values helps you to navigate the tougher times with authenticity, faith and conviction.
There is the risk of the role becoming all-consuming, causing you to lose perspective. It can be tempting to judge yourself against others and worry that you are not doing it right or well enough, but after a while you accept that there is no definitive rule book or recipe; it’s far more enjoyable to enjoy the ride and navigate the journey in a way that makes sense to you.
Being the head of a school gives you the opportunity to staff your school and shape your team. You have the license to make big decisions about students’ educational experience, decide on priorities and ditch distractions. Yes, it might be a stressful and scary at times, and life was certainly less complex pre-headship, but there aren’t many things worth doing that aren’t that that offer such an enormous sense of fulfilment. The ability to build relationships and create school culture is immense. Being ultimately accountable is a joy as well as a challenge.
While the newness of the title may have faded, the sense of humility from being entrusted with the school’s welfare and future has not. In January I’ll be involved in recruiting a Headteacher for the brand new primary school joining our Trust. I am looking forward to meeting candidates that share a positive outlook and sense of passion for the profession and the privilege of leading a school.
Helena Marsh is the Executive Principal of Linton Village College in Cambridgeshire and the Chilford Hundred Education Trust. She is a Core Member of HTRT.