About to embark on your first post as headteacher? Hafise Nazif, a headteacher in the London Borough of Havering, reflects on her first year of headship and offers some personal but common-sense survival tips

Its official! The phone call you have been eagerly waiting for arrives and the chair of governors of the school that needs you to make a difference calls to congratulate you on securing the top job – headteacher!

As the celebration and well wishes begin to calm down and the adrenaline rush that you experienced earlier fades away, mixed emotions of excitement and apprehension may begin to emerge and that strange feeling of ‘how prepared do I really feel as I begin this journey’ takes a firm grip of your daily thinking.

After all, headteachers are expected to be skilled in their ability to handle any crisis situation whilst setting the budget, observing lessons and ensuring that the school building is a safe and attractive learning environment! Numerous questions begin to occur:

  • What if I don’t make an instant impression – do I need to?
  • What should the first staff meeting I attend look like and feel like?
  • Should I be liked or respected – does it matter?
  • Should I aim to teach so that staff and children see me in action in this vital role?
  • How is a vision created and shared?
  • What should the extended school agenda look like?
  • Where do I start?

Get to know the school

While addressing all the above questions and many more will be vital at some point, the main task when you first start is to get to know the school. By this I do not mean you should lock yourself in your new office in order to memorize the school’s latest Ofsted report and last five years Key Stage 2 results. Create a presence without being over-powering. When I first started, I spent a lot of time standing in the playground first thing in the morning and after school. I welcomed the children into school in the morning, smiled and talked to parents as they looked suspiciously at the new head and spoke to the community police officers who control the traffic in the busy road around my school. In doing this each day I gained an immense amount of information about the school from the children, got to know the parent population and enabled them to see that I was genuinely human and interested in what they had to say about the issues that mattered to them. I still do this.

I made a conscious effort to not walk around the school without a clear purpose. Teachers and teaching assistants have classes to settle at the beginning of the year and do not want to feel that they need to impress the new head as you suddenly turn up in their classroom. By no means am I suggesting that you do not visit classrooms and spend time observing and getting to know staff and children, but this should be planned into your understanding of the school process and should have an aim of which the staff should be made aware.

Developing the bigger picture

Tell staff and children (what you feel is relevant) about yourself, your experiences, your ‘non-negotiables’, as I call them, and your expectations. It is important that they see you as a person and not simply as the superhuman headteachers portrayed in the job descriptions. Ask the staff what they expect of your role and what they hope you will achieve in your first year. I personally found this a very interesting exercise. Expectations ranged from supporting them and listening to their views to being a confident leader and enabling them to share and contribute.

It is important to spend planned time with each of the classes talking to the pupils. Ask them:

  • what they like learning about
  • what frustrates them about the school
  • what their wish for the school would be
  • what they believe your role within the school is
  • how are they able to help you improve the school.

In my school, something as simple as putting liquid soap in the toilets made my popularity increase tenfold!

Above all, invite the staff and children to tell you about what they really like about the school, what would make it even better for them personally and for the school community as a whole. Remember that this is the ‘getting to know the school’ process and, while you will gain invaluable knowledge about the school, staff and children, store the information you gain to develop your understanding of the school you have been appointed to lead. Don’t, however, promise to change the world or imply that you will take on every suggestion for improvement – it will not happen overnight and you will only be setting self-expectations that you may not be able to meet immediately.

Admin staff

Like most headteachers who arrive from a deputy head post, I came to the role with little working experience of setting or monitoring a budget. I was equally unprepared for the whole array of personnel issues awaiting me. At this point it is vital to remember that once again you are not alone. The wonderful staff in the office often have a huge amount of knowledge, understanding and skill that they are hoping you will utilize. Their knowledge of the parent population, pupil attendance patterns and local business contacts should certainly not be underestimated. I made it an absolute priority to get to know the finance officer.

Parents – all aboard?

It would be a wonderful achievement if all parents were suddenly on the side of the new head; eager to please, raise lots of money for the school fund and queue up to contribute to the school improvement plan. It may be an unrealistic thought initially, but working on getting the relationship right with parents will ensure that positive support is achieved from these valuable stakeholders.

Invite parents to meet with you in an informal but structured setting. When I was first appointed to headship, I held two separate meetings in order to provide parents with a choice of time. During the meetings getting the balance right is crucial. However, this does not mean that you need to promote a ‘superhero’ image of yourself. Don’t offer a vision that you may not be up to realizing in the immediate future as it will only lead to demoralization. Do share with them, however, some of your values and principles and how you see them working with you. Invite them to tell you in the form of a simple questionnaire what they believe to be positive aspects of the school, areas they would like to see improved in the immediate future and what they would like to see improved in the longer term. Keep parents well informed of any school improvements, particularly when a change has been made in response to aspects that parents have suggested.

Surviving the first year

Do not let yourself become overwhelmed by the amount of paperwork that falls on your desk. Once I got over the fact that I did not need to read everything, I reluctantly allowed my secretary to work through my post and place in my in-tray correspondence that I needed to deal with – what a difference this made!

Plan your time. Decide what issues you are going to work on during the week. If you allocate time to work on preparing items required for governing body meetings, then try to keep to this timetable. It is unrealistic to believe that you will be able to keep rigidly to the timetable you have made, it is far too easy to let each day go by with you jumping from one crisis to another.

Trust others and learn to delegate. As a new headteacher, delegation is sometimes a little difficult to grasp. Schools are full of professional and very capable people. Let people know your expectations and enable them to get on with the task in hand.

Get to know your leadership team. However big or small your school is, your senior leadership team is crucial and their support, commitment and determination to lead the school with you is vital. Allocate quality time to talk, work and reflect with this group of individuals and listen to what they have to say.

Stay focused and productive. As a new headteacher I often flitted from one initiative to another. I wanted to get everything done at once! While juggling a number of changes and improvements at the same time is part of your role, try not to make instant decisions and dramatic changes that affect the work of other staff and children, where they have had no involvement or do not understand the rationale behind the decision made.

Ask for help

The first year of headship can at times be a lonely place to be. Although NPQH and deputy headship take you through a few critical scenarios, you can never be sure of what the next minute will bring. Get to know more experienced headteacher colleagues within the vicinity of your school. Never worry about picking up the phone and saying, ‘I don’t know what to do in this situation.’ The chances are that they too will have felt this way many times before and, just maybe, even been through the same crisis that you may be having to deal with.

Allow yourself dedicated headship time to reflect on your role, your leadership and the work that is taking place in your school. Keep a log to help remember how far you have come and how quickly you have accomplished the improvements you wanted to introduce.

Recognize your successes. It’s not a crime to celebrate. Feel pleased with what has been achieved and share this with staff. It will help sustain energy and enthusiasm.

Above all – breathe deeply! Always try to have fun and remember to go home sometimes. Have a good night sleep in order to feel totally refreshed and energized. The only certain factor in headship is that, without a doubt, tomorrow will bring new challenges.

And then there are the governors

Being accountable to the governing body is yet another challenge that must be confronted by a new headteacher. Working in partnership with people you refer to as ‘critical friends’ in your interview can be a daunting concept. You will no doubt be aware they have a wide range of statutory responsibilities and, in order to fulfil them, they must challenge you as part of their role

I would whole-heartedly recommend seeking the guidance of the governing body support service within your LA. The advice and documentation they were able to provide for me regarding writing governing body reports, working with sub- committees and defining roles, responsibilities and powers of delegation was invaluable.

While taking an active role within meetings, it is equally important to spend time observing and listening to the interactions of the governing body at work. Get to know the governors who have particular interest areas or skills (such as premises or personnel management). This will enable you to reflect how you can, alongside the chair, best use the skills of these individuals while offering clear and consistent direction to their work as a group.

Governors are busy people and many will only be able to attend evening meetings. It is important to ensure any documentation the governors are expected to make decisions or pass judgment on is sent to them prior to the meetings. Emailing the governors agenda items, minutes of meetings and other relevant material has enabled our meetings to be kept within specific times.

Challenging but well-meaning governors can, without a doubt, lead you to feel deflated and frustrated that you do not have all the answers to their questions. At this point, agree to reflect on the opinions being provided or the questions being raised and offer a time span in which you will get back to the governors. Do not make a rapid response to an opinion or view that you are not able to fully support or justify, particularly when this involves the day to day management of the school.

The first year of headship is extremely hard work, but there are plenty of people around to help you through it; make use to them and look forward to the second year – when you will be more of an expert!