Talking Heads Blog #5: Chris Hildrew

Leadership Biography

Name: Chris Hildrew

Phase: Secondary (11-18)

Sector: Academy (converter)

Region: South West

Years Served in Education: 20

Years Served as a Headteacher: 1

Leadership Journey:

Straight out of university into a PGCE course, then: English teacher (three years); KS3 English Coordinator (one year); Second in English (two years); Head of English (three years); Curriculum Leader (five years); Deputy Headteacher (five years); Headteacher (now!)

Leadership Inspiration:

Too many to mention! My leadership idol would be equal parts Barack Obama, Simon Sinek, Carol Dweck, Emma Watson and Taylor Swift – an alarming but impressive hybrid.

Twitter Handle: @chrishildrew

Blog:  and

Leadership Reflections

Why did you become a Headteacher?

There are two parts to this answer! Firstly, when I was eleven my parents sent me to a private school because they did not think that the local state school would stretch and challenge me enough and they worried I would not achieve my potential if they sent me there. As an eleven-year-old, I did not take in the ramifications of this decision: I just went to school. As an adult, I have devoted my career to ensuring that the state schools I teach in, and lead, are so good that any parents faced with the same decision today would choose my state school rather than the independent, not because it was cheaper, but because it was better.

Secondly, I am a third generation Headteacher. My grandfather was Headteacher of Grasmere School in the Lake District; my father was a serving Headteacher in North West London before he retired. I am following in their footsteps and I try, every day, to make sure I do that tradition justice.

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

For me, the clue is in the name. I bristle when anyone calls me a “Headmaster” – not least because of the patriarchal gendering of the leadership role, but mainly because that’s not what I am. I am the Headteacher, and I am primarily a leader of teaching and learning. Of course, I also lead finance, premises, HR, community engagement, political, marketing and social cohesion strategy…but mainly teaching and learning. If a school leader is going to have any credibility, it’s essential that they are involved in the day-to-day practice of the art, craft and science of teaching and learning. It also keeps me in touch with the experience of the classroom teacher, so I can understand what it’s like to use the behaviour management, data input, reporting and monitoring systems, and I share in their daily experience. Finally, it’s the best part of most days – contact with young people fills me with hope and optimism that, despite everything, it’ll be okay in the end.

How do you create a culture of wellbeing?

There are the things that we do specifically for this, which include long-service awards, a “shout-out” board for staff to recognise one another’s contributions, a staff welfare and wellbeing group, and staff socials. I handwrite postcards to staff when I hear about something positive they have done. As part of our student voice in terms 1 and 2 I asked students to nominate teachers who they thought deserved a “thank you”, and wrote to everyone they named (including their reasons!) on the first day back in January as a winter pick-me-up. We also got staff to generate a list of “21 reasons to work at Churchill Academy” to accentuate the positives in our lovely school.

These are some of the specific things we have done to proactively encourage a culture of wellbeing, but embedding and sustaining that culture isn’t about the specific strategies and initiatives. It’s about considering the impact of everything we do in relation to workload. It’s about smiling and acknowledging everyone you pass in the corridor. It’s asking nicely. It’s saying thank you, all the time, for everything. And it’s acknowledging that your staff do hundreds of things every day that I never get to hear about which make young people’s lives better – and even though I don’t know what those things are, thanking them anyway.

How do you talent spot/nurture aspiring leaders?

This is one of the primary responsibilities of any Headteacher. We have a regular “talent spotting” item on our senior team agenda, and on the link meetings between middle and senior leaders, where we feedback good practice we have observed and agree development opportunities for staff. We then encourage those members of staff to take on projects within the Academy or as part of our Teaching Alliance, including our Women into Leadership programme and Growing Leaders (where staff get the opportunity to work-shadow senior leaders in another alliance school). Some staff will make and take opportunities for themselves. My role is to help encourage others by showing them that we have the confidence and belief in them to take on opportunities, where they don’t necessarily have that confidence and belief in themselves.

What are the values that your shape you as a leader?

My fundamental belief is that old NASA motto: your attitude determines your altitude. I believe that the mindset we have when we approach learning – or indeed, anything in life – will determine the outcome. I believe that everyone can learn anything, provided the conditions are right. It’s my job to ensure that I create the conditions where learning is as successful as it’s possible to be.

I am also driven by my feminism to do all I can to promote gender equality in schools and break down the stereotypes that close off opportunities to girls and boys, and men and women, in education.

What myths would you like to debunk about being a Headteacher?

One myth is that it’s not possible to lead a school and have a life. This isn’t true! I certainly give a lot of my time and energy to my work, but I was very clear with my Governors when they appointed me that my family comes first. I come in later once a week so I can take my children to school, and I leave on the bell at the end of school at least once a week too so I can pick them up and be at home with them. It’s important to model this for staff – I’m not a “first in and last to leave” Headteacher as I think that sets an unrealistic and unfair expectation of working patterns. In Headship there are plenty of late nights, evening meetings and school events which do impact on my time, but I’m very clear that if there’s a clash, my family always comes first. You don’t have to choose Headship or a life – you can have both.

Leadership Advice

The best piece of leadership advice I received was from Vic Goddard’s book, The Best Job in the World – and it was the advice given to him as he started his Headship: “you make the weather.” The idea that, no matter what is going on, you are responsible for the climate and culture of the organisation you lead, is a powerful one. It has impacted me as a leader by constantly reminding me that the way I behave, interact, speak and act sets the tone for the Academy – I model what I expect. It’s humbling and empowering.

Leadership Inspiration

I’m currently reading Angela Duckworth’s Grit – the power of passion and perseverance. It’s a great read and reinforces many of the growth mindset ideas that are central to my vision and values as a teacher and as a leader. The big takeaway for me is ensuring that students stick to things when they’ve started them. Succeed or fail, there is something to learn from the experience – give up and you lose the opportunity to learn.

Next up is Clever Lands by Lucy Crehan. I like to have one education book and one fiction book on the go at once – my current fiction choice is The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry.  The last fiction choice which influenced my leadership behaviour, was Matilda which I read with my children.  At one point, I confess, I did start to imagine Miss Trunchbull and Miss Honey on Twitter debating traditional vs progressive teaching methods. But Roald Dahl also said this in Matlida: “most Headteachers are chosen because they possess a number of fine qualities. They understand children and they have the children’s best interests at heart. They are sympathetic. They are fair and they are deeply interested in education.” I try to make sure I live up to that in my own Headship.

Leadership Mantra

 “Treat people like people” (Daniel Pink)

2 thoughts on “Talking Heads Blog #5: Chris Hildrew

  1. Chris – thank you for sharing. I love the hybridity of your leadership role models – says a lot about you as a human & a leader! I have a similar story about being sent private & being furious, I want to lead a school good enough for everyone’s children to go to. It also resonates that you lead with the Teacher in your title. Would love to see the Dahl characters personified on Twitter!! H x


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