Should heads teach?

A recent Twitter conversation about the advantages and disadvantages of heads having a teaching commitment made me thoughtful.  I was a head for thirty years, and taught throughout this time.  I taught Year 7 – one lesson of English with each class each week.  I was paired with the English teacher who taught them for the rest of the time.  If I had to be out of school, this teacher took the lesson, so the pupils’ English education wasn’t disrupted.  If I were in school I made the teaching a priority and would not routinely fit anything into my diary that cut across my teaching time.

When I was appointed to the headship, but before I formally took up the role, I discussed with the Head of English whether she would be happy for me to do this.  I explained that where my English lessons were concerned, she was my boss.  I would use that time for whatever she felt was appropriate (and during the ten years of my headship I taught different things to the Year 7s).  We decided we would start this in my first year and see how it went.  It worked well, I would say, and so I continued to teach the Year 7s for ten years.  I’d occasionally cover other lessons and, if I could teach the subject, I would.  And I would do one-off ‘guest lectures’ with the A level English groups, but the Year 7 was my only regular teaching commitment.

I have to say the focus wasn’t the teaching of English.  I wasn’t arrogant enough to suggest I was the best teacher in the department and could do a better job than others (and as a head you’re an ‘expensive’ teacher).  The focus was, rather, on building relationships.  Through teaching the Year 7s, I knew all the pupils’ names by October half term.  Once I’d been in the school for seven years I knew every individual student in the senior school.  We always had new pupils joining us in Years 8, 9, 10 and 12, but these were in small numbers so I got to know them through the admissions process.  This was a 7-18 school, and although I got to know the Junior School as a group (I took a weekly assembly and went to all the Junior School extra-curricular events), I didn’t know each individual pupil in Years 3 to 6 – but my Head of Juniors did.  In a school where we claimed the individual was important, known and cared for, this was a key way of reinforcing that message.

Crucially, through teaching everyone, the pupils got to know me, too.  And they were far less likely to find the head an intimidating figure (who they might only have met if they were exceptional in some way – standing out for positive or negative reasons).  They would make eye contact and smile at me in the corridor.  I could address them by name and comment on seeing them at choir, on the sports field, in drama.  They were far more likely to introduce their parents to me at parents’ evening.  I remember a Sixth Form girl coming into my office to tell me how thrilled she was to have landed work experience at ‘Vogue’.  After she’d left I reflected ion the fact that she might not have had the confidence to do that had I not taught her when she was 11.  (And it’s interesting to see what that girl is up to now! Check out @LouStoppard on Twitter!)  I worked to build positive and warm relationships with those I taught.  I knew them and I was known.

So, yes, I would recommend that heads should teach.  But bear in mind the following:

  • Teaching shouldn’t be an indulgence, where you teach simply because you enjoy it and don’t want to give it up. It should be for the benefit of the learners and the school as a whole, not just for you.
  • Organise your teaching so that if you have to be out of school, provision for the students isn’t significantly disrupted. This might mean you being supernumerary where your staffing budget is concerned, as I was.
  • If you teach, do it properly – plan, deliver, feed back, meet deadlines – be a positive role model for other teachers.
  • But don’t think this is all about showing what a great teacher you are. Your job as head is to support and challenge everyone ELSE to be their best.  It isn’t about you and your ego.
  • Don’t use the classroom as an escape. I loved headship, but there were challenging aspects to it.  You should never avoid the tough stuff because ‘you’re teaching’.  And, of course, headship shouldn’t just be seen as a way to escape the classroom, either!
  • On the other hand, if you’re constantly pulled out of lessons to deal with things, you have to question whether/how you’re delegating, and whether you are successfully building the leadership capacity of your senior team. Does it always HAVE to be you? Having a regular teaching commitment will help you to give careful consideration to this.
  • If you decide you’re ‘too busy’ to teach and build those relationships with your students, what message does that send?

I hope these reflections are helpful.  It’s certainly something to consider when you are applying for headships, and to navigate during the lead-in period between being appointed and stepping into the role.  Good luck.

Photo credit: John Berry.  With my Head Girl and her team in 2009.  I’d taught them all when they were 11 years old, seven years before.

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