Find out about the experience of one former mentee who took part in the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Leadership skills mentoring programme

This interview was conducted with a head of science at a secondary school in London. They took part in the Leadership skills mentoring programme in the academic year 2021/22.

Why did you want to get involved with the Leadership skills mentoring programme?

I was really unhappy at work. I had been meaning to sign up for it. But I didn’t get the chance. I worked in my previous role for 17 years and the last two years were quite difficult. But it got to a point where I was questioning whether I understood what leadership was and management. By my own nature I don’t like stagnating anywhere. I love reading around my subject. I love reading around everything that impacts on my job, my profession. I just enjoy it.

So, when I was being told how to do certain things that I did not entirely agree with, I felt I was screaming in a vacuum, not being heard. I was in a leadership position but felt frustration at not having a voice, not being able to influence decisions.

I wanted clarification. I wanted someone external to tell me, ‘You’ve got this completely wrong’. I was at a low point in my life. My mental well-being was being affected. I was having conversations about retirement, even though I was successful. I was running one of the most successful departments in the school, if not the most successful. My science GCSE students were getting between 65 and 70% grade 7 and above in exams in a state school. And the whole faculty went from 15–50% of students studying separate sciences – above the national average.

So, when the email came about this programme, I went for it. I wasn’t looking for high leadership because I believe that you don’t have to go upwards to develop and progress. You can still stay at the same point and progress. But I was made to feel that I was regressing, yet I can teach really well.

I’ve moved on, thanks to the mentoring programme, because if you hadn’t added me for the mentoring program, I would have retired, and I wouldn’t have done all the things I’ve done to impact on students’ lives. And I’m still teaching. The programme put me on straight and narrow with a different lens.

I am immensely grateful for the opportunity to go through that journey and heal. I’m here and I’m a lot stronger. For me it was acknowledgment that I do have leadership skills. Everyone has their different ways of doing things. And through my mentor, I found myself. He was the perfect match for me.

How did you find the application process?

The application process was straightforward. What was difficult was identifying what I wanted to get out of it. I felt that maybe I was taking someone else’s place because mentoring was for people who wanted to move up. But I spoke with someone at the RSC and I found the support from that alone put me on track.

The application is quite in depth. It allowed my mentor to understand me before we met. I think it allowed me to have a good match to a mentor.

What was the most beneficial part of the programme, and what effect did it have on you?

Going to someone who understood leadership and management, where the two conflict and the misconceptions held by others about what management is. The effect on me was positive.

Many people in education don’t understand that a sideways step is ok. You don’t have to keep going up and up. I was applying for main scale teaching posts and getting nowhere, because people look at your application and say something is wrong if that person wants to step back and take a pay cut. Why do you want to teach? Why do you not want to lead?

With my mentor I could explore all those things. It was okay to take that pay cut for my own well-being. I went for an interview before I went for the mentoring and I didn’t get the job. But the feedback I got from that head teacher was very valuable. I realised I needed to get some help. I was going through CBT as well. And with my mentor, I felt that, for once, he understood my language. When my agent got in touch with me about another job, I was hesitant, but he told me to just try it.

So I went, and I felt that the school understood leadership. They understood education, and that’s where I ended up. I applied for a chemistry teacher role, but I’ve ended up being head of science. The school asked me to consider Leadership Board because of my experience in leadership. Now, I feel valued every single day by school colleagues, students, and parents. I’m a lot happier. I’m working a lot harder, but I’m enjoying it.

What effect do you think it’s had on your new department?

When we started, my mentor asked, ‘what is leadership?’ Leadership is about having a clear vision and taking people with you. So, when I started my new role at a small school with a new team, I started with my vision. I made it all about looking after staff and having the difficult conversations. I’ve got a mix of staff; some need more support than others, some have been teaching for longer.

I’m a lot calmer. I am more confident with what I’m doing. That’s been useful for my team – it’s quite harmonious actually and everyone is growing.

What advice would you give to other heads of department who wish to get involved with the leadership mentoring programme?

I’d say go for it! In education you tend to think that what you’re doing is the only way to do it. And a lot of leaders don’t get support, they’re thrown in at the deep end. There are a lot of transferable skills to be gained from leaders in finance or industry. You get to understand other leadership styles and the one-on-one time cannot be underestimated .

It helps you to define you as a leader. It’s encouraging and empowering. You can build your own leadership style and be comfortable with that.

What did you gain from being paired with an RSC member in industry?

The wisdom. No judgement. No ‘oh, I would do it like that.’ or anything. Just the leadership rather than other things, like a focus on curriculum, but with someone from the RSC with a chemistry background. Usually, those doing leadership training have a background that’s not scientific. Scientists don’t do leadership training in schools. There are very few chemists that are school leaders. My mentor shared my subject background and understood how my mind works. So, we got straight onto leadership without me having to explain what I do.

I wanted someone firm; to be direct. My mentor didn’t mince his words, which is what I wanted. It was great. He picked me up and I am in a better place now. I continue now doing what I love doing. Thank you for the opportunity to be on the mentoring programme. I’m really, really grateful.