Leaders: do you have an ‘open door’?

This week I took part in a leadership development day for aspiring Senior Leaders in London, organised by HMCPD. It was a hugely enjoyable and energising event – thanks to the 40 keen delegates and Anna Paul, the Senior Deputy at Godolphin and Latymer School, who led two sessions about her experience of, and advice for, moving from a Middle Leadership role into a whole-school Senior Leadership position.

One of the things Anna talked about was the idea of having an ‘open door’ as a Senior Leader. She asked the course participants to consider whether they expected they would want to adopt this approach when they secured their next role; why might it be a good way of signalling your approachability, accessibility and warmth, but also what might make it sometimes an unrealistic aspiration.

It caused me to reflect on my own experience. As a Senior Leader, and later as a head, I wanted to be visible, and certainly not remote. When I was a deputy head, my office was next to the staffroom, and my door was usually open whenever I was in it. People would call in to say hello, share information, or a moan – and sometimes a joke. Prior to this I had been Head of Sixth Form in another school – a role which also gave me a seat on the SLT. My office there was next to the Sixth Form Common Room, and students would pop in to see me all the time.

But when I became a head, there were days when my door was closed – when it had to be closed. A few years ago, I wrote a post for Ross Morrison McGill, Teacher Toolkit, in response to a question:

What goes on behind the headteachers’ closed door?

So I decided to revisit and update that post.

I was a head for ten years and I did try hard not to get stuck in my office. I taught every year, which got me into the classrooms. I had lunch each day in the school dining hall, where I tried to sit with different groups of staff. I put myself on the duty rota and made sure I did a duty which involved my walking round the school and chatting to pupils and staff en route. I called in to as many extra-curricular activities as I could, to show support, and I sat in a fair number of lessons. When I work with new heads now, I always say you need to schedule such things into your diary – don’t just hope that if you want to be accessible and visible it will automatically happen. There will be many demands on your time! Work with your PA to ensure you prioritise some time to get out of your office.

When I was in my office I usually had the door open. But there were times when I closed the door and, thinking about it now, there were perhaps four main reasons:

1. Someone was distressed and needed privacy. It could be a pupil, a member of staff, a parent. Once it was a governor. Very occasionally it was me.

2. Someone needed time – it could have been a meeting, a professional review discussion, a thorny issue they needed to talk through, but something which needed not to be interrupted because whoever was in there had to know that they, and their issues, were important enough to merit the head’s undivided attention. The phone was turned off, too.

3. I was having a difficult phone conversation – on a sensitive subject, or with someone who was experiencing extreme emotions, and I needed to listen, really listen, and give an appropriate response. Sometimes it was just a question of letting whoever it was let off steam and then suggesting that they came in so that we could talk face to face.

4. I needed thinking time – something difficult had happened and I really needed to give a measured, carefully considered response, and I needed calm and quiet to formulate that.

What I didn’t do was close the door during the school day to plough through my emails, to get on with paperwork, to put my feet up or to crack open a bottle! A head I knew and respected earlier in my career once said ‘day-time is for people, evenings and weekends are for paper’ and that’s how it was for me too.

loved being a head – it is the BEST job in the school and a real privilege, despite the responsibility and the pressure. You do have to think about your principles and priorities, and, interestingly, reflecting on when, and why, the head’s door is open, and when, and why, it’s closed, has helped me to do that.

This is the version of this post which was originally produced for Ross McGill’s blog

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