What I’ve Learnt: Neil Walker

February 4, 2019

Neil Walker is headmaster of Westfield School in Gosforth, an independent girls’ school for those aged from three to 18. He has more than 25 years of teaching experience in the classroom and latterly on the leadership teams of several schools – the last 20 in girls’ schools. Neil also runs Duke of Edinburgh groups and many outdoor learning activities

Be genuine. The first lesson I learned about teaching was in a tough school in Brixton. Young people are very good at seeing through a facade and will enjoy testing you. If you have real excitement for your subject and truly care about every individual in front of you, you can succeed.

Teachers deserve a leader not just a manager.

Communication is key to success. I have found that when everyone knows where the leader wants to take the school/business and can understand the reasoning, they are more likely to pull in the same direction. A consistently stated philosophy with a clear vision allows staff to buy into their school, parents and pupils to understand the decisions and for everyone to work together.

Be a positive leader. Any successful business larger than a one-person band needs a team, and that team needs a leader they can rely on. Passion, determination and unrelenting positivity are three key ingredients that enable others to follow you. To run a business successfully, I would also add tenacity and curiosity; having started a big building project at school recently, I’ve had to become more of an expert than I expected in all sorts of technical and legal areas!

Show trust. To get the best from your staff, you need to show trust. Trust them to do the job, trust them to have good ideas and implement them. Try to catch them doing good things and make sure they know you have. Schools should be learning environments for everyone in them, adults and children. Staff should feel they have the freedom and support to try out new ideas and not be afraid to get it wrong occasionally.

Keep children at the heart of education. When any education leader loses touch with the pupils in their school or college they start to focus on the business of education rather than the pupils themselves. I try to take time every day to visit at least one class and to speak to some of my pupils. If what you are doing is not making things better for the pupils then stop doing it, no matter how wonderful a business idea it is!

Acknowledge your mistakes. It’s a mistake to adopt an aura of invincibility. Acknowledge your mistakes and apologise. Know your weaknesses and own up to them but don’t let them hold you back –address them by allowing someone else to do that part of the job or by building your own skill. If I can say ‘that’s not my strongest area’, my team is more open in asking for help when they need it thus strengthening the business as a whole.

Learn from others. One thing I have learned from working for different bosses is that there
are always lessons to be learned from them. Sometimes I have learned more (about what not to do) from a bad boss than from a good one. As a leader, I try to be aware of the talent in my team. I can learn just as much from people in my team as the other way around; as a person, I always try to be on the lookout for ways to improve.

Grow the people in your business. Even if you have grown a business maximally, it is still possible to grow the people. I never know who is going to come up with an amazing thought or possibility that will enable us to move in a new direction and I want to support my staff to develop themselves as that will feed back into the excitement within the school.

Stay ahead of your competitors. One truism that I am always aware of is that each one of our competitors is improving all the time. To keep pace we must also keep improving. We may be the best today, but if we don’t get even better tomorrow, someone else will.

Westfield School
0191 2553980

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