The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Suzanne O'Connell

Advice for the first time headteacher

You’ve met the staff, the governors, and been introduced to the parents and children 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 worry about the new role you’re taking on. Now is the time to put your preparation into action. 

Get the ‘firsts’ right 

To begin with every ‘first’ has to be taken one at a time. If you really stood back and looked at every hurdle that awaits you in the first term, you might just want to use your six weeks to book a one-way ticket as far away as possible. 
 
Your first staff meeting, first assembly, first governors meeting, first SLT meeting – each one needs to be prepared meticulously. It will set the scene and expectations for the rest of the year. Decide what your style will be and what will characterise these very public pronouncements of your leadership.

Find the balance 

There are those who will argue that what’s happened before should have no bearing on what happens under your leadership. To some extent this is true, but knowing what the previous tradition was and what people didn’t and did like about it can avoid you making mistakes that are inherently linked to the culture and history of your new school. 
 
You should have a clear view of how you want to do things but keep in mind that there could be good reasons for the way the school has developed and having some of this knowledge can equip you better for the task ahead.

Someone you can trust

Hopefully there’s at least one person in your new school who is a relatively objective observer, can provide the inside knowledge you need be on your side. If you’re lucky, it could be the deputy headteacher. However, if they went for your post and were unsuccessful you’re probably treading very cautiously here already. 
 
The advice and information you need to move forward at just the right speed might come from your SBM or perhaps the chair of governors. 
 
You’ll need to look outside your own school for support mechanisms. There’ll be times when you are unsure of the action to take or feel uncomfortably challenged and in need of advice. You should have at least one person who you can turn to for this, maybe a local headteacher or someone connected to your previous school who you know you can call on.
 
Siobhan Easton, headteacher at Marine Academy Plymouth, discusses how a lot of the school's leadership team developed from existing staff members. Read how she encouraged her school staff to develop

2 0, 60 or 100mph

Just how quickly should you change things? Most headteachers are anxious to rearrange procedures and systems substantially in the manner of their liking. However, too much change, too soon, can lead to mistakes which may be hard to erase. 
 
Of course, the circumstances in which you come to the school will have a major impact on the speed at which you must improve it. If you have the luxury of a little more time, perhaps choose one substantial and important area to focus on first. 
 
It’s generally felt that it is easier to change something big when you first begin your headship. Staff expect there to be change and what could take endless rounds of consultation at a later date can be quite quickly navigated through during your first months.
 
So make it something worth changing. The structure of communications and behaviour management are vital aspects of school life that run through everything else that you do. If either of them aren’t up to scratch then this is a good place to start.

Show you mean business

It is likely that there is some issue that the previous headteacher failed to engage successfully with. Perhaps a member of staff who isn’t pulling their weight or a part of the curriculum that is generally considered to be ineffective but happened to be a favourite with the old head. 
 
If you can find out what the unresolved issue is and resolve it, then you will immediately climb the ‘respect’ ladder. Winning the respect of your staff is key to any future difficulties you might encounter and showing your teeth on something generally unpopular is a great way of announcing you’re here.

Think about yourself

This is an exciting and challenging time and most heads coming to terms with the role for the first time do not have the space or energy to consider themselves. 
 
If you are just there for a short period of time to turn a school around then an intense period of no breaks allowed can be justified. Otherwise you should build in ways of preserving your own sanity. You don’t always need to have the toughest job or the hardest class. It’s not about shirking responsibility but about ensuring that you leave yourself with sufficient energy to tackle the really difficult issues which you will have from time to time.
 
Don't get caught in the sacrifice syndrome. Viv Grant, director of Integrity Coaching, outlines why 'a leader needs to fully understand the strengths and weaknesses in themselves and in their team and have support available to them.'

Failures and successes 

You will make mistakes and things will go wrong. Some might be down to you, others won’t be. What’s important is that you keep calm, and remember that it’s how you deal with this that will demonstrate, that you are a headteacher worth your salt. 
 
Don’t be afraid to admit if you’re unhappy with an outcome and feel it is down to a decision you have made. You should be the role model for your staff and, as such, you would want them to acknowledge mistakes and reflect on what they’ve done. They will respect you much more for it than if you try to lay the blame elsewhere. 
 
Equally remember to be humble if things go well. Acknowledge your staff and thank them for the roll they’ve played.

The legacy

No matter how bad or good the previous headteacher there will be those who can be heard making unfavourable comparisons with your leadership. If the previous headteacher was dearly loved, you have a tough job ahead of you when you’ll need to remind yourself frequently that you are a worthy replacement. 
 
Try not to take criticism personally. There are always people who are resistant to change and will quickly find fault in what you’re trying to do. Hold on to your plans and keep your own reserve list of compliments you’ve had in the past. Dip into them if you feel a little aggrieved by any adverse comments. 
 
Remember you got the job. You’ve made it this far and it won’t seem like two minutes before those ‘firsts’ are into double figures.

Be a brave leader

Join Steve Taylor, executive headteacher at Robin Hood Multi Academy Trust, for strategies on how to embrace innovation and cope positively with change. Register to his free webinar, Brave leadership – taking risks in education, to explore:
  • reasons for shying away from risk taking
  • how to see failure as something to learn from
  • the positives of being a brave leader in a climate of increasing accountability.

Further reading

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