Confessions of a primary headteacher: We carry our experience scars with us

By Brian Walton 

The art of school leadership: confessions of a primary school headteacher and blogger Brian Walton (a.k.a @OldPrimaryHead1). Why you shouldn't lead a school on experience alone, learning from your mistakes, harnessing your experience in the context of your school and asking 'how am I making it better?'

"Wisdom: the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgement; the quality of being wise."

When I became a teacher the first piece of advice I remember my ‘headmaster’ giving me was, “Do two years here and move on

This was not some sort of harsh performance management procedure; it was his way of telling me that experience is the perfect partner when working in education, that exposure to new situations and how we adapt to them helps make us better teachers. 

In my 22 years in education I have found this to be true. In fact I have discovered that it is the ‘experience scars’ from the mistakes I have made over the years that have helped me grow, develop and find new skills alongside the many challenges that school leadership has to offer. 

What I didn’t see until recently though is how those ‘experience scars’ leave criss-crossed inscriptions of doubt across our minds. They leave unpleasant memories and create fears; like a bad tooth, there are some places that experience tells us not to touch.

When I got my third headship I remember being confident that my experiences would hold me in good stead to face the many challenges my new school would bring. I believed that this chapter in my profession was the one in which I, the sage and prudent head, would use my gathered wisdom to cut through the wasted fat and grizzle that clogged up so many schools. 

I believed that my hard-won principles and years of accumulated knowledge would lead to even greater success. How wrong I was. It seemed that I had learnt nothing.

The role of the headteacher

The headteacher is akin to the navigator upon an ancient seafaring vessel trying to decode the sun-shadow board as the clouds gather; or translate the colour of the sea and the direction the wind is blowing. 

Leading is an art and a craft and the first lesson is this - it is only through using the wisdom you have gathered that you can make it through without sinking to the bottom of the ocean.
My first headship had been a lightbulb headship. It was sharp, bright and full of energy. I was a bolt of static energy. I was fearless, quick and able to believe that I had changed everything I touched in a blink of an eye. I never looked back to see what really happened. I rarely paused. I remember a teacher turning to me once and saying, “Brian… Breathe!”

Once the light was shining on something I was off to brighten some other poor mug’s corner. I was able to do this because I had no idea how to do it any differently.

Taking risks

I had a few role models and mentors who I looked up to but once I was in the driving seat and things seemed to be moving along smoothly  I choose not to listen to them. I was creating my own voices. How I didn’t spontaneously combust is one of leadership’s great mysteries and a small miracle.

I remember my first ever headteachers conference. I had been asked to speak as a new head to the city. I stood in front of well over 100 very difficult to read faces and delivered a short talk which I had called ‘When Does a New Head Become an Old Head?’ (The genesis of my twitter handle @OldPrimaryHead)

I was 33 at the time. I stood at the side of the room listening to the introduction they gave me. I was pretty full of myself back then but deep down I was terrified. Ten minutes beforehand I had chased down a terrier of a School Improvement Officer because I planned to include a swear word in my speech much to the shock of fellow heads.

I found my School Improvement Officer holding court in a corner of the Travelodge.

Yes Brian?

I’m going to swear in my speech

Why?

I gave her the context: I wanted to tell the story about a rude East End coach driver and how, in my last school, he had upset one of my teachers. In an attempt to sound tough I’d asked him “Has anyone ever told you that you are a very rude man?” and he’d quickly replied, “Has anyone ever told you what a wanker you are?” 

My School Improvement Officer’s response was just what I needed: “Brian, if it is in context you have nothing to worry about.

So, there it was. I didn’t play it safe, I swore, got a few laughs and felt good. 

My early headship was a lot like this. Taking risks where I knew little about the actual consequences of getting it wrong. In fact I never thought I would ever get it wrong. I got burnt a few times but pure energy carried my through.

Experience alone is not enough

What was unknown to me at the time was that the SIO gave me one of my first lessons in leadership. 

"Experiences alone are not enough… we need to know how to put our experiences into context."

Schools are context rich places. You walk through the many twisting alleys and streets picking up the sounds (and often the smells) as the multitude go about their daily lives. Laughter mingles with the calls to knowledge and you read a thousand expressions as they flit across the familiar visitors to this strange city.

How you use your experiences to pave the promenades of the school without digging up its history or destroying its geography is a fine art. No one person can do it well. 

It is why headteachers with no teaching experience concern me greatly. 

You need to be able to take your experiences and understand the context in which you apply it. 

Leadership alone is not enough. A life in business is not enough. I slowly learnt this mistake in my time as a leader, as I bumbled through situations – often getting it right through luck or pure will. Picking myself up and licking the wounds as a crisis became a disaster, I learnt that I needed to remember what it was like to be a teacher or what it was like to be a child. 

More accurately, I applied my experiences to tell me what it was like to be a teacher in this school…what is it like to be a child in this class? Experience percolated with context. And I always ask myself the same question: How am I making it better? 

It can be a slow process. It can take time. I run my fingers over the many scars and I ask if I am not making it better…What am I doing?

On the author

Brian Walton is a primary headteacher and secondary school governer. He tweets at (and is better known as) @OldPrimaryHead1 and blogs from his website www.oldprimaryhead.com.

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