Talking Heads Blog #13: Chris Pyle

Leadership Biography

Name:  Chris Pyle

Phase: Secondary

Sector: Grammar and state boarding

Region: North West

Years Served in Education: 18

Years Served as a Headteacher: 4

Leadership Journey:

I certainly didn’t plan to become a teacher. I did a PhD in physical geography, expecting to spend my life studying glaciers. However, I loved the small group teaching of undergraduates more than I enjoyed the actual research. After a year working in the water industry, I applied for a job teaching at the Perse School – a very successful independent school in Cambridge. I’ve always been grateful that they took a gamble on this untrained teacher and turned a blind eye to some of my errors!

It was an exciting time to be at the Perse. The school was expanding fast, and changing from a comfortable but quite old-fashioned boys’ school into somewhere really dynamic and forward-looking.

I stayed there until after five years as Deputy Head I moved to become Head of Lancaster Royal Grammar School. LRGS is a grammar school and one of England’s 38 state boarding schools. Boarding was new to me, but I am now fully persuaded of its opportunities!

Leadership Coach/Mentor/Inspiration:

My wider family set a lot of the context that inspires me: education, academia and liberal values run through many of them, and I am pleased to follow in their footsteps in my own way.

Secondly, the vicar of my church in Cambridge: Mark Ashton (who died in 2010) was a brilliantly clear teacher and pastoral leader.

Day to day, though, the initiative of people who work in my school renew my optimism! They remind me that the best ideas start outside my office. Running a school is mainly about their energy and enthusiasm, not just mine.

Twitter Handle: @christopherpyle

Leadership Reflections

Why do you teach?

Charles Spurgeon wrote, “Happy storm that wrecks a man on such as rock as this.”  Having initially fallen into teaching, that is more-or-less how I feel about the profession!  Geography is a fascinating subject and extremely important – how fantastic to have the opportunity to talk about everything from ice-sheets to globalisation!

But teaching is really about people. Schools are such amazingly busy places, and almost always buzzing with positivity. Everywhere else is boring by comparison! My own perspectives have been widened by getting to know so many different pupils – I know a lot more about life than I used to. And over a period of years, it is always remarkable to see those eleven year olds grow into adults.

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

Heads should teach. You get to know the children. You see the school first hand, and can judge which gripes and concerns are real. You reconnect with your subject. You escape the emails. You remember what you’re there for. If you’re too busy to teach, you’re too busy.

How do you celebrate the teaching profession?

Remind people constantly that teaching is a great and important job. You don’t get a company car, but you do get a sense of purpose!

Former Saatchi and Saatchi CEO Kevin Roberts talks about four things that an employer needs to offer, and teaching has them all in abundance: Responsibility (and you get it fast in teaching); Learning (plenty of); Recognition (in a community that knows you well); and Joy.

How do you talent spot/nurture aspiring leaders?

It is very striking how some people are given responsibility but struggle to get things done. Everything’s a barrier. Other people take responsibility and (in Mark Zuckerberg’s phrase) “move fast and break things.”

We generally need less of the first and more of the second. The important thing is to create a culture where leadership comes from the edge, not from the centre. Expect it, encourage it, enjoy it!

What is your vision for education? 

I want state schools to be able to take on the independent sector at their own game, and win. That means academic excellence, extra-curricular opportunity and really, really good pastoral care.

In many ways state schools certainly can – and do. I worry that funding cuts will erode more of those opportunities. But as Jill Berry says, rough seas make the best sailors …

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

“I really value time with my family, that’s why I wouldn’t want your job,” as one colleague tactlessly told me when I started. That is nonsense, but the busyness comes in waves: weeks when absolutely everything lands at once, but others that are much calmer. For the most part you have more control over your time than most teachers.

“Such a lonely job!” (Perhaps that’s its appeal?!) In fact, you need to know everyone. You can poke your head round every door, and you need to know everyone. The greatest privilege of the job is when people come in confidence with things that are very personal.

“It is all about meeting government diktats.” No, it is all about people. Frustrating at times, pressured occasionally, but always, always fascinating!

Leadership Advice

Emerson’s great American essay “Self-Reliance” is very powerful:

“Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age…” 

It is about the importance of “you” and “now.” You matter. And right now is just right. If not you, who? If not now, when?

Leadership Inspiration

Currently dipping into: “The Essential Drucker”, the collected essays of Peter Drucker, father of modern management. I used to think that business books were absolutely useless. How wrong I was! He has seen it all before, and is very thoughtful.

Just finished: “Some Schools” by Jonty Driver, who was expelled from apartheid South Africa and worked in both state and independent schools in England and Hong Kong, finally as Head Master of Wellington College.  My main reminder from the book is that as teachers and Heads we are part of a long line of professionals hugely committed to their pupils. It is a noble calling!

Leadership Mantra

 “You always over-estimate what you can do in six months, and under-estimate what you can do in five years.”

One thought on “Talking Heads Blog #13: Chris Pyle

  1. Thanks for the mention, Chris! Really enjoyed reading this. And I hear very good things about your school from people who have taught there.


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