It’s that time of year again, July draws to a close and though we plan August, we inevitably start to think about September. We contemplate new positions and, as is only natural, we seek advice from those already in that position. I’ve been fortunate enough to have four years in my first headship position now and I always read those ‘new to headship’ advice columns with a wry smile. Of course get to know your school, yep, you need to build your team. Spend time in the classroom – every classroom -and naturally ask questions of your governors. And do all of this at a slow pace. No point at all in rushing. All of this seems to make sense. One thing often overlooked is the importance of a mentor.
I have always sought out mentors. And I’ve always asked, using that language, if someone will mentor me. I don’t always connect them with my current role but they are always people think differently to me – have a different outlook or a different attitude. To that end I think you should search out your own mentor as a new head. I don’t think using your own previous headteacher would work, as the chances are you have already learnt their mannerisms and know their advice automatically. They may also be super busy, and you need people who can commit to a regular time and don’t clock watch too much.
As a new head, ask your governors to shortlist people who may be able to help. Work out what your needs as a mentee are – do you want someone with precious experience in the role? Someone who can offer specific experience -e.g. financial aspect or local knowledge. Perhaps you know someone who you think would be perfect already? In which case ensure that it is a formal arrangement – it can’t just be a friendly chat. You need to feel safe, and feel that you are supported.
- Set a regular time to meet
- Discuss boundaries with phone calls (or ’emergencies’)
- Make sure they have the time- this is often what goes wrong with full time Headteachers.
- Make your expectations clear – have you identified an area of your role that you are not as confident with?
- Protect the mentoring time – no matter how busy you are. You need at least half an hour, and it can be via the phone.
On a more personal note, my mentor sadly passed away this year. It caused me to reflect both professionally and personally on the gains from this relationship and just how fortunate I was to find such a brilliant influence on, not just my career, but my life as a Headteacher. An exceptionally calm and stabilising influence – able to condense experience into optimistic advice which made sense, not just soundbites and platitudes. Not necessarily someone who everyone agreed with, but principled and with a long view who could bring things into perspective when needed.
I identified that my need would be more about my own reaction to adversity – I needed a calm and experienced voice who would help me to realise that what I was tackling was, usually, nothing out of the ordinary. I didn’t need someone to remind me to check data; to ensure the website was Ofsted compliant or that progress was good. I was doing all that to myself already. Looking back at my first couple of years as a Headteacher I realise just how important that calm voice was. Our regular meetings (no matter what else I was dealing with) were incredibly supportive and, importantly, made me realise that I had to look after myself.
It is hard in our profession to make space and time to reflect, especially with another, just as dedicated, professional, but it is a habit worth forming.