The learning curve or how to stop staring at the black dot

Firstly apologies, this is being typed on a mobile device and I expect it will be riddled with errors until I can get near a computer!

I wanted to update my blog on my first term as a Headteacher, but quite frankly I have neither the time or the energy to do it…so finally here it is.

The black dot is a reference to Bill Rogers that was written about beautifully here

Simply put it is the advice to try to focus on the whole and not one small part.

I had a short chat with a few fellow Headteachers on twitter and discussed how I felt that I hadn’t lifted from the flat part of the learning curve. It was interesting how many agreed with that feeling and how many still felt that they were awaiting take off!

So this is my thoughts on the learning curve:

1. NPQH – it was the most enjoyable course I have ever taken part in. I say that rather than academic because it felt vocational at the time. Sadly, it doesn’t prepare you for the reality of the wind tunnel of questions and decisions you have to make as a Head. You are told to shape the vision as a head, but this is not as important as communicating what you believe in. Subtle difference I know and you could argue that I am saying communicate the vision. But walking the talk is crucial. I believe that office bound Heads may direct things well, but I just don’t think you win the hearts and minds behind a desk or speaking in front of a PowerPoint. So, set your non-negotiables and keep a repeating mantra.

2. Being a Head is more emotional than I was expecting. You have to make the call sometimes and deal with the consequences. I have had to deal with students with deep mental ill health issues and sometime I watch as their parents despair and the wider care system completely fail them. In the end this comes back to us to deal with. In my first term we have had parents pass away, some parents diagnosed with serious illnesses, students with eating disorders and many with severe anxiety issues. I have had to support staff with seriously ill partners and some who have had to face the worst situation that any perspective parent could. A great deal of this starts with a “could I have a quick chat”? Those words often send a chill down my spine now. The responsibility for 1,000 students and 140 staff can never be underestimated or explained to others. I am very thankful of the support that I get from complete strangers on twitter and friends who are also Head.

3. Difficult conversations are difficult by definition. I know that sounds crazy, but they take preparation and thought to ensure that you can turn a negative into a positive. Sadly, sometimes the positive never appears. Sir John Jones said it best he he said every day as a head you’ll have to eat a frog, so it is best you do it in the morning.

4. Be open and honest and because of that I would make a rubbish politician. I have to make decisions honestly. This means I will often make mistakes, but at least all will know that I tried to do something for the right reasons. I hope to always have the confidence to admit my mistakes, I think it is important for my school that staff feel that they can try things and get it wrong. Be strong and definite in decisions, but always be willing to put your hands up if it doesn’t go right.

5. Schools are complex organisations and no two are alike. I know that many organisations feel that they have a winning formula and you can just transport it to a new situation, I don’t. It is the areas that you don’t fully know or understand that cause the most stress. My school has a wrap around care, a nursery and a sports centre. The sports centre is a business, so I feel with my past life experience I am ok with this, but the nursery! It is amazing how little I know about the workings of a Early Years provider I have, and that is with two young children.

6. Leading your SLT is harder than leading the school. This really threw me, but in hindsight it is obvious. These are the people who have worked closely with the previous head, have their habits and work practices set and change is always difficult. I am glad that this dawned on me quickly, but there is still masses of work to do. I want things to work in a very different way and therefore it undermines their confidence to get on with their roles. However, I can’t preach trust and autonomy and not apply it to my own team. But, I worry about my message being diluted and existing practice continues.

7. If you allow it to, the paper work, meetings etc can overpower you. I try, much to the frustration of my brilliant PA, to get out and about as much as possible. Informal interactions with students and staff make more of a difference than any key note speech could do. You also pick up where confusion or issues lie without the filter!

8. You are the public face of your organisation. So it is important to keep as positive face as you can.

9. Take the time to say thank you, happy birthday or well done. This is for students and staff alike. Personally writing cards or signing letters, feel like far too time consuming, until someone says thank you to you for doing it. Small things make a big difference.

10. Everyone is a school should be a learner. Everyone should have the desire to improve what they do. Everyone should not fear failure. Students and staff alike have to embrace the uncomfortable nature of learning. Everyone will make mistakes, I want my school to be somewhere where everyone makes mistakes. If I get it right we will celebrate the attempts as well as the successes.

11. You can never, ever please all the people all of the time. I made the decision to close early for Christmas, so that the staff could sit down and have a lunch together. The students missed one period on a Friday afternoon. I had one really unhappy parent, who decided to write quite an aggressive email about the decision. She became what Bill Rogers described as the black dot on a white page. Once I remembered that her view was the only negative comment I received I reminded myself of the white page and forgot about the black dot.

12. Protect your staff and try to ignore politicians. Whatever anyone says they are best placed to know what will work for students. Working in education has become harder and more draining from policy initiatives, examination changes, ofsted frameworks, parental expectation etc etc. I sometimes compare my role to one of a football manager. An important part is allowing my stars (the teachers) to do their job (teaching) as unburdened as I can. I want them to walk into class ready to deliver great lessons, not worn out by paperwork or reporting back to line managers.

13. Be honest an open with your Governors. I am lucky to work with a great group and the commitment shown by many of them to the school is brilliant. I meet my Chair informally on a weekly basis and it is a great sounding board for issues and ideas. Many work tirelessly with our students and with our extended school, so it good to catch quick conversations with them during a week.

In conclusion, it is the best job in the world bar none. I am working with a brilliant set of professionals who have the desire to make the difference for our students. I am working with students brimming with ideas of how to make the environment better for everyone.

Everyday is a privilege.


7 thoughts on “The learning curve or how to stop staring at the black dot

  1. Great blog, I agree that the best head teachers know their school and are out and about. I worked for one head who never left her office. The school went in to Special Measures and one day she just wasn’t there anymore… We didn’t kill her I expect she is a highly paid consultant in another authority!

  2. “I sometimes compare my role to one of a football manager”. Perhaps that’s a dangerous comparison.

    By that I’m not criticizing you, but the unreasonableness (in my view) of how your football loving nation often judges those managers, and not infrequently. Football is a game; unfortunately many of you don’t seem to have realized that if someone ends up winning it, then someone must also lose, and because it is a game no-one can win every time. Yet good managers often have to go…

    You are *not* playing a game. Moreover, though perhaps idealistic, it is certainly not unreasonable for you to have a goal to win every time – at least as an ideal.

    1. Hi thanks for your comment. It is not what I mean though. I mean the teachers are the stars and it is my job to ensure that they are ready to teach and unburdened by unnecessary paperwork. I am not Alex Ferguson 😉

      1. Oh I understood your meaning all right. However, in a day when headteachers sometimes have to accept the same fate as the football manager, I thought the analogy were a little perilous to make… I did understand you.

        Nice blog though. I have bookmarked you in SeaMonkey (quick little plug for my favourite browser)…

  3. I’m doing my NPQH now so I have found this invaluable to read! Seeing the reality made me fearful, but even more certain that I am set on the right path. Knowing that despite the stress and the backlash that can weigh us all down, you still feel this is the best job in the world was a real reassurance! It also helped me to see what might try to distract me from the vision but how these ‘distractions’ might become what helps to develop the vision!

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