Are you sick and tired of slogging it out in the classroom? Do you long for the chance to have your own office complete with swivel chair and internal lock? Would you rather be giving the orders than following them?
Then it sounds like you’re ready for headship!
I’m joking, of course. Firstly, if you are tired of working in the classroom then headship probably isn’t for you. Yes, the amount of triple marking you’re required to do reduces by about 100% but there’s plenty of other paperwork to keep you busy. Secondly, as much as having a swivel chair is really cool, don’t expect to have too much uninterrupted swivel-time. As a Head, you may not have a class of thirty kids who want a piece of you every minute of the working day, but, you’ll quickly find that there is an even larger number of people who want immediate and unlimited access to your mind, body and soul. Thirdly, while it’s nice to be in charge, there’s still the inconvenient truth that if you want people to follow your orders you’re going to have spend time, you know, getting them to ‘buy into’ your ideas. This takes time, shrewdness, tact, good communication skills and bribery. (Not necessarily in that order.)
If you are thinking about headship then I’m sure it’s for all the right reasons. (I could list them, but, let’s be honest, it’s only going to be a list of ‘good’ and ‘noble’ things. You’d be better off looking at some job and person specs to see for yourself.)
But, wanting it isn’t enough. You need to get through the interview first. Nobody really likes the interview process. Spending two days with a knotted stomach as you try to appear ‘normal’ to your prospective staff and governors is nobody’s idea of fun. Keeping your paranoia and self-doubt in check as you complete a range of tasks whilst maintaining a confident smile is no walk in the park. On top of that, there’s the awkwardness of meeting the other candidates. In my experience, there are three main types of candidates that you meet during an interview:
- The Detective
This candidate will not leave you alone. They seem to have been given a secret task of finding everything out about you. You can’t rest for five minutes between tasks without them trying to suss out whether they’ve got more or less experience than you. They bombard you with questions and follow up each of your answers with a passive-aggressive evaluative comment like ‘Oh, so you’ve only really worked in small schools, that’s nice.’ They then proceed to, ever so casually, ask you how you found each task, in the vain hope that your answer will somehow further their chance of success. A simple way to distract this candidate is to make up a task that isn’t anywhere on the itinerary – ‘I thought it was very sneaky of them to add making a call to the LADO in the middle of the data task’ – and notice how quickly they quieten down as they wonder why they haven’t been asked to do that yet.
- The Professional
This person is all about making an impression. They arrive at the school three hours before anyone else, just so they can shake every staff member’s hand in the carpark before school starts. They meet and greet the parents. They offer to take the register of the class whose teacher has just rung in sick until the supply teacher arrives. They’ve bought biscuits and a fruit basket for the interview panel. They don’t ask you any questions because they’re too busy helping the caretaker put up the bunting for the Y5 disco (which they’ve also bought a ticket for) whilst memorising every child’s name in preparation for their assembly. At break they can be seen by every member of staff playing catch with a group of children as they just so happened to have chosen the spot in the playground directly outside the staff room window. There isn’t a minute of the day when they’re not showing everyone just how much they ‘live and breathe’ school more than you.
- The Square Peg
Not wishing to sound unkind but you have to wonder how some people have got as far in their careers as they have. I mean, we all know that being ‘on interview’ can cause anyone to behave out of character, but this person…wow! They seem blissfully unaware that, with every utterance, they are moving further away from a job offer. Sometimes it’s a case of wrong person/wrong setting. Sometimes, though, you’re left wondering if they’ve ever worked in a school before, or ever interacted with human beings. As a fellow candidate, you could be forgiven for thinking that their bizarre, and at times socially-awkward, behaviour is in fact a brazen tactic to throw you off your game – like critiquing your assembly resources just before you walk on stage. As the day develops, however, and you hear them loudly list all the ways in which this school seems behind the times, or all the reasons why they’ve just got to leave their current school, you begin to realise that, although they may have plenty of chutzpah, they have also raised the hackles of every member of the interview panel.
My advice, when dealing with any of these candidates, is not to be distracted by them. Be pleasant, be polite, and quietly let them crack on. Because your real challenge lies in the interview tasks themselves.
When it comes to headship – or any leadership interview – there isn’t a great deal you can do in advance to put yourself ahead of the game. You will have already researched the school before applying and you may have been required to prepare an assembly, or presentation, in advance. Aside from that, you just need to relax into the day. Easier said than done, considering your timetable will be packed, but if you don’t allow yourself the thinking space to soak up the vibe of the school, how can you properly assess whether you want to work there or not?
Don’t forget, you will be expected to mooch around the school, eat lunch with the children and visit the playground during break time. Don’t, like ‘The Professional’ candidate, treat that as a hoop to dutifully jump through. Don’t feel that you have to go and have really upbeat and enthusiastic conversations with every person you come into contact with. This is not the time to leave a memorable impression on them, it’s a time for them to make an impression on you. Use that time to observe and to listen. What are the people like in this place? What are they up to? Do you feel you could do some good here? Would you enjoy working in this environment? You still have to be nice! Don’t be a silent weirdo lurking in the shadows; have your conversations with people, but ensure they are beneficial for you.
As for the tasks, well, they’re going to be leadership tasks. They’re probably going to be things you’ve already done in your current setting. There is not a special and secret set of tasks that everyone, apart from you, knows about. Your tasks will most likely be, in no particular order:
Data: identify the strengths and weaknesses and suggest some priorities to work on. It’s not rocket science, just look for the gaps.
Teaching: observe a lesson and give constructive feedback. Tread carefully and make sure you put whatever you say in the feedback in context. (Don’t give a judgement!)
Learning: review some books or a work scrutiny and share your thoughts. Again, avoid making too strong a judgement, and try and link it with other information you’ve had access to, like the data.
Meet the staff: don’t come across as a pillock. Much harder said than done, especially on interview! Try not to try too hard to make them laugh. Adults can see a poor joke coming a mile off, but they’ll probably forgive you because they’ll assume you’re nervous.
Meet the school council: don’t come across as a pillock. Much harder said than done, especially on interview! Remember, try not to try too hard to make them laugh. Kids can see a poor joke coming a mile off and they won’t forgive you.
Hold a meeting: maybe with a pretend disgruntled parent or with a group of staff. Strength, compassion and clarity should see you through safely. If it’s a deliberately delicate/volatile simulation then it will be as tricky as it is in real life, only you’re less likely to be physically assaulted on interview.
Formal interview: relax and allow your experience to answer the questions. Do not just say what you think they want to hear. Tell them what you believe. Back that up with what that’s allowed you to achieve in the past. If you’re not honest about your philosophies, strategies, challenges and successes then they are in danger of appointing an inauthentic version of you.
The hardest part will always be when they want to know about your plans for their future. Again, be honest. Share your evaluations based on what you feel you have learnt about the school so far. But be very clear that you are basing your answers on minimal knowledge. Demonstrate, through your answers, that they can trust you to work with them. Also, ask them. What do they want? Reflect on whether you can deliver that.
Finally, when they ask you if you would accept the post…think before you answer. The right answer is not always ‘yes’.
I don’t enjoy interviews. They are uncomfortable. Half of the time you are in two minds about whether you’re doing the right thing or not. But leadership interviews are not one-way contests with an overall winner. They are a process, and the risks – to the school and interviewee – are far greater if a wrong decision is made at the end of it. Play it straight and true, and, whether you get the job or not, it will be the best decision for everyone.
Go get ‘em!