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How to fast-track to senior leadership

What you need to know to lead a school.

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What you need to know to lead a school.

The teaching profession has become increasingly uncertain in 2020. We asked for the world from teachers during the pandemic lockdown, especially when teaching is already an occupation that causes disproportionate levels of stress. Now entire structures of education are being questioned. Wales just scrapped their participation in GCSE, AS and A-level; entire schools have migrated onto online platforms, and edtech has become an even hotter topic in education. We’ve realized that there needs to be a change, and it needs to come from the top down. 

If you’re a teacher who is wondering how you can become part of that change, we’ve got you covered. Teacherly interviewed an incredible headteacher, Simon Uttley, for our Teacherly Stories series. Simon has been a headteacher for sixteen years; he has taught for over twenty years, and is a course leader and professor for several universities. He is also a University of Oxford alumnus and an Executive School Leader, as well as being Chair of the Bishop’s Steering Group for Education. 

Simon went from being a first-time teacher to a headteacher within seven years. If you’re like him and have a strong sense that you want to lead a school, there are some good habits and practices to know. During our interview, I asked Simon about what aspiring senior leaders can do to accelerate their careers, and he gave some amazing insights. 

  1. Find a good mentor.

One of the most important aspects of acceleration in any career is mentorship and career networking. Simon suggested you look into your own school for your mentor first, but not to give up if you don’t find the right person there.

“There are some people who are very successful but don’t know how to mentor, so be sure to find someone who will coach you rather than simply telling you what they’ve done… Even if they don’t know you, most good people will be willing to give you a half hour of their time to start that conversation…  A good mentor will tell you what your strengths are and what you need to work on, but you need to be the one to take that first step and ask. You can’t wait around for it to be offered to you.” 

Reaching out to someone in a leadership role is crucial to learning what it means for you to be in that role yourself. A mentor will help you learn what will be expected of you, and how to develop the skills you need to do the job well. It is also important to be assertive and ask people for what you want. Being shy or too humble can only slow you down.

  1. Start your own initiatives & projects.

It is important that you make yourself stand out in your own school and innovate. Ask yourself how you can make your school better, then go out and do it. This practice will help you develop the skills you need to be a great leader, and it will also demonstrate your eagerness to the existing administration. Simon gave some examples of what you might try. “You can do things like begin a programme in something you’re passionate about, or do some research and create a project or a paper and submit it to your school.”

It is essential that you have confidence in your own leadership abilities. You might be a new teacher who thinks it’s too early to start making changes in your school, but Simon was able to accelerate his career from NQT to headteacher in just seven years. Take those initiatives right away, and don’t be afraid of failure. If you apply for something and don’t get it, learn why you didn’t get it and keep trying. If a big project flops, figure out how you can improve it. 

If you want to read about another inspirational teacher who has taken huge initiatives in her school, check out this story with Pranti Zaveri.

  1. Don’t wait to be invited to do extras, get started now.

Simon stressed the importance of innovation but also initiative. “Don’t wait to be asked to do extras because you might be waiting for a while, and don’t wait to be paid more for them, because you might be waiting even longer.” Leadership will not always invite you to take on extra responsibilities, or offer you new roles. You have to carve out those roles for yourself. If your school doesn’t have a film club but you want to pass on your filmmaking passion to students, draft a proposal for your administration. Create your own opportunities to develop professionally, and invite other teachers to work with you.

  1. Be a great teacher. 

It goes without saying, but a great headteacher needs to be a great teacher first, in order to understand how to foster great teaching in their school and coach new teachers. But what does a great teacher look like to someone like Simon?

“What I look for in a fantastic teacher is someone who can immediately engage a young person in the experience of the subject. I want to have a sense of what drove the teacher to that subject and I want to know that he or she will be relentless in pushing and encouraging the student to do more than he or she ever expected… On top of having vertical expertise, a good teacher will be able to think laterally and draw in other subjects, current affairs, and cultural capital. What does my subject say about the modern world and how does the world impact my subject?”

He also spoke about the importance of forming relationships with young people and helping them overcome obstacles in their learning: whether these were learning difficulties or personal issues. The first step to being a headteacher is being an excellent teacher, which means understanding and encouraging students. 

  1. The number one secret to a headteacher’s success: other people’s strengths.

Some people think leadership is about being the most distinguished or knowledgeable person in the room. But Simon let us in on the number one secret to being a great leader.

“Being a leader in any kind of institution doesn’t mean you know everything or have all the answers. It’s important to be knowledgeable, but it’s even more important to recognize the strengths of the people around you. In my opinion, the biggest job of a headteacher is to appoint fantastic people and retain them. If you do that then you’ll have a fantastic environment for the young people you’re serving and also for the staff.”

Being a great leader is all about understanding other people and finding their strengths. While you are improving yourself professionally, innovating and taking initiative, you also need to cultivate an understanding of other people’s strengths. Admitting that someone else is better than you at something and encouraging them to grow is a difficult but essential part of leadership. Recognize the strengths of your team and figure out how to collaborate to reach greater success for everyone.

Becoming a senior leader is hard; it takes a lot of work and humility. No matter how fresh you are into teaching, if you have the motivation and drive to succeed, it is possible to accelerate your career and lead a school. In these uncertain times, we need great leaders more than ever. If you want to learn more about how leaders are redefining their roles in 2020 check out this blog post.

If you want to read more about Simon’s journey, including his thoughts on edtech and the future of education in light of COVID, you can read his story here. If you’re interested in telling your educational story on the next Teacherly Stories, feel free to reach out to me at [email protected]

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