As today is my first day of summer holiday, I thought I’d share some reflections & lessons from my first year as Assistant Headteacher.

I’ve absolutely loved this year and moving into AHT for T&L/CPD and our Research School was a dream role come true. I don’t usually write blogs like this, they are bloody hard, but I thought I’d give 10 things I’ve learnt*.

  1. Nothing really prepares you for it 

Like many new leaders, I tried to do extensive preparation for the role by devouring as many books and blogs as possible (shouts to Didau, Myatt, Tait and ResearchEd here), or talking to existing senior leaders for advice. However, like when you have your first child, no amount of reading (or NCT sessions) prepares you for the realities of the job. During the first term, I essentially played SLT Bingo with all of the things that came up, probably getting a full house within 3 weeks.

The learning curve is incredibly steep and there are so many things that I’ve had to pick up which have been outside of my role or school experience, particularly pastoral leadership or HR questions. This comes as an aside to learning your own role and getting to grips with school improvement on scale.
I’ve been lucky that I can draw on a brilliant team (and friendship circle) for advice during this hectic year, without them I would have certainly drowned.

2. Own your mistakes 

“Mistakes, I’ve made a few” is the first thing that springs to mind when I write this bit, as this year has been full of mistakes. Be this from missing meetings, miscommunication, leaving things too late, poor scheduling…the list goes on and on. At points I did think, am I getting anything right this week?

Now I accept that part of any role is making mistakes, but I believe that real authentic leadership requires you to own these mistakes, show humility – you should acknowledge if you made a mistake. Blame culture is toxic.

Jamie Thom talks about learning from your mistakes and using them positively to move forward and this is something I’ve tried to take on this year. I’ve tried to be open on how I’ve learnt from them and what we’ll do next time, and I tried to communicate this to our Subject Leaders and teaching staff. For example, when planning our 2022-23 CPD calendar, I referred to the mistakes from this year & highlighted how we’ll further reduce pinch points for teachers.

As a teacher I think it’s important to model this to students too, and to apologise to them if you’ve made mistakes – which I’ve had to do this year. We should never believe we are above doing this.

3. Don’t forget what makes you happy

Becoming an Assistant Head meant leaving behind two roles that I loved deeply, being Head of History and a Year 8 form tutor.

Whilst I’ll admit my focus on history teaching has taken a backseat in parts this year (goal for 2022-23) but I’ve really prioritised providing pastoral support to our students. Working with our young adults, through the highs and lows, and building relationships is up there as one of the most rewarding parts of my job, and I’m lucky to have a timetable which allows me to continue this.

This year I’ve had a small cohort of students who I’ve put a significant time into helping and mentoring to get them through the year. Whilst they’ve caused me a lot of headaches, the progress they’ve made throughout the year will be one of the bright spots of the year. I’m ending this summer term as one proud teacher – it’s that magic moment when you see someone reaching their potential. It’s why I became a teacher, and what I always say when they ask “Why do you put up with us sir?

They probably don’t know it, but they’ve likely saved my sanity at times when I’ve struggled with the job, they helped me through the year. So thanks to them – the legends.

4. Over-Communicate 

You simply can’t communicate enough with your teams – give them fair warning, then repeat it, often.

Of course, if you can fit it into a one-pager, even better (We have a slight obsession with them at MCHS)

5. Be present

One of the things that I’ve always loved about our school is how visible leadership were, and it was something I really respected as a teacher. This is something I’ve tried to do this year, whether being on duty as much as possible, attending events, walking the corridors, covering lessons and being out and about to talk to staff & students. Be available to help when you can and check in on your staff, this means listening’

Model the culture you want to create.

This is certainly an area I need to work on, as there are still times when I’ve had to prioritise getting work done. The juxtaposition between the two guilts is real – workload vs culture!  

6. Accept you’ll not get it all done 

This was one the first bits of advice from my predecessor “you’ll get nothing done some days”, and at the time I didn’t fully realise how true this was. There are days when things happen that completely derail what you had planned to do, and you are left doing it in the evenings or early mornings to catch up. This is something that I’ve found particularly hard to manage at points but I’ve slowly become to accept that you can only do what you can.

Gandalf – ‘All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

My colleague Beth really rates the Middle Leader Mastery section on Wellbeing which really resonates with the above – the book itself is a great read for all leaders.

This said. I 100% need to work on being better organised, and the first step has been getting this beauty early in summer & planning things out for the next academic year.

7. Imposter syndrome is real 

I’d not really come across the term Imposter Syndrome until reading my friend Rachels blog, and it was not until this year that really began empathise with what she’d written.

The amount of times I’ve said to myself “What am I doing here?” or “I have no idea how I got this” this year is crazy. I’m under the impression that this goes away over time but it’s unsettling. I think I’m always aware of being a walking talking version of the dubbing Kruger effect

In moments of despair I do return to my colleague Helen’s point “you are here instead everyone else who applied for a reason

8. Accept you don’t know it all

This kind of follows on from my previous point about nothing prepares you for the role. This is the first time where people have come to me for the final decision on things, or the answer to questions that I have zero idea about – it can be nerve-wracking as you feel obliged to know the right thing to do at a member of SLT.

I think my most commonly used sentence this year has been ‘let me get back to you‘ – acknowledge if you don’t know the answer/solution, find out & follow up, learn for next time & get back to them quickly.

Lead on others for support & advice, and this means anyone in school.

When you join the Senior Leadership team you aren’t magically ‘there’ or anywhere near the finished article, I’ve found huge gaps in my experience and expertise have arisen very quickly. What I have tried to do though is build as much knowledge and experience as possible to overcome the ‘I don’t know’, be this through shadowing our curriculum/data leads, reading Huh to improve line managing subjects out of my domain or networking with other AHTs to find solutions. Professional development certainly never ends, and it’s been an enjoyable experience this first year.

9. Take the small wins

Whilst it can often feel like leading whole school improvement can be like turning a container ship, with no discernible ‘progress’ despite your herculean efforts, do take time to relish the small victories within your working day. Be this the number of students who reply to your “good morning!” on a soggy Monday in February, the first time you spot a member of staff using the CPD library or when you hear some choral response as you pass a classroom, a week after your T&L session.

Alongside this, acknowledge the successes for those in your team & school. Praise often

10. Systems not goals

As James Clear says, its the systems that are best for making progress.

As a Research School, one of the big things we have is ‘Implementation Matters’, which we’ve effectively robbed from the EEF. This all relates to the guidance around effective implantation of change within schools. The guidance report, which is the bible of our middle and senior leaders effecting change, had been incredibly useful in my first attempts at leading whole school change.

Any of the successes I’ve had this year have largely been down to following this model, whether it’s introducing our new QA process or A Strong Start as our lesson entry routine.

They key part is dedicating time in the explore and prepare phase, essentially preparing the garden for your seedling.

As an additional point, this needs to come with the acknowledgement that a variety of things haven’t gone as smoothly as possible, but it’s learning from this and not repeating those mistakes.

Bonus – Look after yourself 

It’s no coincidence that the year I start as AHT and we have our second child that the grey hairs have begun to appear alongside the slow recede of my hairline – this has been accompanied by having around 789 colds, alongside the joy of Covid and bouts of anxiety. Man this year has been tough

My wife has always warned me of my potential for burnout and this year I’ve tried to take better steps to look after myself:

  • Minimal work at the weekends
  • Running 2-3 times a week
  • Ringfencing time with my wife & daughters
  • Eating healthier & fasting to reduce binge eating in the evenings (I’ve lost 2 stone this year!!)
  • Continuing to socialise with staff (There is no ‘us and them’ rubbish)
  • Attending family events e.g. daughters first day at school and sports day (my school actively encourages this)

A lot of these small improvements has been down to reading Atomic Habits last summer, which has transformed how I’ve tried to take control of my work/life balance.

I’m still not fully there will wellbeing and I for sure burnt out at times this year. Lessons learned.

Thanks for reading – if you got this far!

*Apologies for any typos, I wrote this whilst on daddy daycare duty with my wild youngest child.