In the summer term, my head informed me that an ex-headteacher who he used to work with is going to work with our SLT with the remit of developing our own leadership competencies. The reason for this is partly because we have restructured some of our roles and responsibilities for the upcoming year. The head believes – quite rightly – that the way SLT has been structured is very much based upon procedures and tasks rather than clear outcomes. As an example, one of our assistant heads is responsible for trips and visits but this is mostly an admin role; time he spends on this is time spent away from his other major responsibility which is developing and evaluating our assessment and feedback processes.
To be honest, when the head came to my office to say that someone from the outside was going to come in and work with us to become better senior leaders, my initial reaction (in my head!) was ‘Is this his way of telling me that I need to up my game?’ I am very critical of myself so for those who know me, this wouldn’t come as any great surprise. But then, I told myself to not be so ridiculous and respond in a manner that I would expect from my students and colleagues: to welcome any opportunities to learn and improve.
My head has told us to have a think over the summer holidays about our strengths and weaknesses and tell him how we would like to work with our ‘critical friend’ over the next year. Up until today, I’ve spend all of thirty seconds pondering this question because I’ve been far too busy putting all of my efforts into maximising my tan and drinking cocktails in the beautiful island of Kefalonia, but since there’s a storm outside, I thought it might be a good time to have a think about what I need to do to become a better leader.
I’ve been in the role of assistant head for just over a year and a half and it has been a very, very steep learning curve! In that time, the only CPD I’ve had relating to school leadership was a one-day course for new assistant heads. There was some useful information about using the GROW model for coaching and using the Leadership Framework to judge ourselves against as we develop as leaders; however, as with most external courses, it didn’t have a great impact on what I actually do day in and day out. It would be fair to say that most of my leadership CPD has come from watching other members of the SLT and seeing how they do things and deciding whether I think I would approach people and tasks in the same way.
So, getting my head back into school-mode, I’ve done what most English teachers do for inspiration which is return to some books that I’ve been reading recently to get the brain going once again – Alistair Smith’s High Performers: The Secret of Successful Schools and Oliver Knight and David Benson’s Creating Outstanding Classrooms: a whole-school approach. I’ll be commenting on a couple of their points later on in this post because they made me sit up and think about how I am lacking as a leader. As well as this, I’ve been lucky enough to have some great conversations with a friend and colleague of mine who is part-way through her Teaching Leaders course. She has been sharing the fantastic resources she has been given and the access to brilliant professionals. Just before we broke up for the holidays, we were discussing how she completed a personality test at her most recent Teaching Leaders seminar; the purpose was to consider how different personality types could influence the relationship between coach and coachee. This coaching model is something we are starting in September to replace the formal lesson observation and I was keen to exchange ideas with her – I took the personality test and laughed when I discovered that we both came out the same. At the time, I didn’t think much more about it but when I spoke to the other members of SLT about it and then they started doing the test, we realised how different we all were and this was highlighted by our different four letter combinations. This leads me to my first area for development next year…
Development priority number one: stop being so emotional when it comes to making decisions
The personality test revealed that my most significant personality trait is that I am ruled by my emotions and make judgements based on gut instinct rather than detailed, methodical thought. The rest of SLT laughed when I told them – as in ‘Really? This is such a shock, Debbie!’ I’ve never really cared much about this in the past; in fact, shamefully, I’ve been rather ignorant and arrogant about my inability to ‘do data’ and that ‘I’m an English teacher and more of a people person’. Working for a head whose discipline is Mathematics and who believes data is king, I can’t help but cringe at my ineptitude in meetings. What’s worse is that if I struggle to use data effectively then that is affecting my ability to challenge and hold the people I line manage to account. Don’t get me wrong – I can do basic data analysis and I have made limited improvements in this area but, depending on the format it is presented in, I can have an internal meltdown and start to feel a rising sense of panic. I’m hoping that I can be supported to get a better balance between using data to improve the quality of teaching and maximise student outcomes but also retain some of my gut instinct about what’s the right thing to do. (As I write that sentence, I’m reminded of David Didau, a.k.a @LearningSpy, talking at this year’s Pedagoo London that trusting your gut instinct can be decidedly dodgy…)
Development priority number two: recognise when to be informal and formal
I am a very informal person and struggle to come across as formal. When the occasion demands me to be formal, I feel like I am being really fake and trying to be something that I’m not. I am a sociable person and for me, getting to know the people I line manage, is important. I strongly believe that when a person’s individual qualities are recognised beyond what they are able to achieve in the classroom leads to a better working environment. I have been extremely lucky in that I line manage a range of truly fantastic people; as a result, being informal with them hasn’t been too much of an issue because they are exceptional at their jobs and are really dedicated to helping the school move forward.
Recently, I read the following from Alistair Smith in his book I mentioned earlier.
Put people before policies. Coercive, policy-driven leadership gets you compliance whilst supportive, policy-aware leadership gets you loyalty.
Alistair Smith (2011) High Performers: The Secrets of Successful Schools, p.50
In fact, I’ve always prided myself on putting people first. When I first began working as an AST with Mel, I was line managed by the deputy head (who is now a head in a school in South London) and he respected me as an individual, even when my ideas and beliefs didn’t quite match school policy. Accordingly, I try hard to treat everyone I line manage with respect and recognise that we’re all human and can make mistakes. I will protect the people I line manage as much as I can because effort has been put in to build a positive working relationship. If someone tells me they are not going to make a deadline or that they’ve cocked up in some way, then my first thought is not to grass them up to the head; I’ll try and find out a way to sort it out.
Yet something happened in the summer term where I discovered that a person I have line managed hid something important from me and I had to find out from others about the problem. I was really angry and shocked – I couldn’t believe they felt they couldn’t tell me they’d made an error. And it got me thinking about my behaviour and whether I had in any way contributed to this problem. I’m not 100% sure but I have this uncomfortable feeling that my informal nature meant that this person felt that it would be ok to not tell me, that they would get away with it because I’m pretty laid back. When I think about other members of our SLT, I feel like this person wouldn’t have risked it with them. So I’ve had to reflect on my informal nature and think about whether it is always appropriate to be like that with everyone. Some people may misinterpret my informality; consequently, I need to adapt and think more carefully about how I address different people in different circumstances – even if that means sounding like some policy robot at times…
Development priority number three: stop thinking I can be involved in everything
One of the reasons I became an AST – apart from the opportunity to work with Mel – was because I love getting stuck in and being part of a team trying things out. What I’ve discovered is I can’t do everything: and I can’t expect middle leaders to want to do everything I think is a great idea. My reaction to a keen teacher coming to me with an idea is most often ‘Yeah, that sounds great – let’s give that a go!’ The problem is that I think I can make everything happen at once and keep all of the initiative plates spinning – and I can’t. But I hate saying ‘No’ because when I say ‘No’ I feel like I’m not being supportive of that person’s talent and desire to come on board and make our school better.
This snippet below from Oliver Knight and David Benson’s book made me realise how annoying I must be to some middle leaders who have probably switched off the lights and hid under the desk because they’ve heard I’ve got another great idea about what we can do next year!!!
You cannot have an outstanding school without outstanding Middle Leaders – they are the engine room of the school and need clear lines of accountability as well as the freedom to take control. What they do not need is lots of initiatives to run; what they do need is a clear view of the strategic vision and direction of the school.
Oliver Knight and David Benson (2014) Creating Outstanding Classrooms: a whole-school approach, p.359
This year, I fought hard to be given line management responsibility for Pupil Premium from September. I am really excited about this because I think this area of responsibility is so vitally important. Our school has a pretty mediocre track record when it comes to securing the best outcomes for Pupil Premium students and our head has made it clear that it would be morally corrupt of us to not make this our number one whole school priority. Who cares if our GCSE results look great if they mask the fact that many Pupil Premium students just aren’t getting what they should? It’s just not acceptable.
We have appointed a new Pupil Premium Achievement coordinator and I am looking forward to working with her to make sure all of these children are on teachers’ radars. I will also be line managing the Literacy, Numeracy, Transition and Accelerated Learners coordinators. My role has been developed so that I line manage all of the whole school roles rather than concentrate on individual subjects. My wish is that I will get some expert input from our ‘critical friend’ on how I can make best use of all of these coordinators’ time and expertise and work in a more joined-up way. There are so many crossovers between these roles and I would like to have as many group meetings as possible rather than have one to one meetings so we can all benefit from listening to each other and cut down on the number of different initiatives that they will all undoubtedly have ready to share in September!
So there are my three leadership development priorities for the next academic year. I think there could be some difficult moments being put under the spotlight by a stranger but I’m not going to get any better unless I’m challenged by someone who is an extremely experienced leader. Oh, and did I mention that we’re due another Ofsted inspection anytime this year as we strive to move away from ‘Requires Improvement’?
Every year brings new challenges and I look forward to what the new year will bring – but first, I’ll enjoy the remaining weeks left before the madness of September begins!