Leaving Headship And Becoming Self-Employed - Things To Think About.
As I said in my last ‘Leaving Headship’ blog, when I told my colleagues and friends that I’d decided to go, not one person asked why. Even if they’ve never considered it themselves, most Heads can empathise with someone who’s had enough.
If you are a happy Head (as I hope you are – every school needs one!) then this probably isn’t the blog for you. However, if you have found yourself considering your future options, these are some of the things that you may want to think about.
Should You Follow Your Heart Or Your Head?
For the vast majority of educators, our job is a vocation. We passionately want to do our best for the children and young people, their families, our subject, our team. We are people who are on a mission, with strong values and beliefs.
Being a Head isn’t a 9am-5pm, 5 days a week job. It isn’t a term-time only profession. It’s a way of life. From worrying about safeguarding issues and hoping that everyone comes back safe and sound after the holidays; to mulling over tricky situations with pupils, parents, members of staff, governors; to juggling an insufficient budget; to not sleeping for 4 out of the 7 nights because we’re expecting ‘the call’. We never switch off.
If you are thinking of leaving, it helps to decide whether you want another full on, emotionally-charged job. Or is this the time and opportunity to reset your emotional gauge, to do something that isn’t all-consuming? Not to say that you won’t care about any new role, of course you will, but now might be the time to stop living and breathing your work?
For me, I spent a lot of time weighing up the pros and cons of being employed and being self-employed. I knew that I would struggle to work for a boss again. Having felt that I was becoming increasingly tied to a desk as a Head, I also knew that, going forward, I wanted freedom, fun, as little paperwork as possible and the autonomy to be creative. So, self-employment looked like a good option – apart from the fact that it would be risky and I might not earn any money at all!
Although most Heads could earn a lot more if they were CEOs of companies that are a similar size to their schools, Head Teachers’ wages are nevertheless good. And, let’s face it, when people have a guaranteed wage coming in every month they get used to a certain lifestyle, which needs funding. Personally, I do love a holiday! If I became self-employed, would I ever see a Croatian sunset again?
With my head not helping much, I looked to my heart to help me decide. The reason that I left my school was because I was worried about the impact that our education system was (and is) having on the children’s, the staff’s and the leaders’ mental health and wellbeing. I believed that I had a drum to bang, and a role to play, in supporting schools and organisations to become happier places. I felt that I had enough experience and knowledge to go it alone and that’s what I wanted to do. Eventually, decision made!
Use your head to make pros and cons lists. It often helps to chat these through with someone else, who thinks differently to you.
Use your heart to decide what matters to you, where your passions lie, what will motivate you – both personally and professionally.
Take stock of your mental, physical and financial health and use this to inform your decision-making.
How Do You Keep True To Yourself, While Advertising Your Services?
I’m not a salesperson. But, when you become self-employed, you do have to promote yourself, in a way that you’re comfortable with.
Although you were a Head previously and, ultimately, accountable for anything that went on in your school, you were still part of a team – with shared roles and responsibilities. When you become self-employed, you have to develop a new kind of resilience, which helps you to learn from any setbacks, while not taking them too personally.
I’ve been exceptionally lucky. Over the past 3 years, I’ve had very few setbacks. However, there have been a couple of occasions whereby my confidence could have wobbled – if I’d let it.
One of the main reasons that I loved being a teacher was seeing children, who had been struggling with a concept, suddenly get it. Through my business, I wanted to have that same effect on adults, particularly in relation to improving their own mental health and wellbeing and that of their team.
When trying to decide on a name for the company, I toyed with Eureka, Aha! and various other hoorah-type words. I wasn’t claiming to be an expert, and there wasn’t a concise way of saying to potential customers that, initially, I’d like to help you over a cuppa and a chat. So, I would have to say that I was offering a support service, becoming an advisor or a consultant. But which one?
In the end, I went with ‘Light Bulb Moments Consultancy’ and, just after I’d registered the name, I joined Twitter using @lbmconsultancy. Perfect, until you Google LBM and find out that it stands for loose bowel movements. Never mind - I was here now and ready to engage.
One of the first things that I stumbled across, on Twitter, was a long thread of people being really negative about independent consultants. Aaaah man! Now, I’m not naive. As a Head myself, I had all sorts of people approach me, offering support. Some advisors and consultants are amazing, others aren’t. And (I hope) only a small handful are more bothered about making money themselves, than truly giving the school or organisation the right amount and level of support that it wants and needs – at a reasonable cost.
I decided not to take the thread personally (everyone is entitled to their opinion, including the trainee teacher who was particularly scathing about people who’ve left the classroom after 20+ years), not to have a knee-jerk reaction and immediately change the name of my company and definitely not to get involved in the conversation.
I also vowed to be one of the vast majority of consultants (I hope again) who keep up-to-date, lead their own learning, and who refresh their thinking and materials regularly. When you’re busy this isn’t as easy as you might think, and keeping on top of my game has taken me some time and effort. As I write, I have a Leaning Tower of Pisa style pile of TES, New Scientist and Psychology Today magazines to go through, to find the articles that are pertinent to me and my interests.
The second potential wobble came a couple of years in, when the Head of HR for a global company said that she was very happy for me to deliver leadership training around the world, ‘as long as I didn’t mention that I used to be a Head Teacher’. This was, apparently, because business people wouldn’t value my educational experience. The person stopped short of saying, ‘Our general managers will just think you spent your days playing in the sandpit!’ but the implication was definitely there and a bit of self-doubt briefly crept in. Until I reminded myself that…
Of course, I know that leadership skills are transferrable and that really successful leaders have similar behaviours and mindsets – whether they work in schools, or sporting organisations, or businesses. I also know, from the work that I do in different sectors, that people areinterested in the challenges and anecdotes that I share about my life as a teacher and a Head.
It’s unlike me not to defend the teaching profession and challenge this kind of thinking. However, when you are self-employed, you do have to rein it in a bit more than you would like – without selling your soul and while staying true to your values and beliefs. In order to have the most amazing time delivering sessions in Japan, Hong Kong and China, I decided to keep true to myself more quietly than usual.
Think carefully about your company name and how you market your services – Wix.com is very good for designing and building your free website (if I can do it, anyone can!)
Think about the type of presence that you want to have on social media and how this reflects the person and professional that you are. I’ve found that #edutwitter can be a very supportive place, but sometimes people can be mean too.
If you do go it alone, remember that the level of Continued Professional Development (CPD) on offer in education is generally very good. You may well miss it when it’s gone, so build in time and a budget to keep up-to-date.
How Precious Are You?
As a newly self-employed person, one thing I learnt, early on, was to say yes to every opportunity. Would I like to run some free wellbeing sessions for trainee teachers at a local university? Yes please! Would I like to volunteer at a sports festival for children with SEND? Of course, I would. Would I like to catch up for a cuppa and a chat about being self-employed? Absolutely.
Of course, you don’t want to be running freebies for ever more, and you don’t want to devalue what you are offering by charging nothing, but it is a great way to make contacts and get your name out there.
Also, not every cup of tea and piece of cake leads to something, but it’s lovely to spend time with like-minded people, who you maybe didn’t know too well before. And it feels incredibly daring to be sat in a pub in the middle of the day, whilst everyone else is at school!
Throughout my career, I’ve tried to be kind. And I certainly believe this has helped me, in recent years. I think we’d all rather do well in our chosen career because of what we know. But the truth is that, for me, things have gone swimmingly because of who I know.
Officers from the local authority, where I was a Head, have recommended me to several schools, which have been looking for some long-term leadership and/or SENDCo support. This has meant that I’ve had a secure couple of days’ worth of work each week. It’s also meant that I’ve still had my fix of school life, which has been really important to me. And I’m keeping up-to-date with the ever-changing political climate and expectations.
I’ve also done some really exciting pieces of work with sporting organisations such as The Premier League Charitable Fund, Fulham Football Club Foundation, Watford FC Community Sports and Education Trust and The Harlequins Foundation – all because of word of mouth recommendations. Thank you, Joe and Graham!
Think about the network that you already have. Make sure that people know your plans and have your personal contact details before you leave.
In return for delivering a free session, ask the organisation to write a testimonial for you.
If you’re running a free session (or a paid one, for that matter) ask people to tweet about it. And, if they take a shocking photo of you stood at the front and post it on social media, take a minute to cringe and then get over it!