This year is my 20th as a primary school headteacher. To help me prepare for the next 10 years I have been thinking about some of the lessons I have learnt, and have decided to share these with the world in 20 short blog posts. They will not be especially profound, but I have found it useful to articulate my thoughts. I hope you find them interesting.
2. Challenging times.
“Challenges are what make life interesting and overcoming them is what makes life meaningful.” – Joshua J. Marine.
Every school goes through challenging times. If you stay in one school for a long time, as lots of people in Devon seem to do, you will inevitably go through difficult periods where a major event (or series of events) can shake your confidence or even put your position as headteacher in jeopardy. These can include a complaint from a parent, a major mistake by a member of staff, or major mistake by yourself
When things go wrong, here are some responses that won’t make things better:
Panic and act without thinking. My first headteacher told me that school leaders have a ‘bias for action’, and that this is one of the reasons they go for promotion rather than staying in the classroom. Difficult situations require decisive action, but sometimes the right thing to do is not to act immediately, but to make some space and time to reflect on the best course of action first.
Buy in advisers, consultants and other experts that don’t know as much as you already do. As headteacher you know the context of your school best. You know the children, the teachers and the community more than anyone from outside the school does. You know when to push and when to relax things, and you know how your teachers tick.
Try to implement an idea that seems to be working in another school without taking into account that the context is different and the strategy might not be actually working quite as well as the head tells you it is. This is linked to the last point. I have heard lots of heads talk about the brilliant things happening in their school but an understanding of your own context – as well as a realisation that you are also doing some different but equally brilliant things – allows you to listen but not to take everything at face value.
Blame someone else. One of the best things about being a headteacher is that you can change what’s not working. Sometimes it will take a long time, and it definitely isn’t always easy, but it’s not someone else’s fault if you haven’t taken action.
Give up and hope it will all go away or repeat the same mistakes that got you into the position in the first place. Being in the same school 16 years has meant I have had to change the way I think about things adapt my practice. I read, listen to people and think hard about why I do what I do.
What does work for me
I keep a close eye on the things that really matter
I try to be honest with myself and other
I make a plans, got over the plan with someone I trust, share the plan with my colleagues, and stick to the plan.
Like most heads I work with I write down what I am doing and what I need to do next. It is interesting to look at old notebooks. Yesterday I found a list I had written 5 years ago of the key things that were worrying me and what I intended to do about them. They must have been really big issues at the time but looking back from this distance it turns out that they weren’t. I can’t even remember why they were worth writing down.
Barack Obama said ‘Everything that comes to my desk is impossible to solve. Everything that can be solved is solved by someone else. I expect to get 30-40% of decisions wrong. I have to be strong enough to live with that’
It’s not quite the same for a headteacher, but it feels like it some days.