The Vantage Point: Things I’ve Learned this Year
I’ve just finished my first year in a senior leadership role at a new school and wanted to get across some thoughts about what I’ve learned. A version of this will feature on Craig Barton’s podcast so if you’d rather listen to that (and hear from much smarter people into the bargain) then I won’t be offended…
The Vantage Point of Leadership
I’ve read a lot and heard a lot of presentations about leadership, and much of it is common knowledge and/or common sense. If you work hard, show honesty and care about the people in your school you’ll have integrity. Be lazy, mendacious and heartless and you won’t. However, this tweet from Amy Fast expressed something I had been aware of but hadn’t yet found a way to articulate:
This is spot on. You can (or should) see the whole of the playing field but you carry no other special powers by dint of your title. I’d like to think the majority of school leaders understand this intuitively, but I suspect they don’t.
On Amy’s point about needing to learn more, I’m about to read Tom Ree’s ‘Wholesome Leadership: the heart, head, hands and health of school leaders’ and love the fact that he has a chapter on staff wellbeing. It should be a good read.
The GP-Consultant Model of Leading on Research
I previously worked alongside Carl Hendrick where he was the school’s research lead and I headed up professional learning. I relied on Carl’s expertise when shaping things like INSET days and Initial Teacher Training as his job was to act as a filter for research evidence. Moving to a new school meant that it’s the first time I’ve found myself in this role. I thoroughly enjoy it and have introduced a Professional Learning Reading Group and a monthly Education Research Bulletin. These have had a good response and I’ll look to develop them next year.
However, the more I think about being a research lead the more I realise that, in medical terms, I’m essentially a general practitioner (GP). This is fine – in fact, it’s probably essential – but if you’re going to become a fully research-informed school then you need to extend your capacity. What you need is a team of consultants. To give a specific example, I’ve always taught secondary but now I’m in a 5-18 all-through school I need help from colleagues who are experts in primary pedagogy. I’ve put in place a core team for next year to help me develop evidence-informed practice and am looking to grow this in the long term. A key message here is that this change won’t take place overnight, and you need people who are committed to making the vision a reality.
Directing the Flow of Information
A former colleague of mine used to say ‘know everything, correct enough’ and I think that mantra works for a lot of education. The trick is learning how to know everything. So how do you improve your intelligence gathering and networks?
As a new leader there are people who will challenge you early on, and then there are others who will tell you things quite openly (and perhaps bluntly). However, the silent majority probably won’t tell you important things because they don’t want to burden you, or be seen as someone who is negative or disgruntled. Actually, they need to tell you things that matter. Being approachable does not mean people will approach you.
What you need to do is get your colleagues to tell you what you need to know, as opposed to what you want to know. This will only happen if you build trust and a culture of undefended leadership. It takes time, and a lot of conversations, to get people to this point. However, the more information you have, the clearer your view is from the vantage point.
Visibility versus Priority
It is patently obvious that good leaders need to be visible. However, you can start your day planning to get around and be visible but as things unfold you can find yourself having to work behind closed doors as crises crop up. This also means that much of your work goes uncredited because it’s done covertly, so if you went into a leadership role to get credit, it’s probably best to leave. Now.
You can also get dragged down by major projects, so for example this year I was responsible for getting us to be GDPR compliant (I can sense your jealousy from here). This meant a long slog at the desk which only got heavier as the May 25th deadline loomed. It also meant that when I walked around in June, people often said ‘I haven’t seen you for a while, how are things?’ That’s a clear sign that you haven’t been visible enough: being a keyboard warrior does not make you a leader. Therefore a key focus for me next year is to assess priorities more carefully and budget time more effectively to make sure that I don’t disappear into a bunker, however necessary that may seem.Coming up for air is good, and classroom air is the best kind.
Learn First, Act Second
I made a decision before I started at a new school that I had to spend time learning about the culture and ethos of the place before I weighed in with any new initiatives. In hindsight, this was perhaps my best decision of the year. It’s tempting to come in all guns blazing to put your stamp on your role, but I think it’s ill-advised (though obviously context is key). I spent about 50-60 hours in lesson observations throughout the first term and then gave feedback to the whole staff in the January INSET day. This was well received and also meant that that when I did launch new ideas (like the PL Book Group) it was based on genuine need.
This comes back to a truism of education: not everything works everywhere. Whatever your prior experience and knowledge base is, it won’t bulletproof you when you walk into a new school. In fact, the skills that you got you the job are likely to be inadequate for successfully doing the job. You are not now, nor will ever be, the finished article as a leader. That’s why the tweet by Amy Fast resonated with me so much.
So, Was It Worth It?
Of course it was, and I’ve learned more this year than I have in any other of the 16 years I’ve been in education. Yes, leadership is tough and a lot of stress follows you home. It is also hard spending less time in the classroom as this is the thing that made me love teaching in the first place. However, I’m one of those people who need a new challenge the instant they feel that they’ve cracked something. I spent 8 years in middle leadership roles so the time was right to make the step up. That’s the final thought: getting your timing right is key. Don’t go in too early, as you’ll be at risk of sinking.