This is the first stanza of Robert Frost’s poem, The Road not Taken. The narrator reflects on a moment when faced with divergent pathways; in choosing one it changed their life forever (it ends, and, oh, the difference to me). This deceptively simple poem dramatises how apparently minor choices can have significant implications leading us down different pathways towards different destinations.
In writing about my pathways (the plural is important) to headship I was drawn back to this poem and the question of what choices were made along the way which led to my occupying this most challenging but most privileged of positions. And, whilst it is true that one makes careful choices along the way, we must also ask to what extent does good fortune play its part?
Good fortune has, indeed, attended upon my career. A supportive network of family and friends in all possible iterations, outstanding professional role models and the opportunity to work in excellent and improving schools have all played a key part. However, one important lesson that I learned from an early stage was to ensure that I made the best of my good fortune. My first Head of Department taught me the importance of thorough planning and developing colleagues; a mid-career Deputy Headteacher offered tremendous insights into how leading learning could work in a secondary school and the two Headteachers I worked under as a senior leader demonstrated on a daily basis how committed, reflective and passionate school leadership can have an inspirational impact on all aspects of school life. Had I not observed, reflected upon and assimilated these and other lessons then other choices could easily have become redundant because I would have been ill-equipped to embrace them.
For me, the moral credibility to lead in a school begins with a commitment to young people and with a teacher striving to master their craft in a classroom full of adolescents. In trying to be the best English teacher that I could be I learnt that I could influence the language skills and nurture a love of literature within the pupils that I taught. Subsequently, the concept of influence came to be the motivating factor in navigating my pathway choices. By this I mean that my passion for teaching English allowed only limited opportunities to influence young people. In becoming Second in English and then Head of English, I learnt quickly that I could then influence the subject-specific learning of all the pupils in the school. Not only that, but I could influence the professional experience of departmental colleagues who could, in turn, influence others. Of course, this is also self-limiting as it excludes the complex richness of the whole curriculum, well-being and professional development of all colleagues. This notion leads to senior leadership where influence extends to all learners in all subjects and all colleagues (I emphasise ‘all’; about 50% of school staff do not teach. They are not ‘non-teaching staff’; nobody should be defined by what they don’t do). And all of this leads to headship where influence is as broad and as deep as it can be within the context of an individual school. In other words, you can make a positive difference every day to many, many people, to what one former colleague refers to as ‘the family and extended family of a school’. So when asked, why headship, my answer always begins with that concept of extended influence, of making a difference.
More functionally, my pathways have mostly involved moving schools for promotional opportunities (my current is my seventh and last; I retire in the summer). This has helped me develop a wide sense of how schools function differently according to their context and their developmental stage. In the early years I took on unpaid leadership and management roles in fields where I felt that I could make an impact and where I knew I would gain new knowledge and deeper understanding. Later, I was afforded opportunities to contribute to the wider Welsh school system whilst still a practising senior leader. This latter allowed me to build informal networks of professional contacts which have proved to be invaluable in times of doubt and uncertainty (there have been many of these).
I will finish by sharing the toughest interview question I think I’ve ever been asked. It came from a member of a student council (they always ask the best questions) and it was this: ‘We’re appointing two Assistant Headteachers today. Don’t you think that the money would be better spent on teachers?’
It seemed to me then, in that pressured moment, and has seemed to me ever since, that being able to answer that question meaningfully and being able to follow that up by demonstrating every day that you understand and live by your answer goes to the heart of school leadership. That question, in a very real sense, has been my guide through the metaphorical yellow wood and along the paths I chose.
How would you answer it?