Not only do we need more school leaders, says NAHT Edge CEO Louis Coiffait - we also need more staff at all levels to begin taking the lead…
There’s a natural tension between two of the main purposes of education. Yes, it needs to help students learn about the world as it is now; passing on the knowledge, skills, behaviours and values of our civilisation, built up over thousands of years. But it also has to prepare young people for the future, one full of uncertainty and change. In different ways this tension is played out every day in schools and for the staff working there, as they are required to be traditional and cautious on the one hand, but also innovative and bold on the other.
Although the vast majority of schools are able to manage these issues, the context around them seems to be getting tougher all the time. We’re in a challenging economic climate with no political party promising more investment in schools after May’s election. Change only seems to be accelerating, with schools not only having to adapt to new technologies but also to prepare their learners for jobs that don’t even exist yet and for which they’ll have to compete globally. The expectations of schools – from parents, government, the press, regulators and many others – only ever seem to increase. It looks like for the foreseeable future schools are going to have to do even more, with even less.
In that tricky context the best resource that schools have available to help them cope with all of this change is their staff; and the best way to make the most of their staff is through good leadership. However, ‘good leadership’ doesn’t always have to come from the top. If staff are motivated, supported and capable then they will be able to turn all of these challenges into opportunities; for themselves, for their colleagues and for the students that they serve. Often we only hear negative stories: about how impossible teacher workloads are, about how hard it is to recruit enough good quality teachers, and about how few people want to be head teachers. Don’t get me wrong, these are all very real and very important problems, and ones that we at NAHT Edge, along with many others, are doing our best to address.
But one of the most important and timeless attributes of any leader is optimism. Throughout history there are examples of how having high expectations of yourself and others, displaying a positive mind-set, being a role model and presenting a clear vision can together help overcome all manner of seemingly insurmountable challenges. Joan of Arc, Churchill, Mandela and countless other famous people have all been attributed with such qualities.
Closer to home and on a smaller scale you probably know examples of how colleagues have shown similar ‘classic’ leadership traits in your school – preparing their team for an Ofsted inspection, dealing with a parent complaint about a colleague, or planning how best to help those students who have a chaotic home life.
A new model
But in addition to such timeless and typical qualities, the nature of leadership itself is also changing just as schools, teaching and the wider world are developing. In our schools we need more of both the traditional, formal types of leadership, and a newer style.
For example, I never fail to be impressed with the commitment, modesty and leadership that all teachers seem to have to show almost daily – often in the most challenging circumstances. A SENCo recently told me about her role trying to help colleagues across the school to change how they teach the SEND pupils in their classes, instead of simply sending them straight to her. To give a sense of perspective about the challenges this involves, she described one situation where she had to work with another very experienced teacher to show one student how to clean themselves, including brushing their teeth properly. They then discovered that the parents of the child, who are affected but undiagnosed with similar learning difficulties, are unsure how to brush their own teeth.
To me this snapshot highlights not only why we need more ‘traditional’ leaders, with the attendant job title, salary and formal authority, but also to recognise and encourage new types of leaders and leadership qualities – amongst all school staff. Below are five such leadership qualities that any member of the school team can develop:
1) Learn how to introduce change successfully
Whether you’re trying out a new education app in your department, a new intervention with a particular pupil, or working with colleagues on a different approach to assessment, there are some key steps you can take to make success more likely and to learn for the future. Firstly plan what you’re trying to achieve and keep expectations modest - it’s better to be pleasantly surprised than disappoint those involved. Focus on the impact on students; how will you know you’ve been successful? Identify those people who need to be involved and prepare in advance what you want from them and so how you’ll communicate with them. Share your plans for the change with others to get their feedback and buy-in - people always respond better if things are done with them rather than to them. Lastly set a time limit for when you’ll evaluate what worked well and what could be improved next time. Failures are often the best learning opportunities, for both students and staff. You may want to make this project part of your own performance objectives and tie it into your personal development plan.
2) Motivate others and succeed through them
Get to know the people you’re working with properly, listening carefully not just to what they say, but also how they say it and any non-verbal signals. Try to understand the different strengths, motivations and frustrations of your colleagues, what are they trying to achieve and how can you help them with that? Find other sources of advice, whether it’s their manager or people they’ve worked with before. All of this gives you information that can help you understand what makes people tick, so you can get the best out of them. Plan in advance how you’re going to communicate with people. Focus on successes, no matter how small. Share positive stories and examples about situations where your team are doing well – especially in team meetings, noticeboards or staff newsletters. Collectively you’ll be able to achieve far more than you can on your own, so any glory should be reflected rather than direct.
3) Prepare for difficult conversations properly
Whether it’s poor performance, challenging behaviours or not meeting expectations – you wouldn’t let a student get away with it, so don’t do it with colleagues. Think carefully in advance about what the issue is and what you want both parties to get out of the discussion. Focus on actual examples and behaviours, and what impact they have - rather than emotions or personal issues. Keep it professional and focus on what can be learned from the experience.
4) Influence others without direct authority
Whether you’re the literacy co-ordinator or the Hhad of ICT, chances are you’ll be trying to persuade busy colleagues, sometimes who are more senior than you, to do something differently. As always take the time to plan your approach and get feedback on it from others. Think about the three main types of influence – persuading, consulting and inspiring. The latter two are more powerful, but can require more work. We think this is time well spent.
5) Look beyond your own classroom and school
In the current landscape no class and no school can afford to be an island. You should be reaching out across the school and beyond to get ideas, examine research, share problems and find solutions. More and more teachers are taking on responsibilities beyond their own classrooms. This can be an exciting challenge rather than an onerous task but try to do it in a planned, positive and open way. If there are implications for your other priorities then have that discussion with your manager. You should be encouraging everybody you work with to lead a healthy work-life balance and to be a good role model yourself.
What we find is that as more teachers are practising these types of informal leadership skills, they’re then also more likely to progress into formal leadership roles – and to be successful when they get there. Being a leader is about much more than your job title; and by helping others you may find you’ve helped yourself in the process.
Case study: My leadership journey so far
Joanne Gray recently took up the post as Head of Whole School Pastoral Care at Willowbridge Special School in Enniskillen Northern Ireland, an ‘all-through’ special school for 4-18 year olds. She spent 11 years teaching in mainstream schooling then eight years (and counting) in the special school sector. Her own formal education includes an Honours degree in Education, a Masters in Sports Sciences, Postgraduate Certificates in Educational Management and in Applied Behaviour Management, as well as a Certificate in Emergent Leadership.
When asked why she’d transitioned into special schools she explained that it stemmed from a desire to understand the particular challenges of pupils with complex needs such as autistic spectrum disorders (ASD). As her skills in supporting such pupils access the curriculum developed, she began to share her knowledge with other staff to help their development too. It’s these two motivations, to learn and to share, which have led her to her current position.
In discussing how leadership might be changing, she talked about the need to be creative, doing the best for pupils despite constraints with budgets or a lack of training programmes. This includes recognising the different skills and strengths that staff already hold, having high expectations of them and empowering them to pass their skills on. For her the challenge of leadership isn’t about job titles or salary but a desire to nurture others to support the pupils to be the best they can be.
About the author
Louis Coiffait is CEO of NAHT Edge (nahtedge.org.uk) - a new form of professional association and union membership tailored to the unique needs of middle leaders. He’s @LouisMMCoiffait on Twitter. All text is solely the opinion of the author.