I have been a teacher for 31 years, a head teacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about the challenges for early career headteachers: managing the fact that the buck stops with you.
I am in my seventeenth year as a state school secondary head teacher. Recently I was interviewed by an organisation exploring the biggest challenges for early career head teachers. I began the interview with the knotty question, “What do you mean by head teacher?” We settled on the traditional definition of the head teacher who runs the school with a significant level of autonomy, both challenged and supported by a traditional governing body in a critical friend role.
I identified eight major challenges for early career head teachers:
- Forging your relationship with the chair of governors (CoG);
- Managing the fact that the buck stops with you;
- Understanding the finances;
- Establishing your core purpose;
- Being patient;
- Establishing a position on teaching & learning;
- Understanding change management;
- Coping with the loneliness.
In this current series of short blog posts, I am addressing each of these challenges and providing some tips which might help early career head teachers to overcome them. This post explores, managing the fact that the buck stops with you.
Managing the fact that the buck stops with you
The first time the buck stopped with me it came as a bit of a surprise. It was late August 2003, a week before I began as headteacher at Lady Lumley’s School, when the deputy told me we didn’t have a psychology teacher for the start of term. My first thought was “Why is he telling me?” And then it suddenly struck me that, ultimately, it was my job to ensure we were fully staffed.
The thing is, no-one forces you to become a headteacher. If you have chosen that career path you need to have secure coping strategies in order to survive in the role. You certainly have to be able to control your thinking. The mantra I try to live by is from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so.
An appreciation of one’s own insignificance is, generally, a good thing. There are 32,000 schools in the UK and approximately 3 million schools in the world; as a headteacher, you lead just one of them. Keeping things in perspective, but not too wide a perspective, is an important facet of running a school and leading a contented life. Certain things have to matter, but not too much.
If you find yourself taking yourself too seriously, go and scrape some chewing gum off the carpet in the school reception. Or take a walk around your local cemetery.
On occasion, I respond to situations inappropriately. I once broke down hopelessly at a colleague’s packed funeral and people couldn’t look me in the eye at the wake. For them it must have been deeply unsettling, like when you see your dad cry for the first time. Colleagues need to feel they are in safe hands, especially when there is such uncertainty and fear in our professional world. You have to hold steady.
So, here are my top five tips for early career head teachers for managing the fact that the buck stops with you:
- Shun self-pity. Recently I was asked which human characteristic I most despised and I replied, self-pity. When things go awry, I never ask “Why me?” Rather, I ask “Why not me?” Once you accept that being human means you will suffer pain, life becomes significantly easier.
- When things go wrong in school, learn to step back and laugh at your predicaments. You can choose to train your brain that way. As Frankl says in his life-affirming treatise, Man’s Search for Meaning, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Take a helicopter view of life. In a week, a month, six months, a year, what appears a huge issue now will seem a mere trifling inconvenience.
- Get a good night’s sleep. I once heard Stella Rimington, erstwhile Director-General of MI5, say that the only advice she could give to headteachers is to get a good night’s sleep. She thought it impossible to make sound decisions when you are fatigued. And when it comes to sleeping, invest heavily in the best mattress for your bed you can find. Seriously!
- Remember that every single challenge that you have faced until this point in your life, you have met. No matter what life has thrown at you, you are here now, you have endured. When we have an unexpected fire alarm I stand in the centre of the playground, as 1,700 people mass around me, and I tell myself that this too shall pass. It really helps. Especially if it is raining.
- Finally, when you find yourself in the eye of the storm, when the crisis you are dealing with tests you to the limit, when the buck has not just stopped with you, but has sat with all its crushing weight upon your chest so you can hardly breathe, remember that you only have to deal with the next 60 seconds. And once you have survived those 60 seconds, you can cope with the next 60, and then the next. One. Minute. At. A. Time.