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  • Writer's pictureTom Hopkins-Burke

Five Things we Learned About: the A-Z of Secondary Leadership

Updated: Feb 15

The A-Z of secondary leadership with headteacher and author Andy Hunter.

In partnership with John Catt Educational: publishing professional development books and resources to support great teaching and learning in schools around the world. Use the code JCTTR2324 for 20% off The A-Z of Secondary Leadership and your entire John Catt order - happy reading!


School leadership is the best job in the world. It's also frustrating, exhausting and at times utterly bamboozling. Leaders are planning for the next five years one minute, and dealing with the next five seconds the next. They manage multi-million-pound budgets and they pick up crisp packets.

The A-Z of Secondary Leadership considers how we approach leadership in secondary schools, from the moment of arrival in a new post to the exploration of further possibilities. It covers creating a culture, recruiting and retaining the best staff, encouraging cognitive diversity, working with stakeholders, leading in the community and, perhaps most importantly, how to look after yourself as you take on a very challenging role.

This book is essential reading for aspiring, recently appointed and more experienced secondary school leaders. Taking a detailed yet down-to-earth approach to leadership theory and practice, Andy Hunter spoke with our host Paul Hazzard about the various demands placed upon secondary school leaders. Here's five things we took away from their conversation...

Andy Hunter


1. Why should school leaders embrace listening?

A man listening to another adult speaking

"I've sat in so many conversations where people know what they think and say what they think. There's no sense of dialectic... too often people aren't listening at all" Andy Hunter

When you're not talking, are you actually listening - or are you thinking about what you're going to say next?

That was the question Andy posed in the first ten minutes of the show. If it's the latter, what you are about to say probably isn't going to address what is being said to you. You miss some golden insights, too.

Andy is passionate about his belief that the majority of people in teaching aren't senior leaders, but that doesn't mean they couldn't be senior leaders - they have chosen not to be. According to Andy, senior leaders who approach their communications with a sense of hierarchy are in terrible danger of missing out on a great deal of wisdom from the classrooms and corridors.


2. How can leaders deal with hurt?

An adult with her head in her hands surrounded by two children

"I forget all the time that I'm a leader, and I need to be reminded that people aren't quite honest with me because I'm the boss" Andy Hunter

Andy admits that "being the boss" is a filter on his conversations with colleagues. When he is at work, Andy is not just Andy - he is the implementer of policies, the person who has to balance the budget, and the person who has to maintain standards. These things can get in the way of building genuine relationships with colleagues.

Paul remarked that leaders need their time away from school to get rid of the hurt. When he went home, his family would ground him: either picking him up when he was down, or knocking him down when he was on a high! Andy warns against carrying on his leadership style when at home - his family will help set him straight!


3. What is "questing" when it comes to school leadership?

A cartoon drawing of a person holding an arrow and leading a crowd

"Once you've started something, you've got to see it through... a new-born initiative has to be nurtured into becoming" Andy Hunter

When it comes to questing as a leader, you need allies - not followers - on board. People will do things only to some extent when you ask them to. If you want them to pursue these things with passionate determination, they need to feel as though they have a part in 'carrying the touch' and driving the initiative.

Andy refers to computer games with his analogy of "side-questing" and not sticking one's oar into other people's jobs. In computer games, side-questing is a low-stakes, high-fun challenge that isn't part of the main game. Paul recommends that leaders help develop individuals by giving them different time-frames on different projects - but within their remit and not spreading themselves too widely.

Sometimes, new leaders enjoy the novelty of getting promoted and get carried away on the wave of their newfound sense of importance. It can happen to anyone, but humility helps us come to terms with ambition. When Andy got his first headship, the best advice he received was "don't be a twit" - else it can only go one way!


4. Should school leaders show vulnerability?

A school leader in conversation

"Vulnerability means you are open to changing your mind. A leader who knows they're wrong but insists on doing it anyway... that's catastrophic" Andy Hunter

Andy talks about the new leaders who put on their new set of leadership clothes to parade around the school as a leader, with the hope that this "professional armour" will protect themselves from challenge or being undermined. But once leaders become more experienced, they tend to realise that being questioned and challenged is actually helpful and valuable. It helps leaders to grow and their decision-making to become more informed.

It takes guts to be publicly vulnerable, and it takes some judgement to get the level and nature of that vulnerability right. People look to leaders to model not just the policies of the school, but the way of speaking to and interacting with people. If you can model a confident yet vulnerable persona, where it is okay to be wrong and make mistakes since it is a part of human nature, then you are helping to shape the organisation in that mould, too.

On the other hand, vulnerability can go too far. If people don't know that a leader is a safe pair of hands, saying "I don't really know what the answer is" simply makes people think the leader doesn't know what the answer is!


5. How can leaders be aware of how they are perceived?

360 degree feedback

"Am I somehow giving an impression I might not want to give? How do I need to adjust what I'm doing in order to be the leader who people want me to be?" Andy Hunter

Andy's favourite moment of the school year is presentation evening, where he can extol the virtues of particular students. One year, a colleague told him how they loved seeing this side of him - but he never smiled. From that moment, Andy decided he needed to make a conscious effort to smile when doing those things, which was something he wasn't accustomed to.

Those pieces of feedback are invaluable to a school leader because they stick. Leaders can ask for feedback if they have good relationships with their colleagues, although it can't be guaranteed that the feedback they receive will be completely honest. If people feel comfortable giving you feedback, they are more likely to be comfortable receiving feedback from you in return.


Catch up with the whole episode below!

John Catt: educational publishers since 1959

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