Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Headteacher?

Headteacher

Should headteachers teach? Head Ian Bradbury does, and he argues that headteachers won't fully understand the school if they don't have a regular slot in the classroom.

I'm not sure when I first heard the phrase "you can walk the walk, but can you talk the talk?" I'm sure it was in a John Wayne film. In an educational context, it is relevant in relation to whether secondary heads should teach in the current climate of educational change.

Whilst it is common practice for primary heads to have a timetable commitment, it is far less accepted for secondary heads. Indeed, with the size of some secondaries, the scale of the responsibilities placed on heads, and the notion of needing time for effective strategic leadership, it is often considered strange that heads teach at all. In short, classes get in the way.

Or do they? I would suggest that heads do not fully understand the organisation that they lead unless they have regular and planned contact with the students. Doing 'cover' isn't enough.

Apart from being an irregular and artificial commitment, it does not give the head an in-depth appreciation of the issues facing his or her staff. How can one understand the time pressure of reports or engage with the consultation and debate at parents evening?

I can empathise with the colleague in the staffroom who has just taught 7.5 because I teach them too. I can appreciate the marking load, the difficulty of meeting deadlines and the challenge of teaching increasingly disengaged pupils.

Having to work within a homework timetable and listen to pupils who may be overburdened, I can effectively engage in the annual discussion about how much homework we should set and the appropriateness of it.

I can feel what staff are going through and, I believe, better understand their anxieties and concerns.

Some of my headteacher colleagues ask how I can accept the prospect of missed classes when I am out of school.

The short answer is that I try to restrict my 'outings' to non-teaching days or, if I have to miss class, I arrange easily coverable lessons with our cover supervisor whom the children know and trust. The planning and marking is down to me - the delivery to the cover supervisor.

To me, it's all about getting 'back to the floor' and understanding what life is like for the troops, both teachers and students. I believe it enhances credibility.

My staff certainly see my teaching commitment as highly positive and it does help bring us closer together. For instance, this comment came from one of the heads of department:

"I believe it is important for a head to also be a teacher. If the head teaches, they have first hand knowledge of pupils and are part of the school's teaching mechanism. By teaching, the head has the opportunity to share their enthusiasm for a subject, which is important for pupils to share. The head is part of a department and has the opportunity to work with a team of teachers in a shared and less authoritative role. By teaching, the head will have greater knowledge about pupils, teachers and how school structure (timetable, structure of the day) works."

The students and parents also see this as a good idea, as they feel that I understand them better. This comment came from a year 8 student.

"A teaching headteacher is essential in a school. The pupils see the head as a teacher rather than a figurehead. The head knows the students in a teacher / pupil relationship and therefore is a member of staff you can talk to."

All my meetings have to work around my teaching and parents respect the fact that they may have to see me later in the day if I am teaching first thing.

School size is not the issue. It is about creating a culture where teaching and learning are at the centre of the organisation. At the end of the day, I remain (not withstanding the myriad of leadership titles) the headteacher.

A short time ago the unions in Ontario, Canada legislated against teaching heads. No head who works in the province is now allowed to teach. It was not a popular move.

Admittedly it is not easy to balance the role of the executive business leader with teacher. But if we do not teach, do we risk becoming more divorced from the pupils and teachers on the ground?

As the saying goes, "you can talk the talk, but do you walk the walk?" By teaching, you most certainly do.

Ian Bradbury is head of Danesfield Church of England Middle School in Taunton.

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