I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked under some influential and inspiring figureheads during my time as a classroom teacher in schools around the world – and to have worked for some not-so-great ones, too.
One thing I see as a clear difference between the two types is their visibility and presence in and around classrooms. This is a small but significant part of being a good leader – and one that can easily be overlooked.
The leaders who have always stood out to me are the ones that, no matter how busy they are, have made it a priority to leave their desks once in a while to visit our classrooms, attend events and “be around”.
The benefits of doing so are numerous – including for classroom teachers and pupils:
1. Checking in, not checking up
Schools with a practised open-door policy, where the senior leadership team (SLT) can, and frequently do, visit our classrooms, make us feel reassured and valued.
It demonstrates that they care beyond tick lists and standards, and shows that they want to know what is going on around the school. What’s more, when SLT presence is not usual and then, suddenly, does occur it feels a lot more like an invasion of the sanctuary of our classrooms.
As such, an active presence ensures that leaders have a comprehensive understanding of what is happening throughout the school and builds a foundation of trust between leaders and staff.
2. Focused CPD
A leadership that is present knows with certainty what learning is taking place in each classroom.
They know the strengths and flaws in their staff members, not because they did one formal observation at the start of the term but because they are a regular visitor to the classroom.
It becomes easier to identify trends and common concerns school-wide and, in turn, allows for the creation of a focused and effective continuing professional development programme.
What’s more, peer observations become targeted and are based on real, first-hand observations that have real insight: “Ms E is great at delivering articulate and detailed explanations while Mr G has a clever and unique technique for his targeted questioning.”
3. Learning about the students
When this isn’t the practised behaviour of a school, it can be uncomfortable to have another body in the room. It can feel like an expropriation, and makes teachers and students feel tense.
I once heard the headteacher described as “the man on the computer” – is this how you want to be viewed by your students?
Furthermore, leadership team members can often be associated, by pupils, with being in trouble or having done something wrong. Surely that’s not the intention of any well-meaning teacher moving into a leadership role?
Discipline and good behaviour are important without a doubt but so, too, is demonstrating an interest in the students and their school life: How is the school production coming along? Did the Year 7 Rugby team win this week? What topic is the focus for this week? Is the new student settling in?
As such, if SLT presence becomes the norm, students get used to visitors in their classroom and, as a consequence, get to know who their leaders are, too.
4. A chance to show-off
It can often feel that, unless you’re signing up for the high-profile events, your day-to-day hard work as a classroom teacher can easily get lost and overlooked.
But if leaders are more visible, they are undoubtedly going to see the inspiring moments, the funny moments and the everyday moments – good and bad. It feels good to be recognised for our everyday efforts.
Leaders will get a much more honest view of their teachers by dropping in and out of classes than from formal lesson observations and learning walks.
When the likelihood of your boss walking into your classroom at any given moment is high, you naturally become more prepared and ensure that your lessons will be to a good standard – is that a bad thing?
If the above points are followed so the culture is supportive, and is not about catching people out, then the knowledge that a lesson may be observed at any moment can help stop teachers becoming too set on the same methods over and over again, and ensure their lessons are fresh and creative.
Jennie Piela is a secondary English teacher based in Malaysia