7 Questions with Neil Meehan
Name: Neil Meehan
Current title: Executive Headteacher
Current organisation: Laleham and Ashford Church of England Primary Schools Partnership
Neil Meehan has fifteen years experience as a headteacher, and since 2013, has worked in Church of England Primary Schools. He has been Executive Headteacher over a partnership of schools since 2018, based in Surrey, just outside London, and, increasingly, he works collaboratively with other local church schools. He has a passion for Christian education and putting prayer and worship at the heart of the school community.
1. What have you found most challenging as a Christian school leader?
The greatest challenge is to keep it simple, be true to myself, and not feel that I have to be a ‘hero leader’. There is so much I am still learning, and I have learnt slowly that there is no one way to lead, and that I don’t have to be like so-and-so other person. God makes us all unique and the best thing we can do is humbly let him use us and bless us to serve in the way he has designed us and made us. The greatest challenge, therefore, is to remember to just be yourself as a Christian leader.
2. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?
I have been learning to live more within God’s ‘unforced rhythms of grace’ in my life and take each day at a time. Jesus did, after all, remind us that ‘each day has enough trouble of its own’ ... and that certainly can be true in school leadership! For many years, I have always prayed on the drive to school, and I usually ask that I will go into the day with God’s anointing of leadership, knowing any wisdom, grace or strength I may have to serve others is dependent on His Spirit’s enabling. I may also listen to a bit of Christian radio in the car.
In my role, I am fortunate that I can ‘build’ my diary with a lot of autonomy, but also there is always the unexpected to deal with! If I have lots of heavy duty meetings or office-bound stuff to do, I usually try to punctuate it with a bit of getting around the school, seeing the children, and catching some snapshots of their learning. Also, taking a bit of time out to notice the good work of colleagues and thank them is usually a win all round.
In recent years, I have got better at not working late into the evening, and instead my favourite thing to do is ‘walk and talk’ with my wife in the evening (we are blessed with lots of beautiful countryside near where we live). At the end of the day, I always try to spend even just a few minutes in thankfulness for at least five aspects of the day, instead of going to bed worrying about all the things on the list I haven’t yet ticked off! One day at a time...
3. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?
I think what I have learnt most (and am still learning) is that leadership is about empowering others. I have never wanted people to work for me, but with me; this is quite different! The greatest joy in leadership is seeing others grow and step out further into greater roles and responsibilities. This is what I see as both the greatest privilege and the biggest responsibility of leadership - to raise others up. In my current role, I am working with two senior leadership teams, and this is a huge privilege to see others stepping up to grow into the heads of the future.
4. What one book has had the most profound impact on your Christian school leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?
Without doubt, it is Stephen Cottrell’s book Hit the Ground Kneeling. It is a small, quirky book written by a Bishop in the Church of England. I read it (and have re-read it a good few times since) when I first was appointed to a headship in a church school. This book is so counter-culture and all about a listening, thoughtful attitude to leadership and it has really shaped me. So much about school leadership is fast-paced, all about action and quick results, but this book keeps reminding me of the paramount need for reflective prayer and wise counsel as a foundation for strong, sustainable leadership.
5. How do you find and keep great Christian teachers?
That’s hard. I don’t always find them! I have always worked at my schools with a range of teachers of faith, other faiths and no faith. One of the most heart-warming thank you cards I ever had was from a teacher leaving our school, as she was moving to live elsewhere, and she mentioned how her faith had grown so much through working at our school; that has really stayed with me. I have been blessed to work with many great Christian teachers over the years, and have learnt a great deal from them. In terms of ‘keeping’ them, I think when there is a strong Christian foundation in the school, these teachers want to be part of it, catch the vision and grow in their commitment to the school.
6. What's most important as a Christian school leader for developing a culture of wellbeing in your staff and students?
I genuinely and simply think it is about one thing: relationship. Having time to interact with both colleagues and students on a human, personal level and connecting with their lives beyond school creates a supportive and strong culture.
Additionally, as a Christian school leader, I also see, as part of the ministry, signposting people to relationship with God as a key part of my role - that is, helping others to see themselves as everything they can be, by growing closer and deeper into God.
7. If you had to pick just one story, what would be the most meaningful story from your time as a Christian school leader so far?
There are so many, and so many tales of joy and blessing, but, curiously, I am going to choose instead a story of my hardest moment as a Christian school leader so far, because, though it is tragic, it points to one of the greatest truths in leadership - never think you are on your own.
In short, a few years into headship, I had to lead my school community through a time following a tragic accident one day in the school playground, resulting in one of our students dying. Gathering the school community together the next day to give the news of the little girl’s death was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do as a leader and, though many years ago now, that family are never far from my thoughts and prayers.
I was well supported in that time, not least of all by the leader of my church at the time, who prayed and counselled me. The reason this is the most meaningful story I can tell is that it underlines this truth in leadership - never do it alone. Let others lead, guide and minister to you, and know ultimately, one day at a time, God goes with you - always, even in the hardest of times. I take great strength from that; I hope you will too.