I’ve found that being a young, black, female headteacher is inspiring for many, but a massive problem for others. I was 31 when I first became an acting headteacher, and assumed my first official headship before my 32nd birthday. The individuals who appointed me agreed I was the right person for the job, and had every faith that my leadership capabilities would take the school from strength to strength. Headship was a goal I’d been working towards for 13 years, and I felt ready to implement the vision I had for the school community.
I worked tirelessly to ensure the school ran smoothly. I put purposeful structures in place, co-created a relevant and personalised curriculum for my pupils and established a diverse team. Most importantly, I created a working environment that was productive, supportive, happy and safe for all.
The naive and trusting part of me felt that I was on a smooth road to further success, but I soon discovered how a series of external factors would start to cause me internal problems.
Some people had a problem with my headship. The most significant of these encounters was when I introduced myself as head to an individual visiting the school. Her response was to say, in a patronising and dismissive tone, “You’re the head?” She quickly released her hand from our handshake and proceeded to look me up and down. This was the first time we’d spoken, and I didn’t expect such a disrespectful comment. Whether it was because I was young, black or female that caused her to react that way, I’ll never know – but there was obviously something this person decided they didn’t like about me from the moment they saw my face.
Disappointingly, I can recall further incidents like this – occasions when I’d be ignored at meetings or conferences, overlooked or asked to speak like my white colleagues. I’ve had experiences of being deliberately undermined, amid indirect references to my age. I still remember the parent who requested a meeting because I wore trousers instead of skirts, as there were boys in the school. (In case anyone’s wondering, my skirts have always been knee length or longer!)
I allowed these negative external encounters to destroy my confidence and cause me to question my capabilities. Fortunately, I can now recognise that they weren’t my problems to own, but rather problems to challenge and address – sometimes with the help of networks such as #WomenEd, #BameEd, #DiversityEd and #iamhereweseeyou, which are all working to challenge systematic injustices.
However, I can also point to many positive experiences I’ve had as a young head, alongside people who acknowledged my age, race and gender, but didn’t allow this to influence how they treated me – a testament to the many wonderful individuals who work in education. There was my executive lead, for example, my ‘on call’ person who could always give me the best guidance with anything I needed advice on. The highly supportive working environment this created enabled me to develop my confidence in my role.
I’m now 35, and would still classify myself as a ‘young’ head. My advice to other young headteachers is to never let someone else’s ‘personal problems’ make you question your ability to do the job. Be reflective, and refuse to be arrogant. Speak out against mistreatment and surround yourself with a supportive network. Be proactive in broadening your knowledge and skills, and walk confidently in your own shoes.
Nadine Bernard is a primary headteacher, facilitator and executive coach