Succinct advice for new headteachers

Highly experienced school leader Jackie Johnson gives invaluable suggestions for school leaders in the early days of their first headship…

You’ve met the staff and the governors, and have been introduced to the parents and students at your new school. Are you ready for those first days, weeks and months? You’ve had the whole summer holiday to prepare and to think about the new role. Now, in these first few weeks, is the time to put your preparation into action…

The best heads in my experience are intolerant of mediocrity, have a compelling vision, appoint the right people – and then trust them to get on with their delegated responsibilities. Note the concept is delegated responsibility – this is very different to delegating a series of tasks!

Jackie Johnson
After two very successful headships and becoming a National Leader in Education, Jackie Johnson is now working with Coloma Trust, Croydon, which is responsible for three schools.

Following are my suggestions on ways to succeed.

Create energy

Your example – what you say and how you say it – it is critical. You must be passionate for success. Your enthusiasm creates energy in others and you are equipped to build capacity that cultivates extraordinary outcomes from people and systems. You engage in ‘speculative‘ questions and ensure that you appoint optimistic professionals who say ‘how we could‘ rather than ‘why we can’t‘.

Relationships matter

Headship does not have to be a lonely job. Make it full of relationship-building. Build appropriate relationships and forge fruitful connections. Speaking with staff starts the improvement process. Engaging with new colleagues will take lots of your mental energy – but it is vital. Change comes through people as well as systems.

Remember that behaviours change before beliefs, and staff will not agree with every decision you make. Every single interaction from the moment you begin adds to or modifies a judgement about the kind of leader you are. Think about how you model your expectations. Remember: from your first training day address, when you talk about your students and improving their school experience most staff will be completely on-side.

Engaging with new colleagues will take lots of your mental energy – but it is vital

Build in constant research-based checkpoints

I am an advocate of educational research. Being able to draw on action-research projects and enquiry-led pedagogy enriches your practice: use these approaches to help you understand the context of your school. Your leadership of this school will be different to that you might adopt in leading another. Do you need to transform the educational experience on offer in this school, or can change be more of a transactional process?

In the early days ahead, take time to reflect on the ‘story‘ of your school to date before you start the process of implementing change. Build in your checks and balances and avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater!

Use your coach/mentor (I hope you have one!) to help select and apply the appropriate management and leadership strategies from the plethora of manuals and recommendations on headship. Having had two very contrasting headship contexts I know at first–hand how important it was to have engaged in regular communication with my mentor – certainly in the early days.

The wisest words came from him/her: remember you always have to be prepared to modify your plans if someone else comes along with a better idea. Your job is having the skill to tell whether it is a better idea. You can only identify these ideas if you have a certain breadth of knowledge and expertise – and openness to consider them.

Success breeds success

Go for some early wins, while keeping hold of the bigger picture. This helps to promote a ’can do’ culture. You are leading a school where every decision being made is with the interests of the students in mind, and to that end make sure you build in plenty of purposeful celebration opportunities.

Start, for example, with a ‘good news‘ Friday slot where students are praised; and add on further practices over time such as praise-orientated bulletins, achievement certificates and mini prizegiving ceremonies. Remember too that such forums should be used to praise best practice from staff. Present success creates future provision.

I believe that these tangible moments are part of the powerful staging–posts which help to create the momentum necessary for future growth.

Tangible moments such as a ‘good news’ Friday are part of the powerful staging-posts which help to create the momentum necessary for future growth

Details count

Walk the school to identify whether the right environment for students and staff is being created. While hampered by limited funds, which means compromise, you can encourage everyone to pay attention to the physical environment. If there’s graffiti in the toilet or a door-handle is falling off, it is essential that these faults are dealt with immediately. If not, your values are undermined.

Also, walk around the school with different members of staff, together commenting on the impression of the learning environment. Are there flowers in reception? What do the displays and decoration say about the status and values of different subjects, year groups, standards between different areas of the school? Are we experiencing a consistent message?

The importance of health and safety

Get ready. This is one area that nothing seems to train you for. Whether your school is in the midst of rebuilding, as Bishop Challoner was, or ticking over in a listed grade two Queen Anne Mansion as St Philomena’s, the ultimate responsibility for health and safety lies with you as headteacher.

This is one area where you cannot expect to be the expert, so seek out every other expert you can. Get the fire service to advise on emergency exit signs, evacuation procedures, and whether doors, windows and litter bins all comply with fire regulations. Make sure each teacher’s health and safety responsibilities are spelt out in the staff handbook. Use your health and safety governor to help monitor progress.

Health and safety is one of the least fashionable areas of school life and your responsibility. I strongly recommend that you give it as much priority as possible – from governors’ meetings to the school improvement plan.

Five handy hints:

  • Good diary management. Whether you carry your own diary or deliberately don’t, your PA must have the master copy so that some of your time can be protected to allow you to reflect.
  • You will not be good at everything. Build a team that has the full skillset needed in your context.
  • Keep in mind the good leaders you have encountered. When in doubt, reflect on the actions they would take.
  • Stay in touch with the classroom and the learning experience.
  • Trust your own judgements.

Always keep in mind that it is the best job in the world. I have found that throughout my headships these words from George Bernard Shaw have helped inspire my legacy:

“This is the one true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognised by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy…

“I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.

“I want to be thoroughly used up when I die for the more I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake.

“Life is no brief candle to me, it is a splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”

You literally shape the life chances of those under your care. The most effective headteachers I have come across approach this challenge through finding ways of getting to know everything about everything and making it look effortless!

SSAT’s two-year programme for new headteachers launches in January 2017 – find out more here.

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