“I had a 30-year career in education, as a teacher of English and later a Head of Department, Head of Sixth Form, Deputy Head and, for ten years, as a Head. I enjoyed and learnt from all my jobs, but definitely found headship the most rewarding and joyful.
Ten years as a head in one school felt like enough for me, though, and I didn't want to move to a second headship, so I left full-time education in 2010. Since then I have completed a Professional Doctorate in Education (researching the transition from deputy headship to headship), worked as an Associate for the National College for Teaching and Leadership, and carried out a range of educational consultancy roles. My consultancy work has included head and senior leader appointments; head and senior leader appraisal/professional review; staff training, especially on leadership topics; and mentoring and coaching. Much as I loved headship, life is even richer now, with satisfying professional activity combined with more time for my friends, family, and, in fact, for myself.
I have also written a book for Crown House, 'Making the Leap: Moving from Deputy to Head' which was published in 2016. The book is for aspiring heads (and to those who are trying to decide whether they are), for heads-elect who have been appointed but who have not yet formally stepped into the role, and for heads in the early months in post.
Follow me on Twitter (@jillberry102) to find out more.”
For teachers considering going into headship, what is the best way to prepare for the role?
Developing into a strong middle leader, and then senior leader, are the main things that enable you to acquire the necessary skills for headship. If you are considering headship, start talking to your headteacher, and other heads if possible, about the role and what is involved. You can also start reading blogs and books about headship, and start taking on whole-school tasks in areas such as PR or finance, to see whether that is something you enjoy. If, after gaining more insight, you feel that becoming a head is the right step forward for you, see if you can arrange to shadow a headteacher for a day. Not only can you watch and learn from what they do, but you can also begin to consider what you would do in the same situation.
Completing an NPQH is also useful identifying areas for development, plugging any gaps in skills or knowledge, and giving you a taste of the roles and responsibilities involved in headship.
Finally, start putting together applications, and go for it! You may never feel fully prepared, but that’s ok; much of your learning will come through first-hand experiences on the job anyway.
What support can new heads expect to receive?
Your school or trust will no doubt have its own induction programme for new headteachers, although it is important to check to make sure that this is the case.
However, I think it is very important to have support from outside of your own school context too. My advice is to be pro-active in building up your own network of support. Use the internet as a resource to find networks for headteachers, and also social media to build up an online network. Twitter is especially useful in this regard, especially for under-represented groups (e.g. WomenEd, BAMEed, LGBTed, DisabilityEd).
“You may never feel fully prepared, but that’s ok; much of your learning will come through first-hand experiences on the job anyway.”
It is also a really good idea to have a mentor from outside of your school context who you can talk to regularly, to share concerns, receive advice, and generally chat with about how things are going! Coaching and CPD are also very important too. Your governors should be prepared to make these kinds of investments to support you in the early stages of your headship.
Finally, make sure you have a personal support structure too, made up of family and friends who will be there for you through the good times and bad. The practical and moral support that they can offer on a personal level will be invaluable.
Can a headteacher hope to have a good work-life balance? If so, how?
It is possible, though it isn’t always easy! However, the perception that the harder you work, the more successful you will be as a headteacher is, in my opinion, a misguided one. It is true that when you are a headteacher your work is never ‘complete’, but ultimately you have to decide what amount of work is realistic and reasonable, and where to draw the line. Being a headteacher is an exceptionally important job, but it is still a job, so it should definitely not be taking over your whole life.
There a few key ways in which I approached the issue of work-life balance when I was a head. I did work very hard, but I also made sure that I had scheduled times, particularly in the school holidays, when I could take a break and switch-off from work completely. At those times I would be very strict with myself about not checking emails (my chair of governors and my PA always knew how to contact me in an emergency situation) or getting distracted by any other work-related tasks, however small. During these times I would do things such as travel, meet up with friends, or escape into a good novel. I also sing in a choir, which is something I enjoy, and which has always had the added benefit of helping me to focus my mind on something completely unrelated to work.
“If you have work emails popping up on your phone all the time, even if you are not physically in school, your mind is never truly getting away from work, and that is very unhealthy.”
Another important way of ensuring work-life balance for me was to pinpoint the areas where I could really add value as headteacher, and the areas which would be better delegated to members of my senior leadership team, or other staff. This approach helps you to avoid micro-management, and also demonstrates trust in your staff, and their ability to handle difficult tasks. As well as this, it can provide your team with opportunities to broaden and develop their own skills and experience, which is potentially very useful for their wider professional development.
What worries me most today is when I see headteachers (or any teachers) constantly receiving work emails and notifications on their mobile phones. If you have wokr emails popping up on your phone all the time, even if ou are not physically in school, your mind is never truly getting away from work, and that is very unhealthy. Everyone needs some time to completely switch off and re-energise.
If you try to work all of the time, that is actually counter-productive; you will not be working to your full potential, and it will not be sustainable in the long term. So watch your habits carefully, check your emails when you decide to, and don’t feel guilty about not being available 24/7. It is important to do this to model a healthy work-life balance to your staff too.
What is your view on co-headship?
Developing more flexible working practices within education is a hot topic at the moment, especially in addressing issues of work-life balance, and attracting, recruiting and retaining great teachers. I think it is very important for schools to have options for flexible working available, otherwise we run the risk of losing highly capable teachers. It is far better for schools (and for the pupils) if they can appoint an excellent practitioner within a flexible arrangement, than a less effective professional who does not require such flexibility.
Co-headship is one of the best ways of making flexible working possible for headteachers. I think it also has other potential benefits, as each co-head can bring their own individual skills and talents to the job, and they can support one another in fulfilling a role which can be an enormous undertaking for one individual.
“Co-headship is one of the best ways of making flexible working possible for headteachers”
However, it takes a good pairing to make co-headship work, so the ‘fit’ of the two co-heads should be considered carefully. They need to be able to work very well together as a team, communicate with one another effectively, and be the right fit for the school too. That being said, when co-headship works, it can work very well indeed, and can potentially bring about more benefits, on balance, than a sole headship could.
Being a headteacher is a highly accountable, and potentially very stressful role. What advice do you have for headteachers in protecting their mental health and overall wellbeing?
Good headteachers are not superhuman. They care; and because they care, they sometimes worry, experience self-doubt, or get stressed, and that is all perfectly normal and acceptable. After all, if leaders didn’t let anything bother them, they probably wouldn’t be very good leaders! However, it’s important to have coping mechanisms and support systems in place for the tough times, so that the role is manageable, and sustainable in the long-term.
I will reiterate here the importance of having a life outside of work, and spending time with family and friends. It’s also important to prioritise your health, so trying to fit in some regular exercise, eating a balanced diet, and making sure you’re getting enough sleep, are all absolutely crucial.
If you have a mentor, a coach, or a strong network to draw upon for support, that’s very helpful, as you can discuss any problems or concerns with someone who really understands the job and the pressures that can come with it. Then, even if you don’t know what to do in a certain situation, at least you will know who you can talk to that can help.
“If you have a mentor, a coach, or a strong network to draw upon for support, that’s very helpful, as you can discuss any problems or concerns with someone who really understands the job and the pressures that can come with it.”
When I was a head I used to keep a diary, not only of events, but also of my thoughts and feelings about whatever had happened during the day. This may not work for everybody, but it helped me a lot to express my thoughts in writing; it was a cathartic process, and it also helped me to track my progress over time. Gradually I became more and more resilient, as each time I met with an unexpected challenge, I was able to reflect on how I had come up against, and survived, unexpected challenges before, so I knew I could do it again! The more experiences you have over time, the more confident you become in the role.
Finally, remember that nobody is perfect, so don’t set yourself impossible standards. Try your best, be honest, and apologise if you do make a mistake. Keep your vision and moral purpose at the forefront of your mind, and recognise all the many ways in which you have made, and are continuing to make, a positive difference as a headteacher. It is a hard job, but it is so worth it.
How do you think more teachers could be encouraged to consider headship?
I think, to a large extent, it is down to current headteachers. If headteachers are seen to be happy and fulfilled in their role, then staff will see that positive example, and are more likely to consider the role for themselves in the future. On the other hand, if the headteacher appears to be constantly stressed, with the weight of the world always on their shoulders, staff are more likely to be put off ever becoming a head themselves. Therefore, it’s important for headteachers to focus on the positive aspects of the role, and to communicate those to the staff within their school, and beyond if possible.
“It is also important for headteachers to recognise staff with leadership potential within their school, and to encourage and nourish that as much as possible.”
It is also important for headteachers to recognise staff with leadership potential within their school, and to encourage and nourish that as much as possible. The result may be that the member of staff eventually leaves the school, to move into a leadership or headship post elsewhere; however, I think this is where headteachers need to be selfless in the name of the greater good. Talented leaders who are encouraged, nourished and developed by current headteachers can go on to make a huge difference in another setting, to the benefit of hundreds more pupils, so this approach is about the ‘bigger picture’, of making a positive difference within the education system as a whole.
What advice do you have for teachers considering headship who feel apprehensive about the potential pressures and workload involved?
Being a headteacher is challenging, but it is also highly rewarding, and ultimately, an amazing privilege. It offers an incredible opportunity to make a difference to the lives of young people on a large scale, and I know many heads that derive a great deal of satisfaction and joy from the role (including myself when I was a headteacher).
If other people see the potential in you to become a great headteacher, you have no reason to doubt their judgement, especially if they know you well in a professional context. Therefore, if becoming a headteacher is something you want to do, my advice is to be courageous; step out of your comfort zone, and be ready to embrace the new challenges! Don’t put it off because you can’t tick off every box on the job description yet; after all, if you were already doing every task on the job description, you would already be a headteacher!
“Being a headteacher is challenging, but it is also highly rewarding, and ultimately, an amazing privilege. It offers an incredible opportunity to make a difference to the lives of young people on a large scale.”
If, after your first interview for headship, you don’t get the job, please don’t give up. You will have learnt more about the application and interview process from your experience, so don’t lose confidence at the first hurdle. Believe in yourself enough to keep trying, until you find the right school, and the right school also finds you!