Reflections on my first year of headship

By Sadie Batstone, Principal, Brockington College, Leicestershire
A year ago, I attended ASCL’s inaugural Conference for New Headteachers in London. I had been in post since May half-term and I remember another new headteacher I was chatting to saying to me “You seem to be really enjoying your new job.  You speak so enthusiastically about it”.  That was the total opposite to how I felt on the inside.  It was true, I did really love the school; my staff and students are wonderful.  However, as a new head, only two months into the role, I was seriously doubting whether becoming a headteacher was right.  I thought I may have made one of the worst mistakes of my life and was already wondering whether I should quit.  

Why am I telling you this?  Well, when I attended the conference last year, I was truly grateful for all of the excellent advice given on a whole host of areas that has since proved really useful.  However, at that point, as someone who is not a quitter and never used to feeling that way, all I wanted to hear was about how to deal with the way the new role was making me feel. So, here is my summary that would have helped the me that attended this conference a year ago.
  1. Nothing really prepares you for it: I was not prepared for the way I felt at the start of the role.  It took me by surprise.  I quickly realised that for me, it wasn’t the array of tasks that I wasn’t prepared for, it was the way the responsibility I carried made me feel.  No NPQH can prepare you for what that feels like until you are in post and you feel it.
  2. Imposter syndrome is a very real thing. I’d never heard of it before. I doubted myself, thought I was a fraud, waited for someone to ‘find me out’.  Recognise it for what it is. It passes. 
  3. Get a network of headteachers around you quickly: the network you build not only helps you deal with you the very many challenges you will encounter, but is an invaluable source of support for your wellbeing, for coping with the role and for your own learning – get to know other heads quickly and build good networks.  You realise you are not alone!
  4. You won’t know it all: be prepared to ask questions and learn.  I have had to deal with so many circumstances that I had no prior experience of, from big safeguarding issues to severe HR issues.  I quickly realised that unless I sought help and advice from HR experts, legal teams, local authority experts, ASCL, I was going to make mistakes.  I wrongly thought that ‘I’m a headteacher, I should already know this’.  I now know ‘I’m a head teacher, I need help with this’!
  5. Scan the horizon: I laugh as I type this!  At the start of the year, I was scanning to see what was coming our way; a continuing decline in student attendance that needed tackling, a new Ofsted framework, a new funding formulae.  All things I could see on the horizon and could prepare for.  I didn’t see coronavirus! Although these times are extreme, I know there are clouds I will see on the horizon that I can plan for, but there will always be storms that come at you so fast you cannot prepare.  At that point, rely on your years and years of experience leading up to this role and the networks you’ve built to advise; you will be able to deal with them. 
  6. Your to-do list never gets done.  A year ago this was causing me concern.  As a deputy head, I was used to completing my to-do list, to organise my time and generally  be able to follow that plan.  As a head, I now know to build in time to deal with the unexpected.  Things you want to complete will take longer than you think, but don’t lose sight of the priorities.  It often feels like 80% management, 20% leadership.  If you know that, make good use of the 20% of time!
  7. Make time for you.  This is vital for your wellbeing. Talk to your governors about this, especially your chair of governors (that relationship is crucial). They will want to make sure you are looked after – without you well, the school will suffer. 

So, at the end of my first year I can now say that I really do love the role, it now feels different.   It’s challenging, there are days that are truly awful, and days that are truly exceptional.  I know that I am still learning and that there is so much I still don’t know. There are many aspects I could have included in this reflection that might be more practical to the success of the school under your headship.  

However, leadership starts with YOU, so it’s important to  acknowledge how YOU feel at times and it’s important that you build good mechanisms that sustain you so you can do the same for your teams and your school.

Then you and your school can thrive. 

Sadie Batstone is Principal at Brockington College, Leicestershire and was one of our online contributors at this year's Conference for New Headteachers. 

ASCL Conference for New Headteachers 2020 runs online from 7 July and 13 to 17 July. Recordings of all sessions are available – find out more here
Posted: 15/07/2020 12:16:44