Thursday, January 25, 2007

[headmastership] how you change over time

You might like to picture this: you’ve just been confirmed as the new headmaster of a minor but geographically significant school, with a century of tradition. Apparently appointed for your vision and your blend of youth and experience, the chairman invites you into the boardroom with an extended hand and says: “Welcome aboard.” A glass is put into your hand and you feel both honoured and awed by the task ahead.

What happens to you over time?

1] You learn to take nothing on trust once you’ve been burnt a few times. Pretty women cut no ice. Respectable, suited businessmen cut no ice. The pretty little girl in tears could easily be acting. You reject stereotypes, such as the community leader who must be a fine character by definition and you often find the opposite. Often, the higher you go, the greater the dirt. However, your default demeanour is always friendly and gentlemanly, especially to your rivals. It’s just that you take much of what they say with a grain of salt.

2] Whatever ability you had to judge character reaches a much higher plane with experience. Every day, in all situations, your judgement is being called on to sort out a dispute, approve a contract and so on. After all the early mistakes, you do it better. You develop little rules which sound crazy but nevertheless work, e.g. never employ a woman who wears denim to an interview, has piercing or is a religious nut.

3] You begin to be ruled by the schedule and you reach the delegation watershed – either you delegate to trusted subordinates or you go out of your mind. You accept, to a certain percentage factor that they’ll always either let you down or not understand but you never hold it against them or write it down. You never hold grudges.

4] You try to keep the working day below about 15 or 16 hours and schedule in blank spaces – very vital. You either take care of your family or divorce. Twenty minute rest periods are fiercely protected by the secretary and you emerge refreshed. You either love your community or you must get out. The stress is too great otherwise. You learn to pace yourself and never regret if something wasn’t done today. Do it tomorrow morning.

5] You learn to get out of the office and interact with all sections of the community, from the maintenance man to the littlest child. You know each of their particular problems and follow them up. If the cook’s away, you step in [also saving money]. If the drain’s blocked and you’re right on hand, you put on gloves and clear it.

6] You take on the coaching of one of the underage sports teams and do the same training you require of them [almost]. Saves gym fees and gets you fit and out in the open air. You eat properly and when you forget, your wife or secretary doesn’t. You follow doctor’s orders instead of being a hero.

7] Your mind starts to compartmentalize. In any one hour, you might have to discipline a recalcitrant student, greet local dignitaries Mr. and Mrs. Patel and their son as they seek to enrol him, then perhaps you’ll hear the complaint of one teacher about another, then it’s off to the Heads Association luncheon and so on.

8] You quickly learn your own limitations, both character-wise and capacity-wise and all your flaws are thrown into sharp relief, for all to see. One of mine was the tendency to let things slide, to gather data and advice first and to stew over it before acting, even if some saw this as dithering.

9] You learn to break the incident-reaction-regret cycle. Remove the immediate danger and schedule a time for the matter to be heard, with no snide remarks whatsoever in the meantime. This was particularly important for me because one of my failings is that I don’t suffer fools gladly and my tongue is too sharp.

10] You can’t afford the slightest whiff of scandal or your school will be empty by next morning. Reputation becomes everything and the greatest crime, the greatest enemy, is ‘drama’. You’ll hear out a teacher who’s complaining about some child and then reply: ‘That may well be so but I see more drama coming out of your class since your appointment here than all the other classes combined.’ This is the only time you react swiftly and nip the trouble in the bud, before it damages the community and by association, yourself.

11] You become implacable and a certain steel enters your soul. Once a decision is made, you never go back on it or regret it, if it’s originally been thought through. You fire after two warnings, without regret. Once the dead wood’s been cut away, soon everything falls into place and people know where they are. Your loyalty is to all those dependent on you and you brook no attack on those people.

12] Despite all this, there eventually comes a time when the cumulative effect of the stress makes you less efficient or gets you bogged down and you have to know when to let go, to hand over the reins and seek new horizons. Otherwise you become a cynical, unpleasant shell, have a heart attack or both. Mental health is everything, otherwise you can’t operate. Soldiering on is stupid in this game because you’re short-changing your dependents.


Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Er - am I reading too much into this or are you tiring of being our Head on Blogpower? Please don't! We all love you, James.

james higham said...

There are parallels but really, I just started reflecting on my Head days and thought it might make a post.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Oh, good! Great post, anyway.

Martin said...


Me old dad was a primary school HT for 23 years, in a part of the East End of Glasgow where everyone knows the drugs have arrived when the dealer puts a child's windmill in their window.

The principles of headmastership appear to be the seem the world over; or as Robert Mitchum remarks in Anzio, 'Nothing changes except the uniforms and the transportation'.