Over recent years @theprimaryhead and I have had numerous conversations about SLT and school leadership in general. It is a subject area we are both passionate about. We are struggling with the idea that the role is seen as unattractive and out of reach for so many. We want to de-bunk the myths (to jump on to the @HarfordSean bandwagon and hijack his shtick) but we are aware that the line between myth and reality is often very fine.
I have been in school leadership for 18 years (a governor for 18 and head teacher for 13). I do feel the leadership role seems harder than at any time but I am questioning why and what is fuelling the anti-leadership brigade that seems to have such traction at the moment.
There is a looming leadership crisis in schools and a projected shortage of 19,000 school leaders by 2022. As I wrote about in this blog.
My first point of call is how teachers view themselves within the eco system of educational leadership. I feel that somehow teachers have been made to feel their voice and impact within the classroom is ‘lesser’ within the grand scheme – that teaching has nothing to do with the business of school leadership. Many would seem to view themselves as Tardigrades*.
Tardigrades are water-dwelling microscopic animals. They are sometimes known as the Water Bear or the Moss Piglet.
If Tardigrades were teachers** they would be dwarfed by the shadows of tigers and other seemingly more worthy beasts. Their voices would struggle to be heard; in fact they would struggle to have any real impact upon the world they frequent. What I am getting at is there seems to be thousands of teachers out there who feel that they are less significant than those who present further up the evolution change of command – especially within the media world of education where super star educationalists have taken a firm grip on the mantle.
Moss Piglets are as indestructible as they are tiny. They can survive in extreme temperatures, eat up massive doses of radiation and bask in the vacuum of space (otherwise known as the Staffroom). They are a hardy thing. If Tardigrades were teachers they would make much better leaders than tigers and they are far less likely to leave a trail of destruction behind them.
This is my point. Who better to be future school leaders than teachers? Who better to lead the way it ‘should’ be rather than it is? To do this current leaders need to listen to and act on their teachers concerns. They need to pave the way. This is something I am really just beginning to understand. I see myself as an enlightened head teacher and yet I am only really beginning to understand how my leadership needs to be roots led rather than dictated from the top. I think I blame this on my leadership education. It is only now that I have more experience that I am beginning to think differently from what I have been told. For too many years I have toed the line because I didn’t have the confidence to stray away from the perceived intelligence. Much of this intelligence has helped fuel some mythical thinking around leadership and in particular school headship.
Here are some ‘basic’ initial thoughts around a few of these myths.
Myth 1: Leaders working lives are more stressful than teachers… I would challenge this. I have lots to worry about as a school leader but I don’t think it impacts upon my life any differently to the stresses a class based teacher faces. I was stressed as a teacher but in different ways – Both are intrinsically inter-linked. It is about adjusting to the stresses and anyone can do that, we just may need to seek support to help us through it. When a family breaks down I deal with it from my perspective and a teacher deals with it from theirs. The stresses are equal in terms of the concerns we have for the child or family. I think much around the perceived stress you will be under sounds scarier than the reality. In 13 years I have certainly faced stressful situations but I still love this job as much as I ever have. I don’t think leaders have a monopoly on stress but sometimes we like to feed the line that we do.
Myth 2: It is an impossible job… No it is not. What is impossible is trying to be what you think others expect you to be. If you have a vision that will focus on the purpose of school and make a difference then why hide it under the desk? Your passion for making things better should be heard loud and clear – even when they go against the grain. Your vision should not feel impossible… trying to make it fit in to perceived expectations is where it gets difficult believing that others are right because their voice is louder or their growl is fiercer should not be a deterrent… It should be an open and exciting opportunity.
Myth 3: You have to be tough to do this job… Yes you do but tough and ‘cold heartless dick’ should not to be confused here. It is a very fine line between strong leader and bully a debate a good leader should wrestle with often. It seems that far too many SLT are being tutored to be tough on this or tough on that in the bloody field of ‘no excuses’. It is dangerous rhetoric. Another reason why more teachers should be encouraged to be SLT and heads – we need a class based reality at the heart of school leadership. We need the voices of far more than the select few who are fresh from the senior leadership cast. The idea that leadership and being tough is the main trait you need is a scary one. Leaders need empathy and many teachers have this. Leaders need humility and they need to be strong and compassionate… If they are bullies they should be called out by everyone with a voice.
Myth 4: The buck stops with you… Yes it does but you are not alone. It may feel like this at times and for some this may be the truth but in many schools the buck stops with the team. Governors, other leaders and a good team of staff all understand where the buck stops. Yes, as head you will be the one on the seat in some situations but don’t think you are alone because you rarely are.
I am hoping to find a way where the merits of all voices in education can be heard. Of course school leadership does need to have elements of business acronym, bigger picture strategy and wise owl tactics that may run contrary to class based practice (But all too often it is immoral business, small minded strategy and bad tactics that cause the resentment towards SLT). All we seem to be doing right now is oppressing the most important elements within our system. The future leaders we need; pushing them down in to the vacuum (where they will likely rise up from) and making them feel that the only true way to live in this system is to leave it or fight back. I think now is the time to ask some serious questions about what leadership in schools should be and how we can unify schools around leadership that works from the roots upwards. We need to hear the voices we sometimes miss, listen to the songs from space and spend time in the vacuum so that we can really understand what it is we are trying to achieve in our leadership.
*If you are offended by being called a Tardigrade, I am sorry. I was making some sort of point that once I started with I was stuck with…
**It’s a blog and therefore expect crazy ideas, bad grammar and slightly dubious linking (as well as no research, evidence or other stuff)… well, in my blogs anyway.