Recruitment: Leaving and starting

Written by: Caroline Sherwood | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Taking up a new post is often difficult for school leaders, with the pressure, doubts and fear that can come with the move. Having recently made such a move herself, Caroline Sherwood discusses the impact it had

First, we leave

What happens between colleagues and students when you decide to leave your school can be difficult.

Schools are a place of such huge emotional investment that relationships which once felt concrete and meaningful can become barren.

It is very easy to assume colleagues who have made the decision to leave, want to – or will – abandon all accountability; that they will leave before they’ve left. This isn’t – and shouldn’t – be the case.

With limited time left, the desire to have an impact didn’t wane for me, if anything it became even more pressing and urgent. In fact, the resulting drive and confidence I had from quitting motivated me to be the best I could be until the day I left. When your raison d’être is children – is inspiring them and challenging them to be as excellent as they can be – you can’t leave before you’ve left.

In reality, you end up working one and a half jobs. You remain fully invested in your role and the students at the school that you’re leaving, and also begin planning for your new role.

Once you have resigned, your departure is inevitable. You are likely battling expectations from some colleagues that you’ve left before you’ve left, while actually you are working one and a half jobs. In the midst of this you begin to doubt the decision you’ve made.

Xtian Miller, in The Psychology of Quitting (2017), believes that the real art of quitting to progress your career really boils down to knowing the right time to quit. And Seth Godin, in The Dip: A little book that teaches you when to quit (and when to stick) (2009), writes: “Winners quit all the time. They just know when to quit the right stuff at the right time.”

Moving schools is a huge career move. When these moments of doubt hit you, Miller suggests asking yourself the following questions of your current position:

  • Are you learning anything? Is there room for potential personal growth and development? Are you being challenged? Can you collaborate with a variety of talented people?
  • Are you inspired? Do you have motivation to get up every morning and go at it, or do you dread it? Do you find it interesting?
  • Are proud of what you’re doing? Would you share it with the entire world? Do you get any enjoyment out of doing it? Are you able to flex your creative muscles?
  • Do you have time?

It is human to have doubts and fears about something so significant to you personally and professionally: “You’re on earth. There’s no cure for that.” (Samuel Beckett)
Be scared. You’ll be giving a lot of yourself to your new school – aligning your values and beliefs to those of your new school. It’s a transformative decision. Give yourself permission to doubt the decision you’ve made. You’re human. There is no cure for that.

And then we start again

And what about starting in your new school? A few weeks before starting my new role in my new school in September, a friend asked me over coffee: “How will you know if you’ve become the leader you don’t want to be?”

At this point, I’d spent time developing and growing my own leadership style; I’d read (and continue to read) a lot of leadership books and reflected on the key messages; I’d also worked with some inspirational leaders, who influence my leadership practice daily.

However, my friend’s question exposed me to a new way of thinking. What if I became the leader I don’t want to be? Will I be conscious of it? Or will it sneak up on me?
John Addison in Real Leadership (2016) states: “Here’s the good news about human nature: whatever you focus on, that’s what you get more of. Here’s the bad news about human nature: whatever you focus on, that’s what you get more of.”

As a result, over the remainder of the summer break and in my first few weeks in role, I relentlessly focused on (and continue to do so) building safety, sharing vulnerability and establishing purpose.

Rebecca Allen and Sam Sims explore the fact that “research consistently shows that, on a day-to-day basis, creating and sustaining the culture of collaborative, trusting relationships ... is the most powerful thing that school leaders can do to contribute to improved pupil progress” (The Teacher Gap, 2018).

Daniel Coyle in The Culture Code (2018) recognises that “group culture is one of the most powerful forces on the planet”. He continues: “We sense its presence inside successful businesses, champion teams, and thriving families, and we sense when it is absent or toxic.”

From my induction day onwards, I over-communicated my listening, advice from Doyle’s The Culture Code. I remind myself daily of a good friend and ex-colleague’s advice: ask great questions and listen hard.

And from Susan Scott’s Fierce Conversations (2002), I “speak and listen as if this is the most important conversation you will ever have – it could be. Participate as it matters. It does”.

Full, all-encompassing, inclusive participation is exhausting. During every conversation I was having with my new colleagues, I would consider: what am I hearing? What do I want to say? What do I want them to hear?

After all, I was looking to: build safety, share vulnerability and establish purpose. Scott goes on to state: “The conversation is not about the relationship; the conversation is the relationship.”

These conversations made up some of the most important moments early on in my new role: how often I communicate with staff, what we speak about and the authenticity all parties bring to the conversation have ensured that “the conversation is the relationship”.

I have participated in conversations so fully (with purpose and deliberation) and it has taught me more about my new colleagues and new school setting than I could have hoped to have learned this early on.

Over-communicate your priorities

No matter how much preparation you do before you walk though the doors of your new school on your first day, you are still going to be partly blind. Naming and ranking your priorities (whether it is exam results-related, curriculum-focused, etc) early on enables you to establish purpose.

Once you’ve recognised, named and ranked your priorities, Doyle suggests “be 10 times as clear about (them) as you think you should be”.

These priorities have become the driving force behind decisions made with my new team. Shared ownership of these priorities is paramount, as Susan Scott explains in Fierce Leadership (2009) “you will not single-handedly cause or prevent success”.

Surrounding yourself with colleagues who share a commitment to excellence and growth is the only way true and sustainable progress will happen. To do this, everyone must have a voice.

I will always strive to be a leader who will seek-out and value everyone’s voice and contribution. I often use questions or language such as:

  • “Say more about that.”
  • “Keep talking.”
  • “Tell me what you are seeing from your perspective?”
  • “What are you thinking, but not saying?”

As Doyle states: “Having one person tell other people what to do is not a reliable way to make good decisions.”

We should be creating “leaders among leaders” and challenging our authority bias. As a team, we can play to win rather than play not to lose.

You are not invincible

Starting any new job in a new school setting is exhausting. I have come home emotionally, mentally and physically exhausted. Be kind to yourself and look after your own wellbeing – it is your responsibility, not anyone else’s.

  • Caroline Sherwood recently began a new role as assistant head and head of English at Isca Academy in Exeter.


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