Why we lead: giving pupils the chance to be themselves

Oct. 13, 2017
chris richards

Chris Richards

Deputy Headteacher at Villiers High School, Southall

This blog is part of our new blog series, 'Why we lead'. The series takes a look at the inspirational motivations of our participants by taking a behind-the-scenes look at their leadership journey.

Chris began his career as an NQT at Appleton School in South Essex before moving to Corelli College, Greenwich. He is now Deputy Headteacher at Villiers High School in Southall. We spoke to him about why he wanted to work in education, his top tips for leading under pressure and what it means to him to be an LGBT leader.

What made you want to work in education?

I always felt really well supported at school and I had some amazing and inspiring teachers, and this made me start thinking about teaching. When I went to university I did a scheme which took me into the more deprived schools in Southampton to encourage pupils to go to university. I was shocked that not everyone was getting the education that I had enjoyed growing up.

What does it mean to you to be an LGBT+ leader?

I identify as a gay male and, growing up, I didn’t have any positive male role models who were openly gay. I think I ended up burying my sexuality quite deep inside and didn’t really begin to deal with it until my early twenties causing quite a bit of personal distress for a few years. I really didn’t want this for my LGBT+ students and that’s why I’m determined for LGBT+ leaders to show our young people (and staff) that it’s okay to be yourself.

How has Ambition helped you to become the leader you are today?

There was so much help on the Teaching Leaders programme on how to develop staff, how to have difficult conversations and how to lead. It opened my eyes to leadership theory and action research. The networking aspect was phenomenal; getting into other schools and departments to see how they were doing things was absolutely inspirational. Later, Future Leaders helped me focus on whole-school aspects of leadership and to be driven by my inner guiding principles and not wait for the external validation that I’d craved as a middle leader.

What skills do you still want to develop?

I’m currently further developing my understanding of sixth form including getting to grips with new accountability measures, qualifications and course administration. I’ve had the chance to work with the data team in my new job, and although I feel quite confident in my understanding of this area, there’s always more to learn. I also want to focus more on inclusion. I have led on this at a previous school but I would like to broaden my understanding of the pastoral side of inclusion and work more with heads of year and their teams.

Chris Richards coaching team Chris with his Future Leaders coaching team

What are three things that you do every day?

I always get into a few lessons every day and I’ll talk to pupils and about what they’re learning no matter how busy I am. This is because I feel it’s really important to show staff and pupils that I’m genuinely interested in what they’re trying to achieve and to see teachers in the middle of really great lessons so I can share their strategies with others.

I also try to get to know a new member of staff or student or find out something new about one of them. I think one of the most important things I do is acknowledge everyone. Whether it’s a cleaner first thing in a morning or the last pupil to leave at the end of the day, I always smile and wave or say hello. I think it’s one of those things that, if done consistently, helps strengthen bonds in a community.

How do you define a great education?

An education should teach you to be interested in the world and in those around you. It should give you a desire to learn, to better understand yourself and to become the best version of yourself. It should help you find your passions and pursue them and it should help you to create a better world for yourself and others.

What have you implemented to make your school better, and in what ways?

My previous school was graded as 'requires improvement' by Ofsted. There was an inconsistency in the quality of teaching and teachers didn’t have high enough expectations. To tackle this, I used my Future Leaders impact initiative to change the coaching system and focused a lot more on teachers’ learning and development rather than monitoring teaching and learning. After six months, the data indicated that the teachers had much higher expectations for their pupils in most classes and all teachers’ practice had improved since their first observation in the year. I changed the new staff induction and employed a team to lead it so it was much more rigorous and enabled staff to hit the ground running with their classes. There was also a much greater focus on new staff integrating into our school socially as we know happy teachers are more productive teachers!

I was also lucky to be part of team that made serious effort to tackle homophobia. There were posters around the school saying ‘Some people are gay get over it’ and I thought this was great because it showed that it was something the school took quite seriously. It had a working party that helped tackle homophobia in which we carried out staff training, ran LGBT history month and arranged for Sir Ian McKellen to come in to talk to our students. LGBT acceptance was part of the school’s values in so far as we believed in equality and solidarity, and I’m proud to have been a part of that. 

"I’m determined for LGBT+ leaders to show our young people (and staff) that it’s okay to be yourself. "

What is a particularly memorable moment you’ve had with a student or group of students?

In my last school, we interviewed several members of staff and some students about their experiences of coming out and played it at an assembly. It was so powerful and I remember a couple of my students coming up to me afterwards; I was really anxious when it was shown, and they just said, “That’s so cool that you did that Sir; that’s brilliant, and obviously nothing’s changed, well done.” I can’t tell you how relieved I felt and quickly realised that this was going to be okay after all.

I do think things are changing but I think perhaps some teachers are afraid that pupils or other teachers will negatively target them. Actually, kids these days are a lot more open-minded and accepting compared to when I was at school. This gives me hope for equality for LGBT+ pupils and teachers in this generation and the next.

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