Lessons in Leadership

I finished my NQT (Newly Qualified Teacher) year in January 2007 and by October 2007 I was acting head of department in a failing school. I had been taken on as second in department to support a subject leader who had been off with stress most of the previous year. Three weeks in to the new term he started having time off and then by October was signed off work for an extended period. The department was considered the worst in the school, its staff were demoralised with a few others also having extended periods off with work related stress.

Before you start a new school you are entitled to a day off to visit. I had spent my induction day with the head of department discussing changes to the curriculum and he seemed positive, friendly and inspired! I had no idea how bad things really were until I started.

After my visit, the head of department had gone back to his team and without consultation told them I had come up with a number of changes that would be implemented in September. An action that set me up for a lot of resentment before I had even started! So when I arrived, I was positive, and full of enthusiasm with a team that was already against me, “who does she think she is?” was the impression I received, even, for a while, from the head teacher who gave me the job!

Having come from a cosmopolitan city, rich in diversity and culture, I was also an outsider – a southerner in an insular northern community, isolated and striking out on her own to settle in the beautiful mountainous region of England.

My management experience prior to taking on the role was in retail, handling some big numbers, selecting products, negotiating with suppliers and I had an assistant to support me. From the head teacher’s point of view, there really was no one else. Nobody wanted to take on any responsibility, the background to which I came to understand much later on. The department carried a lot of baggage.

I said yes, I’ll take it on! A fact that didn’t help ease any resentment, in fact at first things worsened, after all how could a teacher new to the profession think that she could lead a department without being full of herself or arrogant? The baggage we carry from our past often skews our view of the world, and we use it to judge others. Until we know a person we can only rely on what we have experienced and have known before, our minds fill in the blanks for us, often incorrectly.

The departing head of department had introduced new courses no one understood and changed exam boards, with no one in the school having any understanding of them. And I mean no one. The senior leaders, the teachers, the exam officer – no one. I discovered that Year 11 students were completing coursework that did not meet the criteria for the course, there were no suitable schemes of work, the department hated me. Needless to say it was tough! But if you are not prepared to work hard when it’s tough, then you won’t reach any of your goals or achieve anything worthwhile.

To keep my sense of perspective through the trials I needed to be out in the mountains at the weekends. The unimaginable forces that shaped the earth stretched out before my eyes and under my feet.

You have to begin any challenge like this by winning over the team. The essence of this begins with actions that value and support them. Leaders may be separated by responsibility and pay, but people are all of equal value before God. Actions like giving credit where its due, appreciating their efforts and showing respect seem simple, but they were not used to this.

Once people know that you care, you believe in fairness, treat people with respect, that you work hard and support them in the classroom or in the face of criticism from senior leaders – all in despite of the hard time you are going through – their minds are changed and feelings of hostility vanish.

Initially adopting a ‘servant style’ leadership was a fast way to build trust and respect. You have to accept that when you step up, there will always be critics and naysayers, especially so in public service, but resilience is developed in the face of adversity.

“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” Galatians 6:9 NIV

Leadership requires heart, passion, belief, courage and humility. Lose heart and you lose your ability to lead.

“Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it” Proverbs 4:23 NIV.

After two years, the school was out of special measures and merged with two other schools to become a highly controversial academy. I was appointed head of department for the new school, having passed through the storms the science department had turned and was considered the strongest.

In the new academy, I faced further challenges, now having twenty-five staff, of which a large number were directly opposed to the merger and resentful of the change. There were two opposite mentalities; one believing themselves better and above everyone else, the other struggling with insecurities about new increased levels of expectations on them.

Needless to say this was also tough! New challenges, new staff and the appointment of a highly controversial principal! Flexible thinking, and adapting to changing needs is vital for growth and development. Jesus shows us that leadership during His ministry taught and developed his disciples so they could go on to become leaders themselves. Leadership that values people will coach, support, mentor, and develop their skills. It is forward thinking. It leads staff towards greater independence and progression.

Integrity is also key, though it does not win you friendship with those who want to succeed at any cost. But this is no loss when you work for the Lord and not to please people.

Scripture tells us “Where there is no vision, the people perish” Proverbs 29:18 KJV.

After an intense ride, and under the charge of my forth principal, I took the opportunity to leave seven years after the academy opened – to begin a new journey with God.

All that we do prepares and strengthens us to fulfil God’s purpose for our lives. I now wait patiently for the Lord to guide my next steps.


Loving Father, thank You that you are with us in the trials, that the light of Your creation strengthens us, and makes us strong to serve others as You served us. Let us put our trust in You Lord with all our heart and submit to You and Your kingdom purposes. In Jesus name. Amen.

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