Five lessons of primary leadership

Written by: Tom Panagiotopoulos | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

After 10 years as a headteacher in east London, Tom Panagiotopoulos has written a book chronicling his experiences. We asked him to give us five lessons for successful primary school leadership

Lesson 1: The children come first

At the heart of school leadership there should be a firm belief that most decisions should ultimately add value to the children’s lives. Whether that’s setting a menu for lunch or drafting a policy for teaching and learning.

Too many initiatives distract from long-term goals. Those initiatives come and go and so do the people promoting them. The only person a school leader should promote is the child. After all, the children are the reason we have a job.

At a meeting I once asked: “How will this add value to our children’s education?” Every head in the room whipped round like a demon possessed. No-one answered my question. I dare say no-one could, and their silence spoke volumes.

Finally, know what is happening in the classrooms and always sit next to the children when observing their learning.

Lesson 2: Don’t get dragged into a conflict in the playground

Dealing with an angry parent in the school playground can be a recipe for spectacular disaster.

On one occasion we took the children to the local cinema. Usually, they will throw in popcorn and a drink with the tickets, but it wasn’t offered to us this time. At the end of the day, I was dealing with a serious incident and had the police on the phone when one of the parents came to complain that we didn’t give them popcorn and a drink.

Are you kidding me? I thought. I just put my hand up and said politely: “I can’t deal with this right now, please go and speak to the teacher.”

All hell broke loose. She started screaming in my face and gesticulating to others to get an audience.

“Look at him. He won’t even speak to me because he’s too busy on the phone. Is this how you treat your parents? You’re a joker, you don’t care that these children were out all afternoon and weren’t given a treat,” she ranted.

She also threw in that this was a safeguarding issue because that has maximum effect. Last time I checked, not getting popcorn does not constitute a breach in safety or wellbeing.

I walked away from her because I could feel myself getting angry. She continued her belligerent rant: “Go on walk away now. Look at him! He’s walking away from me because he doesn’t want to deal with my complaint.” She was throwing her arms in the air looking around for others to support.

I could hear her voice even when I was on the other side of the school. I stopped myself from going back and giving her a piece of my mind.

Lesson 3: Beware of pass the parcel

Early on in my career I realised how skilful people are at passing the proverbial “buck” – and the phrase “just to let you know” is often the easiest way to get rid of a hot potato.

For those of you that are not in leadership roles, this is code for: I have told you and this is your problem now and I will disavow any knowledge or responsibility of the issue.

I officially banned the phrase and told staff that under no circumstances do I want them to pass on information to me using the phrase: “Just to let you know.” However, people very creatively found replacement phrases to get what they want. “You might be interested in…” Help me!

Lesson 4: Turn off the ping

For the love of God – switch off the notifications. Distractions are the enemy of focus. Check your emails once a day and resist the temptation to respond to those hysterical emails that are red-flagged as if the four horsemen of the apocalypse are riding into town.

I started teaching when there weren’t any emails and a letter meant exactly that – a letter sent in five working days and you had another five days to respond. Occasionally we picked up the phone for convenience, but that was one attached to a wall not to our hands.

I once got an email from an irate parent at 10pm and another at 6am complaining I hadn’t responded. You’ve got to be kidding me!

Lesson 5: Expect the unexpected

As a leader you will play many roles: plumber, electrician, cleaner, accountant, therapist, clairvoyant, and sometimes even the one you should be playing – teacher!

However, nobody can prepare you for what I call: The Tales of the Unexpected. This is where the universe conspires against you and your resolve is truly tested.

One of those tests came one morning after a torrential night of rain. I opened the doors to the main building and sure enough the whole floor was flooded. As I was walking through the water, I noticed it had a strange brown colour and the smell was pungent. When I spotted a floating turd, I realised this quagmire wasn’t rainwater, but raw sewage that had come through the toilets. I promptly turned around and left the building. I quickly took off my shoes and socks! Luckily, I had a pair of trainers in my office.

It then dawned on me – I would have to close the school down. It was 8am and some children were already in the playground waiting to go to the breakfast club.

My heart began to race and I could feel the pressure building as my forehead got hotter and hotter. I ignored the slight tightening of my chest and splashed some cool water on my face. A million questions raced through my mind.

What about the children who come in by themselves? We can’t provide lunch so we will need to get sandwiches delivered for those who are here. How much is this going to cost? Will our insurance cover it? I have hardly any contingency funds. My budget cannot cope.

Luckily, parents can surprise you at times like these. They can kick-off when their child loses a jumper (or doesn’t get popcorn!), but at times like these they are very understanding. Nobody complained and a few even asked to help. This is when you feel like it’s really a family.

The cleaning crew arrived in protective suits and masks and went in to inspect the damage. The man in charge took away our shoes and socks for safe disposal. My new Prada loafers in the bin! I was ready to cry. Now this was turning out to be a true catastrophe. My shoe collection is my only luxury in life – now this was becoming personal.

By the end of the day, they had ripped out everything that had been soiled by the contaminated water, including all the custom-made cupboards which held all our curriculum equipment. Flooring was ripped out and whatever wasn’t metal and couldn’t be disinfected had to be thrown away.

The man in charge issued me with the certificate, which meant we could open the school on Monday. I slumped into my chair and realised I hadn’t eaten anything since my breakfast at 6am.

A few minutes later one of my teachers popped her head through the door and asked if I wanted to join them in the pub for a “Friday drink”. She cocked her head to one side and asked: “Are you okay?”

Remember: you’re a teacher above everything else and if you teach one thing, then teach everyone to love one another. That’s the biggest lesson of all.

  • Tom Panagiotopoulos was a headteacher for 10 years in Hackney, east London. He has also worked as an Ofsted inspector. His book, Scribblings: Diary of a head teacher is published by Vulpine Press:

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