Women in Leadership Series: Headteacher, Rachel Cross

On March 8th 2019, International Women’s Day (#IWD2019) will be celebrated with the campaign #BalanceforBetter; calling for a more gender-balanced world. I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to celebrate the achievements of women in leadership roles. I asked a number of female leaders to answer a series of questions about their experiences to share with you right here on the Ad Florem blog.

In this interview, we meet Rachel, a Headteacher from Slough. Read our Women in Leadership Interview Series to meet the other interviewees.

Rachel graduated from teacher training college in 1987 with a B.Ed.(Hons). She’s worked in seven schools, including being teacher in charge of a special needs unit, teaching in areas with high levels of deprivation and in schools where most children have English as an additional language. Rachel gained her National Qualification for Headship in 2005 and has been a Headteacher since 2008, in two schools.

During her first headship of a 3-form infant school, in which they received two ‘outstanding’ judgements from Ofsted, she also supported a school which had been placed in special measures.

She has been Headteacher of a large 3-form entry primary with nursery school since 2014.

Rachel, thank you for taking part in our Women in Leadership series. Tell us, what are the skills that you have that make you well suited to your role?

I am quite resilient (even when I don’t feel as though I am, I do ‘bounce back’), am focused, work well under pressure, have strong interpersonal skills, good communicator, approachable, am able to delegate (where appropriate), always have the highest expectations of others, can juggle a number of jobs at the same time, am able to say ‘no’ when my head is too full.

And what does leadership look like for you?

Tough – It is a constant whirlwind of operation and strategic tasks, everyone expecting you to know everything and being responsible for literally everything that happens on and within the school’s grounds.

For example, someone may come to inform me that the sanitary bin is full and in the next moment someone comes to tell me a child has made a disclosure which is a safeguarding issue. There are plenty of days when it is nigh on impossible to see the wood for the trees as the to-do list is long and then gets scuppered by the events of the day.

The trouble working with 100 staff, 650 children and their families is that there is always something or someone who needs your time, so it is hard trying to prioritise what needs doing and when. Sometimes the most urgent things have to wait as something even more urgent crops up out of nowhere.

Exciting – Knowing that you are the person that everyone looks to for guidance and answers can be exciting. Standing in front of the team sharing our school vision, setting direction for continuing improvement actually can all be as exciting as it is tough and scary.

Can you share one leadership lesson you have learned in your career?

It’s not a bad thing to cry and to let other people know when you are feeling fragile.

Who inspires you, and why?

A former headteacher who became a close friend. She was a whirlwind but sadly whirled herself out and had to take early retirement due to MS. I’ve learnt a lot from her about how to be a head, how to get the best out of others, how to be yourself, and how to know when to stop and take care of yourself (something she didn’t do).

I loved the way she was with children and always looked for the positive things even if they happened to be really tiny.

My daughter. Following a horrendous time as a teenager when she tried to take her own life, twice, she has gone on to face life’s hurdles and although has been knocked down so many times, she pauses, regains her strength and gets up again, and again. She has finally found a fabulous job and is now happily in a relationship. At 27, she is a light that at one time I didn’t think I’d get to see shine.

How do you balance work and life responsibilities? Do you have any practical tips?

Much better than I used to!

Until about 2 years ago, I was a workaholic. Then I hit a real low. I couldn’t seem to do enough and everything I did in 16-hour days just meant that I had more capacity in the next 16 hours to do even more. In my attempt of trying to be everything to everyone, I was clocking up 80 to 90-hour weeks.

I felt that as a headteacher I had to do everything to save other people from doing things. Not because I was a control freak but because I felt I had to prove myself. I was trying to protect my staff but also trying to be someone special/important/needed that I didn’t feel I was as a young person.

Following my near breakdown, one of the best things I did was to work with a coach and read some excellent books which really helped me to reflect on who I was and what I was doing.

Describe yourself in three words

Dedicated, empathetic, and organised.

Have you ever suffered with ‘imposter syndrome’? What does it mean to you?

Yes, I have and do suffer with imposter syndrome. I often feel as though I am surrounded by people far cleverer than me and that I am in my current job partly by luck rather than ability. Now this is even though I have got a degree, a further headship qualification, have led a school out of a low category and have transformed the strategic and operational aspects of four schools.

I know I can do the job, but I still feel as though I’m not ‘clever’ enough to do the job.

I think I have a difficulty with the difference between being clever and being able. Personally, I lack confidence although whenever I have feedback people always say they wish they had my confidence – this is weird.

What I feel and how I project are two completely different people!

What challenges have you faced in your leadership career, and what tips do you have for how to overcome them?

Feeling isolated – Making connections with other school leaders and ensuring that communication channels with them are kept open is vital. They feel the same and whilst sympathy is nice, empathy is better. Accepting that although staff will be friendly with me and we can have a good laugh or cry together, that actually they are not my ‘friend.’ They are a colleague and having a good relationship with a colleague is good enough.

Feeling challenged – It can be really hard when staff challenge you. Sometimes I’ve felt as though a challenge about a decision I’ve made has been a test (I don’t know whether this is true or not) but I’ve always tried to be calm and state my rationale for any decision I’ve made. Always ask yourself, why is this challenge happening? Sometimes the challenge comes because the person is worried or upset, not because they’re angry (although it may appear as the latter). Sit down, breathe and unpick the problem together. Confirm, out loud, the resolution.

Feeling frustrated – It’s great when things go well and run smoothly, but they don’t always and this can lead to feelings of frustration with others – for not doing the right thing or with myself for maybe getting something wrong, trying to cut a corner, acting impulsively rather than thinking things through properly. I also get hugely frustrated with the bad press that always surrounds the education profession, making us out to be overpaid whingers when teaching is one of the hardest professions with the longest hours and lowest pays in the UK. It’s important to keep a balanced perspective and to always reflect or pause before making important decisions. Don’t feel as though you have to do everything that comes your way.

Feeling tired and that your to-do list is just getting longer – Sadly even if you ever manage to clear your emails, your to-do list will never end. Rather than feeling down about this, try to clear it methodically. Re-evaluate it each day and prioritise one or two things – only – for the next day. Don’t expect to get them done but when you do, it’s pure euphoria! I’ve come to learn that I cannot do everything. Tonight for example in a leadership team meeting, I admitted I do not read the detail in everyone’s emails. I read the heading, skim, and if it’s not desperate for me to know then I file it and move on. I’ve accepted that there isn’t time to read and act on everything, but also my headspace just isn’t big enough.

Switch off from work well-before bedtime, have a hot bubble bath, read a good (non-work) book and get to bed at a decent time. Do not look at emails on your phone before bed. Take proper time to do non-work things at the weekend.

What’s an accomplishment that you are proudest of?

Not necessarily what I’m proudest of in terms of an accomplishment but I am proud that I found the inner strength to do this. In May 2016 I started a two-day per week secondment working for the local authority as Senior Education Liaison Officer.

This work has enabled me to manage a large budget providing a system for schools (nursery through to secondary and special) to work together to improve outcomes for pupils. As I was approached to take on this role, I struggled with how I would manage this with my headship. I thought about the impact it would have on my deputy who would need to cover for me. But, I knew my leadership team were strong. I knew I’d still be available if needs must, and that this was something I needed to do.

It has been tough at times trying to balance everything, but I’ve done it! The role comes to an end this July (2019) and whilst I’ll miss it, I am grateful for the professional opportunities it has given me.

What does gender balance in the workplace mean to you?

To me gender balance doesn’t mean having the same number of men as women. It doesn’t mean having to recruit men rather than women. Teaching, especially at primary, is notoriously women heavy. Department for Education data from 2017 indicates that in 2017, 3 out of 4 teachers in primary were female. So it’s always good when a good male teacher comes along. It does help give the children a good male role model.

However, beyond that, as we all do the same work, I don’t really pay attention to whether the staff are male or female. As long as they are nice, get on well with others, are team players and do a good job. In my school of 100 staff I have: three male teachers; a male sports coach; and two male site staff. I think that’s pretty good and works well.

I try not to get hung up on the male/female issue or ethnicity. If someone can do the job well, that’s good enough for me regardless of gender or anything else.

Do you have any advice or words of encouragement for aspiring female leaders? Or just for leaders in general if you prefer.

  • It can be tough juggling home and work especially when children are younger but it gets easier.
  • Being vulnerable doesn’t make you weak. Don’t be afraid to show how you feel (within reason)!
  • Don’t feel that you have to power dress. I did for some time. But now, give me a casual dress, woolly tights, boots and a cardigan and I can work just as well as a smart dress and heels. I have grown to be comfortable with who I am and am not trying to be someone I’m not. You prove your worth by your work ethic not by the clothes you wear.
  • Be passionate about your work and remind yourself, even on tough days, why you do what you do. For me it’s easy – as a headteacher I do what I do to make a positive difference to children’s lives.

Do you have anything else that you would like to include in the interview?

Whatever you do – be you. If you’re not authentic, you’ll never survive.

Brené Brown defines authenticity as

“The choice to show up and be real, to be honest and let our true selves be seen”.

People should respect you for who you are and what you do. They will, if you remain true to yourself.

How to find Rachel online

Rachel Cross, Headteacher

St Mary’s CE Primary School, Slough



Read our Women in Leadership Interview Series to meet the other interviewees.


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