New head teachers find themselves at an exciting moment in their careers. In some ways it feels like the pinnacle of many years of hard work. In other ways it feels like the start of something new, fresh, challenging and rewarding.
Ask any prospective head at interview: “do you feel ready to take on the challenges of your first headship?” and the answer is likely to be a resounding yes. But ask that same question in private, and the head may not be as confident or certain about what this new role entails.
We are strong advocates of ensuring that new heads (and all heads) are given the best chance of settling into their roles and becoming great heads. And increasingly, the evidence is showing that coaching can play a significant role in helping the new in post head teacher.
How to work out what to focus on, as a new head
I asked a group of 100 heads whether they had Googled “top tips for new head teachers?” and many said that they had. It’s fascinating to see the advice out there – there is lots of it, and often one piece of advice contradicts the next one.
“Make an early impression” —— “Wait before you make big decisions”
“Change is important” —— “Stability is important”
“Talk to everyone” —— “Don’t be too available”.
You get the idea.
How do head teachers work out what to focus on? Many will be prepared, having completed their NPQH or equivalent training. Many would have been asking their colleagues and friends who are already heads for ideas and tips. And some may be given a mentor to start them off. Whichever the case, ultimately the new head has to work out for themselves what to focus on. And it is a delicate balance between wanting to bring in their own ideas, whilst respecting all the good stuff that is going on in the school they are taking over.
Coaching can be incredibly helpful at this stage. It provides the head with the opportunity to sift through all the ideas – both their own and the ones presented to them by others. In the quiet and safe space of the coaching environment, the head will have the opportunity to hear their own thoughts. And to come to their own conclusions.
Adjusting to receiving limited support, as a head.
Until the moment that a teacher becomes a head teacher, there will have been a support structure in place for them.
A line manager to draw on for advice or feedback. A peer in the department who is facing the same challenges. Or a peer doing the same job in a different department who is working through similar systems.
But this all stops when they become a head teacher. Although the head does have someone to report to – the chair of governors – it is a very different relationship to get used to. Generally, the chair of governors does not play a hands on role and is not available for exploring of the daily challenges that the head has to deal with.
Suddenly, our head finds themselves with less support than when they were a deputy. And it is likely that the head won’t want to share their worries, their vulnerabilities and their “I’m not sure if I can do this” thoughts with others. Not with their chair of governors. Not with their deputies. And not with their peers in the school down the road.
This is another area where coaching can provide a great deal of support. The head can explore their concerns about their own leadership capability in the coaching environment. They will be able to share their own thoughts, work through the issues, and will be able to see a way forward.
Heads we coach and have interviewed report this as being the single most important aspect of coaching – to be able to explore their own thoughts with someone who is outside of the system.
Heads receiving coaching – a sign of strength, not of weakness
“A sign of being a strong leader is being open to working on ourselves, in coaching and other supportive environments.” Jonathan Brough, Headmaster, St. Swithuns.
Jonathan said this at the end of our coach training programme, where he and others have learned advanced coaching skills. He is clear that a head needs to carry on working on him or herself. And we agree.
Most heads don’t just bring problems to coaching. They bring positive things to work on too. It is not unusual to have coaching sessions with heads that focus on vision, values, change projects, empowering others and similar positive topics.
But also, there is nothing wrong with heads bringing their worries, anxieties and doubts to coaching. That way, they are able to work on these areas privately, and then take their new ideas and new ways of thinking back to school.
A right not a privilege.
An under acknowledged truth is that running a school is an incredibly hard job. During the pandemic it has become even harder. The mountain of information, the myriad relationships, the diplomacy, leadership and juggling acts that heads have to navigate are mind boggling to the rest of us. Often heads report that the role that they are doing is not what they have spent their career learning how to do.
Of course, heads can go and learn the technical skills of managing budgets and large-scale projects, of wowing an audience with their speeches and negotiating hard with their stakeholders. These are clear, learnable skills.
And to support the learning, coaching has a vital role to play. The technically competent public speaker may still have nerves and would appreciate coaching to overcome them. The action-oriented head may appreciate time to explore how to be more strategic and set long term goals for the school. And so on.
Time for coaching, for all new heads
Since 2020 we have been working with the Independent Association of Prep Schools (IAPS), helping them ensure that all new head teachers receive coaching for their first year in post. We are training the coaches – who are themselves serving heads – and IAPS is matching coach to head teacher.
The feedback is incredibly strong, with the 42 head teachers involved describing their coaching in terms like:
Can’t imagine getting through the first year without it
“All new heads, at interview stage, should be enquiring about the coaching arrangements in place for them, if they are offered the post. It is so important and makes such a difference.” Julie Robinson, CEO Independent Schools Council.
There is much talk about wellbeing, about teacher and leader burnout, and about the scarcity of new potential head teachers coming through the pipeline. Coaching doesn’t solve every problem, but it can certainly have a significant impact. For the new head, for the school employing them, and for all the staff.