Reflecting on the past year, I can safely say that one of the best pieces of advice I received when I started as a Deputy Head was to join a union that was specifically for school leaders. My Head recommended ASCL, I think this was because this was his union and I guess he had found them effective and supportive. Little did I know at the time how true this would be for me. A caveat here…I can only speak for my own experience, I haven’t been a member of other teacher unions which I am sure are also excellent. However, over the past year, the calm wisdom of Geoff Barton and the team at ASCL has been such a help. Along with the rest of the team, he has spoken with sense and provided clarity when announcements about school closures and assessment have been anything but clear.
Whichever union you choose to join, it is well worth it for the community and guidance that they offer. A union specifically for school (and college) leaders can be a source of advice that is specifically tailored to your role. Unions do have influence over government decisions and do lobby for change, working in the background, more often than not, to change policy or improve working practices. Through membership you also have the chance to be a part of this change as well as benefitting from the sense that an organisation has your back as an educationalist!
One other organisation that I can’t recommend highly enough is the Chartered College of Teaching (https://chartered.college/). The College is the professional body for teachers and seeks to be the standard setter for CPD and give teachers and leaders the chance to become chartered, therefore recognising the significance of the profession. I have the privilege of being a Fellow of the College which affords me with the opportunity to join round tables to represent education to the Dfe and to raise the profile of our wonderful profession. It is a joy to signpost teachers in my school to the College and to point colleagues to the resources offered by it. The College was established by the amazing Alison Peacock and offers resources and high quality CPD for teachers at all stages of their career. Alison was interviewed by Emma Turner and Tom Sherrington for their podcast: Mind the Gap https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R5spixFp0qQ
The heading of this blog might seem obvious and possibly even superfluous. However, it is something that I have to remind myself about and very importantly carve out time and headspace for. An example was last night, I had a meeting with a parent that I wasn’t sure about, I hoped I could persuade them to have a different perspective on a situation and change their mind but I needed to have a series of arguments to hand, needed to be clear on how I would start the meeting and what I could follow up with if things weren’t heading in the direction I hoped. It is hard in a busy day or week to find the time to think this through, the immediate needs crowd this out, people knock at the door or email notifications pop up which I find distracting. Conversations happen in the Staff Room which can result in action needing to be taken and suddenly I find myself five minutes before a meeting which I haven’t prepared for.
This can be equally as true for meetings that I have chaired or with other senior leaders, I can be tempted to fall into the trap of assuming I’ll be able to think on the spot in a meeting, come up with ideas or suggestions, sometimes even be able to defend my own points of view but I have found, to my cost, that this isn’t always the case: I need to prepare beforehand. Of course, points will still be made that I don’t expect and I’ll need to be able to consider alternative views that haven’t occurred to me, you can’t think of everything, but having spent some time going over what is essential to have agreed at the end of the meeting or what my key arguments will be, gives me the clarity of how to begin a conversation and what key points need to be stressed.
So, how to do this. It is so easy to type what I haven’t done but more helpful to suggest how to make meetings as effective as possible through preparation.
When planning for a one on one conversation with either a parent or a member of staff, I will run through how I will start, my opening gambit which sets the tone of that meeting. The key is then to stick to this, if it is likely to be a tricky conversation ensure you think through what your opening line will be and don’t get distracted or railroaded by someone else. If it helps, role play the conversation to consider possible counter-arguments. Find time and the best place to do this – for me it is via walking or at least pacing in my office. I think best when I am moving so I make sure I have time for this. If I have a meeting the next day or during the week and there won’t be much (or any) time beforehand I create space earlier in the week, by planning the week(s) ahead and booking time for thinking in my calendar I start to prioritise it rather than allowing daily events to take over that make me feel rushed and ill-prepared. It is the classic conundrum: what is important and what is urgent.
If you are going into a meeting in which you want to carry a point across with a group, speak with members first so you have allies who will back you up. If there are likely to be those who dislike your proposal, speak with them individually beforehand to hear their concerns and explain where you are coming from. You may need to present an idea in different ways to different people depending on their context.
Circulate an agenda, asking for input from others by a certain deadline. Always indicate when agenda items have been offered by members of the team and ensure there is time for their points to be discussed so they know that they’re input is valued. If an agenda item isn’t relevant for that particular meeting, make time to see that person to discuss their suggestion outside of the meeting, before it if possible. Take minutes and highlight action points which indicate the outcomes and what will be followed up in the subsequent meeting. If it is a conversation with an individual member of staff or a parent, record the conversation and email a summary so both parties are clear on what has been discussed and/or agreed.
Stepping up to the next level can be uncomfortable at times and may come across as shouting about your achievements, self-promoting or even, dare I say it, sucking up. I have been thinking about this as my role at work will change in a years time, I will become the senior deputy for professional development. Professional development can be two things, either to enable someone to move to the next level or to become even better in their current role. Technical expertise should be invested in and valued as much as progression up the ladder, everyone in an organisation should be engaging in professional development continuously, working towards providing the best education that we can for the children in our care. This blog isn’t really about professional development as such, I’ll write more about that another time. I wanted to write about what is required if you are looking for a promotion because I’m not sure it is always obvious which means opportunities might be missed.
My new role has come about because our school is within a family and to drive forward some efficiency gains the SMTs across the senior schools are becoming more and more over-arching; rather than having responsibility for one school, I will have responsibility for professional development of staff across both and the other two deputies will act in the same overarching capacity. The announcement of the shake up in SMT and what seemed like the creation of new roles caused a bit of upset for some as they felt that they had missed the chance to apply themselves and demonstrate their own competency. I understand this frustration and it has made me think about how do people show that they are able to move into a new role: we have to have examples. How do we collect those examples? By being proactive and starting initiatives, taking on new responsibilities that we might not be remunerated for, doing things that solve a problem, demonstrating that we know what skills are required for the next level by, as much as is possible, delivering some of the tasks that it will require. This might stretch you and you might find yourself doing more than your current job description, you might start to give up more of your time without being rewarded for it but it is an investment because it will provide the examples necessary to demonstrate readiness for the next rung on the ladder. Those that do this might be seen as self-promoting and ambitious, driven but, being ambitious and driven are certainly two attributes that are key if you are going to move upwards. Talking about wanting to be recognised isn’t enough, a line manager should offer guidance and support but ultimately you have to be the one who is proactive and seizes the initiative and gets stuck in not waiting to be asked but seeing a way of solving a problem the school has and cracking on with it.
All that being said, I am increasingly convinced that a successful organisation is one that values technical expertise and provides a pay scale for those who want to remain in a technical role. In the schools I’ve worked in, the only way to move up the scale is to take on greater responsibility but that means great teachers spend less and less time in the classroom. Great teachers can become excellent leaders but there should be a way to reward those who wish to remain at the chalk-face and invest their time in their teaching practice. We all have different skills and find our niche, an effective leader is one who creates an environment where all staff can thrive and be rewarded within their chosen niche. A good school relies upon having a team of staff who’s expertise are celebrated and relied upon but that also means there might need to be a pay scale that doesn’t require promotion out of the classroom. I’m not sure I have the answer to this but it is something I will continue to ponder on and see what I can do to make it happen.
I had the privilege, a few weeks ago, of sharing my experience of stepping up to senior management with someone who is looking to move up from middle management. Preparing for the conversation and talking about how she could build on her current experience made me reflect again on what I did to gain the necessary experience; it’s about ticking various boxes and getting the exposure needed to really know whether senior management is for you. It isn’t possible to be ‘fully’ ready and have all the skills required for a promotion, you grow and develop skills ‘on the job’ but it is important to consider what the next rung above requires of you and whether you want that additional responsibility and are willing to give up more headspace and time to your job, because even if it doesn’t look like it to others who aren’t in senior management, although it well might, you will put more time to work and will have to think about it even more.
Gaining whole school experience is really key. I was a Head of Department who’d been involved in various initiatives and steering groups, I helped coordinate EPQ and careers events as well as Young Enterprise but nothing really demonstrated a whole school responsibility. When the opportunity to be a deputy in a boarding house came up, I jumped at the chance – as well as just being a wonderful job it gave me the opportunity to learn about the pastoral side of the school and better understand safeguarding procedures. This also showed my line manager that I was looking outside of my ‘world’ of the department and able to manage a workload that was broader. As much as it might not be comfortable and will stretch you, to prepare for senior management you need to take on additional roles/responsibilities; this both pushes you outside of your comfort zone and raises your profile to those around you. I found it amazing how my capacity grew and that I did find I could handle more than my middle management role, it wasn’t easy at first but certainly worth trying and really seeing what I was capable of.
I also (successfully) applied to be a governor at my local secondary school which provided an insight into aspects of school strategic planning, finance and HR decision making that I wouldn’t otherwise have exposure to. Being a governor shows that you can cope with additional responsibilities, the pressure of a variety of jobs and have the initiative to take on roles that move you beyond what you know and are comfortable with. One question I was asked at interview for my current job was how I would cope with the pressure of senior management – as I have written in previous blogs, a senior management role requires carefully juggling of a wide variety of deadlines, tasks and a real ability to discern the urgent from the important jobs, you’ll need to know how to demonstrate your ability to do this during your interview.
Something else my conversation made me reflect on is that, at times you need to make your own opportunities. I badgered my line manager about stepping up to senior management and I found a course run by HMC (I was in an independent school at the time but the National College also run leadership preparation courses, in a previous school I completed the leadership pathways course with the National College). The HMC course was perfect – covering key points about the role of a senior manager and what to expect. Don’t wait for someone to do this for you, seize the chance yourself and demonstrate the initiative and drive to your line manager by planning what you need to do to prepare for the step up.
Never say you might not be good enough! The final piece in the jigsaw for me was my role as Assistant to our Director of Studies. I really wasn’t sure about applying when the position was created, doubted my credentials and believed that I wouldn’t be the best person for the role: was I analytical enough, did I have enough ideas, would I be able to lead other middle managers who were my colleagues, would there be the grace from colleagues when I made the inevitable mistakes? I really wasn’t sure I would be good enough. However, I am blessed with a really good friend who’s judgement I trust, she is honest and I knew she would tell me if she did (or didn’t) think the role suited me. We talked through the job description and with her encouragement I applied – I couldn’t have been more excited to have been offered the role and was very grateful that I gave it a go. That was a real lesson in never saying never!
There is so much more I want to say about this topic but that would make this post far too long. I’ll post more soon. I hope that has given you food for thought for now….
I’m writing this in the summer term which feels very different to two years ago. Two years ago, even though I had additional responsibilities to my middle management role my timetable had significantly reduced as my exam classes were on study leave – there was time to review schemes of work or update our resources, get to the jobs that had been on the list all year! As a middle leader the rhythm of the year is quite distinctive – the autumn term is full on with getting to know new classes, UCAS (if you’re involved with Sixth Form), events for new parents and the list goes on – you drag yourself towards Christmas desperately hoping for some time to sleep and that you won’t get a cold. The spring term will be focused on mocks and exam preparation, setting up revision materials and getting your students to maintain their drive and motivation. The summer term feels like a reward for all the hours and hours spent in and out of school over the past two terms. There is a predictable pattern to the year. This all changes in senior leadership – there aren’t the predictable patterns, no longer can you say ‘I’ll have a bit of time here’ or ‘that will be my lighter term’ because it doesn’t exist. In senior leadership you need to become accustomed to being busy throughout the whole year. If you opt for the academic route you’ll be running external and internal exams whilst also frantically finishing the timetable and setting up reports (as well as writing your own), preparing for next year’s calendar as well as (possibly) completing work scrutinies, continuing to oversee revision classes, learning walks…the list goes on. If you’re a pastoral leader, students (and parents) don’t understand that your summer term is supposed to be quieter – they will still demand your attention and you may be responsible for organising next year’s tutor groups or houses and maintaining behavioural standards – your time won’t be your own. I used to have time to examine during the summer term but decided to discontinue this when stepping into senior leadership, I wouldn’t have the chance (or head space) in the summer term to focus on marking as well as my new responsibilities and it was important to carve out time in the summer holiday for a complete rest – the new academic year now starts in August, as soon as results come out; from then on I am back to work.
Knowing this – it is vitally important that time is kept precious during the whole year. It might be that you keep certain holidays as sacred or certain times in the week. I have always had Tuesday nights as time to attend choir which has given me the chance to have an evening a week to maintain a hobby and retain some sanity! Different people will take breaks when it suits them, the key is to find what works for you but to remember that the pace of the year won’t let up so you need to pace yourself.
In your first year, and to be honest in every year, you will make mistakes. Don’t beat yourself up about this, it is part of being a human being. Say sorry, learn from them and keep moving forward but don’t dwell on them – the jump up to senior management is the biggest leap you’ve probably made throughout your career and you can’t know everything all the time. As you grow into the role, and you will, these mistakes will lessen and you’ll become more confident in your knowledge of people, the culture and rhythm of the school.
Talk to lots of people, get to know staff and students
The more conversations you have, the more you’ll understand the culture of a new school, assuming you’ve moved to a new institution. If you haven’t, talking to people will enable you to understand their perceptions of your role and their expectations of what you should be doing. If you have moved to a new school, you need to spend time with staff and students, not just your team but talk with teaching and support staff. In my first few days at my current school, I couldn’t access my office and used the desk of the Bursar’s PA who was away on holiday – this meant I was part of conversations between the Heads PA, the Development Director and Bursar, getting to know what they thought about the school was invaluable, as well as giving me an opportunity to start developing a relationship with them. Before starting I asked for pictures of all the teaching staff and spent hours memorising who was who – on A level results day, the first day I met anyone who wasn’t part of SMT, I was able to demonstrate that I knew people’s names and their roles – off to a positive start. The more you get of the office and speak with staff and students, the more visible you’ll be – I put learning walks in my diary in order to ensure I make time for them each day. By walking around, in and out of classrooms or extra-curricular events (as well as teaching a lot of KS3 pupils) I have learnt the names of the majority of students – stop and speak with them, prove that you know who they are and what they do – this will raise your profile in the school and build relationships.
Above my desk I have written on a post-it note ‘why?’. This reminds me to ask questions, to not assume I know why something is done or why someone has that……even in my second year, I am still asking why – it wasn’t possible in just one year to see all the aspects that need to be looked at and possibly altered. Don’t expect yourself to be able to change everything that you think needs altering in the first year. It might be that initially you want to change something, but perhaps it is best to take time to see how the school operates, asking the question doesn’t mean that you will change it but does help you to understand the rationale and therefore better appreciate the history of decision making and the set up of the school. I moved from a campus based boarding school to one based in a town, the different ……..is significant for so many aspects of what we do – exams, sport, extra-curricular activities to say a few. I had to shift my mindset to that.
Know what has been discussed in past meetings – read minutes
Make sure you know which meetings you should attend, your role – are you chairing, expected to contribute or just attend – and who else will be present. Ensure you know the regularity of these meetings and where they will take place. You’ll probably find yourself attending far more than in previous roles, this gives you a chance to meet staff that you wouldn’t necessarily directly relate to. My role is on the academic side of the school but I make a point of always attending Housemasters meetings in order to appreciate the pastoral side, both day and boarding, that way I can consider both pastoral and academic factors when making decisions and better appreciate who to consult.
Read the minutes of previous meetings to ensure you understand what has been decided and the roles played by those that attend each meeting. It might be worth going back an entire year, rather than just the previous term. It might be that you’re having to instigate a decision that was made by your predecessor or that something you wish to raise for discussion has already been through the various committees. If you are implementing a decision made by your predecessor, regardless of whether you agree with it or not, their decision needs to be honoured, at least initially. There is time to make changes, once you have a deeper and clearer understanding of the school and prioritisation of your own strategic direction.
Be very present, visible and involved
Attend events, be known and get to know what the school does. This might be through attending music, drama or sports events, it could also mean visiting feeder schools or you prep school if you have one. Find ways to see the pupils (and parents) in a context different from your every day environment. By building up a profile with the parent body and demonstrating your commitment to the whole school, you’ll establish a good reputation that will pay dividends when those tricky conversations need to be had. I was asked to act as the staff link for our parent association and this has been a fantastic way to understand the impressions parents have of our school as well as represent the teaching staff – it has always been time well spent.
Manage expectations – yours and the Head’s
Don’t expect yourself to be able to do everything in the first year. The Head needs to provide you with the space to adapt, perhaps even more importantly if you have moved within your current school, the step up will still be significant and it is important to have the time to think and adjust.
What to change and implement
This is a cliche but taking the opportunity over the first year to learn the school before undertaking any significant changes is wise. There might be obvious quick wins, go for the low hanging fruit, but drastic, fundamental changes need to be handled with care, you need to know what reaction you’re likely to get and be able to manage that beforehand using your soft skills. By taking the time to build relationships and trust you’re more like to implement change successfully.
Journal – reflect and develop
Make time in your week to journal what you have learnt and then read your journal as a reminder. Write a calendar of the annual jobs as you experience them. Read this in your second year – don’t rely on your recall – this will help you to prepare and look forward. Journals don’t have to be anything special – mine is just some notes on a word document, but I note down, even now, what I have experienced, why decisions were successful or not and what I would do the same or differently next time.
One of the first pieces of advice my Headmaster gave me in my current role was that the pace of decision making would be (and should be) slower as a senior manager – I needed to allow time to make decisions. I thought I knew that I would need to consider more people’s opinions and recognise that a wider sphere of people have a vested interest in what I choices I made but as with many realities of being a senior leader, I didn’t appreciate quite what this would be like until I was actually in that role. I have a reminder to myself, just above my desk in my office, who needs to know? My current school is part of a ‘family of schools’, I can’t just consult my counterpart in my own school, I also need to check with my counter part at our sister school as well and, at times, the wider senior management team at both. This requires more time and I have to keep looking ahead to allow for the days or weeks it might take to come to a final conclusion.
Another piece of advice I’ve been given relates to short, medium and long term planning horizons – short: today or this week, medium: the next term, long: planning for the next year or possibly next few years. In my weekly meetings with my HM we always go through the short term planning and mostly also cover the medium term. Longer term isn’t discussed as regularly but it is very much on the agenda so that we (hopefully) don’t get caught out, although in this position it isn’t possible to plan for everything and it pays to be flexible and able to respond to shifting sands that could throw plans off course. Planning horizons are a standing item in weekly SMT meetings too, we discuss what is coming up that week and then the longer term planning for that term or the one ahead.
I have found on several occasions that I have been too easily caught up in the day to day business of teaching and haven’t looked up enough to plan ahead. It is hard to strike the right balance between thinking strategically and keeping the plates spinning as a DH whilst also wanting to still plan good lessons, mark work quickly and know that I am delivering lessons to the standard I would have done when all I had to do was teach. It is really important to keep teaching, I would never cancel a lesson or get cover for a meeting – I am a Deputy Head teacher which means that fundamentally I am a teacher but I also have to reconcile that with my leadership responsibility and those that I lead. If I get too caught up in my lessons and marking and don’t remember to plan, look ahead and ensure I am strategic, I won’t communicate plans in time and may miss consulting with the right people, resulting in my team feeling that I don’t have a handle on events. This then affects their wellbeing – if I’m not strategic and forward thinking, they are left feeling anxious or out or the loop. In order to build their trust and confidence, they need to know that I have thought ahead and have already started to plan for the next event or term. Of course, I won’t think of everything and my team often nudge me or remind me of factors that I haven’t considered for which I am incredibly grateful – their collective wisdom and experience is invaluable – but they need to know that I am proactive rather than reactive. Creating space in my diary for this thinking time is time very much well spent and communicating to those I lead that I am undertaking this planning reassures them. Considering who to involve in the process and when (and how) to utilise the skills and experience of my team means I am more likely to have considered alternatives or different approaches, potential pitfalls or challenges. Planning ahead so that I have time to bring my team along with me has been a valuable lesson.
Whist thinking about what to write as the next reflections on the first two years of senior management I keep coming back to how I spend my time. I am inclined to measure my day by what I have achieved, how many tasks I have ticked off my list and there is the tendency to feel disappointed in the day if I haven’t ticked everything off. I don’t expect I am unusual in this, I would hazard that most teachers are ‘doers’. However, adapting to remote learning and needing to support my middle managers as they support their own teams through a very challenging time, has required me to spend a lot of time sitting and listening. Taking the time to call up my Heads of Department at least once a week is very much time well spent.
Corridor conversations or that quick chat in the staff room can’t be had at the moment and the temptation is to resort to email for all communication. If we do this we lose the human touch, the chance to hear in people’s voices and see in expressions how they really are. The coronavirus has meant the we can’t pop into each others classrooms or offices and simply catch up at the end of the day – these encounters are vitally important when we are in school. When we are physically removed from one another as a school community perspective can be more easily lost or distorted and worries or anxieties heightened when we don’t have someone to talk to. We need to replicate those regular encounters.
As much as those corridor conversations happen without any planning or advanced warning, it is important to plan in meetings or phone calls. We don’t know what else is going on in someone’s home and it is better to arrange a suitable time rather than calling someone on the off chance, that way they can create time and know that, as a leader, we are considering their wider context of family life as well as their teaching.
Over the past few weeks I have set up an alternating pattern of cluster groups of HODs and individual HODs meetings. The cluster groups has worked incredibly well as a way of sharing best practice on Microsoft teams as well as other digital resources, discussing ideas and creating a space for everyone to share their ups and downs. Feedback has been really positive as staff have had the chance to see one another and know that they aren’t alone in the plethora of emotions that come with the ‘coronacoaster’. In these and individual meetings, my role has been largely to listen, to hear how they are and encourage those that are finding remote teaching particularly challenging, although we are all struggling at times. Over the past few days I have met with all 18 Heads of Department for approximately 30 minutes – that’s meant sitting in the same chair for quite a while! It might not be immediately apparent that I am achieving anything but I hope that they feel heard and supported, that it demonstrates how much I care about each of them and want to really know how they are. This is therefore time well spent.
I have been saying for almost a year now that I would start to blog as a way of reflecting on my own experiences during the first few years of senior leadership – today I finally sat down and set things up. The point of it….essentially to stop and think, I have written odd bits and pieces as a way of recalling significant events that happened in my first year but that was more of a daily jotting rather than something that forces me to organise my thoughts, thematically sorting each learning event in a way that might actually have more use. Life can, as we all know, become incredibly busy, there is always another email to read or the next bit of marking nagging at the back of my mind which I often allow to stop me from sitting and thinking. However, taking time to do just that – think – is vitally important if I am now to do my role effectively. Of course, emails need answering and marking must be done as well as possible but without creating time to step back and reflect or look forwards, the strategic part of the leadership role I now have lessens. As I write, we are in the eighth week of lockdown and awaiting the announcement from the PM about any possible easing of restrictions. In future blogs I will come back to the learning that’s taken place throughout this time, for now I will just put some structure to the blog and hope that whoever reads it finds something that will help them as they embark on their own senior leadership journey.
Before I moved to my current school and position, I asked colleagues what they thought made an effective senior leader and the answer I received on many occasions was to be approachable – this has stuck with me and I hope that I have managed to honour this with those I now lead. As a way of starting the reflections that I will add to over future blogs – the key thing I have learnt is to give people time, to listen and be someone others feel able to talk to if they need a sounding board or advice. A lot of my day is spent meeting with middle leaders or being in classrooms as I conduct learning walks, watching and learning, enjoying the amazing teaching and learning that is taking place. I am someone who is quite task focused, I like to have a list and tick things off so a day of being available and meeting with folk doesn’t always feel that I have accomplished much but actually it is a vital part of my role and one that I must invest it. I have started to put into my calendar ‘learning walk’ or conversations with particular staff so that I don’t overlook it and create time to just be ‘available’ and hopefully approachable.