Talking Heads Blog #37: Dan Leonard

Leadership Biography

Name: Daniel Leonard

Phase: Secondary (16-18)

Sector: State

Region: East Region

Years Served in Education: 18

Years Served as a Headteacher: Almost 1

Leadership Journey:

Head of PE, Assistant Head – Data and Achievement, Deputy Head – Pastoral, Associate Head – Teaching and Learning/Curriculum and now just about to finish my first year as Headteacher.

Leadership Coach/Mentor/Inspiration:

My school PE teacher Mr Bowen and my last two Headteachers David Franklin and Frances Howarth who in their own way gave me confidence while keeping hold of the reins so I didn’t get myself into too much trouble!

Twitter Handle: @DanielBLeonard

Leadership Reflections

Why did you become a Headteacher?

Over the course of my first year I have asked myself the same question on more than one occasion. Impact, influence, the feeling you can really make a difference? All of these are very true. I decided at the age of 30 that I was going to be a Head by the time I reached 40, I made it by 5 months, but actually once the cocky PE teacher of my 30’s wore off I started to believe I had a clear vision for what I thought was right and really enjoyed making whole school changes that I could see making a difference to pupils’ lives. I’m very proud to be Head and very thankful that my Governors have given me the opportunity to lead the school. I do however have a massive imposter syndrome and hope it wears off into my second year in the job.

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

There are a few reasons really. I have to say with all the other things you have to deal with on a daily basis getting into the classroom and working with the pupils is somewhat a welcome relief. I think it’s important for the pupils to see you in the classroom but I also feel eternally guilty for missing more lessons than I should, sometimes for things that are probably less important but have to be done. I also think it’s important for the staff to see you teaching and understanding in some way the pressures they are under; it certainly helps when you’re considering any new initiatives to remember the impact it has on the classroom. Finally, with so many financial constraints and recruitment issues, it helps to have some flexibility of someone who can pick up what’s left on the timetable and once again for staff to see that when you are asking them to do more because finances are tight, that you can do your bit as well. But more than anything I came into education to teach and I actually really miss it when I don’t.

How do you create a culture of wellbeing?

This is really tough. I don’t think anyone outside of teaching really appreciates the time and dedication teachers give to their pupils. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about marking and the effort vs impact and really tried to rationalise what we do. Our pupils tell us that the best feedback they get is verbal, when teachers really take the time to talk through their own work and help them understand where they went wrong. I’ve actually had to tell my English staff off for marking too much this year, which again goes to show the lengths teachers go to. I am very much against signing pages or stickers in the books to show you’ve had verbal feedback; if you want to know if they get feedback just ask them!

I’ve dabbled with additional things like getting dry cleaning collected from school and even had a nail technician come into school to see staff during their frees but actually I’ve realised it’s what you do every day, how you treat people and appreciate what they do and how you try to remove any unwanted distractions from teaching that actually makes a difference. For the last 5 years every year I ask all staff what are the barriers to them being able to work most effectively and how can we change things to remove those barriers. This is always acted upon where possible and I think makes a difference to everyone’s workload and wellbeing.

How do you talent spot/nurture aspiring leaders?

This is something I’m really passionate about having been given the opportunity to step onto the Leadership Team while I was a Head of Department. We have a wide range of opportunities for staff development at all levels, some paid but most are not. We run bi-annual courses for aspiring middle leaders and middle leaders in school. We offer Deputy Head of House posts where staff have no forms groups to look after and each of our 4 recent appointments to Heads of House have previously been Deputies. We offer staff opportunities to shadow middle leaders and 2 staff each year to step onto the Leadership Team to take on a specific role. We also offer development posts for non-teaching staff so that they can develop into leaders. Finally, we have developed a Women in Leadership course this year in school and I was delighted when one of my staff said they wouldn’t have applied for a role they were offered had they not been through the course and gained the confidence they needed to apply. In a climate where recruitment and retention is so important building capacity from within is vital.

What is your vision for education?

I really do believe in developing pupils both academically and personally. It’s very easy to get bogged down in focusing on academic achievement at the expense of allowing pupils to experience things that develop them as a person. I’m extremely committed to CIAG and truly believe that if we can get pupils at a young age to consider where they want to go it may just raise their aspirations and increase their focus during their time at school. I also wholeheartedly disagree with forcing pupils to select certain subjects or pigeon holing pupils into certain pathways based on their ability. I want my school to have a really broad curriculum offered at all ages with as much choice as possible, to allow pupils to follow the pathways that engage them. The arts, sport and technology based subjects are so important and it really saddens me to see them being restricted for some young people to make way for more ‘academic’ subjects.

What have been the highs and lows of your role as Headteacher?

My biggest high this year was walking into school on the first day as Headteacher. Having been at the school for 9 years I wasn’t quite expecting the emotions I felt when I walked in, quickly followed by the dread I felt when I remembered I was just about to give my first speech to the whole staff as Head, a very different experience. I wasn’t really ready for the highs and lows I don’t think. I definitely wasn’t ready for the sleepless nights, regularly waking up at 4am with a million things running through my head.

I’ve spent much more time with pupils that are doing really well in school and that has been a real high for me. The start of the academic year was fantastic and I felt on the crest of a wave really, but a few difficult weeks before Christmas really made me question my effectiveness and was a real dip in the year.

I think I’ve realised over the course of my first year to not get too high when things are going well, don’t get too full of yourself; but at the same time don’t get too low when things go wrong. It’s really important to have a good team around you in school but also a good team around you outside of school. I’ve been very lucky to have some excellent, experienced Headteachers who have been very generous in their time supporting me when times are a bit tough and I’d like to thank each of them for their support.

Leadership Advice

Probably the best piece of advice has been to build a network of support from outside of your school.

I’ve been very fortunate to meet a lot of outstanding Headteachers and many of them are very giving of their time to support me when either I really don’t know what to do or I can’t decide on the most appropriate action to take. It is easy to feel very isolated at times and having a support network who have seen and done most of the things you’re having to deal with really makes a difference.

The other piece of advice I received from my last Headteacher was to really take your time and make sure you have all the information you need to make an informed decision. It has been very tempting at times to be decisive and make a quick decision but this advice has stopped me making a poor choice on a couple of occasions.

If I could give anyone any advice myself moving into their first year of Headship it would be to deal with issues straight away, don’t let them drift because if you do, something else might happy that makes the situation even worse.

Leadership Inspiration

When I was preparing for interview last year I spent a lot of time reading and listening to Simon Sinek about leadership and was really inspired by what he said. Something that really stuck with me was his comment that as a leader you are not responsible for the results, you are responsible for the people that are responsible for the results. He also spoke about culture being so much more important than strategy. This has really framed my first year of Headship, trying to develop a vision and a culture that people can buy into. It has also helped me step back from the ‘doing’ and focus on supporting and challenging those who are now ‘responsible for the results’; making sure I make the school environment one where I retain and recruit fantastic staff who are listened too, feel valued, and are keen to help move the school forwards.

Leadership Mantra

My last Headteacher regularly told me that if you truly base every decision on what is in the best interests of the pupils and the school as a whole you can’t go far wrong. I think that’s a pretty good mantra to live by.



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