How can teachers make the leap from deputy to headteacher?

Jill Berry

Following a 30 year career in education, during which she taught English and assumed different leadership roles across six schools, Jill finished as a full-time head in 2010. Since then Jill has completed a doctorate and written Making the Leap: Moving from Deputy to Head, which was published by Crown House Publishing in November 2016. She lives in the Midlands.

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Image credit: Jill Berry Image credit: Jill Berry

Recent research from the Future Leaders Trust, Teach First and Teaching Leaders warns of a serious shortfall in the number of heads and senior leaders required over the next decade, as pupil numbers rise and the present incumbents retire or move on. Many of those currently in headship attest to the rewards and satisfactions of the role, despite its accepted demands and pressures. But how can we encourage those not currently in whole-school leadership roles to take the plunge – to embrace risk and uncertainty and step up to the challenge? How can we encourage, motivate and inspire them to ask: ‘If not me, then who?’, and how can prepare them and then support them throughout their time in the role?

Following a thirty year career as a teacher and school leader at different levels, the final ten as a head, I left full-time headship in 2010. Since then I have completed a Professional Doctorate in Education, researching the transition from deputy headship to headship, and I have written a book on the subject, based on my research and my own experience.

In the following extract, I explain what might motivate a senior leader to take the step to headship, and some of the issues around preparation and support. I hope the extract is useful; I hope the book is useful. Above all, I hope that those who could be successful heads in the future will see the opportunities and the joy in the role, and not simply its pressures, and will be inspired to ‘make the leap’:

As your career progresses and you move from one leadership role to another, your sphere of influence gradually grows. You will be required to take on new challenges and will, in every new job, be called upon to do things you may never have faced before. You will have the chance to learn, to grow, to prove yourself. You will make mistakes and survive them. But I believe that the qualities that make you a good teacher are closely related to those which will serve you well in leadership. Every teacher is, in fact, a leader of learning within their own classroom. If you decide to move to middle leadership, to senior leadership, to headship ultimately, you will continue to refine these skills, but in my opinion good leaders are good leaders at whatever level.

What makes headship distinctive? It is undoubtedly a big job. You need a clear grasp of the big picture – what the school stands for and where it is going – because no school stands still. During the course of a working week you may experience a huge range of different tasks: a governors’ meeting debating future strategy; a finance meeting looking at budgetary priorities and constraints; leading an assembly; interviewing staff; meeting parents. You might be working within the community as a representative of the school you lead and a spokesperson for education. You will certainly spend considerable time with your senior leadership team, making the most of their complementary skills and ensuring that, in the words of Dylan Wiliam, they work ‘as a team’ rather than simply ‘in a team’. Heads do not have to be able to do everything themselves; in fact, it is unrealistic to expect them to be good at everything. However, they do need to ensure that all the bases are covered. They need to be self-aware and to recognise when they are drawing on the expertise of others. They need to know the questions to ask and to be able to understand the answers, to probe where necessary and to have a secure overview of all aspects of the running of the school. If things go wrong, they are, together with the governing body, responsible. But developing and making the most of the skills of all members of the school community is a crucial part of the way in which successful heads operate. They lift and inspire, they encourage and motivate. They lead.

There are a number of ways in which those who aspire to headship can prepare themselves to take on this ultimate responsibility for school leadership, and these ways will be explored in subsequent chapters. They need to develop a clear conception of what the best school leadership looks like, where their own strengths are and in which areas they are still learning and strengthening their capabilities. They will have been formulating their vision of the kind of head they might one day hope to be throughout their careers, even through their own schooldays. They will have learnt both from positive examples and also from negative role models, who may have taught them about the pitfalls they hope to avoid. However, there is much about headship for which it is difficult, perhaps even impossible, to prepare yourself. All heads will face unexpected challenges which will test them in ways they have not been able to anticipate. When they face such challenges they will need to be adaptable, quick-thinking and keen to learn. They will need to understand where they can go for support and counsel, but they will also need the courage to make what may be difficult decisions and to show real leadership in the times when they, and perhaps the school, are tested.

Robert Quinn (2004: 153) talks of how as a leader you need the ‘adaptive confidence to walk naked into the land of uncertainty and to build the bridge as you walk on it’. No beginning head is the finished article. It could be argued that this is a stage which no head ever reaches, as we are constantly learning and evolving. Certainly, more than five years since I finished my own headship I feel I am still learning about school leadership – from my reading and research, from my reflections after a thirty-year career, from contact with others in my consultancy work and also from my engagement with educational professionals through social networking. Aspiring heads need to have sufficient self-belief to recognise that much of being a head they will learn from the experience of being a head.

In the following chapters I focus specifically on the process of transition, and what it means to relinquish the professional persona of a senior leader and to take on the professional identity of the head teacher. It is a journey which is well worth taking.”

Extract taken from:
Making the Leap: Moving from deputy to head By Dr Jill Berry
© Jill Berry 2016 ISBN 9781785831614

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