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21 February 2022
By Tel German

Things I Wish I Had Known As A New Headteacher

Estimated Reading Time - five minutes

As Divisional Lead for Education Improvement in The Education People I find myself in the privileged position to work alongside the full spectrum of leaders and educators. Whether they’re teachers, senior leaders, headteachers or governors, it is the new and aspiring headteachers that I find myself resonating with the most.

I look back on my own career with pride (and occasional disbelief).  My parents recount how as a precocious four year old, I came home from school that first day and informed them that I planned to be a headteacher.  Needless to say, they were not surprised when I secured my first headship.

My first headship was in Maidstone, Kent. The school served an area of high deprivation and it is fair to say that over time provision and outcomes had declined with staffing turmoil and behaviour escalating.

By the end of week one I knew I was out of my depth! Budget issues, high staff absence and behaviour incidents were the tip of the iceberg. The daily “blue bag” delivery from county repeatedly adding to my “I haven’t got a clue what this is” pile. Dutifully I soldiered on, convinced that people would think less of me if I asked for help and admitted that I did not always know what to do.

Then reality hit!

The first good thing about reality was that Ofsted arrived within weeks, placing the school into serious weaknesses. This truly was a blessing because it was the day, I met Maureen King and learned the value of my school adviser.

Maureen was a member of the “special support team” the Local Authority Intervention Team for schools in “challenging circumstances”. She had a no nonsense black and white attitude and brutal honesty that proved to be the foundations for my future leadership.  It is as a direct result of her hard messages, support and coaching, that I have gone on to pursue a career I love.

So, for all you aspiring and newly appointed headteachers, here are some of the things that Maureen taught me that I wish I knew when I started headship. These were days before terms such as vision and resilience were applied to schools, so we are going back to basics here.

You must have a plan
  • Know and understand your vision for the future. If you don’t know where you are heading there’s little chance of your staff coming with you.
  • Break your plan into bite sized chunks, what are you doing this year, this season, this term and more importantly, this week.
Identify one thing

As divisional lead for educational improvement, I still apply the strategy of the one thing to manage workload.

  • Recognise and accept that whilst there are a million things to do, you can’t do them all. Then prioritise.
  • What is the focus for this term?
  • Within that focus, what is the strategic priority for this week?
  • What is one strategic action that each leader will complete this week?
  • Plan in your monitoring and support - if it’s not planned, it might not happen.
work management table for headteachers

So now everyone knows who is doing what and when, strategic leadership becomes manageable, and whilst the day to day won’t go away, we all have just one task to do. Leadership capacity grows and by the end of term your team have driven improvements.

Don't be a know it all
  • Accept you don’t know everything and ask. The most experienced and successful leaders ask for help, advice and support all the time.
  • Build a network of local leaders and advisers you trust and respect - call them!
  • Learn to love your adviser, they got their job for a reason. Listen to and accept advice, even when the messages are hard to swallow.
Don't put off until tomorrow what needs sorting today

If you see something today, address it today. If you don’t, that issue will grow and the practice will become embedded.

Show and tell
  • You can tell me how to do something and I may or may not get it.
  • Show me, coach me, demonstrate and work alongside me and I’ll understand.
Curb your enthusiasm

I once worked for an inspirational headteacher, but every time she visited another school, went on a course or read a book she would pick up on the latest strategy, initiative or idea and everything would change.

  • Avoid initiative overload. Be reflective and scan the horizon to see what’s going on.
  • Make your decisions as a team based on evidence-based research.
  • Pace yourself, build it into the plan!
Be like Nanny McPhee
  • Sometimes you will give difficult messages, staff may not like you but if there are issues to address, they need you.
  • Tackle issues in a kind and empathetic way but remember that provision impacts on the life chances of your pupils, some things are non-negotiable.
  • Whatever the journey, when things are going well, your school will love you…. but at that point they may not need you! Don’t be afraid to move on when it is time.

Finally, don’t forget, even when the days are hard, the weeks are long and you feel like you’re out of your depth, your childhood dream is now your reality and you are making a difference to the life chances and future of every pupil in your care – be proud and enjoy it!

About The Author

Alongside her role as Divisional Lead for Education Improvement, Tel is also Head of Service for Primary School Improvement here at The Education People. Since moving on from her role as headteacher, Tel has gained a huge amount of experience supporting schools as an Improvement Adviser, Acting Principal and Senior Adviser in Kent and beyond. 

Her experience doesn't stop there, Tel also has a proven track record of supporting schools in driving quick and sustainable improvements in her roles as consultant headteacher and education consultant across a range of education providers.

A headshot of Tel German, head of Primary School Improvement and author of this blog post