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They never covered THAT in training

January 31, 2022, 15:07 GMT+1
Read in 8 minutes
  • Daniel Woodrow unpicks the daunting period of early headship with advice based on first-hand experience
They never covered THAT in training

My first day as a headteacher.

I stood before my new team and breathlessly told them not to worry about the previous year’s poor results because publishing data was just like putting out the trailer for a film and that we were still editing the final version of our movie and I was excited to be there and couldn’t wait to get to know everyone and that if we supported each other and gave it our all then we could do anything. 

Then I went on paternity leave for two weeks.

When I came back, my feet didn’t touch the ground. I was putting out fire after fire. 

Ofsted, legal challenges by parents, a disastrous fire inspection, applying for the substantive post, the local authority threatening to close our Specialist Unit – I had it all. 

I was starting to think that maybe I was part of some Truman Show-like reality programme when I got a call from a local superstore. They were running a competition to design a poster about recycling and were displaying two posters from each school with jars underneath where shoppers could place a token to vote for their favourite.

The posters were anonymous, but someone had been caught on CCTV taking tokens out of other jars to put into ours and the store wanted to know what I was going to do about it. 

They certainly didn’t cover that in any of my training!

Headship is full of the unpredictable. It’s what makes it the best job in the world, but it can also leave you feeling like you’re drowning.

To those who are thinking of giving it a go (you definitely should, by the way), here are some of the things that I learned during that tumultuous first term and in the weeks and months that followed. 

Putting out fires

One thing I learned about those blazes is that you’re better off putting them out straight away. Mark Twain encouraged his readers to eat a live frog in the morning because nothing worse can possibly then happen to you for the rest of the day.

In other words, have that conversation or do that work that you are dreading most first thing and then it won’t be hanging over you all day. It will feel like a weight has been lifted.

Never enough time

Time works differently when you’re a headteacher.

You’re constantly chasing your tail or it feels like it stops altogether and you find yourself willing it to go faster. You usually get around to eating lunch at 3:00 p.m. (always order something cold!) and you never get around to doing what’s on your to-do list.

If you do keep list then don’t feel bad about adding what you’ve done to it just so you have the satisfaction of crossing it off straight away! 

You could also extend this to keeping a list of everything that you do each day for the first hundred days - however big or small. There will be days when it feels like you won’t have got anything done, but you almost certainly will have, and this helps you focus on that.

Get to know your school

As a new head you can feel under pressure to make an impact immediately, but don’t feel that you have to get everything done straight away.

Take the time to get to know your school and your staff. In the first term I introduced things that I knew worked, but it wasn’t until my second year of headship that I was ready to introduce things that worked specifically for my school.

That’s not to say that you can’t have a few quick wins though.

For me, it was donuts in the staffroom every Friday and the introduction of a Tidy Trophy presented each week in assembly to help combat what staff perceived as messy classrooms (this was phased out soon after an over-zealous School Council pupil announced in assembly that a class would have won that week but the state of the teacher’s desk in their room was “appalling”).

Keep an open mind

When it comes to getting to know your staff, have an open mind. I don’t know about you, but when I was a teacher I never really read the previous year’s reports for my class.

Everyone deserves a fresh start and we all respond to different people in different ways. It’s the same for staff and I really learned the value of having an open mind and showing staff that you trust and value them. 

You may have been in a situation yourself where you felt like you were in a bit of a rut, and it took a change of school or leadership for you to feel like yourself again.

I know that was the case for me once upon a time and I hope that I have been able to pay that on to people in my team.

Let off steam

It’s also really important to look after yourself, and building a network is a vital part of that. We all need people to lend an ear while we let off steam.

You may be lucky and have a brilliant mentor from your Trust or LA, or a fabulous induction programme, or a great Chair of Governors.

I had all three, but I didn’t make the most of them while they were there and when they were gone, and when things were tough, there were times when I felt like the loneliest person in the world. 

Remember who’s ‘boss’

Remember that you are the head! It may sound silly, but I bet there are things at your previous schools that you always wanted to do but were never allowed to.

I had always wanted to organise a sleepover for Year 6 in the school hall before they left and was constantly frustrated that none of my previous headteachers were keen.

But guess who’s desperately trying to stay awake throughout the night every last Friday of the school year now?

Top Tips for a new headteacher

  • Trust your staff – cakes are nice, but strategies to support workload and remove unnecessary pressures are better.
  • Have an open mind – people can surprise you!
  • Give yourself time – you don’t have to do everything at once.
  • Quick wins – show staff you’re listening and will act where you can.
  • Draw upon your recent time in the classroom – Staff felt I had more authenticity from only just being out of the classroom when talking about teaching and learning.
  • Eat The Frog – don’t put off the difficult tasks.
  • Record The First 100 Days – you’ll be amazed at what you’ve achieved.
  • Embrace Whole School Events – Red Nose Day, World Book Day, Children In Need are fun and help to bring everyone together.

Daniel Woodrow is headteacher at St Gregory CEVC Primary School in Sudbury, Suffolk. His blog is at: