Last week I was at the Scottish Learning Festival and I heard a number of headteachers speak during presentations, and had conversations with others, about how they came to find themselves as school leaders. To a man, and woman, they all said they never started into their teaching careers thinking 'I want to be a Headteacher.' This echoes my own route into school leadership. I can't think of a time early in my career where I consciously thought of, or planned, to become a Headteacher. I like a lot of colleagues, seemed to grow into the position. When I first started teaching again, after many years away from the classroom, I was there because I loved teaching and children, and I wanted to make a difference. Throwing myself into my teaching career, loving it and being successful eventually led to my headteacher asking if I would be interested in taking more of a leadership role in the school, as there was a Senior Teacher position becoming vacant. I thought 'why not?' I would be still be teaching, and I would still be helping with whole school development, as I was involved in this already, but now this would get a little recognition and a little more salary. An added bonus was that I was now able to more help and support colleagues and help shape some of their thinking and practice.
What I realised was that I was now still making a difference, as I wanted, but across the school and in every classroom of a small village school with four classes, not just my own classroom and pupils. Over the next few years I beavered away in my classroom and across the school, trying lots of new things, making mistakes, but learning, growing and developing my thinking and practice all of the time. I was fortunate that I had an experienced Headteacher who gave me the space support and encouragement to grow, an approach that was going to help shape my own approach to leadership in future years. Out of the blue our Headteacher announced she was leaving and would be moving on. Everyone round about me, family, colleagues and quite a few parents encouraged me to apply for the post. I didn't want to, as I really didn't think I was ready for the step up to headship. Anyway the post was advertised and we had a number of candidates visit the school. I didn't apply. Interviews were held an appointment made. However, before she took up the post the successful candidate withdrew and it was decided to readvertise. This time I did apply, though I was still far from sure that it was the right thing to do. I was interviewed alongside another couple of candidates and an appointment was made. It wasn't me. I was secretly relieved.
I then worked alongside a different Headteacher, which meant a different experience, some positive and some negative. I now was taking more of a lead role in school and within the learning community we were part of. I have always been professionally curious and was an avid reader of books on education and learning. I loved meeting with other teachers and colleagues and discussing teaching and learning issues. All the time I was developing my own practice but also my own thoughts around what was important in schools and what needed to be done to develop our practice, both as teachers and in leadership. A little over twelve months after his appointment our Headteacher left and I found myself acting-up as Headteacher. I felt more prepared now and ready to step into the role. I loved the experience and quickly determined that I would apply, with a lot more confidence, and with more to offer this time. I was successful and began my journey into headship and school leadership.
As with teaching, I tried out new things, I embraced change and I made a fair share of mistakes and decisions that make me cringe even now. But generally, my direction of travel was forward and I was able to have more and more impact on the whole school and within the learning community. I started as a teaching head and was therefore balancing the demands of teaching, managing and leading. I loved the opportunities now available to develop a staff team and to work collaboratively to improve our provision for all the learners.
Five years in and we had a HMIe inspection which was very positive and reflected all the work we had been putting in as we struggled through the end of the 5-14 curriculum and began to grapple with Curriculum for Excellence, ACE as it was known then. I still loved what I was doing but I was getting more and more frustrated with the demands of teaching and leading, and feeling I was doing neither to the best of my ability. Something had to change and so I made the decision to look for an opportunity for headship in a larger school, where I would have no designated teaching commitment and could really focus on leading and developing the school and staff to improve outcomes for all our learners and families.
I was fortunate to secure an appointment in just such a school and the next stage of my leadership journey began. Now I found myself in a town school, with ten classes and four nursery classes. I had a bigger team, including a DHT and a couple of PTs to help me lead. I embraced the change and worked with my colleagues to change the culture and ethos of the school to one that embraced collegiality, and was founded on collaboration, and which had learning and teaching at its heart. Towards the end of my first year, a change of policy within the local authority meant that more and more school partnerships were being developed. The result of this was that I now found myself as Headteacher of two schools. I took on the leadership of a small village school, not unlike my original one, and had to rethink and develop my practice further as I worked hard to develop the partnership between them both, whilst still ensuring they retained important elements of their own unique identities.
I am now into my seventh year of this arrangement and, as I said above, I still love my job. I would recommend headship to anyone who has the desire and the wish to embrace the challenge. We do ourselves a disservice at times when we spend time moaning about our lot and complaining about how difficult the job is, and all the pressures we face. Yes, all these are there, but they are there in lots of jobs and professions which don't provide the opportunity to make a difference in so many lives. There is an intellectual challenge to leading a school. There is an organisational challenge and there are many emotional challenges. But, to me, these challenges are part of the appeal of the job. It isn't easy, every day can be different in many respects, but you have the satisfaction of setting the direction of travel for your establishment, for colleagues and most importantly for your learners. You can facilitate and develop growth in so many lives and careers whilst keeping yourself continually developing too. You can help shape local development and system development should you wish. You are in a career of constant change and opportunity for personal and professional growth. You get to work with fabulous young people every day, and you get to work with some wonderfully talented and committed people. The salary is not bad too.
Every job or profession has its frustrations, but we really shouldn't get these out of all proportion. There is a tendency in education to focus on a few negatives rather than a whole host of positives, and headteachers are as guilty of this as anyone else. Perhaps that is one of the reasons we find it so difficult to recruit new and younger headteachers. We all have a responsibility to change this. Headteachers have a great deal of autonomy and strength within their role, we just need the moral and professional courage to use this at times for the betterment of schools and the whole system. We need Headteachers of commitment, principles and passion because our schools, learners and teachers deserve nothing less.
When you have a job that allows you to develop and utilise such qualities, then you have found a job you can truly love.