Top tips for ‘surviving’ as a head teacher

Thriving or surviving? We all want to be flourishing and booming but this isn’t an either/or choice. If you are thriving that’s because you are consistently feeding yourself survival strategies to enable you be ‘a good Head’.

Many heads feel like they are treading water – the reality is, every head is treading water but some are in deeper waters than others, some have handrails to grab onto and others have lifeguards ready to jump in and help.

If you were a “Potion’s Master” like Professor Snape and we walked into your lab, what would the self-stirring beakers be mixing? There might not be any Dragon’s blood but you’d probably find resilience, courage, determination, confidence, commitment and passion in there along with stamina, suspicion, fear, adrenaline and caffeine. Mix that lot together and take 20ml three times a day and you might be able to walk on water.

You don’t need a PhD in Potions to be a head teacher but it does help to have a knowledge of the survival tips needed to help you thrive.

1. Coaching

To help you be at your best and perform at your best then get yourself a coach. School leaders that look after their emotional and psychological well-being are one step ahead and can serve the whole school community with gusto, insight and joy. The clearest articulation of supportive coaching comes from Viv Grant’s Integrity Coaching and is a must-see for every head. There is nothing better available to support leadership and nurture your development. Take a look.

2. Prioritise

Andy Buck in his book ‘Leadership Matters’ encourages us to think about what matters and to differentiate between ‘urgent’ and ‘important’. Sometimes everything can feel urgent but this is seldom the case. His advice is to set goals, learn to say ‘no’, prioritise a ‘now, sooner, later’ system, schedule time for the important but not urgent, avoid procrastination, set time limits and delegate more. See the Eisenhower Matrix for more details and Steven Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People for more ideas. Above all, manage your diary, don’t let it manage you!

3. Share

Leadership is everyone’s business. If you carry the weight of the school’s challenges on your own shoulders and carry the can for everything by yourself then welcome to burnout. Okay, you are the Captain of the Ship but accountability is shared across the school and cultivating a health collective focus and collaborative culture is essential to thriving. Collaboration not killaboration. Share beyond your school too by joining courses and network meetings, signing up for conferences and being an active part of social media, particularly Twitter, and sharing strategies, concerns and worries.

4. Shave

Ambition is a wonderful thing but it can get ugly and overgrown so needs regular pruning. John Tomsett in ‘This Much I Know about Mind Over Matter’ tells us that less is always more and this is sound thinking for any leader. His advice is that we need to focus on a few essential things and get these right. Drill right down on a particular issue and spot what makes a difference. Doing everything impresses no one and can leave you spinning too many plates with plenty of smashed crockery. John’s suggestion: “pare down your priorities and do a small number of things supremely well.” Put simply, shave your ambition: Japanese knotweed in schools strangles progress. Overstretch yourself and jump on too many bandwagons is a sure way for the wheels to come off.

5. Value Your Staff

To survive as a head teacher you need to invest time and energy into your staff. To create a fellowship, you’ve got to create a followship first. Quality relationships count across the school but your teaching staff are an absolute priority. Cherish your staff, show loyalty to them and they will respect you and help you to blossom. Work out a personalised plan and focus on their development and make sure each member of staff knows they are appreciated and nurtured. Mutual respect drives the school forward and feeds your development. Your staff are your allies and will make your life easier so look after them! As Dame Sally Coates says in her book ‘Head Strong’, “Headteachers must bend over backwards to attract, cherish, cultivate and retain great teachers.”

6. Energy, Enthusiasm and Hope

These are needed by the bucket load. Head teachers need to be energised, keen and expectant of great things because this focus and positivity will rub off on all stakeholders.  As Andy Cope reminds us, ‘being a 2%er’ and possessing a ‘can-do’ mentality makes you more productive and raises the happiness levels of the people around you. Aim to make your school an outstandingly happy school by focusing on wellbeing. See @beingbrilliant.

7. Be a pogo stick player

Tim Brighouse in ‘How successful head teachers survive and thrive’, talks about the importance of staying calm at a time of genuine crisis and being optimistic. He calls these head teachers ‘pogo-stick’ players because they can be right in the thick of everything but still see the wider picture. It’s almost as if they have the ability to rise above it, even if it only momentarily. To be a pogo-stick player you need to be a utility player by being a Jack and Jill of all trades able to turn your hand to anything.

8. Wear different glasses

Andrew Moorish in ‘The Art of Standing Out’ encourages us to see our schools through three lenses of perception and these can help us become survival experts: (1) The Calibration Lens – this lets you focus on your moral compass and brings your organisational culture into focus (2) The Kaleidoscopic Lens – allows you to focus on creativity and innovation and reminds you that change is continuous and chaotic (3) The Telescopic Lens – this lets you be outward looking and helps you look beyond your own school for inspiration. Importantly, avoid jumping on bandwagons- stand back and observe what works.

9. Lead

It sounds obvious but surviving as a head means leading and doing. You can talk all day long about what you are going to do but leadership matters so you need to act. In the film, It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey edges with nervousness around his future wife until an older man watching him says, “Why don’t you kiss her instead of talking her to death?” Thriving as a head means being brave and getting on with the business of leading and doing it your own way and not copying and pasting the style of someone else.

10. Time Out

No one can survive in an intense job without taking the time to decompress and recharge their batteries. If you keep going the extra mile without a breather then expect injuries along the way, mental and physical. Unwinding, detoxing and unplugging  will keep you sane and uber-passionate about the job you love, even if you don’t realise you love it yet.  Keeping a healthy balance helps you contextualise problems for what they are – work problems.

Headship isn’t sink or swim but sink and swim. The trick is to keep swimming, take plenty of deep breaths and remember you aren’t in the pool by yourself. It isn’t all “Me, me, me” – some of the time it is but most of the time survival and prospering is about “Us, us, us”. Self-esteem and us-esteem are closely linked and no head is alone unless they choose to adopt a silo mentality.


John DabelJohn is an ex-primary school teacher and Ofsted inspector who has spent the last 20 years working in the education industry as a teacher, national in-service provider, project manager, writer and editor. John’s specialist area is primary maths but he also loves teaching science and English. John has written a number of educational and children’s books and contributed well over 1,000 articles, features, reviews and curriculum projects to various bodies, magazines, journals and institutions. John is Eteach’s school leadership and Ofsted advice guru – sharing monthly insights on best practice for motivating and enriching a school team, as well as sharing savvy career steps for headteachers and SLT.



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3 thoughts on “Top tips for ‘surviving’ as a head teacher

  1. I do find this website very informative and supportive in the execution of my duties and responsibilities as Principal of a public/government high school in the Republic of South Africa,yet there are some similarities and some major differences given the context.

  2. The write up on ‘ Top Tips for Surviving as a Head teacher is very enlightening. As a new Head teacher, it’s an eye opener for me. I appreciate the write for the wonderful job.

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