On one term as a senior leader

I have been an Assistant Headteacher for a term now. I left my first school at Easter and this new job is a step up and a step out of the comfort zone. I haven’t felt very able to write about it as I have been so immersed in doing it.

I cannot believe it has only been one term. Already, my mind buzzes with a range of new faces, new names and new values. I can retire for the summer feeling optimistic and positive, after having had a real emotional slump over the last fortnight, and I feel pretty strong looking at the challenges of next academic year.

I won’t pretend that I am not generally a confident person. My extroverted side has come to the forefront in recent years, and I’ve gone from being a teenager who stuttered and blushed every time I had to get on stage, to being (finally) someone who actually enjoys speaking to large groups of strangers. This term has really tested me, though. The rest of this post is a reflection on some of those challenges, now I feel comfortable enough to say that I have recognised them as such. The hope is that for others who are stepping into a new role and a new school, it might be interesting and useful.

It is strange to have to rebuild your reputation, having felt like you didn’t ever consciously do this the first time around. My professional reputation in my first school was one that built up organically over the years I was there. I began as an affable, over-keen 21 year old with good rapport with kids, but dire self-organisation and a liberal approach to classroom tidiness. I became seen as a passionate teacher of maths, and as someone able to challenge and nurture the highest attaining kids. I became seen as someone able to control difficult classes, and then I became seen as someone unable to control difficult classes. I got to know everyone and made approaches to get to know the school community and the parents more widely, visiting houses and setting up groups. All of these things built the narrative of ‘who I am’ as a teacher, without me having to cultivate anything explicitly.

It is the same for all of us; we become known less by our actual actions or intentions, but by the stories that are told about us.

Moving to a new school, I was starkly aware that I didn’t have a story, or – worse – that the stories around me were not necessarily wholly positive. What passed as confidence in my first school came across as arrogance to some in my new school. Whilst I was an open and approachable person who kind of got along with everyone in my first school, this was seen as intimidating by some in my new school.

I had to recognise that what seems like a steady flow of learning, gaining new experience and opportunity for me can nonetheless look like…exactly what it is; a 26 year old with limited teaching experience gaining a senior leadership post.

My growing awareness of this caused me to heap a really unhelpful kind of pressure on myself. Not since being 11 years old have I felt so acutely self-aware – I wanted to do a good job, get on with people, forge solid relationships with the difficult class I inherited, not say anything that could be misconstrued, not present myself in a way that was negative… The weight of constantly trying to see yourself through others eyes is really cumbersome.

This will sound foolish but I’ll be honest here – it didn’t hit me until this term that the reason things always seem to happen in schools, when you are a teacher, is because there are always people making them happen. I learned to expect the excel sheets to be sent to me, the deadlines to be given, the observation dates to be announced, but I chronically underestimated how much time and effort goes into the precise logistics of timetabling and communicating all these little bits and bobs.

I am grateful for how ‘on it’ I am with emails, because the worst thing to do is to get jumbled up and behind on things. With so many little responsibilities, as well as the big ones, it is often very difficult to prioritise and very easy for things to get lost completely.

One thing I haven’t yet got right is my tongue; I need to know when to speak up, when to suggest things and when not to. I am fortunate to be leading in a school where there is genuine professional trust; if I pebbledash the SLT meeting room with suggestions and ideas, the head, DHT and other AHTs will generally support it and go along with it, presuming I have given it due consideration. But I often haven’t.

Honestly, often I sit there in meetings and 101 odd ideas buzz about, and every now and again, one of them finds its way to my tongue and I usher it out of my lips.

“Let’s build school culture by filming a one-take school music video.”

We agreed it would be a good thing. I sat down to plan it and was immediately bombarded by the strain of reality. Where would we do this? Could this be justified as a good use of time? Would this communicate our values? Would staff see the point? Would it make me look like a douchebag for suggesting it? How long would it take? Who would edit it? Where would we host it online? What permissions would we need?

I ran with the idea for a few weeks and came to the meeting, apologised and suggested we don’t do it.

I need to take time to think through my ideas more before sharing them, because I struggle to separate ideas that are good from ideas that I like. The glorious point I want to get to is when we come us with ideas that are good and that I like.

My final thoughts are about trust. The tendency is there, certainly in me and i’m sure in other people too, to speak passionately about all the things you will do. It isn’t a lie – ‘how can a lie be a lie if you mean it at the time?’ – but it isn’t fully truthful either. There is a desire in me to assure everyone that everything I will be involved with will be meticulously organised and regimented, in order that the way I do it can be much more flexible and in line with my values and my approach to teaching and learning.

Top tip – the world doesn’t have sharp edges. Life in school cannot adequately be compartmentalised, like the cells in a spreadsheet or the boxes in a timetable. For all the good will in the world, things won’t work out exactly as you had planned. This does not mean we need to not plan to make things as ordered as possible. Rather, it means we should anticipate the potent role that the unpredictable can play.

My term has been nothing like the term I thought I would have. Due to completely unavoidable circumstances, I found myself back in class, full-time teaching and then part-time teaching. The plan was that this term would prime me for leading confidently in September. In my head, this meant raising my data literacy, spending time in classrooms across the school, getting to know the children I needed to know about most.

Actually, I was put into class in a quirky situation where I was phase leading the year group I was in. I was accountable to the Year Head, who was in turn accountable to me as the Phase Leader. I shared a class with the Advanced Skills Teacher.

But do you know what? The way this term worked out was much better preparation for the role than anything we could have planned in. My knowledge of the children in Year 5 is now deep and meaningful. I know their learning needs as a teacher, and this will help me enormously to support their new teachers. I have been able to begin building my professional reputation as a leader through being able to show that I can teach, and that just like any teacher, I have those days and those lessons where it all goes to pot, and I am found with my fingers digging into my scalp at 5:30.

Trust is gold dust, and it can be lost far easier than it can be earned. At the forefront of my mind, I have had to recognise that the ultimate judgement of my success at what I do is going to be the way that the teachers in my team can do what they do. The teachers need to know that I am not just another TeachFirst leadership-foetus, and they need to know that I am not Tim Nice-But-Dim, and they need to know that I am not just bullshitting them. They need to have a small number of things in place in order to trust me, and work with me; they need to know that when I say I will do something, that I will do it. They need me to be candid in explaining when things need to change and why. And they need to know that I am driven by the same thing that they are; the love of learning and the desire to give our kids the best education we can.

I don’t need to be perfect. I need to be present.

We had our end-of-term staff party yesterday, which was great. With those teachers I’ve been working with most closely, it was great to reflect on the incredibly challenging time we shared in the year group. With a bit of vino in our veins, everyone was a bit more candid and merry, and I was made to feel like I sort of belong, which is enough for now.

I watched as many staff heard their leaving speeches, heading off to teach back in their hometowns, in new countries and in new areas. As somebody said, there is something special and different about our school, and whilst I don’t feel I have ever needed a holiday quite so badly, I am genuinely eager to get back in September to crack on with it all.

The ultimate precis of the above is this: leading is hard.

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One thought on “On one term as a senior leader

  1. Leading IS hard, but it sounds like you’re already discovering its rewards too, Jonny. Enjoyed reading this. Hope to see you at some stage and have a proper conversation about what you’re learning? (while drinking gin…)

    Have a great summer. Hope you manage a really refreshing break so that you feel re-energised for the start of the autumn term, when you won’t be the new boy any more.

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