I often ask aspiring leaders to consider what successful leadership looks like: “Think of the best leader you’ve ever worked with. Suggest three reasons why their face or name is the one in your head right now.”
This leads to a discussion of the group’s corporate understanding of what the most effective leaders do, and what they are. It connects to the kind of leader they one day aspire to be.
Words such as ‘visible’, ‘approachable’ and ‘accessible’ always feature. In my experience, those we lead connect those characteristics with leaders who are aware; who know well, understand and value those within their teams. Aspiring heads invariably reassure me of their commitment to becoming a visible school leader.
While I agree with the importance of visibility, I’d suggest that this can be more problematic than we realise. As a head – particularly a new head – you’ll perhaps be busier than you’ve ever been before. With all those appointments, meetings, emails and phone calls, it’s easier to become trapped in your office than you might think. Getting out and about as much as you wish to can be difficult, and you need strategies to ensure it happens.
I’d venture that teaching is important for heads; for your understanding and credibility, to help build relationships and to reinforce the central importance of what our schools are all about. You shouldn’t, however, teach simply because you enjoy it and would miss it. This is self-indulgent. You’re an expensive teacher, and there may be far more talented teachers on your staff!
If classes you teach suffer because you’re frequently out of school, that’s unacceptable. You certainly shouldn’t teach because the classroom is an escape from some of the challenges of headship. But teaching will ensure you’re visible, and give you opportunities to establish positive relationships with individual pupils.
Cover and duties
Another way of getting into classrooms is by providing cover for absent colleagues. This will let you learn more about the school, get to know pupils and support your staff.
Doing a regular duty around the school will also get you out and about, giving you the chance to chat informally to pupils, support and teaching staff and other visitors. Choose a duty where the head’s presence is powerful. Many heads will ensure they’re out and about at the start and end of every school day – if you can, plan this into your diary.
Supporting and involving yourself in activities builds your knowledge of the wider life of the school, bringing you into contact with more pupils, staff and parents. It shows your interest in, and appreciation of, all members of the school community and what they contribute beyond the classroom.
Lunch and walkabouts
Having lunch in the school dining hall each day, sitting with different groups and talking about things often not school-related is a good way of getting to know individuals as people, not just as colleagues or learners.
Visiting lessons, calling in at different events and being present in the school is time well spent, but you need to work with whoever is managing your diary to ensure this time is scheduled in (and sacrosanct!) Otherwise, even with the best of intentions, it may not happen.
Being a visible head can be a challenge. But it’s worth it!
Jill Berry is a leadership consultant, author and former headteacher.