Taking on the challenges no one else wants…
Sam Coy Headteacher
Challenge can be defined in a number of ways; one definition is the dispute of truth or validity. This definition is probably why, just over a year ago, I decided to take on the challenge of becoming head of school. The school was in special measures, in a very disadvantaged area, with a high proportion of mobility.
At only 27 years old and having had limited leadership experience, many thought I had lost my mind, many thought I was arrogant, naïve and clueless. All are probably true in different forms. However from the first moment I walked into the school I wanted to dispute the truth and argue the validity of reports that the teachers were poor, the children had no chance, the school would never achieve.
I could see potential from the very moment I entered the building. Teachers were hard working, children were friendly and their eyes flickered with curiosity and hope. I instantly felt at home. I love children and I love people. I wanted to help everyone to achieve, however I was very aware I probably didn’t have the skills required to achieve it. Selfishly, I thought I could suppress my feeling of moral obligation by going for the job and undoubtedly being unsuccessful. I applied for the job, thinking the experience of application would give me a good bench mark and I could sleep at night knowing I had offered to help. Shockingly and looking back, with great admiration and respect, my Executive Headteacher took a risk, a huge one, a brave one!!! I had got the job…. the excitement lasted for about 30 seconds before fear set in.
Talking had always been a strength of mine but for the first time in my life words escaped me. I have recently read a book by Dave Harris called ‘Brave Heads’, he talks about the word FEAR, his definition of the word is exactly the feelings I had at this time and even more so on my first morning in post; F***, Everything, And, Run.
Luckily I managed to ignore this feeling and pull myself together, only allowing it to come back to me for brief periods on a daily basis. Nerves and the feeling that someone might find out you don’t know what you are doing never leaves you. Before starting the job, I read lots of leadership manuals and I twisted myself in knots about the right ways to lead. Then one night at about 3am (in teaching sleep is a luxury) it hit me. Leading a school is no different to leading a difficult class. You spend the first 6 weeks focusing on strengths, building trust, deciding who you can rely on and making sure that everyone begins to row in the same direction. You don’t pick fault, you don’t isolate, you set an expectation but you give everyone the chance to achieve it.
Like the sign at Burnley football club reads ‘only the person who isn’t rowing has time to sink the ship’. Luckily for me everyone began to row.
Outlined in this article are my top 5 tips for becoming a head of school in a special measures school.
Tip One: Relationships
Every interaction is important. Everything we do in school is built on the positive relationships we create with all stakeholders. Smiling wins you lots of support and when people are already down they need lifting not destroying. Focus first on all the things that are good… this develops trust and allows confident and comfortable relationships to form. Once these relationships are built, people will respond more effectively to the areas of development that are given as they are seen as support and nurture not annihilation. As every child need a champion (Rita Pierson), so does every member of staff.
Tip 2: Systems and consistency
Systems and consistency are vital for school improvement. In order to create a sense of collective responsibility, the goalposts must be the same. As educators we talk about not setting up our children to fail, we must do the same with staff. If staff have a network of clear systems, workable policies and the correct tools and resources in place; they will fly. Teachers are professionals with the capabilities to manage learning effectively, but they need to understand the school’s vision, the leaders’ expectations and the direction the school is taking. Carefully implementing these systems and structures and ensuring they are consistently followed will make staff feel more comfortable which in turn will bring about school improvement.
Additionally, and most importantly, consistency and structure across the school is vital for our children. Many children don’t have these structures at home and it is vital we make it clear to our children how we expect them to behave, learn and develop.
Tip 3: Leading by example
Lead by example in everything you do. My dad always said to me, ‘people may not believe what you say but they will believe what you do’. This has always been something I have held close to me on my professional journey. Being a school leader is hard work but lead by example in every way. If children are struggling with behaviour… help out. If the school canteen is short of staff… put on an apron. If someone is sick… clean it up. If a class needs covering one afternoon… teach and teach well. You won’t be able to do this forever but for the first few months, staff need to see you can do what you are expecting them to. Also doing this helps you to know your school inside out. Lead from the front… own the journey you are expecting others to make.
Tip 4: Belief and positive growth mind set
‘Success is never final, failure never fatal, it’s courage that counts.’
Growth mind-set to lead school improvement is imperative. I’m not saying don’t have doubts, fears or feelings of hopelessness – these feelings are important and in my opinion should be embraced. But use these negative feelings to drive you forward. Above all have a steely determination that you won’t fail. Know inside that you will achieve and present that message to your staff. It’s fine to cry in the office once everyone has gone home, but during the working day present to your staff and children the persona that it will be ok, that you will achieve and that together your team will get what it deserves. Use positive language, talk about why and when you will be graded good. Highlight constantly the direction you are going and allow this to fuel and ignite passion in the staff. If you believe and lead by example, they will believe as well.
Tip 5: Trust in others’ abilities
It’s difficult when going into a special measures school as naturally people assume everything is going to be bad. From my experience this is not true. Trust in the abilities of others, harness raw skills and talent and use the experience of others. The people in the school know the community and the families – use them, as this information is the key to setting your vision. Prior knowledge in any form is a weapon. If you know the facts you can make strategic judgements.
Teachers and other staff in your school will have a wealth of skills and as an effective leader we must find them out, trust in them, deploy them effectively and develop them to get the best possible outcomes for children. Don’t be too quick to make judgements as they can often be wrong. Find out about your staff and when you’re confident in their strengths… tell them. Then trust in them by giving them responsibility to lead. This can be in their classroom, a subject, an initiative or as part of your Senior Leadership team. People very often rise to the challenge if supported to do so. If they don’t, reflect on yourself and make adjustments to make sure they do… just like you do with the children in school.
Above all remember why you do the job. Every child deserves a chance.. Children should be at the heart of every choice you make but remember staff will only make these choices work if they believe in them as well. Be a creator, not a dictator.