Talking Heads Blog #27: Kathleen McGillycuddy


Leadership Biography:

Name: Kathleen McGillycuddy

Phase: Secondary

Sector: State

Region: South West

Years Served in Education: 13

Years Served as a Headteacher: first year as a Headteacher

Leadership Journey:

A sojourn in project management preceded becoming a classroom teacher, Head of House, Deputy Head of Department, Head of Department, Assistant Head, Deputy Head and now my first Headship.

Leadership Coach/Mentor/Inspiration:

There are some definite influences evident in my leadership journey thus far–my younger sister who is quite simply a brilliant woman has offered me unwavering support and incisive guidance over the years, my parents who repeatedly told me to go out and grab the world by the scruff of the neck  and  instilled a very strong work ethic in all seven of their children, Sandberg’s Lean-In which made me question why I often made the tea and the WomenEd movement which urged me to be brave and to ask myself ‘if not me, then who?’

Twitter Handle: @mcgillycuddy101

Leadership Reflections:

Why do you teach?

Teaching is a fantastically exhilarating, frustrating, exhausting, creative, intellectually stimulating and, ultimately, life-changing profession.  It is not an easy gig and is sometimes the subject of unfair ridicule but, as someone once said, people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

Why did you become a Headteacher?

As with all previous roles I wanted to extend my sphere of influence so that I could positively affect more classrooms and therefore more students so becoming a headteacher was a logical next step. The whole point of being a headteacher, for me, is to make sure young people have the best teachers teaching them in great classroom conditions and sometimes. Rather ironically, the education system, for a plethora of reasons, militates against this so to make sure my vision of education could be lived in reality I needed to step up and apply for the big job!  I also felt a sense of responsibility in being a role model for women in education and wanted to put my money where my mouth is by taking on the role of a headteacher.  I am lucky to have a huge network of support in the form of the #WomenEd movement and to also have leaders in other schools in the South West offering to support me.  There is an understanding that it is a tough job that is not without risk but there is plenty of support, advice and help available so get out there and network! 

How do you talent spot/nurture aspiring leaders?

Getting to know people is really important in nurturing aspiring leaders – I look for their values and to understand and discuss what motivates them.  Supporting them to see their own potential and helping them believe in themselves is essential too. I have met some stunning people who lacked confidence in their own ability and I gave them a little nudge or a tap on the shoulder asking them their opinion, suggesting they take the lead on something or pointing out opportunities that were open to them if they so chose.  I take particular note of those who may be quietly making a huge impact on student outcomes in their own sphere and encourage them to consider how they could extend that impact further.  I mentor some female leaders in education too via the DfE coaching offer and try to amplify the voices of others on various platforms. Education is full of amazing people – think of what we could achieve if we were aligned in vision, strategy and tactics!

How would you like to affect change in the system?

I’d like to see communities, whatever their circumstance, have faith in their local schools and choose to send their children there as a proud first choice, without hesitation, confident in the knowledge that their child will be happy, fulfilled and prepared to be an empowered citizen of the world.  To achieve this means seeking changes at school level so that people and systems are aligned with this vision but also at area, sub-region and regional level so that intentional design is clearly understood and the rationale shared to engender confidence in a system that, at the moment, can sometimes look fractured or like a politically motivated land grab.

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

My values are based on the premise that all of us have the capacity to be amazing but it requires hard work, effort and a smidge of decency thrown in. I have been called relentless and resilient because I guess I am committed to making sure all young people get the chance they deserve and I am no fan of heart-thumping excuse making. I completely and utterly understand the myriad number of reasons young people struggle but it doesn’t sit well with me as a reason to accept less or be satisfied with less. I am ambitious on the behalf of young people that they claim their right to a great education. Am I ranting again?

What makes you get out of bed every morning?

The job isn’t done yet! It makes my synapses crackle with the fury of the unjust when I think of the links between socio-economic status and educational outcomes. It makes me cranky when some students seem to have a natural entitlement to a certain type of education and others have to battle hard for the same. All young people deserve the best we can offer so they can walk out into the world with a swagger of confidence and know they have a choice over their future. So that gets me out of bed plus my alarm clock that plays Survivor’s I Can’t Hold Back at 6am!

Leadership Advice:

I have been fortunate enough to meet many fabulous teachers and leaders over the years and several pieces of advice stick with me. Firstly, don’t be afraid to ask why. Then keep digging away at that why until you are clear about it. There is a tale, possibly allegorical, told to me by my father of a General inspecting an artillery regiment and for ten seconds before they fired the cannons the men would hold their right arm to their left shoulder.  The General asked the men ‘why do you do that?’ and none of the men could answer so off one went to find out. On his return, he told the General that they held their right arms to their left shoulder because at one time the guns were rolled onto the field of battle by horses and when you went to fire them you had to steady your horse whose reins were draped over your left shoulder. The regiment no longer had horses. The holding of the arm to the left shoulder was no longer necessary and it kept going until this particular leader asked ‘why?’ I have no clue whether this tale is true or not but it stuck with me as a reminder to ask this most useful of questions!  Education is not immune to change and we should change and innovate when necessary.

Also, ask ‘so what?’ to check that decisions made have a desired outcome and impact. Bring it all back to the kids. If you do X or Y will it mean students get a better deal? Simple but useful and it has kept me alert to changing what doesn’t work, keeping what does and gaining ideas from colleagues who know better than me!

The last piece of advice I will share is what drives me to work in comprehensive schools and has formed part of many discussions with colleagues over the years – don’t equate intelligence or potential to achieve with socio-economic status or prior academic performance! I’ll leave that one with you but suffice to say I think if a school has a child for 5 years or more then we should believe all things are possible!

Leadership Inspiration:

I am reading Michael D Watkins’ The First 90 Days which may not come as a huge surprise for someone in their first headship. It is really interesting the way it discusses accelerating your own learning and matching strategy to situation rather than just assuming you have ready-made answers. There is much in it that echoes Andy Buck’s Leadership Matters and Jill Berry’s Making the Leap that will shape me as a leader but  aligning and building an effective team is probably the single most important thing for me right now. Additionally, I have an abiding love of vocabulary and the book has taught me a new word: ‘onboarding.’ I thought it was what Easyjet or Ryanair did but apparently not!

Leadership Mantra:

“Hold the line”

Maximus Decimus Meridius, –  Gladiator.


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