The first year

It is okay to make mistakes

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.

Ask questions

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 …… 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.

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