The Crucible: Hearing our Headteachers

‘We burn a hot fire here; it melts down all concealment.’

The Crucible

Millicent Fawcett, 1913, on the ultimate sacrifice of Emily Davidson
for women, girls, for us and for unborn children everywhere.
Life has no greater love than this: than to lay down life for others.

Asking and listening to our headteachers, and sharing our questions and thoughts with each other as heads, could help us help our schools. 

There are over 2 million schools in the world, over 2 million headteachers. 

Together, the world’s school heads will influence 2 billion children’s lives in the years ahead.

Headteachers put their lives on the line. Honour Emma: the killing of Epsom College’s innocent headteacher, and her innocent daughter this week, is a family, community and national tragedy that is too heart-wrenching to bear. Headteachers should have their own guardian angels.

Lest we forget; just like after the 1995 killing of Phillip Lawrence, headteacher killed for going to the aid of a pupil attacked by a gang outside the school gates, this moment should give us pause.

All the heads I know see headship as the honour of a lifetime. In over a decade of working in schools, one thing I’ve learned is that what the head focuses on tends to happen; what the head doesn’t, tends not to. What the head loves, gets done. 

Headteachers influence entire communities, entire generations. 

Wherever schools liberate children from confined experiences, headteachers are freedom fighters. 

Like teachers and school leaders, all heads are role-models (whether they choose to be deliberately or not!). Some are supermodels, supermodelling sky-high standards! Almost all are, at times, teachers, mentors, coaches, problem-solvers, trouble-shooters, counsellors, strategists, preachers, broadcasters, change-makers, caterers and plumbers! Where it goes wrong is where we become inquisitors, scrutinisers, bureaucrats, autocrats, saviours, prophets, messiahs, hawkers, tycoons, empire-builders, pugilists, martyrs or mystics. But some of the best I know are pioneers, trailblazers, dreamers, renegades, rebels, mavericks, misfits, rogues, heretics, writers, bloggers, authors and conjurers! 

The role of headteacher could well be the best job in the world. An amazing adventure, always, the audacity of hope, the ferocity of optimism, community pride, and a fantastic learning curve. To lead a school, to learn from Hannah Arendt, is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it.

But headship is hard. It’s daunting. Intimidating. Even for the best and most confident of people.

Headteachers are strapped and pressed for time. 

Watched whenever they go all the time by kids and staff, often misconstrued and overinterpreted. 

Just as the head’s strengths are amplified, so the head’s blind spots and foibles are amplified.

Heads are beset with hydra-headed adversaries: school shamers, haters, the anti-authority brigade, zealots and fanatics, pitchfork mobs, livid outrage addicts, street gangs, knife crime, draining plaintiffs, compulsive complainers, detractors, armchair critics, carpers, snipers, swindling snake oil salesmen, charlatans, pontificators, timewasters. 

A bit like startups, about a third of secondary headteachers in England leave within three years of taking up the post. 

From time to time, someone reaches out to ask about going for headship. 

Few feel fully ready.

Fears abound. Courage calls. 

Fog is part of the human condition and certainty is in short supply.

What are some of the hardest things about headship?

High stakes. High pressure. High risk. High accountability. High costs. High spend. 

Planning. Problem-solving. Line-managing SLT. SLT team-building. Conversations. INSETs. CPD. Curricula. Staff Comms. Briefings. Bulletins. No-notice inspections. Legal obligations. Safeguarding duties. League tables. Examinations. Complaints. Grievances. Allegations. Disciplinaries. Predecessors! Transition. PA. Decisions. Budgets. Procurement. Audits. Exclusions. Appeals. Suspensions. Reintegrations. Emergencies. Governors. Community. Premises. Facilities. Office/Reception. Catering. Succession. Appraisal. Pay. Underperformance. Staffing. Recruitment. Staff absence. Social media. Media. Press. Local Authority. Admissions. Assemblies. Parent Comms. Y6/Y12 Open Evenings/recruitment. Y9 Options. Induction. Probation. Progression. Promotions. Trips. Agencies. School refusers. EHE/home-schooling. FOIs. Research. Wellbeing. Life/work balance/harmony. Bereavements. Adversity. Perverse incentives. Lethal mutations. Uncertainties. Exposure. Imposter syndrome. Self-doubts. Fears. 

How can we best support our headteachers – some of our world’s most important leaders, our champions of civilisation, humanity, our children and our future?

What can we learn from other headteachers?

What should we ask them?

Who’s made it work really well, and has longstanding and stand-out success?

What questions would we most want to ask, share and access the best answers to?

  1. What are some of the very toughest things about headship?
  2. What challenge have you found thorniest of all as headteacher? 
  3. What should headteachers ignore or avoid?
  4. What should headteachers give most time to?
  5. When do you do your best work?
  6. Where do you go for support and advice?
  7. What do you now know that you wish you’d known before?
  8. Which mantra do you find yourself returning to again and again?
  9. What’s the best breakthrough you’ve had in your thinking in the last 5-10 years?
  10. What question do you find incredibly useful time and time again?
  11. What’s the best professional learning you’ve ever done?
  12. What’s the best investment (of time or funding) you’ve made as a headteacher?
  13. Which headteacher do you most admire – who truly inspires you?
  14. What do you wish you’d been taught or shown during headship induction before starting – what gift would you give yourself if you could go back in time and meet yourself when starting out?
  15. What’s your greatest wish as a headteacher right now? 

Our headteachers lead our children’s future. They deserve the very best backing from all of us in society. 

So this is a big ask, a rallying cry and a call to arms. 

What else do our current principals, aspiring school leaders and future heads want to learn from the world’s headteachers? What’s missing? What’s crucial? What questions should we add? What could we best reframe? What do we most want to know?

If societies only endure when they are devoted to future generations, our teachers and headteachers are the great sustainers of our civilisation.

There’s nothing less at stake than the future of humankind.

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
This entry was posted in Education. Bookmark the permalink.