As part of our series celebrating female leaders to mark International Women’s Day, Charlotte Whelan, Headteacher at Hackney New School tells us about how she’s got to where she is today and what makes her a strong leader.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you’ve got to where you are today in your career?
My name’s Charlotte Whelan, and I’m the Headteacher at Hackney New School (HNS), a secondary school in East London. I’ve been here since September last year when I was drafted in at short notice to turn the school around. I previously worked as Headteacher at Forest Gate Community School, where I worked for seven years, starting as Assistant Head Teacher. During my time at Forest Gate we worked to transform the school from underperforming to outstanding. It has been one of the top ten schools in the country. And that’s why I was brought in to lead the team at HNS. I brought some of my previous team with me and we’ve saved the school from closure and are already well on the way to turning into an efficient place where the children that attend get the support and encouragement they need to learn.
How would you characterise your leadership style? And why do you think it’s been so successful?
I’m a strong person – resilient and decisive. I have a good sense of the job that needs to be done, and I get on and do it. When other people talk about me they quite often use masculine adjectives or phrases to describe my strength, which I refute. Women’s bodies are built to be stronger, women can often take more in terms of pain, after all we have to go through childbirth. So strong women shouldn’t need to be described as having ‘balls’. We should be using female adjectives.
One of the reasons I think I make a good Headteacher, and have managed to earn the loyalty of the teachers I work with, many who have followed me from Forest Gate, is that I’ve always challenged people to be the best they can be in their current role. And to start thinking about their next role and putting them in those situations, so they can get the experiences they need to progress. The people that work for me find it quite challenging, but exciting at the same time. I also have a serious face, but a good sense of humour. I don’t take myself too seriously and there’s often a lot of banter between me and the team. But they also know they can count on me – I follow through on what I say I’m going to do. I think that probably comes from being the eldest daughter. I’m reliable and that’s reassuring to the people that work for me.
What has been the biggest barrier you’ve had to overcome in your career?
I had my confidence knocked when I had my two children. The way I was spoken to after that in certain situations made me feel like I had to apologise for being a mother and not push to progress. In my experience this is quite common. Girls and women tend to suffer from a lack of confidence in general – thinking they don’t have the ability to progress to leadership roles, when they do. Often that’s exacerbated by having a family, or wanting to have a family in the future. Women feel they should hang back because of that. I have been really lucky in that my current CEO is really supportive and never saw me being a mother as a barrier to my success. He put me back in my previous position after my career break, which helped me get back on track.
What advice would you give to other working parents?
It is a juggling act. And when you come back to work you do need some time to assimilate and get back into the swing of things. Building your own support network is important. My mum and mother-in-law help a lot. I have a group of professional working mum friends who share stories, life hacks and tips like: get all the school uniforms clean and ready on a Sunday, have a stash of birthday cards in the house at all times and if you can afford it invest in some help with the cleaning. Then there are the mums that choose to stay at home with their kids who step in when you need someone to look after the kids but you’re at work.
My husband is also amazing. He sees supporting with taking care of the kids as very much his role. He’s an Assistant Head Teacher, so just as busy as I am, but he works closer to home and so he picks the kids up from school, does the homework and sorts their dinner. Sometimes people say to him – ‘oh that’s nice that you’re giving Charlotte a break’. It feels odd that people assume I’m the one that needs the break, when he works just as hard as I do both in his professional life and for our family. It goes to show that people continue to put people in gender specific boxes.
What advice would you give other women looking to progress into leadership positions?
Walk through any door that’s half ajar. Take any opportunity, even if it doesn’t go perfectly. Giving things a go is always worth doing, you’ll learn from it.