This is the first in a series of blogs I want to write based on mistakes I have made in leadership and what this has taught me.
My granddad used to mend broken TV’s and radios. I remember him peering into the backs of dusty Bakelite radios, their valves and wire guts scattered across the dinner table. I remember the hours spent with him messing around tuning them until the uncomfortable static feedback slowly turned into music. He was able to bring these clunky machines into harmony because he knew what he was doing like a Dr Frankenstein of 1970’s technology. I watched and I had no idea how he did it.
I learnt early on in school leadership that tuning in was one of the greatest and hardest skills a leader in a school needed to learn. I realised this through bitter mistakes.
My mother later told me of the many times my granddad was electrocuted and on occassions flew across the living room and hit the wall.
It was 3:30 and the school day had just finished when M stormed into my new office in floods of tears. “That coach driver has just shouted at me in front of the parents and children. He was so rude Brian.” Here it was! The chance I had been waiting for. This fop haired, very young, head was about to do AUTHORITY! I asked M to sit down and proudly rang the coach company ready to show them who was BOSS! At last my chance to let my staff know I was not to be messed with.
The coach driver answered the phone, (Even though he was clearly driving!). I had speaker phone on for dramatic effect.
“Hello, Mr Walton. Head teacher of XXXX. I am very unhappy with the way you have just behaved in front of my staff, children and parents.” (I had him!)
“Listen mate” Came back his East End bark, “I don’t care what you think. I am now late for my next pick up.”
“You are a very rude man. Has anyone ever told you what a rude man you are?” (I suddenly realised – What am I doing?)
“Eh, mate! Has anyone ever told you what a wanker you are?” The phone line went dead. M was staring at me. I could see the disappointment reflected in her teary eyes.
So often in leadership we try to be things that we are not. If only I knew then that I am not the all-powerful terror inducing example I thought I was. The head is not the chief, the warlord, the captain, the BOSS, bouncer, boxer or diplomat. The head is just the same as everyone else and don’t you ever forget it. I used to think that I had to be what I thought others wanted me to be rather than what I was. It’s fear that makes us do this. Fear of the football chant:
“YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING! YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING!”
This was the first mistake I made. I tried to be the type of head I thought others wanted me to be. I had a delusional image of what this was. The stern pillar of the community, a man who made the room go silent when he entered. I believed this and I see so many other leaders who also believe it. We then believe that this means we can do things quicker and more effectively. We believe that we really ARE that powerful. The truth is, the head, the leader, has to be more patient, understanding, sensitive, vulnerable, honest and careful than everyone else. This is not to be confused with uncertainty or weakness (as I originally thought). Being these things takes real trust and real strength – arrogance even. That’s why so many head’s never get invited out. We are too full of ourselves. Doing this means you have to attune to yourself. Know yourself and be ok with the things that make you vulnerable. Especially in front of others who look to you to be the omnipresent power of all authority when it comes to school. Attuning to yourself means you can de-code the reality you see around you with honesty and make decisions that you feel comfortable with.
I once gave an inadequate lesson judgement to a teacher who was clearly NOT an inadequate teacher. The lesson was awful. I would never do that now. I’d be honest about the lesson. But, making that teacher believe they were inadequate was wrong. I did it because I did not listen to myself. I listened to others. I attuned to the atmosphere and systems – not to myself.
When I started teaching balling a child out 50cm from their face like they were a dog who’d bitten your leg was the norm. Everyone did it. Therefore, I did it. Even though every fibre in me was screaming that this is not helping anyone… especially my throat.
I would say that the greatest lessons I learnt whilst working in Special Measures has always been the destructive power of disharmony. Not only people, but of systems and ethos. Part of the way to get a school out of Special Measures is to get simple things to work in harmony – rules, procedures and beliefs. Quite often a Special Measures school is like stepping on a distortion pedal, turning your amp up to 11 and kicking the guitar. It hurts and soon builds up a nasty life of its own.
We have to attune to our schools. This means we will need to turn the dial and re-tune to different frequencies as we go. We need to know when we are in harmony with a situation and only then should we really proceed. We then need to help others tune in to our channels. Therefore, being you and being open and honest about your successes and failures allows others to hear and understand us. Otherwise, we are in disharmony with our surroundings. This not only causes damage it can quickly build into a cacophony of noises and that mixture of discordant sounds can be one of the biggest destructive elements in any school.