Just under a year ago I made the decision to move from the school where I’d been for many years, to become headteacher of a new school. Fast forward 11 months to now and here I find myself writing this piece in Lockdown 3.0.
Sorting out my desk a few weeks ago at school (having dashed out of school in the penultimate week of the autumn term with a killer headache, which I now know was a symptom of Covid), I came across a print out of David Carter’s brilliant The First 100 Days of a New Headship.
I read it wistfully. All the things I was going to do in my first term. All the pockets of positive culture and expertise I would uncover, the one-to-ones I would conduct with every member of staff, the digging deep into the curriculum I would do. I probably managed about four days of the 100 by December!
Like so many of us, autumn was all about reopening safely, sorting bubbles and managing staff illness or isolation. It was about the recovery curriculum and the wellbeing of my community. After half-term my leadership team and I did finally manage to lift our heads above the parapet to look beyond Covid, to all the things we want to do to make the school even better. That didn’t last long either!
December took us headlong into the virus and gripped us like a vice. It took more and more out of us. Staff were shattered teaching hybrid lessons or conducting endless Track and Trace. Parents were frustrated at having children at home for two weeks. Behaviour was rocky and Y11 and Y13 became increasingly anxious about their progress. And at the very end of term and into the holidays, nearly a third of our staff fell sick with the new strain of the virus.
So what have I learnt as a new headteacher, in a new school, in an international pandemic?
I’ve learnt that every storm ends - it really does (that Horse, Mole, Boy book is right!). I have learnt to accept what I cannot change or control. A good example of this was the utter fiasco of when and how the DfE announced the mass testing just before Christmas. Apparently, it would be happening in my school in three weeks' time. But I simply made the decision that I wasn’t going to get all over-excited and rush around arranging meetings with my senior staff, recruiting volunteers, working out how we’d manage the logistics etc. in my holiday.
Besides these things have a habit of being dropped anyway, don’t they? U-turns are all the rage at DfE Towers.
I’ve learnt that my staff are brilliant and resilient. I’ve learnt that kindness towards colleagues matters more than anything. And that making clear, informed decisions also matter very much. And if you cannot do the latter, immediately do the former.
I’ve learnt that I absolutely must look out for myself. This has been a big change for me. I cannot support and respond to the needs of my school community unless I attend to mine. The loneliness of headship is not a lie. You can minimise and mitigate loneliness, but it is always there.
This is my second headship and I am extremely lucky to have an awesome network of fellow heads and friends who I can use as a sounding board. Yet in the dark, when you lie awake worrying about the rising numbers of positive cases, or how you will keep the school open, or how to recover lost learning, it is isolating and lonely.
So do what do you need to do to ensure your battery is always well charged? I get out for a run when I can - that helps massively. I have read more books in the last three months than ever (my book club can’t believe it!) because it allows me to switch off and escape. Sticking to fiction right now is important to me. The education and leadership books can wait!
I have learnt to cherish and value my family more. There is nothing like having to get in from school and cook tea whilst still in your coat with three squabbling teenage girls, to level oneself.
I have learnt that sometimes you need to stay off Twitter. For all it's worth, Twitter can be really quite damaging; you get sucked into the negativity or echo chamber that Twitter can be. It doesn’t matter what other schools and heads are doing. Do what is right for your school community. Have courage.
And lastly, I'm learning to enjoy and embrace the less hectic pace. I have always been one to feel guilty if I have spare time. I rush to fill any gaps in the day. Now we have sorted testing and have good on-site and remote learning routines in place, the day has a calmer feel to it.
Whilst I am in school pretty much every day, I am arriving a little later and leaving a little earlier. I am taking the time to really talk to staff on site, but also have the space for valuable virtual one-to-ones. I can spend time talking to our onsite students and finding out what really makes them and our school tick. In fact I can have some of those First 100 Days conversations after all.
I am savouring these moments, because right now I can. You should too.
Mariella Ardron became the Principal of Chelsea Academy, London in September 2020. This is her second headship and she has been a senior leader for 16 years. Mariella is a trustee at School-Home Support, a charity helping disadvantaged children overcome barriers to education. You can find her on Twitter @MariellaArdron.