I have been reflecting a lot on relationships recently and how they make or break a team and hold the space for a school’s culture and ethos to grow, learn and flourish.
Relationships in any team matter. Relationships in a school are the cogs that make the culture work. Relationships when you are values-led are even more under the spotlight of scrutiny. When relationships are strained the ethos could be shaken. It is the culture that holds the team together, the values that create the space to reflect, to discuss and to stay pointing in the same direction. Our team have started the Fierce Conversations training model, we are taking steps to connect and collaborate in a coaching culture where we communicate and challenge in a constructive and collegiate way.
Growing a team from scratch is intense: it takes a great deal of investment to establish new relationships; it takes energy to get to know one another; it takes time for team dynamics to embed. The Values-led approach has helped us to accelerate this process, but we are still in the early days of team formation.
Becoming a Headteacher both changes and enhances the relationships you have with others. The complexity of the different dynamics and the sense of trying to be everything to everyone, but feeling like you are spread too thin and letting everyone down could become quite overwhelming if not managed carefully and constantly. Being the figurehead of a school community brings with it the responsibilities of modelling the types of relationships you want to see across all of the stakeholders, but heads are humans too and we make mistakes like the next person. Our approach is also shaped by previous influences, what is trust, or support or autonomy to one person is received differently by another. Our understanding is based on context, perspective and previous experiences.
We/ I have got some things right this year, and we/I have got some things wrong. It is our learning as leaders and educators that enables us to reflect, refine, realign and recalibrate.
HR and people management are a vital part of the role of a Headteacher, but the training opportunities are few and far between. HR CPD tends to start at Deputy Headteacher level when you start your NPQH, and tends to focus more on capability and competence than performance and harmony. Reading beyond education into organisational cultures there seems to be a greater focus on structures and systems beyond the school gate that we as school leaders can draw from.
In 15 years of teaching I don’t think I have ever had any words of wisdom imparted to me about the pivotal relationships for a headteacher. So I hadn’t realised until a term in to our school opening, just how important the relationships with my PA and my SBL were going to be in keeping my head above water. I have been involved in the recruitment of teachers and leaders for most of my career so feel quite confident in this domain, but I had not really been exposed to the appointment, training and line management of operations staff before becoming a headteacher. When do we learn these softer skills as a leader?
My thoughts on who to appoint, what to look for and how to foster these relationships are shared below. I have reflected on what worked, what didn’t work and what we have learned. It is still early days but going in to our 2nd round of team members we can consciously adjust things as we scale the team up:
The relationship with your PA: When we first recruited for this role, I was advised by HR to go for the opposite of me: someone with school experience, someone who was meticulous with admin, someone who knew the lay of the land, someone who was quiet and calm, someone who would be a swan to counter balance me as a ball of energy. We had a strong field – we were down to our last 2 candidates – they were both great potential appointments. I was happy to work with either of them as I could see what they could both bring to my role, but my instinct said I needed someone to compliment my leadership style rather than contrast it, but I listened to the external advice and went with the panel’s choice. The skills were all there to support me as a new headteacher in a new role, in a new school.
A term in, we parted in mutual agreement that it was not working – she returned to her old school to a new role there. We both agreed that our working styles had not gelled, our expectations were not aligned and I felt like I was compromising my workload and my wellbeing to support someone who was still growing in confidence in the role. Line managing and performance managing a PA was totally new to me, I had made some mistakes, we had struggled to get in to a daily/ weekly groove of how we communicated and organised ourselves as a unit. Moreover, I realised that I had not looked for the qualities of resilience, confidence, ability to be proactive or use initiative at interview and it had come to light that this was more important than school-based experience.
I went back to the other candidate and had a honest conversation about the recruitment process and the opportunity, apologising for my error in judgement and for not listening to my instincts. A term in, my working patterns have been revolutionised by someone who is always one step ahead of me, whilst running behind me and catching the balls I drop along my way. My PA was a virtual administrator for a long time, she works flexible hours, she has a ‘can-do’ attitude and we talk openly about what is working and not working. She is my gatekeeper – I trust and respect her to make sound judgement calls. We jest at school about life before my PA, that is the impression and impact she has made on all of us.
The relationship with your SBL (we moved all SBMs to SBLs at our trust and they sit on our SLTs to acknowledge their vital role in the school leadership structure): Our field was really strong at application and interview, we had a talented group of experience professionals who we could all see would bring value to the school in different ways. Managing a start-up budget is not for the feint-hearted – we needed a creative thinker to make our money go as far as possible and someone with tenacity to fight our corner when needed. Moreover, I had heard testimonials from experienced headteachers that the support staff team are often the hardest group to lead change with. Fixed mindsets, traditional systems and ring fenced roles were not part of my vision for an effective and efficient school operations team. I knew I needed someone who could drive this. I was also aware that managing upwards to challenge me needed someone really confident, someone with a voice who could balance setting up the systems in a brand new school with being strategic about the longer term bigger picture.
If my PA is my sentry at the gate, then my SBL is the guard dog (not the most flattering of images but metaphorically you get what I mean). The dynamic between the two of them is also of vital importance. The 3 of us are a unit and our skills set compliment one another.
The relationship with your Site Manager: If I am honest I have always found this relationship a tricky one to manage. For most of the schools I have worked in they have been a difficult person to work with for an array of different reasons. Moreover, as a young feisty female leader my requests have not always gone down well! Especially as I have led PE, P.Arts and events/ CPD so have by default made more demands of the site team than others have. As someone who is very house-proud, this has translated into me being very ‘school-proud’ too – I am the one who sees the cracks, the chips, the litter, the rips and breakages that need addressing. I can hear them rolling their eyes as my requests come in.
From the outset I have built rapport with our site manager and we have an understanding about our direct, honest, open and transparent lines of communication. I can tell him he is being grumpy and he can tell me I am being demanding. The Fierce Conversations training for all of our staff has enabled this and I have not shied away from the difficult conversations but in return I get loyalty, respect and understanding. We have a sparring dynamic and we can laugh off what could become tension and conflict in other contexts. In different schools I have worked in the Site Manager has been line managed by different people in the Leadership Team, my SBL is responsible for this area of the school and as our team grows this is a relationship I will need to invest in and preserve from a distance, as I need to empower her.
The relationship with your DHTs: My relationship with my Headteacher when I was Deputy Headteacher was strained. I moved from being an empowered Assistant Headteacher who was trusted and respected by my then Headteacher to someone who had to prove my credentials over and over. I hated being micro managed and felt like my autonomy had been removed. I had a lack of female role models in both Leadership Teams which has most definitely influenced my leadership style. The relationships and dialogue between the male-heavy Leadership Teams I developed in were of a particular style. Moreover, I have been shaped by working in a highly successful MAT, with high performing schools, leading in very challenging schools with a focus on rapid school improvement, with rigorous systems, serving a community of high social deprivation and high staff mobility. I have spent a lot of time reflecting on where lies my authentic leadership style and how much I have inherited from my training years.
So I have made conscious decisions about the space and autonomy I give my DHTs to develop their leadership styles in their new roles and their new context. I have actively encouraged them to be outward-facing, to be governors, to develop partnerships, to find a coach and to apply for the NPQH. I have tried where possible to remove some of the barriers which stifled me. I have tried to be supportive without micromanaging, whilst still quality assuring what we do as we are setting our own standards in each new task, process and system we create. I also plan to expose them to some of the areas of Headship that you do not experience as a Deputy Headteacher. Why do we have hidden aspects of the role? There are areas of my role I could have been better prepared for had I known what I needed to know. The 3 of us are really different but our experiences, qualities, skill sets and personalities compliment one another well.
The relationship with your Governors: I have presented to Governors in previous schools, I have had link meetings re areas of responsibility, I have been a primary school Governor and Trustee to gain insight, but nothing really prepares you for the relationships you need to develop with your Governors. I found myself in the unique situation of recruiting my own interim board of community members, and supporting their transition to our new MAT structure of SSBs (School Strategy Boards). Governance within academies has additional nuances to interpret and landscapes to navigate as we also have trust members on the SSB. Agenda setting, chairing, reporting and lines of communication and accountability have needed defining and clarifying by and for all of us. There have been learning curves and pits for all of us in our first year. Our Chair and Vice Chair have spent an increasing amount of time in the school, getting to know our staff and our students, their support of our team, our community and our vision and values has been unwavering and is really appreciated. This culminated in a full day’s experience last week for them to shadow us from 8am-4pm to see what a day in the life of our school is truly like, warts and all!
The relationship with your Staff Team: Being part of a start-up school is a unique experience for all of us. The initial team is small, so relationships are intimate and intense. Whatsapp groups for the different teams have helped us to bond and stay connected. We know each other really well in some ways, but a year in still have a lot to learn about each other. We are like a family in that we have strong bonds but we are passionate and committed – we wear our hearts on our sleeves and have our tense moments too. We are conscious that as we scale up we need to try and hold on to what is working and learn from what is not working. My whole team as a Headteacher is the same size as my team as an Assistant Headteacher, but it is going to grow exponentially over the coming years. When I reference this in conversations that in 5 years’ time we will have 1650 students across two sites with staff in excess of 150 I do have to brace myself as the butterflies start flapping inside! I am grateful to have 5 years to grow in confidence and experience as we scale up together.
At the moment although we are all busy and stretched we do not have a structural hierarchy, so I am quite accessible to staff and students – my open office door feels like a bus stop most days as people pop in to see me. I don’t like things to fester and have always had the office that is dubbed the ‘crying room’ in the school as I am a ‘fixer’ and often the human sponge for the emotions that need expressing and managing.
As we move into our 2nd year and our 5 leaders, 10 teachers, 15 support staff and 120 students triples in size at our secondary site, alongside our primary school opening with our sibling team and pupil cohort I am already thinking about how I am going to manage existing relationships, whilst establishing new ones. I have started reflecting lots on is how to maintain these relationships when we scale up next year and when I am split across two sites. There is definitely a book or a blog out there I need to find and read to give me an epiphany about this as we move into year 2!
Connecting and noticing are part of the wellbeing 5 and are key to relationships and I am thinking about booking in a weekly staff clinic and also having a weekly staff coffee morning in our wellbeing room as #hotchocfri is a favourite for our students, but the staff would love it too!
The relationship with your Community Partners: No-one warned me about the onslaught of introductions, the invites and the initiations of collaborations. As a new headteacher, in a new Trust, in a new community, in a new region this is the hardest bit of the job in some ways as there is not a directory nor a route map of who is who! I am really mindful that I do not want to snub anyone unconsciously when we invite people to events or when the school is invited to send a representative to a local event. The 20+ invites from local church leaders was a diary nightmare in term 1, but we have tried to box clever and create community meetings and tours to collapse invites into different groups. My protocol is to arrange a meeting at school, arrange a tour, invite our guests for family dining or a coffee and a chat, but this is time consuming to say the least. My social life has changed quite a lot as I find myself as local business awards and church celebrations!
The relationship with your Students and your Parents/ Carers are a given but I have already written too much so that can be part 2 of the blog on a later date. I also want to reflect on we communicate across our Trust as those relationships are vital to our success too. I am also thinking of a follow up blog on Communication Matters as we are working on a Communication Strategy to streamline what we communicate, to who, when and by whom.
Hannah, The Hopeful Headteacher
Currently feeling hopeful about:
- The relationships we are fostering with our new team members and how we will develop these relationships across 2 schools next year.
- I am presenting at the Ambition School Leadership women only NPQH launch this week and will try to distill some of my learning and reflections to that audience.
Currently reading and thinking about:
- I have followed some of Rob Loe’s research into Relational Schools via Helena Marsh’s involvement. I delved into the website but need to read the book and will look into attending some of their training.
- Dr Neil Hawkes in From the Heart talks about a “hierarchy of roles not relationships” in values-led schools and this really resonated with me. As our team grows I wonder how sustainable across two large schools that operate as siblings.
- Paul Dix in When the Adult Changes talks a lot about investing in the adult-student relationships in the school – we have considered how to apply this learning with regard to our students, but I need to revisit it to consider it within the context of adult-adult relationships.
- Andy Buck’s brand and focus is on Leadership Matters and for me Relationships and Communication Matters because they are at the heart of our core business as Leaders.
Currently feeling grateful for:
- In #WomenEd we ban the phrase “I feel lucky” because we make our own luck – I do feel lucky to have such a fantastic support network around me and to have recruited such a brilliant team at Aureus. I am grateful for how invested the team are in our shared vision, values and goals.