In response to various posts on book monitoring earlier in the week, Lee Donaghy asked what the role of school leaders ought to be.
Now, some would have it that because I don’t lead a school any opinion I might offer is invalid.
Many people do not understand the purpose of leading teaching and learning. Why? Because they have never done it.
— @TeacherToolkit (@TeacherToolkit) November 26, 2015
This is an interesting perspective. In response, I’d like to submit that there might be plenty of people who do lead in schools who don’t seem to understand the purpose of what they’re doing either. Just doing a thing does not automatically confer expertise. In fact, there’s good reason to be sceptical of so-called ‘expert’ judgement.
I’m more than willing to admit that my inexperience means my understanding of the pressures involved in running a school is limited, but I most certainly know what it’s like to work in a school which is led badly. My simplistic view of school leadership is that it should seek to strip out every extraneous demand on teachers in order for them to be as effective as possible. As that’s a lot easier said than done, here is my very personal wish list of qualities possessed by the sort of school leader for whom I’d most like to work*:
Humility – The capacity to admit to mistakes and face up to the knowledge that you don’t always know best is, I think, the master skill; from this humble beginning all else flows. Being humble is not being apologetic or meek, being humble is acknowledging that there are deep wells of knowledge and experience in a school; recognising that everyone is – or should be – an expert in their own subject, classes and areas of responsibility. Humility doesn’t mean assuming others know best or are always right, it means assuming that others may know best or might be right. It’s about asking questions and really listening to the replies. It’s about being open to your own biases and seeking to explore them rather than just trying to confirm them. It’s about facing up to the uncomfortable truth that no matter how much you know and how expert you become, there will always be things you don’t know and others with greater expertise. We put leaders under enormous pressure to be decisive and punish them when they dither. Quite literally we prefer our leaders to be wrong rather than uncertain.
The overwhelming challenge of leadership is knowing you might be wrong but having to make a tough call anyway. I imagine good leaders lose sleep over their decisions. Sometimes you have to exude confidence even when you don’t feel it. Rightly or wrongly, we all have core values – principles on which we refuse to compromise – these are the stars by which we navigate.
In the end, the principle of humility might come down to recognising that you are there to serve. Being in charge can be a lot of fun, but bossing people around and sitting in the big chair are burdens you shoulder in order to make it easier for others to excel.
How do you know if you’re humble? You probably seek to give credit instead of taking it.
Love – This sounds a bit wishy-washy, but no one who has read John Tomsett’s beautiful book can fail to appreciate the importance of love. He tells us that one of the prerequisites for headship is that you have to love teachers. And you have to create the conditions in which teachers can thrive. This means making the terrifying decision to trust. John writes, “…trust is reciprocal; if you trust your teachers, they will grow to trust you. When you have to make difficult decisions, they will trust you.”
It probably helps to love teaching too. The very best school leaders teach. Being seen to enjoy the thing you’re employed to lead others in doing is pretty important. It’s much easier to empathise with teachers when you’re there in the trenches with them. A good leader won’t inflict pain – a good leader should share pain. As the poet John Florio put it, “Who has not served cannot command.”
Teachers tend not to be attracted to the profession by the offer of rich rewards or in the belief they will bathe in the public’s esteem; most teachers see purpose in their work. As such they are led by trifles. Little things matter. A kind word here, an acknowledgement there goes a very long way. Sincere recognition and encourage are the outwards signs of loving teachers. Thomas Carlyle said, “Tell a person they are brave and you help them become so.” It’s probably true to add, show a teacher you trust them and they will work hard to repay that trust.
How do you know if you love teachers? You probably worry about their welfare and think of ways to make their lives easier.
Determination – A determined leader will make sure that things get done. It’s all very well trusting teachers, but creating the conditions for growth also means holding them to account. If you’re sufficiently humble you’ll know hard this is to do well and you will have developed intelligent accountability systems. A determination not to avoid difficult conversations and a willingness to be disliked is crucial, as long as this is done with love and humility. Leadership cannot be a popularity contest.
Perhaps the area in which school leaders can make the most difference to the quality of teaching and learning in a school is by ensuring students’ behaviour is managed humanely whilst still expecting the highest of standards. A good leader will be utterly determined to make their school one in which students enjoy learning, in which there is a culture where hard work and academic success is valued and where students are supported to struggle, no matter their ability. This means that there must be intolerance of low-level disruption, rudeness, laziness and complacency. As I argued here, “We should always remember that while social disadvantage is no excuse for bad behaviour, ‘no excuses’ is no excuse for inflexible tyranny.”
How do you know if you’re determined? You probably don’t allow your decisions to be eroded by the forces of inertia and unwillingness.
Vision – Vision has become a widely misunderstood cliché, but in essence, you must have some idea of where you want to go if you hope to ever get there. A good leader inspires those around them to be their best. They set the pace and lead the charge. Sitting in an office churning out policy documents is not vision. Vision is catching glimpses of the best possible future and working out how to get there.
Visionaries though can be ruinous. Without humility, love and determination, vision is likely to cause harm. But without vision, you can have all the humility, love and determination in the world but you still might not get anywhere. Vision must be tempered by a thorough appreciation of the human cost. The future we imagine might be searingly bright, but, as Jo Facer points out here, we must always consider the consequences of our bold ideas and the likelihood of creating perverse incentives. An overlooked aspect of leadership is recognising that perfection is impossible, know when to cut your losses and settle for the best worst option.
How do you know if you have vision? You probably read a lot, think a lot and talk a lot to others in education.
Focus – It’s not enough to see the big picture, a good leader should also see how the pieces fit together. This is what I’m worst at. I’m always imagining shining cathedrals but I often lack the patience to worry about the snagging and the fiddly bits. When it comes to the details I have a tendency to bodge. A good leader doesn’t lose sight of the day-to-day and the mundane. That doesn’t mean they should do everything – in fact, they definitely shouldn’t even attempt to do everything – but it does mean they should know who’s doing what and be able to provide support where necessary. A good leader can spot where things are going wrong, can intervene to put their finger in the damn at just the right moment.
Having focus means you know the small things matter. A smile, a frown, a pat on the back can make or break another’s day. Focussing on the details may not be glamorous but it’s sometimes the difference between success and failure. A good leader should know that if something can be misunderstood, it will be. Ideally, mistakes should be anticipated and countered before they occur, but it’s likely impossible to foresee all the ways human fallibility can manifest itself. I regularly have the experience of being told by teachers that they ‘wouldn’t be allowed’ to approach their jobs in new ways because doing so would contravene a policy. When I then speak to school leaders they’re often shocked that their advice or suggestions have been misinterpreted as law. This shouldn’t surprise us and it’s always worth erring on the side of charity when considering the actions of others.
How do you know if you’re focussed? You’ve probably seen a few projects through to the point where you’re on going involvement is no longer needed.
In another post, I added a sixth wish: intelligence.
So that’s it. My ideal school leader. This might seem like a lot to ask but then nobody rises to low expectations, do they?
How do you know if you’re a good leader? If you’ve just read that list and patted yourself on the back, you’re probably not a very good leader.
*In case you’re wondering, I don’t think I fulfil many of these characteristics myself. Which probably explains why I work for myself.