In normal times, education leadership is complex and nuanced as we navigate the ebb and flow of constantly changing educational landscape. Governments and ministers come and go with different ideologies and hobby horses. Covid-19 has given us some short, medium- and long-term challenges which we could not have foreseen or planned for. The challenges that schools now face put us in unchartered and often stormy waters; there is no blue-print for what happens next.
Nonetheless, it has never been more important for schools to have good leadership, it is our choices that show what we truly stand for more than our accolades. School leaders need to find the courage and integrity to do what is right for the young people they serve whilst accepting the limitations, tensions and contested nature of what is right.
I guess we need to remember that learning changes lives and the primary function of education is learning. Teaching remains the noblest of professions and we need to give this the time and space it needs to thrive.
In my early career, education leadership was going through its managerialism phase where you got to climb the ranks and become a big cheese by being good at having ‘hard’ conversations: a hard cheese if you will.
Education was awash with all sorts of cheddars, parmesans and the holey gruyere and swiss cheeses. As a young ricotta myself, I did not know any different, but we continued to equate an Ofsted tick-list approach as a proxy for good leadership; we graded individual lessons (what were we thinking), even when we were not able to see systemic cause and effect.
Arguably, I am moving to a more blue cheese phase of my career; a strong, salty and nutty variety like Roquefort. Fun fact, while soft-ripened cheeses like Brie are externally treated with mould, blue cheeses are inoculated with mould internally. The particular strains of mould that make blue-streaked cheese include Penicillium roqueforti, named for a mould common to caves in the region of Roquefort, France. The blue mould will only grow when exposed to air. At some point in the aging process, the cheesemakers pierce the skin of the wheel, introducing air, which kick-starts the mould-growing process.
While I recognise I am stretching a metaphor, perhaps there is something in the experience of 20 years teaching that helps one develop a perspective and provides some limited inoculation from the ebbs and flows of working in education.
Much has been written on the myth of heroic leadership and I do not need to repeat these, the last year has given me much to think about. School culture matters and this is shaped by its leaders. Leadership matters, A lot more than I had previously considered. Decisions made by SLTs impact on the day-to-day work of schools and teachers. Education remains one of the most challenging sectors as you are spinning so many plates all the time, whilst juggling the grenades; a bonus for those of us who enjoy 3D problem-solving.
However, there is always an opportunity cost of every decision, a new initiative may take time away from other things and there is a understandable cognitive bias towards doing things the same way as before. Any new approach requires the support of so many stakeholders for it to be successful. I have previously blogged on the EEF implementation guide which is an invaluable tool when considering any change. I am learning to be more comfortable with uncertainty and consider how the constant changes can also be a window for growth and development. What follows is a rather idiosyncratic snapshot of the stuff that I have been thinking about in the last academic year.
“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing”. Stephen Covey.
Teaching and learning have always mattered but in the choppy seas of school leadership, it is easy to get lost in the wood and not see the trees. We have to make sure we are leading this charge from the front; the real work is to improve the learning. By this we mean deep connected learning, the difference between knowing and understanding. Our lessons need to give students the tools for digging deeper into their curricula, understand their curriculum as a narrative. Teaching and learning should form the top of all our meeting agendas; in an increasingly uncertain future of GCSE and A-level assessment, it is the only game in town.
I guess this is about making sure we are busy on the right things, it is easy to get blown of course or try to change too much at once. We end up spinning too many plates and wondering why we do not have impact. We need to focus on fewer things and try to achieve them in greater depth; the paradox of doing less.
It’s all about relationships.
Sounds simple, but remains true. Leadership and followship are built on strong relationships. Trust is the glue that holds it all together. Mary Myatt has a useful phrase that helps summarise what this should be like, ‘High challenge; low threat’. It is important that we make a distinction between the people and the work. We should expect of others what we expect of ourselves. We should see our colleagues as humans first with unconditional positive regard. We should assume they want the same as we do, when we separate out the work from the colleague, people are happy to be held to account. Mary suggests that in these conditions people are happy to be held accountable as it is the work that can get better not the person. The high challenge comes from asking the right questions but in a culture of growth and low threat environment. Power is attached to the labels we have but authority and authenticity come from the person.
Accountability is not a one-way street, it is an open-ended agenda. Reciprocal vulnerability is the idea that we must explore and share the things that make us uncomfortable. We must lean into the discomfort to make sense of the messy emotions that surround our day-to-day lives. To build better relationships and connections with one another we must embrace and be seen to be vulnerable.
Those involved in the processes of teaching and learning are dealing with vulnerability on a day-to-day basis. The defences against the pain of learning are clearly demonstrated in what we call disruptive behaviour. As professionals, it seems clear that our role is to help contain some of these anxieties so that real learning can take place. However, what about my own anxieties about being a leader?
In my early career, I think I had learnt to cover them up. With bluster and bravado, I was determined to fake it until I felt I had made it. As I began to develop professionally, my roles changed from only managing my own emotional landscape about teaching and learning to positions of responsibility where the job is to help other professionals manage their own anxieties about the classroom.
Now that I have become a bit longer in the tooth, I can see how important it is for me to not ignore or negate my own anxieties and vulnerabilities. In fact, there is strength in admitting them. This makes sense as much of what we are dealing with is uncertainty.
Brene Brown suggests that our vulnerability is the birthplace of shame and fear as well as the spring of joy and hope. Those of us who are more emotionally healthy and resilient have the courage to own some of these vulnerabilities. We numb our vulnerability with modern addictions to shopping, food, drugs but these behaviours numb both the bad and good feelings. To cope with our own vulnerability we try to make everything uncertain – certain. To cope with our own vulnerability, we look for others to blame to discharge the pain and discomfort. To cope with our own vulnerability, we pretend that what we do and how we behave does not impact on others.
Brown recommends that we attempt the following:
- Let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen.
- To practice gratitude and joy.
- To believe that we are good-enough and worthy.
I hope I have the courage to do so.
School leadership requires the bearer to wear many hats at once. You need to know enough about all the issues of education to understand the business of schools. Now, I like to read policy documents as much as the next person, but the sheer volume of government guidance this year has been a tad overwhelming. I have been grateful for the summaries from ACSL and others. I recognise that I need to allocate sometime each week for keeping up to date and maintaining the narratives. More importantly, I need to keep reading widely about education and leadership as thoughtful leaders make time to read. Below are some books that I have enjoyed this year but always open to new suggestions.
Keep students in sight.
We all get wrapped up in the procedural elements of our jobs and it is easy to lose sight of the needs of the young people. There is something valuable in spending time with them to talk about their experiences and to use this evidence to tell a big story. The internal data does not often surprise me as I have already heard much of the narrative from the student perspective. The challenge for me is to offer this narrative back to the teachers in a non-threatening way to help close those gaps or misunderstandings. I guess this is about creating safe spaces that can engage with a coaching style conversation, rather than a culture of contempt for the message and or messenger.
Research informed and research engaged.
I have always had nagging doubts about our established practice as a profession, some deep-seated malaise about how things are done in the world of education. I meant, target grades, I kind of know why they are used as a measure of accountability but how did we get from that to each student having them on the front of their books, bonkers. In addition, I know how important feedback is for young people, but how did we get from there to triple marking and the tyranny of green pens.
I am also aware that I am a product of my own professional timeline. My teacher training began in the last century at the Institute of Education. It was a mixed blessing containing a smattering of educational theory (Vgotsky, Piaget, Bloom et al) alongside some more faddish approaches like learning styles with an emphasis on the progressive approaches and experiential learning. Didactic was bad and group work was better. I remember writing out ridiculously detailed three-part lesson plans with tick boxes for learning styles, PSHE, SEN, numeracy, literacy elements. My goodness. What were we thinking? These lesson plans became overworked, one-off pieces of professional object d’art – beautiful to look at but of no real value in the classroom. There was no focus on research evidence in the classroom. We all tinkered with a bit of action research, as is the wont of the PGCE but it was at best a flimsy attempt at being evidence-based; at worst an exercise in leading questions (would you say you enjoyed my lesson today more than yesterday?).
There was much to learn from cognitive psychology about learning and adolescent brains but there was no significant movement to provide the golden thread about what felt like a disparate list of facts. We are in a much better place now, with an emerging paradigm from the EEF, detailed evidence from the Learning Scientists and the grassroots teacher-led movements such as ResearchED.
However, our practice often lags far behind the evidence or professional debate. We do things in schools because we have always done it this way, for administrative and bureaucratic reasons or because of our own confirmation bias.
Old habits die hard.
Whether teaching habits or students’ habits, behavioural change is a long and difficult process. Teachers attend an inset on a new idea and then go back and teach in exactly the same way. Habit change is difficult. E.g. wait time … teachers do not wait long enough to get students to think. Teachers need to commit to continual improvement and focus on things that make a difference to students.
Leaders need to engineer effective learning environment by:
- Expectations for continually improving practice.
- Keeping the focus on what makes a difference.
- Provide the time space to explore improvement.
In terms of school leadership, I am still very much a work in progress, yet to ripen if you will. However, I recognise how important it is for me to continual to get support in this development. To borrow from Dylan W, it is important to have a” culture where every leader believes they need to improve, not because they are good enough but because they can be even better, there is no limit to what we can achieve.”