Making the leap to headship – the possibility of joy

This post is based on an after-dinner speech I gave at the Ambition School Leadership all-women NPQH final residential at Loughborough University on Friday 1st March 2019.  See here for information about what had happened earlier that day.

“Many thanks for inviting me to speak this evening, and well done to all of you for enrolling on this course and almost completing the training.  Best wishes with your final assessment write-up and pulling it all together.

I hope you’ve got a great deal from the course so far, and that it’s helped you to refine your understanding of school leadership, and your vision of the headteacher you one day dream of being.  And I hope it’s helped you in your current role as well as supporting you as you prepare for future roles.  Congratulations to those of you who have already embarked on your headship – including Gemma!  It’s the beginning, rather than the end, of the journey – as I’m sure you recognise!

I really hope that completing the course has encouraged you all to see headship as a privileged and joyful opportunity.  We are all aware of the demands, pressures and challenges of headship, and we can prepare to face them with integrity and courage, but I want you also to see the potential for huge satisfaction and reward in the role.

I was a head for ten years and I certainly had far more good days than bad ones, and far more positive, energising experiences than negative, draining ones.  Hold on to that, especially in tough times.

I’ve always been interested in leadership transitions: Why do some teachers want to be Middle Leaders? What motivates some Middle Leaders to want to be Senior Leaders?  And why do some Senior Leaders want to be heads – and others don’t?  Are there valid reasons for not wanting to be a head?

I think there are.  Some people know they are capable of it; they are clear-sighted about the challenges and opportunities headship brings, but they decide they want a different balance/focus in their lives – I can accept and respect that.

I didn’t want to be a head until I became a deputy – I remember having dinner with friends when I was Head of Sixth Form and one of them saying, “When you’re a head, Jill…” and I said, “I don’t want to be a head.” He laughed – and, I have to say, he’s still laughing now. But when I became a deputy, certainly after the first year or two, I found I really liked it when my head was out of school and people looked to me.  I’ve kept a diary since 1972, and a few years ago I started reading: ‘This day in history’ from my diaries 20, 30 and 40 years ago.  This week I read this from my entry on February 26th 1999, when I was a deputy:

“I feel that for the last couple of days I’ve been watching myself do my job and thinking about myself as a head – I could do it, I’m sure.”

That was prompted by the fact that I had a headship interview the following week.

I didn’t get that one….

But I did get the one after that – and that was the right one at the right time for me.  Shortly after I was successful in the selection process I was asked if I would talk to a group of deputies about moving to headship.  It was an interesting audience because some of them were also applying and hadn’t yet achieved success, some of them were past that stage and knew they would probably end their careers as deputies, and for some of them it was too early to think about it, really.  I chose to talk about my interview failures.  I was moving to my 7th job after 20 years in teaching, and I worked out I’d had 21 interviews – so I had been unsuccessful twice as often as I had been successful.  And that was at interview – there were MANY applications where I didn’t get an interview.  I decided to talk about that and what I thought I’d learnt.

At the end of my presentation, one of the deputies – the senior deputy among us, who was experienced and highly capable and we all looked up to her – came up to me and said, “That was really interesting, Jill.  I had a headship interview many years ago, and when I didn’t get it, I was so hurt and crushed that I never applied again.”  And I find that so sad – she would have been a great head, but she wouldn’t put herself through the possibility of pain.  If we can’t risk failure, we won’t ever achieve success.

So these are the reasons for not applying for headship that I think we need to challenge – and when you are heads, I’m sure you will confront this among those staff you lead who are capable of so much more than they give themselves credit for.  They are often women.

They don’t go for headship because they lack self-belief and, perhaps, courage.  They doubt themselves too much, despite the fact that those who know them well see their headteacher potential.  They’re too afraid of risk, of failure, of not doing the job perfectly.  They don’t apply because they don’t think they can tick every box on the job description – why WOULD you apply for a job if you’d already done everything on the job description?  Where is the appealing creative challenge?  They’re in their comfort zone and don’t want to venture beyond it.  Perhaps they lack the drive and commitment to step up.  Maybe they don’t have the balanced understanding of what headship involves – they don’t see the appeal and can only see the pressures.  They don’t see the joy.

I do understand this, and want to share a story with you about something that happened to me in the summer before I took up my headship.  I had a bit of a breakdown in B & Q car park.

My headship was in a school a couple of hours away from where we were living, and because my husband and I both had elderly parents nearby we decided it was unwise to move two hours further away from them so we bought a small second house and I did a weekly commute.  The summer I was moving into the new house in preparation for starting my headship in September we were buying various things for it and I was standing in B & Q car park waiting for my husband to come back to the car to which he had the key when suddenly I just felt overwhelmed with what was ahead.  What did I think I was doing? I was successful as a deputy – I’d had five years of it and I knew I was doing a good job, and I enjoyed it.  I didn’t know whether I could be a good head – or whether I could be any kind of head.  Why was I taking the risk?  It was a leap into the unknown.  I stood in B & Q car park, on my own, and burst into tears.

I pulled myself together when a stranger in the next car asked me if I was all right and whether he could do anything – I was mortified with embarrassment – and talked it over with my husband when he turned up, who said, as he always had done: “Of course you can do it!” (I feel blessed to have a partner who has always said “Of course you can!” rather than “Do you think you can?”)

I moved into the house.  I started the job.  I never regretted it.  There were some tough times and some hard decisions – decisions where, whatever path you take, some people will be unhappy and will criticise you – but you learn to hold onto your values and that sustains you in the most challenging times.  I do remember occasionally looking longingly at the person on the till in Tesco and thinking: “I wonder what it would be like to do that job…?” but I never wished I hadn’t made the leap.  I needed to have a role which made me think, which stretched me, which gave me the opportunity to realise my vision – for education, for my school and for myself as a leader. And I’ve known many heads over the years.  I can honestly say I’ve never known one of them say, “I wish I were still a deputy.”

Because as a head you have more autonomy, you have choices, and you have the chance to make a difference to the lives of children, and adults, on a scale you will never have known before.  Yes, you do need to build a trusting and mutually respectful relationship with your governing body and/or your Trust.  Yes, there will be pressures and constraints imposed by external agencies that you have to navigate – but you will still have more freedom than you have ever had, to lead in a way that you believe to be right.  Headship was definitely the BEST job I had in my career – and it was a privilege to be able to do it.

I want to end with five pieces of advice, which I very much hope are useful.

  1. Be clear about your vision and values – as an educator and as a leader. What is education all about, for you? What are your priorities and drivers? Select the schools you apply to carefully in the light of this: is there an alignment between the legacy you inherit from your predecessor, the ethos already established by the governing body/Trust and your own sense of moral purpose?  If not, there’s a better school/headship out there waiting for you.
  2. Be philosophical about failure. If they don’t choose you, you wouldn’t want to work for them.  If an appointment panel don’t fully appreciate your potential, they don’t deserve you.  The headship I got was my fourth interview (and there were headship applications which didn’t lead to interview).  It was the right one at the right time.
  3. Don’t lose confidence in your capacity to do this. Learn from every experience – in your current role as well as through the application process – to strengthen your readiness to step up.  Keep moving forward.  No experience – even if it feels negative – is wasted.
  4. When you get a headship, model it positively. Be aware that people are watching you and making decisions based on what they see.  Smile, especially when you don’t feel like smiling.  Be aware of what you’re projecting and make sure you inspire, rather than discourage, future generations of leaders.  Help them to see the joy.
  5. Build the bridge as you walk on it, as Robert Quinn would say. We are never the finished article and we are growing and developing all the time.  I wasn’t the finished article after ten years of headship – I’m still not! – though I became more resilient and more confident with experience.  You may face an unexpected challenge, but you think: I’ve faced and survived unexpected challenges before.  I can work out where to go for help and guidance.  Build strong support networks, personal and professional – including the peer support groups from this course.  My class of 2000 new heads met twice a year – and we are still in touch today.  Those who are at a similar point in the journey just get it.  Be sure to draw on support and know when to send up a flare.  This has to be sustainable and there has to be a healthy balance in your life.  I often say, this is an important job, but it IS a job.  It isn’t your whole life and the sum total of who you are, and those school leaders who work to the exclusion of all else aren’t, in fact, the most successful and effective.  Be kind to yourselves and remember it doesn’t have to be lonely – you are never alone.  Find the joy.

And I was going to end there, but today I spoke at a conference in London on headship and diversity and I want to leave you with words from Lucy Pearson, who was a successful head in the North West for seven years, but who was ready for a fresh challenge and, like me, didn’t want a second headship, so she’s now Director of Education at the Football Association (she says she’s not particularly interested in football! But she IS interested in education and leadership).  Lucy is a strong, impressive, capable woman, openly gay, sporty – she played cricket for England – and she said some really useful things, I think, including this:

‘Headship gets more comfortable, not because it gets easier, but because you get better at being uncomfortable! Find and follow people you trust, who inspire you, who will challenge you, and who you will learn from.  And find those who will back you. Those people will invest in you.  Being able to make a difference is a gift, and headship is the greatest gift of all.’

Thank you for listening.”

(and thank you if you’ve read to the end of this blog post,  It’s a long one…)

Photo credit: Katherine Powell, whom I was delighted to meet at the dinner – and thank you also to Carol Jones, Natalie Wilcox and all those on our table for the warmth of their welcome and their company and conversation. It was a great evening.

4 thoughts on “Making the leap to headship – the possibility of joy

  1. Thank you, Karen! It was a real pleasure to be asked to speak to this impressive group of new heads and aspiring heads at this stage of their journey.


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