In my last year of deputy headship, facing falling rolls, gentrification of the local area, dwindling budgets, I felt incredibly helpless, and I knew it was time to start thinking about headship, because I wanted to make a difference.
I have worked in both primary and secondary schools in a range of different roles over the past 18 years, from TA to deputy head. I have led all subjects, behaviour, assessment, and worked in one-form, two-form and three-form size schools. I have been through many an Ofsted inspection. I have taught the most challenging classes, across the key stages – and loved it, from classes of 36 pupils to classes with more SEND pupils than not. I have rewritten a whole school curriculum from scratch in order to disrupt white and euro-centric heteronormative educational narratives and then went on to write a book published by Bloomsbury entitled Time to Shake Up the Curriculum.
I am a born and bred south Londoner, a mixed-race queer woman. I represent a number of intersectional identities, all of which are marginalised voices.
Given my experience, I honestly didn’t think it would be as hard as it was to find a head teacher role. Now, this may be due to a number of reasons: maybe I don’t interview well enough, maybe I don’t ‘look’ like a head teacher, maybe against my white peers I am seen as a ‘risk’ – maybe all three reasons. Maybe none.
In total, I did five interviews. Every job I applied for, I got an interview for … hurray! I had a range of different interview experiences – some great, some not. Prior to my interviews, I did my homework. I trawled through The Key and printed out the sample head teacher questions. I memorised the school values and vision. I reflected on my NPQH training and thought about how my personal values aligned with the school values, and practised talking about it in a way which didn’t seem as rehearsed as it was.
Interview #1: X-Factor
It started with six of us, and throughout the day candidates were ‘voted off’. We started off with a teaching task – great, I knew I would smash this one! Then data – my favourite – followed by an in-tray task (I love a good letter of complaint!). After lunch, there were two of us left. Got to the end of the day, left the school feeling proud.
My phone rang – I didn’t get it.
Feedback: ‘You just didn’t seem headteacherly enough’. Quality of feedback: 0/5
Interviews #2 and #3: the sinking ship
I call these interviews the sinking ship because I knew shortly after arriving that I was not experienced enough to take on either of these schools but took the interview for what it was – good practice. Both schools were enormous, both schools were financially unstable, both schools were solidly in the Ofsted window. I was asked questions that I honestly didn’t know how to answer – mainly around budget. At one point, I had to say after a number of prompts from the interviewer (which was kind of them), ‘I’m sorry I don’t know how to answer that’. Obviously, I didn't get offered these jobs, and rightly so.
Feedback: ‘You need more experience with managing a budget.’ I knew this - but how can I get more experience if I am currently in a Deputy role? Quality of feedback: 1/5
Interview #4: colour and flavour
A wonderful school in east London, looking for someone to champion racial literacy training and diversify their curriculum - great! That’s me! There were four candidates, all deputy heads, all white. If they were looking for someone to champion racial literacy … surely that would be someone from the global majority, right? The interview was tough, I was asked questions about budget, but I felt I answered them better than Interview #2 and #3 – progress. I left with a good feeling. Then my phone rang. I didn’t get it.
Feedback: ‘While we thought you brought colour and flavour to the day, we felt you were not experienced enough’. At best, an extremely clumsy choice of words or at worst a racially inappropriate comment. I didn’t need feedback on my personality thanks, I needed feedback on how to better answer specific questions/tasks. Quality of feedback: 0/5
Interview #5: the one
I had just about given up hope when I did my final interview. This was a beautiful one-form school in South London, and I knew from when I first visited that this was the school for me. The interview was tough, and I was unsure when I left. When I received the offer phonecall, I broke down into tears of happiness (Lord knows what the person on the other end of the phone was thinking!).
What I learned:
- In the case of interviews, practice does make perfect. I learned a lot about myself through failure
- Some people may judge you because of how you look, you cannot change those people. But you can remind yourself that you, fighting for that leadership position, will mean that you can change the hearts and minds of an upcoming generation, and that is powerful
- Do not apologise for yourself, either in voice, dress or how you hold yourself. You matter, you can do it. If you don’t feel it, act as if you do
- Seek coaching and support from your peers, don’t be afraid to ask for help and furthermore ask for feedback – hopefully yours will be better than mine!
Sarah Wordlaw is a head teacher and author.
This blog is the second in a series of articles published as part of NAHT's Celebrating Diversity in Leadership series. Please note that all views contained within the series are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect NAHT’s broader policy positions and work. Read other blogs in the series.
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First published 04 December 2023