I teach, therefore I am.
Last year, I became a member of SLT. It has been an experience unlike any other – full of unexpected challenges and rewards. Nothing quite prepares you for what it means to become a leader; this post reflects on some of the things I’ve learnt so far.
A key component of leadership is finding the balance between thinking/theorising and taking action. When it comes to leadership, people often fall more naturally into one category. As a thinker; I’ve always found it aggravating to see people in power (in whatever line of work) implement the latest fad or whim without taking time to evaluate or consider implications. A lack of thought or an inability to engage with theory can also result in leaders sticking with existing systems to avoid the thinking and research needed for meaningful change (the lack of uptake, in many schools, in designing a new post-levels KS3 assessment system is a prime example).
However I’ve also learnt that you can think too much; you are never going to get it absolutely right so there’s something to be said for taking clear actions, making that leap of faith and trying something out. No matter how much research and thought behind an idea, there will always be the potential of failure; it’s about weighing up the risks. For the ‘thinkers’ there is also a danger of being all about the ‘ideas’ – it is great to be creative and to think of all the many brilliant ways you can revolutionise education but you can’t do them all at once. I have definitely been guilty of that in the past, taking on a huge issue in education and then trying to come up with a million ways to solve it. You then run the risk of trying a load of things out and not dedicating yourself to seeing anything through to the end.
Previously I thought there was a clear answer to this one but I now believe it’s about finding a balance between thought and action. My advice is to make sure the values and the thinking behind the ideas are clear – even if it’s someone else in your team doing this part – then take action swiftly and set out a timeline for review and evaluation, with a clear outcome in mind. It might not create the rush that comes from a flurry of exciting ideas or an instantaneous action but it will be much more rewarding and have a greater impact in the long term.
When it comes to being in SLT you have an absolute responsibility to step up to the role and to be a presence within the school. As a classroom teacher, you can essentially just close the door and get on with your teaching. You can build relationships with your classes and create a little corner of paradise which is just you, your subject and your pupils. Of course many classroom teachers go beyond this, but they don’t have to. As a Subject Lead or Middle Manager, it becomes less possible to stay within the boundaries of your classroom, as you need to support other members of your team and take responsibility for pupil outcomes.
As SLT, you are on duty for the wider school at all times. I have quickly learnt that a free lesson is no such thing at all. As soon as you start to put red ink to paper you know that you’ll hear a shout, a door slam, a phone ring, an unearthly silence which means you are needed. Whether it is to cover a lesson, to deal with an upset pupil/parent/teacher or to come up with a plan in response to the impending rain storm/bus strike/fire alarm, the very nature of schools means there is often something emergent to deal with and if you have a ‘free’ you’ll be the one dealing with it. Perhaps it says too much about my guilty pleasure of watching medical dramas, but I have come to think of these moments as being Head of Trauma. It’s on you to pick up the problems as they come in, quickly and calmly assess the situation and try as best as you can to stabilise it so that the rest of the team can function. You need to be calm, efficient and un-shockable. You also need to relinquish the idea of having time in the day to accomplish anything you thought you might do like planning or marking. Whilst this can be stressful, there is also something rewarding about knowing that you help to keep everything running smoothly; gently nudging most things back into place or quickly taking control of a situation before it throws everything off balance.
As part of being ‘on-call’ you also need to be able to step up to the job of supporting your staff. As SLT, swooping in on a situation, it is remarkably easy to use your authority and relationship with the pupils to take control. This can leads to situations where pupils get a friendly warning from SLT and then are placed back into classes when they have undermined the teacher’s authority. Or pupils knowing that they need to behave for some teachers – notably those who swan around with the threat of an SLT detention in their back pocket – and not for others. David Didau described the problems of this in his blog ‘Undermining Teachers is Easy’. The word ‘easy’ is important here; even in a great school and with the best intentions, anyone can be lured into this way of behaving because frankly it’s a lot easier. It is easier to make your own relationships work and coddle pupils back into classes than it is to have the row with them over their behaviour; it is easier to provide a quick fix and pass it back to your colleagues to deal with rather than chasing it up yourself and following through with the consequences. However this has a damaging impact on staff and on the school. So whilst I advocate the importance of SLT presence and the ability of SLT to deal with emergent situations; your actions must best support those involved. Getting this right comes from both creating effective whole school systems and also from an individual responsibility to not get a superhero complex about your role. My school works because of the superb work, shared values and aims of our Principal, leadership team, teaching body and support staff. Schools are great not because of one or two individuals but because of teams of staff at all levels who are committed to providing an excellent education for their pupils.
As SLT you have a lot on your plate and are stretched in many different directions. This can sometimes mean that the day-to-day experience of teaching somehow ends up bottom of the list of priorities. It’s so easy to be in the midst of teaching and to be thinking about the meeting you have that afternoon or the email you need to respond to. It’s easy to persuade yourself that this is still working so it’s ok. You would never respond to a personal email in class but if it’s an email about work – and the pupils are all doing some independent work – is it so bad to reply? I think this is where the boundary slips somewhat and it shouldn’t. The reality is that you won’t fix or ruin anything else that is going on outside the classroom during that space of time but by not being completely in the room you run the risk of suggesting to your pupils that you don’t care about their learning at that moment.
Valuing the teaching also reminds you of how your leadership decisions can impact on the day to day experience of teachers and pupils. Not only does this help to keep your feet on the ground but it also allows you the chance to savour the true magic of schools, which happens not in a meeting room or office but right there in the classroom. Being a leader is about providing the conditions for this to flourish.
Finally, the most important thing I have learnt this year has been the importance of listening to feedback about your role as a leader and learning how to be better. At first this can be difficult, especially when you think you are doing things with the best intentions and yet you are criticised. However it is nonsense to think that you can take on any role and get it completely right, especially when you are trying to meet the diverse and often competing needs of governors, teachers, parents, pupils, Ofsted etc. Sometimes you will try your hardest and get it wrong. You can either see this as a failure and beat yourself up about it or level the blame at those who complain, or you can listen and reflect and improve. As someone responsible for making change happen and taking on difficult decisions, you can’t avoid sometimes rocking the boat but by listening, you might learn about the best way to deliver news or implement changes without causing a catastrophe for all those involved. One of the elements of being SLT that I have come to cherish most is the opportunity to learn and the knowledge that this will never stop: you can always be better. It’s a crazy unpredictable job, which will never cease to challenge you, but I cannot recommend it more highly.