Teach First Development Lead John McEachern
John McEachern
Development Lead for the NPQH Programme

Why support and empathy develop great school leaders

With over 25 years of experience in senior leadership, Development Lead John explains how support is the cornerstone of our NPQs. 

Our National Professional Qualifications (NPQs) are designed to equip leaders with the knowledge, skills and attributes to be even more impactful in the schools that need them most.

During my own school leadership journey - which spans over 25 years, including two headships in London serving disadvantaged communities - I've had good leaders around me that I could learn from. But in my career and those of my colleagues, there are significant gaps in support where I was left on my own. Our schools, leaders and communities deserve better than Ieaving their success to mere chance.

It has long been evident that a systematic, bespoke and structured approach to development is essential to meet the challenges of modern-day school leadership. Our NPQs incorporate evidence-informed, deliberate practice, developed from across the sector.

What support is offered on our NPQ programmes?

But all the training in the world would not be nearly as impactful without one key ingredient on our NPQ programmes: one-to-one expert support - it’s tailored and flexible to meet the busy working lives of the school leaders we work with.

Each of our programme members is assigned a Development Lead: a former experienced school leader. My main duty as a Development Lead is to provide one-to-one support throughout their training journey. We’re their first point of contact for anything to do with the programme, including, but not limited to:

  • curriculum content
  • accessing seminars
  • helping them connect with peer groups to develop their learning
  • assessing how a project is progressing in school
  • helping with any leadership challenges (e.g. challenging conversations with staff about not meeting expectations)
  • managing up (e.g. getting support from more senior colleagues)
  • providing support when it comes to submitting evidence
  • giving cursory feedback before submitting work to the DfE

I help the programme member apply their learning to their school and school context. This ensures that they bring their project alive and it has the impact they’re looking for (to both students and themselves, as leaders).

Formally, there’s structured support put in place. This is a minimum set of support, including 1-to-1 meetings (or calls) at each stage of the our NPQ model (where we review and reflect their progress), and helping programme members with the next step in their career (I’ve sat at both ends of the interview table many times, so I can help them with applications).

But for the most part, programme members take ownership of their training throughout the 12-to-15 months – the amount of support they take is up to them. The vast majority of those I’ve worked with treat me as a key person in their journey – to not only help them get over the line, but to develop their leadership more fully within the short programme timeframe.

I liken our NPQs to a driving theory test: you take part in the curriculum and do the final exam. But if you really want to hit the road with confidence, I’m the instructor – able to bring ideas and support for the broader challenges in the role.

Bringing real-world experience to our programme members

Our NPQ programmes are truly bespoke. If a programme member raises a concern, we can help them by signposting to particular research or strategies, mentoring them through it and providing coaching. It’s a type of relationship I like to compare to sitting in a chair beside them, instead of speaking from afar.

But more than that, all of us development leads come from similar contexts to those our programme members work in. And context is everything. Having had over 25 years in school leadership (in middle, senior and headship roles), I’m able to bring a real-world, grounded perspective to both senior leaders and programme members.

More specifically, I bring over 12 years of direct headship experience to my work on the NPQH (Headship) Programme. One thing that’s common across all heads/principals is they say nothing really prepares you fully for that. Sitting in that chair for the first time is both awesome but also quite lonely – it can be quite challenging for your mental health and wellbeing.

Being able to share my experiences around that, and really support individual programme members with the leadership challenges they’re facing is something I’m able to offer. And to reassure people that they’re not alone, and that through Teach First - and with me as a development lead, we can help them access networks and find support from other schools and leaders.

The ability we development leads have to build strong relationships with our programme members, and empathise with their situation, is a huge part of what makes our NPQs unique.

The power of empathy

I’ve got a current headteacher who is completing an NPQH as a newly-appointed head. One thing I’ve worked with them on is their use of language when communicating. While talking about their project, they explained their struggle to get certain senior leaders behind it. It occurred to me that they were often using quite negative language about themself – though they thought they were doing it in quite a jokey way.  

I then coached this person through:

  • what they were saying and how they were saying it, holding a mirror up to them
  • getting them to see how the way they were speaking, though it was light-hearted, was being interpreted in a way that was a barrier/risk to their role

When we talk about NPQH in particular, the biggest moment for programme members is not the domain-specific knowledge they get from training, but realising that when they step into headship, everything they say and do is analysed, interpreted, spoken about. Even if they haven’t attached a specific meaning to what they’ve said or done, how they present as a leader can effectively build a new culture or undermine what they’re trying to introduce into a school.

It’s a mistake I made as well. It’s important to emphasise that all us development leads are previously-serving school leaders, in similar schools and contexts. What that enables us to do is have empathy and talk with confidence, be authentic and support a member on the ground.

Core values unite us all

As part of their core curriculum in our NPQs, we spend a lot of time analysing best practice research around building relationships with stakeholders. What I’m hearing from a lot of leaders on the ground in schools, in going back to school post-covid, is how to re-establish those relationships and networks across the school.

This is particularly important at a classroom level, because until students feel safe, secure and confident in what they’re doing and staff feel the same, learning won’t happen. Closing the gap and catching up on lost learning won’t happen.

On our programmes we make it a point to really deep-dive into stakeholder needs and then match engagement/communication plans to those, which has been even more pronounced post-covid. That’s really served some of our trainee heads well because they’ve been really affected deeply by the pandemic.

Core values unite us all, and none more so than a relentless drive to overcome educational inequality. Connecting with like-minded professionals; confirming shared experiences and challenges; collaborating on solution-focused actions and reassuring that as leaders we are not alone, are all essential – not only for our own wellbeing and resilience in the face of such adversity, but also if we are to help ‘stem the tide’ of leadership exit across the sector.

It’s only with good school leadership that we can truly enable schools to thrive.


Learn more about our NPQ programmes, including NPQML, NPQSL and NPQH.

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