Talking Heads Blog #16: Helena Marsh

Leadership Biography

Name: Helena Marsh

Phase: Secondary (11-16) and primary-secondary MAT leader

Sector: State academy

Region: Cambridgeshire, East of England

Years Served in Education: 13

Years Served as a Headteacher: 1

Leadership Journey:

English teacher and ic Media Studies (2 years); 2nd in English (1 year); Head of English (3 years); Assistant Principal and Head of English (2 years); Assistant Principal (3 years); Deputy Principal (1 year); Executive Principal (1 year).

Leadership Coach/Mentor/Inspiration:

Senior leaders that have modelled compassionate and caring leadership; supportive heads that have encouraged me to ‘make the leap’; inspirational women that I have had the privilege of learning from as part of the WomenEd steering group and wider community; wisdom, talent and moral purpose in spades from Head teachers’ Roundtable colleagues; Jill Berry, leadership coach extraordinaire; my role-model, hardworking mum.

Twitter Handle: @helenamarsh81


Leadership Reflections

Why did you become a Headteacher?

It wasn’t a straightforward or obvious decision. Although I joined the profession through the fasttrack teacher training route, and always had an inkling that I had leadership aspirations, the prospect of being a head teacher was always quite a daunting and alien prospect. Even entertaining the idea that I might have headship potential seemed quite vulgar.

Like many ambitious female teachers, I quickly rose the ranks to middle and then senior leadership and then had somewhat of a crisis of confidence when starting a family. How could I sustain the workload, pace and pressure with young children? Was it really possible to juggle leadership and life? Returning to SLT full time after both of my children with the support of a stay at home husband, I was determined to prove that I could be a great teacher and parent, amidst pangs of guilt and self-doubt.

Brilliantly supportive line managers and head teachers that were understanding and reassuring, plus a non-teaching husband who brought some blunt and much-needed perspective to the situation, helped me to manage my Assistant Head teacher role and responsibilities. Making the decision to apply for a Deputy Headship with a 5 and 2 year old was a significant one; the family-friendly nature of the school with its emphasis on wellbeing was a significant deciding factor.

The headship become available at my school when I had only been in the Deputy role for 7 months – the prospect of applying for the position seemed rather ridiculous. After a number of colleagues, family members and peers encouraged me apply, I spent a good couple of months wavering.

My involvement with WomenEd as a founding member of the movement was certainly a key contributor to my final decision. How could I preach to others about leaning in and stepping up if I wasn’t prepared to be brave enough to put myself forward for promotion? After a huge amount of ‘what ifs?’ and ‘am I… enoughs?’, I decided to take the leap and apply. That was the most challenging part of the process. I genuinely enjoyed the two day interview. The reassuring thought that, regardless of the outcome, I still got to work at a school that I really loved, helped to take the pressure off. It was exhilarating to be offered the position.

The volume of reasons not to become a head teacher can be overwhelming. Fundamentally, my decision to become a head teacher is the same for any leadership promotion: to make a bigger difference by having a wider sphere of influence.

Making the leap and enjoying it: @helenamarsh/achxXr0Qc4

Why do you think it is important for Headteachers to still teach?

I appreciate that there are plenty of reasons for head teachers to step away from the classroom, many of them valid and reasonable. There are financial and pragmatic arguments to justify head teachers needing to prioritise the boardroom over the classroom, but, for me, being a teaching head is fundamental to my leadership style.

While I am an expensive classroom teacher and it doesn’t make logical sense for me to deliver lessons when I could be having a wider strategic impact, I believe that staying grounded in teaching and learning helps me to lead the school with credibility and authenticity. I too have marking, report writing and planning and resourcing of lessons to do which helps to keep connected to the core business of schooling: teaching and learning. While my timetable is marginal compared to other colleagues, it helps me to appreciate the demands on teachers and the implications of policy expectations.

It’s easy to justify a non-teaching head teacher position for the reasons above and in the best interests of young people. Surely students would be a better off with a dedicated teacher than a head teacher juggling lots of other priorities? Won’t they just be the victim of lots of cover? If the teaching allocation is a tokenistic gesture and all other meetings and external commitments cause their experience to suffer, then the position needs reviewing. While my class have periodic supply when necessary, I’d like to think that they benefit in other ways by having the head teach them to compensate for this. It also helps me to keep things in perspective and be more scrupulous about the appointments that I agree to in my diary; ‘is it really essential that I miss my Year 10 class to attend?’ is an important prioritisation benchmark.

Ultimately, I really enjoy teaching. The hour of so I spend in the classroom on most days allows me to interact with young people and ‘walk the talk’. It’s important that head teachers don’t hide in the classroom for selfish reasons, in the comfort zone of what is familiar rather than tackle more significant whole school matters, or get bogged down in the minutia of daily practice as a method of shying away from the hard stuff. However, I do believe that some continuation of teaching has genuine benefits and helps to maintain a genuine ‘teacher’ bit of my title. The notion that head teachers are too busy or important to continue to teach is something that I am keen to challenge.

Keeping it real:

How do you create a culture of wellbeing and what are the values that your shape you as a leader?

A number of schools’ interpretation of a ‘no-excuses’ culture involves staff working as hard as possible to ensure that students achieve academic success. This can lead to burnout and exhaustion as colleagues plough endless amounts of time and energy to achieve outcomes ‘whatever it takes’. I think it’s really important to take stock of the pervading expectations in a school and make sure that they are sustainable in the long term for the benefit of staff and students.

I make sure that there is space and time to talk about wellbeing and ensure that it’s not perceived as a ‘fluffy’ topic or as a distraction from achieving high standards. I once met a head teacher that proclaimed ‘work-life balance is for wimps’ – that helped to galvanise my own opposing perspective and confirm that I would never want to run a school with a leadership culture like theirs. I also disagreed with a head teacher that asserted that it would unwise to put staff wellbeing before what is best for students. Ultimately, I believe that ‘being well’ is fundamental to a schools’ success and outcomes. Achieving both is possible; they are not binary opposites.

I don’t excuse apathy or endorse a laissez faire approach, and have actually come across very few colleagues in my career who have this kind of attitude to teaching anyhow, what’s more commonplace is staff who shoulder an unhealthy and overwhelming sense of responsibility. Observing and noticing those that seem to be struggling and make sure  someone checks in with them is essential.

It is important that the school’s expectations are reasonable and that this is something that continues to be kept in check with new initiatives and changes to demands. Our SLT regularly reviews workload in regards to evening commitments and policy requirements for marking, planning and data entry, in line with DfE workload challenge recommendations. Workload and wellbeing features on a staff training programme and activities such as staff sports activities help to foster a culture where wellbeing is valued. Destigmatising stress and valuing the importance of mental health is also a key part of our focus on wellbeing. We are also about to subscribe to a service that provides confidential counselling and support for all colleagues.

Little acts of kindness can also influence culture. I write birthday cards for all staff, recognise colleagues’ efforts with thank you gestures, and supply fruit and cake after parents’ evenings. They are all little touches to show that I care for and appreciate staff. Ultimately, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs applies to adults as well as children. While I may not always be a great role model in this regard, I do try to prioritise my own well-being and staff’s as well as students.

Values such as integrity, compassion, equality, a love of learning, and a belief in the transformative power of education are what fuel me as a teacher and a leader. These apply to the way I treat colleagues as well as students.

Fit your own mask before assisting others: @helenamarsh/K4uOiB6n0T

How would you like to change the perception of Head teachers and what myths would you like to debunk about being a Head teacher?

I’m keen to quash the head teacher as football manager analogy that has become pervasive in education. While we may have much to learn about successful leadership from the likes of Alex Ferguson, there are many more apt models of effective leadership out there and we mustn’t confuse education with competition and game-playing. Schooling is far more important than league tables and results. Too much emphasis has been placed on how teachers perform in a 60 minute lesson or what students can achieve in a 120 minute exam. We also must not lose sight of the true value and meaning of education, or got sucked into a false standards rhetoric or learning proxies. The way in which head teachers have become scapegoats for faults in the education system also needs tackling.

The notion that head teachers are distant and dogmatic figures is also problematic. Many prospective leaders are put off by the perception of headship as a lofty and lonely experience. Yes, leading a school does require a certain loss of operational contact with school life and yes, it is possible to have a diary filled with off-site appointments and matters that seem quite remote from teaching and learning, but as a head you control what you do. While everyone will want a piece of you and you can be invited to lots of external commitments, you prioritise what to invest your time and energy into. It’s important to get the right balance between being visible and present along the corridors and in classrooms and carving out time to be strategic and make bigger decisions on behalf of the school.

Headship ultimately involves influencing the culture and conditions of a school to enable staff to thrive and flourish for the benefit of young people and their learning. Much of this involves building and maintaining effective relationships rather than a lone pursuit. It is not necessary to be cold or ruthless. Yes, there are times when leadership can be challenging and call for courageous, brave and sometimes fierce conversations and difficult decisions, but the idea that head teachers need to be emotionless and surgeon-like in their approach is false.

Perceptions of workload also need demystifying. While you cannot delegate the overall responsibility that comes from being in charge of the school, the role does not involve spinning all of the plates, it requires helping others to spin their effectively. Having the oversight of all school functions, rather than being an expert in a specific field, as leaders are used in in other middle or senior positions, is a key learning point for headship.

Being a head teacher is a great privilege and ultimately a role that individuals will need to serve in a way that feels authentic and right for them. Effective leadership comes in many shapes, sizes, styles and colours. Lingering stereotypes of headship only coming in grey, navy or pinstripe need re-imagining. More diverse leadership, in terms of gender and ethnicity, will help to tackle dominant images and statistics of heads being male, white and over 45 years old.

Visions of headship that create a kind of super hero or god-like persona also need challenging. Being head of a school is not about being perfect, flawless or super human. The charisma model of heads can create an expectation of school leaders to be omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent. This is unrealistic and damaging for all involved. Leading a school does not involve being the font of all educational knowledge or some kind of Supreme Being. I did once listen to a MAT CEO talk about needing to wear his pants on the outside of his trousers to be an effective leader. I sincerely hope that he meant it is a joke…

I’m no superhero: @helenamarsh/7ge859QbQ2

Leadership Advice

‘Sometimes you just need to get things done quick and dirty’

A wise and respected head teacher

‘Done is better than perfect’

Sheryl Sandberg

Both of these maxims have challenged my perfectionist tendencies.

Leadership Inspiration

Mary Myatt’s ‘Hopeful Schools’ and ‘High Challenge, Low Threat: How the Best Leaders Find the Balance’

Jill Berry’s ‘Making the Leap’

Will Ryan’s ‘Leadership with a Moral Purpose’

Dave Harris’ ‘Brave Heads: How to lead a school without selling your soul’

John Tomsett’s ‘This much I know about love over fear: Creating a culture for truly great teaching’

John Dunford’s ‘The School Leadership Journey’

Leadership Mantras

Look after the people and the percentages will look after themselves.

Keep the main thing the main thing.

Education is for life, not for Ofsted; we do things for children, not inspectors.

Thriving not surviving; waving not drowning.

“Be a flamingo of hope, not a lemming of doom!” © Rae Snape


One thought on “Talking Heads Blog #16: Helena Marsh

  1. This is a stunning post, Helena, and you are an exceptional leader and a fine human being! It’s a privilege to be able to support you – and to learn from you.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s