Time travelling headteacher: 9 tips for my former self

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Date published 26 November 2021

Last updated 21 March 2024

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Rebecca Curtis

Learning Design Fellow, Ambition Institute

I am one of the lucky few who has been fortunate enough to be a headteacher. I did the role for eight years. I have since joined Ambition Institute as a Fellow in Learning Design; a role that enables me to continue my mission of developing teachers, developing leaders and improving outcomes for all. I have found myself saying: “If only I knew then, what I know now.” After some reflection, here is what this time travelling headteacher may say to her former self:

1. Headship can be a lonely place – build a network

“Peers often share a common language, culture, and knowledge regarding the problems they face, while they may provide emotional or informational assistance that supports [a trainee] in improving their practice”. (Sims et al 2021)

The importance of building a network of people who know the role and can be used to both support and challenge, should not be underestimated. These support networks can take varying formats. For example, you might invest in 1-to-1 coaching or mentoring from an advisory headteacher, you may be leading in a multi-academy trust where headteachers from across the trust meet regularly, or there may be a local network that you can join. I have seen the value that headteachers have taken from the peer networks they’ve formed with others, which is why we’ve built a buddy system into the NPQH, along with peer-led problem-solving community sessions, peer-to-peer support in our modules and clinics, and an experienced headteacher coach in our Early Headship Coaching Offer (EHCO).

2. Time and effort spent developing relational trust is not just a nice extra, it is vital to school improvement

Believe in the power of people working together towards a common goal.

There is value in showing the people in your school community that you have personal regard for them, that you are competent in your role, and that you always act with integrity. Building this culture of trust takes time and energy, and it can be hard to measure. Others around you may even question if it is a necessity. As Bryk and Schneider (2002) highlight, relational trust alone will not improve the quality of teaching or outcomes for pupils, but it is an essential requirement in effective reform.

3. Persistent problems are real

Take time to understand what the persistent problems are and how we might go about tackling them; it will help you to make sense of your role. In their blog, The Persistent Problems of School Leadership (2020), Ambition Institute’s Jen Barker and Tom Rees highlight Leithwood et al’s (1994) belief that leadership is a problem-solving process. We have been developing a model of leadership expertise to underpin our approach to helping school leaders keep getting better. We think of expertise as the ability to consistently and effectively tackle the persistent problems of the role.

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4 . Don’t underestimate the power of “hidden knowledge”

Bereiter and Scardamalia (1993) describe this hidden knowledge as informal knowledge, impressionistic knowledge and self-regulatory knowledge. In our role as leaders, we build up this hidden knowledge and it is invaluable to a headteacher in deciding how to tackle those persistent problems.

An example of this may be knowing how to remain calm and reach a mutually acceptable outcome when faced with a parent who feels their child’s needs have not been met.

5. You can’t improve everything at once

Taking a measured and evidence informed approach to implementation is essential for sustainable school leadership, (Sharples et al 2019). Find out what is working and what is not, dig deeper and only then decide what needs to be improved first.

6. Ask yourself ‘why?’

Take the advice of Mary Kennedy (2016): rather than focusing on the actions we take, focus on the purposes those actions serve. As a headteacher you will carry out hundreds of individual actions in a day. Pause and ask yourself ‘why am I taking this action? What purpose does it serve?’ and check that these answers are aligned with your shared school values and are improving the school for the community that you serve.

7. Use an evidence-informed approach

There is a lot of information and advice out there, so choose what you spend your time reading and listening to wisely. One of my favourite features of our new NPQH is that our team of designers ensure that we are using as robust an evidence base as possible, supporting you to take account of context with scenarios and case studies, so that you can make informed decisions.

8. Value your own professional development

When the going gets tough, taking the time to develop your own knowledge can be the first thing to go. You can convince yourself that you simply don’t have the capacity to engage with your own professional development, especially if it involves leaving the school building.

To develop your understanding of persistent problems and knowledge, you need to invest time in your professional development. As a head, I would have really benefited from the way that the NPQH enables leaders to develop both their formal and informal knowledge through a variety of inputs. This is achieved via a combination of formal knowledge-based evidence summaries and informal, impressionistic and self-regulatory knowledge-based scenarios, as well as conferences and clinics.

9. When it gets really tough – go and spend some time with the pupils

This will remind you why you became a headteacher. Even better than waiting until it gets tough to do this, build in systems that allow you to spend time with pupils regularly. Hot Chocolate Friday (Dix, P 2017) and celebration assembly are a couple of my all-time favourites!


Barker, J. and Rees, T. (2020). The Persistent Problems of School Leadership.

Bereiter, C., Scardamalia, M., (1993). Surpassing ourselves: An inquiry into the nature and implications of expertise. Chicago, IL: Open Court

Bryk and Schneider (2002) Trust in Schools: A Core Resource for Improvement. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Dix, P., (2017) When the Adults Change Everything Changes: Seismic Shifts in Behaviour. Carmarthen: Independent Thinking Press.

Kennedy, M., (2016) Parsing the Practice of Teaching. Journal of Teacher Education. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications, 67(1) pp. 6–17.

Leithwood, K., Begley, P., and Cousins, J., (1994) Developing expert leadership for future schools. London: Falmer Press.

Sharples et al., (2019) Putting Evidence to Work A School’s Guide to Implementation: Gudiance Report. London. EEF.

Sims et al., (2021) What are the characteristics of teacher professional development that increase pupil achievement? A systematic review and meta-analysis, EEF.

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