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Being a Primary Deputy Head, This Much I Know…

Laura Knight

When I was 11 years old I knew that I wanted to be a primary school teacher. It wasn’t just the influence of having parents as teachers (they didn’t put me off!) I just knew that I liked doing pretty much everything. I loved learning and I loved the day-to-day variety of being busy doing different things at school.

It’s this sense of being into ‘everything’ that has seen me progress from class teaching into my current role as a Deputy Headteacher. Being a Deputy Head is an ‘everything’ job. Teaching commitments aside, not that this is in any way a small part, the sheer range of tasks that a Deputy may be required to perform means that the role is a very unique one indeed.

Spinning Plates

The job title signposts that on some occasions, when the Headteacher is out, you have to do all of the things they do. And then some. I have worked with a number of Heads who say that the Deputy Head role is harder than their own. Whether this is accurate or not, it is certainly true that as a Deputy you have your fingers in a great many pies.

First and foremost most Deputies teach!

Teaching children and the reward you gain from watching them learn is central to why we do what we do. It’s what stands teaching apart from so many other run of the mill jobs. I no longer have a whole class teaching commitment. Instead I continue to interact with the children through cover, intervention groups and mentoring.

Now the highlight of my day can follow a tentative knock on my office door, when a small person brings me their best work to celebrate. I know that when you are a Deputy, balancing fuller teaching responsibilities alongside your leadership role can be a demanding and challenging task.

Maintaining high quality planning, preparation and marking whilst ensuring you fulfil other strategic and supporting roles as well as the day to day business of helping to lead the school can require skill, organisation and a persistent drive.

In many schools it can be the Deputy Head who is on the ground, involved in developing effective practice, focussed on improving teaching and learning. As such, much of a Deputy’s time can be taken up with coaching, support and discussion. Working with staff can be as rewarding – and frustrating! – as working with the children.

After the children the school’s greatest resource is the teaching staff and the relationship you develop with them is fundamental to the success and happiness of the school. I know that a crucial part of a Deputy, or any Senior Leader’s role, is nurturing the staff, training them and facilitating development opportunities and trusting people to do a great job.

Taking the time to reflect upon and appreciate the positive impact you make as a Deputy is important whether that be with the progress children or other teachers make.

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“Have you got a minute?”

….And the answer, although sometimes I dearly wish to say ‘no, sorry’, is always ‘yes, of course.’

As a Deputy you find yourself in the middle of everything, the go-between, bridging the ‘gap’ between the teaching staff and the Head. This can be quite an interesting place to be to say the least.

At times, in any school, hard questions have to be asked and you can find yourself having challenging conversations. Finding the best way to deliver a difficult message takes diplomacy and sensitivity, the more constructive you can be the better. Remembering to temper tough issues by reinforcing the positive and using praise can make the difference when trying to support others.

Sometimes this can make you popular and sometimes, well, not so! You have to resolve yourself to the idea that you cannot always get everything right for all people but I know that you always need to have an open door, a box of tissues and a listening ear.

I once worked with a Head who explained to me the 80:20 rule. In schools this translates to the way in which you spend 80% of your time focussed on 20% of children, staff or parents. For example I spend 80% of my time supporting 20% of our teachers, specifically the NQTs. Sometimes it means that I don’t always get to see all staff regularly and out of the classroom this can be quite isolating. Popping into classes, getting into the staffroom and being a presence around school or the playground can be important to ensure that you are accessible and approachable for all.

The one person you can probably spend more time working with and have a far greater understanding of than anyone else in the building is the Headteacher. Now I have worked with many, many Heads in my career and they have all had their special foibles, talents and quirks. The reciprocal relationship between Head and Deputy is a distinctive partnership in any school. With a great Head you can learn what can make a really great school and be cultivated into a great senior leader yourself.

The place of a Deputy Head to support and challenge the Head can also be an exceptional position to be in. And whilst you can be the buffer for the staff to share their worries with, it’s important that you and the Head are there to back each other up too. Relieving tension by having the occasional moan can be supportive, as can be finding things to laugh about.

As a Deputy I know that from listening to woes, to answering questions, to sharing jokes and relaying tricky messages being a good communicator really helps.

To do or not to do?

Like many teachers I love a good to-do list – I have long handwritten ones, colour coded ones with deadlines on my iPad, collections of scribbled Post-it notes and even a bedside notebook or two. In truth, at my school, my Girl Scout preparedness and slightly OCD organisation is a cause for some gentle banter in the staffroom. But I know that how you manage and organise your time as a Deputy is crucial not only to your output in school but also to your work/life balance at home.

Leaders and managers will all have their own strategies for making sure that they get all their jobs done in a timely fashion. We all work in different ways and the pressure that can be felt in schools can be motivator and hindrance alike. Something that works for me is the four Ds which is just a way of prioritising what must be done and when:

Do – These are the things that need to be dealt with that day or week.

Delegate – As a Deputy it can be difficult to relinquish control but it is beneficial to yourself and the development of others to sometimes ask for help or give tasks away.

Delay – Not all things have to be done straight away. Honestly, they don’t, you can put some things off… just don’t forget to come back to them.

Dump – Also known as, “I’ll file that in the (recycle) bin”.

However you organise yourself, the principles outlined above are so useful. Everything really does not need to be done immediately by you, just done well and in good time.

As a profession, teachers are always tinkering and assume that there is always room for improvement. For many teachers there is a very real feeling that the children won’t learn well enough without that little extra tweak to planning, having a few more sparkly resources or using 6 colours to highlight improvement points. This can be true for Deputies too.

So much of what I do is self directed that the trick is to know actually when to stop and be content that you have done a good job.

Charging the battery

There are different points in the year which expose the condition known as ‘teacher tiredness’: the festive, nativity filled run up to Christmas; half way through the year when the mornings and evenings are dark and daylight is at a premium; the long, long summer term stretch and any time when there is an imminent phone call from some friendly inspectors. Whilst I am in no doubt that this job is highly rewarding and worthwhile it’s all consuming ‘everythingness’ can also be relentless and test your powers of resilience.

I use an analogy to describe how this condition works for me. I have huge internal stores of motivation, commitment and enthusiasm much like a mobile phone battery. But I know that without a good, full 100% charge my work output can begin to operate at about 45% and instead of whizzing through my jobs, my productivity gradually lowers. Not only that, but you can often be the barometer for the feelings of the staff picking up on the overall stress level in school. Being able to recognise this within yourself and around you is important for the emotional climate in school.

Exploring the things that will help you and the school recharge can ensure a happy and healthy life for all.

Certainly celebrating successes is vital whether that is an individual child progressing well or a positive outcome for school improvement. For me it’s also about finding pleasure in the little things in life which helps me to get through – walking my dog on a bright, sunny day, treating myself to a bacon roll from the school kitchen at playtime and the occasional medicinal glass of red. For school it can be encouraging staff to take a break and get together socially or reflecting on those things that are going well.

And finally…

For some the Deputy Head role is a brief stepping-stone to bigger and bossier things. For me the Deputy role has always been the very best – and occasionally the worst! – of jobs. It is really important to find the right school at the right time (with the right Head). Potentially you can be one of the most influential people in school with a fantastic front row view of the Big Picture.

If you are a Deputy, or considering becoming one, I know from experience that it is a privilege to see everything about the school from teaching to safeguarding to recruitment to finance but always with learning at the heart.

 

Written by Laura Knight

Laura Knight has been teaching for 17 years in London and the North West. She is currently in her second Deputy Headship. In her time there she has been instrumental in the school progressing from special measures to good and the successful conversion to a sponsored academy as part of a multi-academy trust.

 

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