I have been a Headteacher for four years now, and I have worked in two very different schools, with very different contexts. In both contexts I have ( I hope) been able to drive improvement, but have learnt so much about leading. This is my attempt to describe how I have tried my best to lead from the bottom.
I remember the look of horror on the faces of staff when I said in 2016 the following words; “I’m going to be dropping into classrooms all the times, just so I know what’s going on, and I’ll be around at break and lunchtimes as well…” Like every Head new to a school, you want to find the truth. You can do it by listening to your SLT, or by looking at your data, but, most importantly you can do it by being present. At the time I didn’t communicate this well, and people felt like I was monitoring.
There was some element of monitoring no doubt, but I wanted to know and feel what the school was like at the bottom level – how else can you then decide how to build an improvement strategy?
I think too often Headteachers of large schools with large leadership teams confuse being present and visible in their school with having people tell you things or telling people what to do. Or in the worse cases assuming they can act like an Executive Leader without any operational responsibility. This isn’t a model that I would subscribe to at all. For me being present means things like;
- Dropping into classes not to really judge lesson quality, but to make sure that staff know you are there to support them. I have been referred to as a “Ninja” now in two schools as at times I appear out of nowhere. I need to know what’s going on.
- Being on corridors during lesson transitions, so all the pupils can see you. It seems old fashioned, but it is modelling expectations really.
- Being there when a Head of Year is late after an assembly, and their class are waiting (it happens).
- Being on the worst duty points during lunchtimes, and especially during wet lunchtimes. There have been times when each day at 1:50 pm I am like a drowned rat. There was an occasion when a visitor thought I was the caretaker…
- Being present at the start of each and every day – outside by the main gate. We should never underestimate the power of “good morning”.
The value of this presence is that members of the school community will notice. It really helped re-engage parents in my school when I took over after a period of difficulty. The pupils get a real sense of appreciation (although they may not always say it) if you are with them outside as they play football in the rain.
I like the idea that pupils in particular see you as a “real person” rather than just the “Office” of the Headteacher. Being relatable to young people is the reason we all got into teaching in the first place I would think, and actually this raises standards if done well. I am a Catholic, and this is an approach that Pope Francis has called “smelling the sheep”.
It’s not glamourous, and in fact being a Headteacher really isn’t about having the biggest office or occupying the “top job”, but more about being the lynchpin that holds the school culture together. You can only do that if people see you doing the jobs you don’t really want to be doing.
Leading from the bottom is also about giving your staff every chance to be successful. We have spent time in my current school refining our systems and processes so that what we as leaders do challenges, but more than that gives clarity and purpose to the expectations of middle leaders and staff. I vividly remember in my first three years of teaching each and every year the school priority changed, and it didn’t make anything better. I do try to remember what it is like to teach a full timetable, and the burden that we often place on staff when we want to try the next big idea (PLTS anyone – if you remember?). A painful experience I had as a Deputy, which I will never forget, was the SLT idea that teachers can move between lessons, and didn’t need to have their own teaching space.
”Sometimes as the Headteacher all the vision in the world makes no difference if the bottom level practicalities are not addressed.Chris FoleyHeadteacher of St Monica's RC High School
Sometimes as the Headteacher all the vision in the world makes no difference if the bottom level practicalities are not addressed. How as the Head of a school do I make the job of the NQT that little bit easier? How as the Head do I ease the pressure on the site team? How do I make sure that my Head of Maths has what they need to deliver improving outcomes? Accountability is important – our education system is predicated on the idea that public money should be spent efficiently in the interest of young people, and I agree with that. But accountability should not just be top down. I certainly feel accountable to all my staff and my job is to give them what they need to do their job.
Leading from the bottom is about serving the needs of others and your community. I suppose the challenge we all face as leaders is how can we make sure our actions and our leadership impact positively on those we work with. If you are in a leadership position at any level, I challenge you to ask your staff or team “how can I make your job easier?” The answers may surprise you. The best thing about asking that question is you may have the power to change things. Lead from the bottom and do it. They will thank you for it.