Why did I become a headteacher?

A little bit of background first.  I have just finished my first year of headship, the school I work in is a very small village school in North Yorkshire with just two classes.  As well as being head, I am Senco, and (in theory) lead every curriculum area except for Maths and Computing, I also teach part-time. Before my current role I was assistant head at a 2 form entry primary, and before that a varied career in 6 other schools in 5 different local authorities.

The story. As with many good stories I shall start at the beginning.  Why did I become a teacher?  I was asked this question in a leadership interview once, and remember the head and deputy looking at me in eager anticipation of an inspired answer.  I told the truth. 

Rewind to 1993.  I was in my final year of a degree at Durham University and hadn’t managed to secure one of the flashy graduate jobs I thought I wanted at the time.  I had always worked my way through holidays since I was 13 and had my first job doing a paper round, followed by numerous other roles including Little Chef, packing roses, breakfast waitressing and working at a sandwich factory.  I wasn’t going to leave university without a job to go to, so I did a PGCE.

The answer I gave in the interview was that I went into teaching because I couldn’t find another job, but the reason I have stayed in teaching since is what’s more important.  I have enjoyed supporting children and their families, helping them to learn and develop, making a difference in their lives.  And what is more, I am told I am good at it (hard as it is to blow your own trumpet, it is also important to be able to accept praise).

Over the past 25 years, I have worked in 8 different schools, and held senior leadership roles in three of them.  Other than a short time out when I had my first two children, and some part-time working when my three children were little, I feel I have never left education. 

I will also add, I did leave one school when I lost a baby just before I was due to go on maternity leave.  I found it too hard to go back and face the children and answer their questions about where my baby had gone.  (I thought carefully about whether to include this in my blog.  It isn’t something I talk about or share often but I do believe it has helped define me and my journey in education so it feels right to mention it).

Why have I moved schools so often?  A mixture of career progression, relocation, having children and generally itchy feet.  The longest I have stayed in one school is 5 years. 

The positive side of this is that I have built up a wealth of experience, I have many examples of good and bad practice to reflect upon, and I can draw on the best of this.  Not every school has been a pleasure to work in, and one in particular did its best to break me (I use ‘school’ here to describe its leadership-led ethos).  Many of my schools have been fantastic, and I have felt proud to be part of the team.

The downside of moving so often is the lack of putting down roots, and the sheer effort in adjusting to each new school.  Every school is different, and it takes a good two terms to feel established.  The saddest part is not being there to see the children journey through school.  I have spent most of my time teaching KS1 and EYFS, and have yet to see a leavers’ assembly of children I have directly taught.

Moving into leadership: middle leadership.  I held my first middle leadership role in my 4th or 5th year in teaching, being tasked with leading the introduction of the National Numeracy Strategy.  I also completed a middle leadership course and got quite a buzz from doing this.  I realised I could offer more to the school as a whole than just teaching my own class. 

For many years I was quite happy doing this, taking on responsibility for projects, working with others, still concentrating on my own classroom teaching and balancing this with my family life.

I was often asked if I wanted to become a headteacher.  It wasn’t something I had ruled out entirely, but it seemed such a huge and daunting role.  My answer was ‘probably not’.

Moving into leadership: senior leadership.  It wasn’t planned (or at least – not at first).  I took on a teaching job at a ‘Requires Improvement’ school with a newly appointed headteacher.  There was an alarmingly high staff turnover and I was soon asked to support the head by covering some of the duties of the absent deputy head.  It was not a pleasant role, and I could not support the ethos nor could I influence a change in it (despite trying) so it was time to move on.  The positive: I knew that there was a ‘better way’ to lead and saw at first-hand how not to treat staff.

After this I purposefully applied for senior leadership roles and enjoyed my next positions, feeling part of the team with enough autonomy to be effective in my role.  At the same time I still held class teacher responsibility and learnt how to juggle sometimes conflicting demands.

The crux came for me when I had the opportunity to apply for an assistant head position (the leadership structure was headteacher and two assistant heads).  I had decided some time ago that I would only venture into assistant/deputy roles if I wanted to become a headteacher.  My logic behind this was that it wasn’t worth the extra responsibility to me, and I would still have all the demands of a class teacher.  I know there are many deputies and assistant heads out there who are successful and happy in their roles, but it wasn’t something I wanted to do for long. 

I decided to go for it.  It was a good school, I felt confident I could do the job and I had lots to bring to the role.  I also recognise that when you start to feel frustration about how things are done, then the best thing to do is get involved yourself, rather than sit back and grumble. 

I was successful in my application and decided to apply for the NPQH course at the same time.  I can be quite ‘all or nothing’ at times and looking back, I may have become a little aggressive in my sudden career ambition.  So the next task was applying for the NPQH.  There is much I could say about this, but for brevity I shall mention that I had to pass a gateway interview to convince the providers I was ready for the NPQH.  Of course I was ready, what was harder was to evidence that quite in the way needed to score enough points.  However after some slick talking and squeezing out of experience I was in.

AH and NPQH to headship.  Doing the NPQH didn’t teach me how to be a headteacher, but it gave me the confidence, self-reflection and direction to take the plunge. 

I was right in my prediction that being an assistant head was not something I would want to do for long.  Of all the roles I’ve taken on, this was probably the hardest.  It was a great school, but somehow I found it hard sitting between the head and other colleagues, being responsible yet not fully influential, still teaching a class yet not being able to be there every day.

I had expected to start looking at headteacher roles in my second year of being assistant head.  However in the same way I browse Rightmove with no intention of actually moving, I browse the jobs sites.  Browsing can be dangerous.

I didn’t have an ideal school in mind, but 6 months into my assistant head role in Spring term I went to visit a school that was looking for a new headteacher.  I came away thinking it wasn’t a job I wanted to do, and it wasn’t a job I felt I was ready for; perhaps the two are inter-linked.

The second school I visited was very different.  It had been through a rocky time and needed TLC.  It was definitely a job I wanted to do, and realistically thought I could do.  Then came the really hard work.  The application, the research, the preparation, the most gruelling of interviews over two days. 

I was ready.  I was ready to take on the leadership of a school, to support and develop the school, its ethos, its children, families and staff.  I was ready to draw on all the best examples of practice I had seen, and give it a little bit of me too.

Congratulations, we’re delighted to offer you the position.

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Behaviour: finding the common ground

There has been a lot of debate surrounding the DFE’s latest idea to support teachers to ‘crack down on bad behaviour’. This is a very emotive issue with an emotive choice of language.

As an educator, I am passionate about inclusion, nurture and meeting needs. I also believe that high expectations of behaviour are essential. I am experienced enough to know that the behaviour of some children at some times is nothing to do with the teacher’s style or approach. As a champion of all children, I desperately want to provide support for those children struggling with behaviour. I also want to ensure all children in a class have the opportunity to learn uninterrupted and their teachers teach uninterrupted. I sincerely hope this is what all teachers, leaders and care-givers would agree with.

Surely all teachers, leaders and care-givers want the same outcomes for children? Yes, of course they do. What they cannot agree about is the method to get there.

Recently I have heard the terms ‘flattening the grass’ and ‘zero tolerance’, sitting in apparent direct oposition to ‘unmet needs’ and ‘inclusion’. Furious debate suggests otherwise, but can zero tolerance really run alongside support for unmet needs?

This is where we must focus our efforts, seek the common ground that allows us to cater for all our children.

As an experienced educator and parent I see contradictions, successes and failures at first hand.

As a parent I feel much confusion. I have experienced my child coming home anxious and frustrated by disruptions to learning by the behaviour of others in classes. I have also experienced my child spending extended periods of time in isolation. I have more than one child. As a parent I am intensely worried.

I do not have the answers, nor am I convinced you can find them all for £10million. (I am not against additional support for behaviour and an investment in this) However, my thoughts are this:

1. We must find the right common ground to provide consistency in approaches that address the needs of all children. High expectations AND met needs.

2. To do this ALL schools must be fully funded to provide the support needed for those children struggling with behaviour.

3. Schools must also be fully funded to provide the training for staff.

4. Leaders and professionals MUST accept the greater moral responsibility, and put away one upmanship (or gender neutral alternative if you rather).

Whilst ever our most influential educators lock heads and cast aspersions we are not seeking the common ground. Let’s agree that we can aim to meet needs at the same time as maintaining high expectations. Let’s also accept that we have work to do to get there.