“What I’ve learned about what works and what doesn’t work” by Ros McMullen (@RosMcM; Blog 12 2018-19)

This blog was inspired by one of our wonderful Vice Principals (@bennewmark) who blogged this year on what he had found to work and not work in teaching, I shall attempt to do the same about headship.

Things That Don’t Work

1. Externalising worry and anxiety to staff

As @leadinglearner says “It wasn’t the hours of work; it was the hours of worry”. Headship is troubling. We worry and we are anxious because we are doing something very important and we shape, influence and determine the lives of many people – even some we don’t know and will never meet. It can be overwhelming. There are times, of course, when we need to share the complexities and implications of decisions with close colleagues but everyone is carrying their own burdens of worry and anxiety and they don’t need ours too: staff need to feel confident that their headteachers are able to steer a clear course – their own anxieties are relieved by having confidence that we are not frightened and that we can lead.

One of the first things I discovered about headship, many years ago now, was that that the “have you got a moment? / just a quickie” at the end of a busy and stressful day could be something a member of staff had been building up to approaching me about, and worrying about how to tell me, for days. Being 100% present in that moment with none of our own worries and anxieties is essential to creating the stability needed.

2. Creating a culture of inspection readiness

I think this is hard to avoid as the whole system is designed to make schools able to evidence compliance and impact for all the complex work they do at a moment’s notice; however it creates a truly terrible culture to work in. So many schools now are obsessed with ‘looking good’, rather than ‘being good’ that we have forgotten what good actually looks like. A culture in a school which is more concerned with the paperwork trail around safeguarding then the happiness and security of the children; a teaching force more concerned with working to the next ‘data drop’ than the development of great curriculum and lessons; a senior team more focused on auditing than on supporting, and a headteacher’s time more taken up by servicing their own reporting upwards than by shaping the school’s ethos – these things cripple a school and make for a toxic working environment.

It is hard to avoid, particularly as our own jobs are so vulnerable to the vagaries of the accountability system, but if schools are to flourish they must be happy places for staff and children; a culture of constant justification and ‘looking over one’s shoulder’ is never going to be a happy place.

3. Simply working harder and harder

There will never be enough hours in the day to complete what we want to achieve. The list we start the day with will grow and not everything will be crossed off by the end. No matter how skilled we become at prioritisation and delegation we will never get to where we want to be. There are times in the school year (and particularly at the beginning of a challenging headship) when we do have to work bloody long hours, but not only is this not sustainable, it is also debilitating long-term and sets a very poor model of headship for colleagues and of work / life balance for all staff.

4. Believing the whole system is against your school and becoming an island

Again this can be hard to avoid, particularly in challenging contexts as all the external factors (off-rolling from other schools, accountability pressures, squeeze on funding, recruitment difficulties) weigh very heavily. We are, however, part of a national education service and a local family: our nearest colleagues may well be in a similar position, and if so we must work with them, if they are causing some of our problems, then they need to be shown how to help. I have found that, with a very small number of exceptions, most headteachers want to help each other and find solutions together to help all the children and all the schools. Help can often come from very unexpected quarters and ‘pulling up the drawbridge’ will never work.

5. Getting angry at the things we can’t change

I think ‘sheer blinding rage’ was one of the key motivators at the beginning of my career and I did put it to good use in changing the things I could change; however as we progress through our headship journey there is so much we can’t change that we have to learn wisdom as well as courage. It is OK to be angry (and Lord knows, there is much to be angry about!), but it is pointless for this to dominate our emotions and thinking. Understanding what we can’t change and ‘moving on’ from this to spheres we can effect change in is absolutely essential in self-management. I often advise younger heads experiencing the debilitating effects of anger “This won’t get better; you have to get better at managing it.”

Things That Do Work

1. “How can I be of service to you?”

With very, very few exceptions, the people we lead want to do a good job, and they come to it as complex human beings themselves filled with their own anxieties and worries, headship is about providing them with the ability to become better and more fulfilled in their work. I use the phrase above to set the right tone of conversations. It works.

2. Tell the truth and be kind

These things go hand in hand. Do them both. Always.

3. Be the ‘guardian of ethos’. It is your main job.

Headteachers ‘set the weather’. I’d been a head for about 7 years when I realised that if I came into school cross there were more fights during the day (it was a very challenging school!). When I thought it through I think it went like this – SLT picked up on my mood, this transmitted to staff who became anxious and consequently the children were more fractious. Every interaction with every individual sets an example for how you want people in your school to behave towards each other.

4. Create reflection time for yourself and for others

I remember my wise old Dad telling me “remember you can be working hard on your school while out walking in the mountains”. To be fair it is mainly driving, rather than mountain walking, that creates space for me these days (more’s the pity!).

The more frenetic the job feels, the more important reflection time is. And role-modelling this is important too. We are beginning meetings with reading time this year. I am training myself to say to colleagues “I’d like to think about that and get back to you”, – really, really important to get to them when I do this!

5. Build your headship networks

I could not have survived in headship without networks. Of course the @headsroundtable gang are my amazing support network, but they are not the only one. It is important to search out locally

heads who share your issues and who share your vision. We often get placed in networks which are not terribly helpful; make your own. When running an extremely challenging inner-city school, I built a partnership with Ampleforth – something which helped sustain me personally; helped grow my senior team; developed teaching, and provided opportunities for students.

It is true that until you ‘have sat in the chair’ you can’t really understand the pressures and concerns of headship – so our fellow heads are the ones we can externalise the worries and anxieties to: we ‘normalise’ each other; we laugh together; we sustain each other, and together we begin to deal with those things that seem impossible to change.

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