I teach, therefore I am.
A write up of my presentation at #TMExcel #Leadership
According to LinkedIn (!) it’s my third year anniversary of being a leader. It’s an interesting time to try to work out what leadership means – this year in particular seems to have seen a real dearth of leadership, or at least leadership role models that don’t make me despair about the future of the human race. And it’s that lack of leadership politically that has made me more aware of how important leadership is.
Post-Brexit, it wasn’t to the leaders of the world that I turned for reassurance – mostly because they were all hiding – but also because they seemed to have become caricatures of the dishonest and self-serving politician. So I turned instead to the leaders in education, as did staff and students all around the country. That’s the weight of responsibility that a school leader bears.
And over the last few years, I have been trying to match up to this immense responsibility. As ever, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no simple answer to achieving this; it is in fact about the process of finding a perfect pitch between the ideal and the real. I’m an idealist and a dreamer – I’m an English teacher, it’s what we do. But I’ve learnt that this has to be balanced with the reality of leading a school.
Let me give you some examples of what I mean by this. As part of my job, I’m responsible for our curriculum development: in my ideal world, this means a whole array of subject experts autonomously leading on their subject curriculum and designing exceptional lessons to go with this. The reality is that it is not only impossible to expect this from every single member of staff but it’s also unfair. An NQT working on their classroom presence does not always want or need autonomy over their curriculum at this stage. Sometimes prescription can help, its not an ideal end point, but it might be a necessary step along the way: prescription can lead to autonomy. It’s about finding the right pitch for each teacher.
Another area in which I’ve had to find balance is in that between planning and spontaneity. I have a stereotypically British admiration for order and rules – I like systems and feeling that everything is under control. However, as a leader I’ve learnt that sometimes you need to be a maverick and a rule breaker; to push against existing systems and challenge the limits of your school, teachers and pupils. Sometimes it’s in the spontaneity that you find greatness and it’s sometimes within chaos that you find order.
Working as a leader in schools often means you are trying to find the right pitch for the different groups you support whether it be pupils, teachers, parents, governors or external agencies. Observing a lesson that goes badly – where are you supposed to focus: the teacher or the pupils? How far do you take supporting the development of a teacher when you know poor teaching is letting down your pupils? Where’s the line to be drawn between supporting your staff and responding to parent concerns? There’s a difficult balance always in place as a leader – we are accountable to all these groups of people. I’m persuaded by John Tomsett’s argument that if you support and develop your teachers, you will in turn create the best impact for your pupils. This is something we can bear in mind when we look at CPD models within school – another area where you need to find the right pitch, rather than a one size fits all approach.
In the end, much of what we do comes from a constance attempt to find this balance. It’s learning to accept this nuanced approach, to be led out of your comfort zone and to be prepared to make mistakes along the way that is central to being a leader. You have to care more about getting close to the right note than being always right: you have to be prepared to tune and re-tune. In Richard Flanagan’s novel ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ a widow reflects on the love she shared with her husband; she describes a conversation with a friend of hers about music:
‘one day she was telling me how every room has a note. You just have to find it. She started warbling away, up and down. And suddenly one note came back to us, just bounced back off the walls and rose from the floor and filled the place with this perfect hum. This beautiful sound. Like you’ve thrown a plum and an orchard comes back at you.’
And she asks ‘Do you think that’s what we mean by love […] The note that comes back to you? That finds you even when you don’t want to be found?’
This idea of a note ‘that finds you even when you don’t want to be found’, of the ‘warbling away, up and down’ to find that right note for the room is a beautiful description of love but it also describes what you do as a leader: you try to find the right note for your school, you tune away until you get that perfect hum. That’s love. That’s leadership.