Saturday, January 2, 2010

School Heads - a bane or a blessing?

In my twenty years as a secondary school teacher, I've worked under five different Heads, and all of them except one (who left after I'd been at the school for only one term!) have most definitely been a bane. The problems I've encountered with Heads seem to be very widespread, according to what I hear from fellow teachers. Why is this so? What is it that seems to lead, almost inevitably, to Heads behaving like petty dictators, who can't tolerate an ounce of criticism and – at the first sign of such - like a painter with his canvas 'brush out what they don't want to see'. (from my book It's a Teacher's Life!)

What leads to Heads being apparently bereft of moral conscience, treating teachers (and sometimes parents as well) without compassion, destroying their self-esteem, and putting ever-increasing workloads on their shoulders through crisis management and a total inability to plan effectively and organise themselves and their resources efficiently?

In the U.K., the board of governors of each school is responsible for appointing a new Head and from my personal experience, they frequently do a bad job! Perhaps because they believe they know best and won't see behind the facade that a candidate puts up (despite the advice of an experienced, outgoing Head); or perhaps because the majority of governors aren't teachers and have no real idea what teaching is all about; or perhaps they just choose someone to fill the post, whether the person is suitable or not, because they can't face going through the whole process again! It's not unusual for the selection procedure to be repeated because of a lack of good quality candidates.

Even if the appointment of a Head is initially welcomed by staff, when the person actually gets into the job, there can be a rude awakening. It seems almost as though the position corrupts. As a colleague of mine has often said – Heads have too much autonomy, there aren't enough checks and balances, and it goes to their heads. Perhaps, also, there isn't enough training for new Heads to learn about the management demands made on them, and someone who is a wonderful teacher won't necessarily be a good manager, and a good Head definitely needs to be both!

Being a Head is certainly not an easy position to hold. Perhaps certain Heads resort to being bullying despots simply to cover up their inadequacy and feelings of insecurity in the job. All the more reason, therefore, for the selection procedure to ensure the right person is chosen. I think in the U.K. the selection procedure definitely needs to be reformed and the staff in each school should be involved in the process. Prospective candidates need to make a presentation to governors, but why can't they do this to the staff as a whole? When there are school inspections, the whole staff meets the team of inspectors informally over tea. Why can't there be something similar for headship candidates? Why should it all be left up to the governors to decide?

These are just suggestions, but I believe something needs to be done to ensure that the person who is given the job, is someone

“who’ll know what it means
to be a boss;
someone who remembers
what it’s like to be human,
who can manage
resources and people
with realistic sympathy
and organized efficiency,
someone who creates
real, genuine respect —
but who am I kidding?
That’s the stuff of fiction, isn’t it,
not fact?”

(from “The Boss” in my book Family & More)

My hope is that one day this will be much more fact than fiction in the majority of schools.


Have you had a similar or different experience to mine? Please share!


  1. This is food for thought here Helena, it is many years since I was at school but the head we had at our secondary school was a real hard one. No sign of sympathy .......or at least that's what I thought until I had mumps and she sent me a basket of fruit. Perhaps I misjudged her though she returned to her hard exterior on my return to school.
    Enjoyed the read very much.
    Happy New Year.

  2. Hello, Yvonne, and happy New Year to you, too! Your comment is very interesting. Strict Heads can often be very good for a school - teachers and pupils know where they are with them because, whilst they are dealt with strictly, they are dealt with fairly and consistently, which is VERY IMPORTANT! And in times of emergency, so-called strict Heads will often show compassion.

    What is far more of a problem are those Heads who seem on the face of it to be very friendly and approachable, but who treat pupils and staff inconsistently - and as a result cause a lot of distress and pain and undermine morale. I've worked for too many of those types of Heads.

    Thank you for stopping by, Yvonne. It's much appreciated!


  3. Hi Helena,

    Your vivid description reminds me of many bosses, sadly, I had in my early archaeology career. Tyrany and reign of terror were the management styles of choice. Now I write, edit, and attend seminary part time. Life is improving. However, with these experiences, I have no trouble at all understanding why Japanese video game programmers call the very worst monsters you have to defeat "bosses."

  4. Hello, J.S., and many thanks for your comment! You have summed it up so well when you say 'tyranny and reign of terror were the management styles of choice' and it's a sad indictment on our society. The fact that Japanese video game programmers have chosen "bosses" to be the very worst monsters (which I didn't know), says it all! I am glad that life is personally improving for you. My life, too, since I chose to leave the school system, but for so many others the tyranny and terror remains. There must be another way. I've joined a group on LinkedIn (don't know if you've joined LinkedIn, but it's a very interesting place) called 'Leaders Cafe Foundation' which is all about promoting a different kind of leadership, a leadership that is based on mutual trust and respect and inspires those who are led to become more than they are. It's a group full of wonderful people and I know the founder of it personally - he is himself an inspirational person. Would thoroughly recommend the group, if you think that might interest you.