My leadership journey: what to do when you don’t fit in

Jan. 9, 2018
Jenna Crittenden

Jenna Crittenden

Deputy Headteacher, La Fontaine Academy

I once taught in a very male dominated school while working for the British military in Germany and every single one of the leaders was elderly and male.

In the second week of my employment the deputy headteacher said to me ‘here we are a jigsaw and you are a piece that doesn’t fit’. I began to dread every moment I spent in the school.

Had this been in England, I would have left straight away, but it’s difficult when you live abroad. You feel like you have something to prove to everyone.

One day a leadership role came up in the school. I decided that although I already knew the outcome, I wanted to be in the mix so I applied. Unsurprisingly I wasn’t successful and when I asked for feedback on my interview I was told by the same leader, ‘I told you, you don’t fit’.

His feedback made me realise that no matter what I did, he would never allow me to be successful, so I applied for a transfer. Luckily for me, I quickly gained a middle leadership role in another school, one where the leadership team showed a reflection of the teachers with male, female, young and older people being represented.

Although this experience was among the most unpleasant of my life, I decided that I would never be like that man. I would never write someone off without trying to support them and I would never humiliate a teacher or make them hate their job.


Learning from female colleagues

Following my transfer, I was lucky enough to work for a female headteacher who strongly believed that leadership isn’t earnt by years of practice but by an ability to engage others with the changes you are introducing.

She challenged me by entrusting me to introduce and implement key curriculum changes. This gave me the confidence I needed to improve my leadership, seeking feedback from those around me in order to improve. Her office was always open to me and I didn’t fear her. Instead, I admired her ability to read her staff.

She was the leader who inspired me and encouraged me to apply for the Future Leaders programme.

Joining the programme in 2014, I entered a room filled with confident and experienced individuals and spent the first morning doubting myself. I went to the bathroom and cried! Luckily for me two wonderful women stopped me from walking out and told me that although I may not have felt like I fit in, I did and that the CPD I would get would help me lead. I now see these women regularly, and their leadership and ability to balance family and career has inspired me to keep challenging myself.

My programme placement put me in a new free school with a Future Leader headteacher. He has always treat me equally and given me every opportunity to challenge myself and gain experience in all areas of headship. I have grown to embrace my own leadership style and try to not to ‘copy’ others, celebrating the strength of my ‘soft’ leadership skills and never apologising for being emotionally involved in the school.

"Luckily for me two wonderful women stopped me from walking out and told me that although I may not have felt like I fit in, I did. "

Finding my work-life balance

Four years on, I have had a baby and moved from assistant headteacher to deputy and now I’m seeking my first headship. Having a baby has changed me beyond my expectations, but by no means have I lowered my career aspirations.

I battled with myself on maternity leave. I worried about how I would continue to be as successful in my role working less hours, and I worried about letting my daughter down. I decided to apply for part time hours upon my return to work and this has been successful so far.

I do feel guilty that I leave my school without a deputy for two days a week, but I balance this against the guilt of leaving my baby with ‘strangers’ and I feel I have found the right balance. I want my daughter to grow up knowing that she can lead too and the only way I can do this is to show her that I didn’t give up.

People do question my ability to be a great mum and a great leader but I try to remember that if I don’t find a balance, then I will never become a headteacher and people will gain those roles because they have ‘stood the test of time’ rather than being great dynamic leaders.

Being young and a woman enables me to offer a skill set and energy to the role that others can’t and this is something I am now celebrating rather than apologising for. We need more female leaders as role models to others to ensure that everyone feels like they fit in to our education system.

Ambition School Leadership is offering its first ever women-only cohort of the Headship Programme, which supports ambitious senior school leaders to become great headteachers of schools in challenging contexts.

The programme is delivered in partnership with #WomenEd and Leading Women’s Alliance, and starts in March 2018. It aims to take positive action to address the under-representation of women in headship positions in schools serving disadvantaged children and their communities.

To find out more about our all-female Headship Programme, follow this link.

This article originally appeared on the website of Ambition School Leadership. In March 2019, the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.

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