This is a blog about me and my personal experience as a headteacher. It has taken me almost six months to be able to write, but it is something that I have an absolute need to write and share; even if only for my own needs. If you choose to read it, I hope it makes sense and does not come across as ridiculously self-indulgent nonsense.
Great headteachers are amazing people. I believe I know this better than most based on my own personal experience. The ability to lead a school in a way that enables the whole school community to thrive, achieve and grow in a happy, safe and positive environment is something that, to those of us who lack the required skills, can appear to be like trying to catch fog. I wanted to be one of those headteachers. The ones who inspire others through their leadership and manage to make everyone feel part of a community. The headteachers who drive improvement in every area of the schools they lead, and who are able to hold their head proudly high when interacting with all of their stakeholders both within and beyond the school.
What I have learnt in the last few years is that I am not one of those headteachers. Most definitely not. And that is why I am no longer a headteacher. It is probably also why I am actually happier and more content in my role as a classroom teacher in a new school then I have been for most of the last five and a half years since I first became a headteacher.
So that it is clear, I was a headteacher from September 2012 to December 2017. I left the school that I had led at the end of the autumn term having made the decision to resign my post. In the end it was actually a quite easy decision to make, and was absolutely the right thing to do. I am now teaching in a school much nearer to my home, after having been given the chance to restart my career by a wonderful interview panel who were willing to take what must have seemed like a huge risk on someone who could have been more trouble than it was worth. I have a tutor group for the first time in 13 years and am teaching all the way from year 7 to year 12. I have a fantastic group of colleagues who I enjoy working with every day. For some reason (I can’t imagine why!) my resignation made both the local and national press. This is the story published by the Mirror Online. (I apologise to my ever patient friend Mr Goddard that once again he is dragged into some nonsense involving a former deputy head who never seems to actually properly leave his school!).
I think I can really sum up why I was content to stop being a headteacher in five points:
I tried my best and worked very hard at it. I arrived at school early and left late every single day. I worked through the weekends and holidays, always making sure that I gave everything to the role because I was so proud to have it and never wanted to let anyone down. However, as the years went by and the school was clearly not getting better in lots of ways I lost confidence in my own ability to lead and no longer believed that other stakeholders were well served by my leadership.
The turnover of staff was higher than it should have been. I know that staff turnover rates have been higher in schools across the country in recent years for reasons beyond the control of individual schools. However, the outcomes of exit interviews and staff surveys each year did not show that I held the confidence or trust of my colleagues. I tried lots of ways to resolve this and tried to be as open as I could be to hearing and acting on what others thought, but despite my best efforts there was no permanent positive shift forwards and I was always left knowing that this was not good enough. If I could not make my colleagues enjoy working with me as headteacher, then I did not deserve to lead them.
Too often key decisions I made led to stakeholders being disappointed, frustrated and at times angry. Evidence of this became ever greater as the last two years of my headship took place. I tried to be as collegiate as possible in decision making and not to be the type of headteacher who just did what he thought was right all of the time without considering the views and needs of others. Ultimately I failed to be able to get this aspect of leadership right and this was fundamental in my acceptance of the need to leave my role.
Over five years as a headteacher you take dozens of staff briefings, lead innumerable staff meetings and hold more meetings with parents, carers, governors and students than you can possibly count. These should be times when you are able to show your character as a good leader who should inspire confidence from those who look to you for leadership. Before becoming a headteacher I thought I was particularly good at this part of my role as a school leader. Over my time as headteacher I came to the conclusion that I was not. Whether it was staff briefings or meetings where the tone was wrong, governing body meetings where I was unnecessarily defensive and unwilling to work collaboratively, parental meetings where I did not listen properly in order to understand what really needed to happen, or the interactions with young people where I forgot that my words and actions made a profound difference to their lives. All of these things add up over time and create an atmosphere that is not conducive to success for a school community.
I am an obsessive perfectionist. It is a trait that has helped me in so many ways throughout my career. However, when things are not going well, and despite everything I do to resolve problems matters do not improve, I am not good at coping with this. I constantly felt that I was letting the school community down. Every time a colleague or student left the school I rightly felt personally responsible for the fact of this happening. Every time external agents criticised the school, whether publicly or privately, I could put on a brave face but I knew that really what they were saying came from their feelings of disappointment, frustration or anger with what I had allowed to happen. Once it was clear that being a headteacher was actually making me unwell and severely negatively impacting on my wellbeing, the decision to leave my post was something that I just needed to pluck up the courage to actually act upon.
There are of course many more details that could be included in each of these explanations, but quite frankly they are either tedious or should not be shared with others.
I was sad to leave what had been my dream job since I was a trainee teacher in Tower Hamlets in 1997. However, I was also instantly calmer and happier. It was the right thing to do for myself and for the school. A permanent replacement is about to be appointed, and I have no doubt that she or he will deliver what the school needs to improve. The school is part of an excellent trust of schools with amazing leadership at all levels. The Co-operative values that I hold so dear define how the school will be run in the future. Everyone in the school, young people, staff, parents, carers, governors and the wider community are better off now than they were before. A headteacher who is not a success and who does not do a good job should not seek to hold on to the post purely for their own self satisfaction. It is never about you as a person when you are the leader; it is about what you enable everyone else to do. If you cannot enable everyone else to be the best they can be and achieve the success they deserve then you should let them find a new way to achieve their potential.
There are many parts of my experience as a school leader that I thoroughly enjoyed, and even a small number of things that I feel proud of having achieved. They will always be with me, whatever roles I fulfill over the remaining twenty years of my teaching career.
I finish by going back to my opening statement in this blog about great headteachers being amazing people. I absolutely stand by this. It is too easy to slate headteachers and the wider senior leadership teams in schools. The job is incredibly difficult to get right, and is getting harder by the year. I remain in awe of so many of the headteachers and senior leaders I have met or worked with in my career. If I can ask one thing at the end of this blog, it is that we all take a few moments to consider the skill, passion, care, determination and dedication that the senior leaders in our schools show. Perhaps we could all remind them of how good they are every once in a while? I can promise you that they will appreciate it.
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