― Sheryl Sandberg
“If you think a professional is expensive, wait ’til you try an amateur.”
― Paul “Red” Adair
If there’s something that a step into a leadership role demonstrates to you, it’s both the best and worst of people, dictated by the different contexts in which they have to work. The question that rises to the forefront for me is how best to support those dealing with serious challenge.
What a blog does bring to those who start to write them is a compulsion to write another. There is something potentially addictive about the sharing and discussion and the potential catharsis leaves one feeling particularly “scripturient”.
My blogs this year have, understandably but potentially rather self indulgently, focused on my learning curve in stepping into an SLT role. The last few weeks have been as stark a lesson as any and have contributed to honing what I both want and need to be in terms of leadership, particularly how I lead others but with the knowledge that much of that needs to start with me. It has been pointed out to me this year that I now have more direct influence that I had in my previous roles. It’s now that I begin to see how this influence has to be both operational but also in contributing to what we would consider to be the ethos or the tenor of the organisation.
The key observation that I have made is in the way the staff have felt and the way that the atmosphere of the building is modified in the context in which we currently find ourselves. My overarching feeling is focused towards how to help. Sometimes this is simply staying out of it. People need an opportunity to discuss how they feel and take their opportunity to represent themselves. But how can I help with this?
Distributed leadership is long overdue at our school with a small SLT often having to be “top down” in it’s leadership. Directive and not as affiliative as we may always desire to be, partly due to the necessity for rapid improvement to protect the staff and the organisation, we need more capacity at an SLT level. This of course juxtaposes the need to provide opportunity with the need to reduce expenditure elsewhere. In my own cogitation about this I am scrabbling around for where to even begin.
I have asked myself what the optimum “structure” is for the leadership and staffing of any school. I’ve been through four restructures in three previous schools and it has always been done differently. In some, the desired structure is issued and staff are asked for comment whilst clearly stating this will be taken to Governors to move on quickly. Others gathered staff together and asked us to ask as many questions, starting with a blank sheet of paper, even asking questions like, “do we really need a headteacher?” As an AST I saw as many different structures at work as I saw schools, all of them successful and hindered in their own ways. Ultimately the answer to the above question is either, “whatever the Head/Principal wants and/or needs in the context” or “whatever works best in your context”.
In starting with a blank piece of paper (always the hardest way to start) you may have to work with “roles” not “people”. Questions have to be asked regarding key roles in school. Should accountability automatically provide a place at the SLT “table”? Perhaps in consideration of the gravity of roles. Or should these roles constitute an “extension” of an SLT? Or, crucially, is there an argument that a move towards a more senior status or position distills the work that senior middle leads put into the “boiler-house” of the organisation? Balancing these competing views is an unenviable task, considering the insight that these roles can bring to an SLT but balancing it next to what you want them to be doing all day every day. The answer right now, for me, is that I simply don’t know. My perspective is such that I don’t have the insight at the level at which I work yet to make a call.
What remains for my day job and not the reflections of my blog is how best to support people in this context. My career has taught me several things about professionalism. (This article sums up many of them well.) I have made countless mistakes, learned from experience how to and not to, speak to people, when to express my opinion and when not to. When to ask for a straight answer and, more importantly, how to ask. How to express an opinion and to whom. I still don’t get it right all the time but I have an ideal that I work towards and I try to model this whenever I can. When I took up my post this year, I spent my first few SLT meetings quiet. Speaking when spoken to and offering opinions when asked or when on the agenda. I’m more free and easy now that I see where I “fit” in the team. This was also a result, I’m sure, of being new to the organisation. Being new means a healthy discomfort about how, where and to whom you express your opinions. This is not, of course, the reserve of the new. This may be the reserve of the professional.
The professionalism that we fight for in modern education dictates that we uphold the standards that are dictated to us in the form of the Teachers’ Standards but also the individual ethos of the school. The challenge that remains for me in terms of my leadership is how I communicate this fact. I’m still considering this. The learning curve continues.