Leaving Headship – The Biggest, And Hardest, Decision Of My Life.
I’ve never been one to shy away from a tricky career decision.
At 16, I left school to work in a bank, when all of my friends stayed on to do A levels.
At the same time that those friends were leaving university, and my mates at Barclays were starting to buy houses and settle down, I decided to leave the bank and train to be a teacher.
And, having lived my whole life considerably north of The Watford Gap, I upped sticks to get my first job, as an NQT, in Essex. A place I’d never been before.
Over the years, I have made numerous career decisions, which included:
Agreeing to take on ‘that class’ on many occasions – and finding that I much preferred a lively bunch, to a quiet lot.
Deciding that, as English was taken in my school, I would have a bash at being the Science co-ordinator (despite not having a scientific bone in my body). If I say so myself, I did a reasonable job, from a place well beyond my comfort zone.
Becoming the school’s social secretary and then realising that you’re always left out of pocket, because some buggers never pay up.
After a few years, actively seeking a Key Stage 1 leader post and also managing to get my hands on that elusive role, leading English. Hoorah!
Following that, applying for, and getting, a Deputy Head/ INCo/ SENCo job, which I absolutely loved.
So, lots of decisions. Most of them good …
And then, I decided I wanted to be a Head Teacher. Or did I?
Obviously, it was me who filled in the application form; who spent hours trying to find the right interview outfits; who asked friends to give me a mock; and then jumped through selection process hoops and sat in front of a 12-person panel over two gruelling interview days.
But it was also me who, while waiting for ‘the-good-or-bad-news phone call’, sat in a pub with my friend trying to decide if a job offer would, in fact, be good or bad news.
On the plus side, becoming a Head was a natural progression in a school which I adored and was already the Deputy in. I knew its strengths, the challenges it faced and the potential it had. I was also pretty sure that, along the way, I’d have the support of the staff, the governors, the families, the children and the local community.
On the minus side, I thought I could become further removed from the people. In order that that didn’t happen, I resisted the urge to lock myself away in my office – preferring to do the paperwork aspects of the job in the evenings, at weekends and in the holidays. The bare bones of the School Improvement Plan were always agreed with the leadership team in July and typed up on my sun lounger in August.
I worried that I would miss teaching and, potentially, forget how to do it. So, I did as much cover as possible, taught Year 6 interventions and treated myself to teaching a Reception class every Friday morning. Marvellous! However, this also impacted on the time that I had to do other things, as well as, on occasion, leading me down an operational rabbit hole.
I wasn’t especially business minded and didn’t have a desire to spend hours of my working life talking about finances, or health and safety, or governance, or HR-related issues. But, as the person with whom the buck stops, this is exactly what happens – whether you have great people supporting you, or not.
And so, these things went on, until they had to stop.
Making the biggest, and hardest, decision of my life.
It wasn’t just the incessant juggling of work and home, or the desire to be teaching again, or the mundane, but hugely responsible, parts of the job that got me wondering if Headship was right for me.
I did my best to run an extremely happy, highly inclusive school, with a genuine desire to put the wellbeing of all stakeholders first and foremost. Despite this, I found that I was spending an increasing amount of time, emotional energy and the school’s budget:
Working with more mental health professionals – both proactively and reactively.
Training and providing supervision for staff, so that we could give the best possible support to children with social, emotional and mental health difficulties.
Bespoking the curriculum and the school environment to meet the needs of all our children and, particularly, the most complex.
Taking in an increasing number of children with highly challenging SEND and SEMH needs, because other schools either couldn’t cope, or were offloading them.
Supporting staff – from those with a diagnosed mental health problem, to others who were having a ‘wellbeing wobble’.
Supporting parents and other family members – both with their own mental health and that of their children.
Doing things that upset me and I didn’t agree with me – such as sending in soggy Key Stage 2 SATs papers, because 2 children couldn’t stop crying during the test.
Chatting to colleagues about all of the above, as well as the everyday, ongoing pressures of Headship and finding out that many were on medication for stress and anxiety.
All of these things started to bother me.
Although, in the main, I was still happy in my job, I didn’t like the way things were going. What was, and is, the education system doing to the children, their families, the staff and school leaders?
Whilst I wasn’t on medication myself, I did end up in A&E one evening with heart palpitations. And, during my time as a Head, part of my eyebrows fell out – which wasn’t, I thought, a good sign!
My husband, the person who insisted I go to hospital with my racing heart (but somehow didn’t spot the decreasing facial hair - thinking, instead, that I’d gone a bit tweezer happy!), knew the emotional dilemma I was facing. He’s always a good sounding board and, if I ever needed a bit of a moan, I used to offload to him. Safe in the knowledge that I never would, he’d say, “If you’ve had enough, resign – we’ll manage.”
Now, I know that that put me in a very privileged position and, ultimately, it made the decision easier. However, it still came as a bit of a shock to me, and a huge surprise to him, when one day I heard myself saying, “Yep, I think it’s time to leave.”
Decision made, and not a second thought to be had, I spent the upcoming holiday crying, as I wrote my resignation and goodbye letters to governors, the staff, the LA, the parents and the children.
At that point, I didn’t have a plan. All I knew was that it was the biggest, and hardest, decision of my career – but it turned out to be the best one.