Lessons from my first year in post
Before I took up my post as head of The Abbey, I was fortunate to be able to attend some fascinating courses on leadership. The thing that cropped up repeatedly was the importance of knowing yourself and being true to yourself if you’re to become an effective, respected leader. I began the year with this as my ‘personal flag’ and although sometimes that flag’s been flying proudly from its pole, and other times clinging to it to avoid being blown away, I do feel as though I’ve succeeded.
The whirlwind began with a full ISI inspection just four weeks into the autumn term. In many ways I was fortunate in that, having been deputy head before taking the headship, I already had very strong personal relationships with my senior team. It was inevitable though that those relationships would alter as I took on my new role and learning how to work within the new parameters has been a key part of the experience.
Inspection successfully completed I felt that I needed to start again with getting to know the school from the inside out. I once spent a fascinating and exhausting day as a pupil in Year 7. The staff weren’t briefed in advance so I got a true reflection of life as a student – much to the delight of the Year 7 girls. I cannot recommend this activity highly enough; it established a sense of camaraderie with the pupils and was a far more positive way of engaging with staff than formal lesson observations. The head of the junior school also spent a day as a Year 4 pupil and reported similar valuable insights and enjoyment.
‘A new broom sweeps clean’ as the saying goes, and it’s not always meant in a positive light. I was conscious that my staff were, to a certain degree, on tenterhooks waiting for the ‘new regime’ to take effect. I found it a balancing act driving through the important changes in personnel and approach whilst reassuring staff and parents that changes were positive and strategically relevant and not fundamentally altering the DNA of our school.
Becoming head of a school of this size does feel like becoming the head of an enormous family, with all of the natural demands on your time and emotions. The biggest challenge I’ve faced has been combining this exciting, all-consuming role with my own family and giving them the time that they deserve. It’s a challenge faced by many in education and to help us all I made ‘balance’, which is a whole school target for students and staff. This has proved remarkably successful and encouraged everyone to make time to pursue their passions. I’ve heard tales of staff performing in ballets, taking up yoga and writing articles to journals for publication. For me it’s walking my rather sloppy black Labrador and unhinged rescue dog, ideally whilst listening to my teenage daughter ‘putting the world to rights’! No doubt the equilibrium that they get from life outside the classroom is having very positive effects within it.
Looking back on the challenges of my first year, if I could offer one piece of advice to new heads it would be this: don’t be too hard on yourself. There will always be things you could have done differently but the role is multifaceted and you’re in it for the long haul. Be true to yourself and authentic as a leader, it’s the best way to bring others with you and will help you fly your flag with confidence.
Rachel Dent, Head, The Abbey School