6 fundamentals of school leadership

If you're looking to move into leadership, then this leader with almost three decades of experience has some advice

Jacqueline McNalty

How to be an effective international school leader

Throughout my 28-year career in education and leadership, I have had the privilege of working and leading in a range of places around the world, including Australia, the United Kingdom, China, Singapore and Hong Kong.

The question of what skills and qualities an international school leader should display has been a continuous topic of discussion at leadership conferences and workshops, and via various international leadership standards.

After all, around the world we set – rightly so – high standards for our schools and thus also high expectations for our school leaders to achieve these high standards. School leaders are accountable to make a positive impact in many different areas.

These high expectations can create stress or even burnout, though, and this is a concern we must be mindful of – especially this year, the pressure on the international school leader to perform and solve problems has never been greater.

How to be an effective international school leader

So how can international leaders – at all stages of their journey – ensure that they provide the best for schools, staff, pupils and parents – and maintain their own wellbeing, too? These are the five fundamentals I think everyone – at every career stage – should heed.

1. Leading improvement, innovation and change

A school leader must be driven by a "moral purpose" to "make a difference" with a focus on the school’s mission, vision and values.

The school leader must have a focus on continuous school improvement and be adept at strategic planning, quality assurance, education audits, accreditation and inspections and areas of compliance, and summarise these areas in regular board reports.

It is important that the school leader inspires and motivates, while at the same time understanding change and the pace of change – when to pause, when to accelerate, when to consult and also when to direct.

2. Leading teaching and learning

To lead in an International school means the school leader supports a pupil-centred school, where a learning culture is created and maintained.

A focus on curriculum and high educational standards is important; including a focus on assessment to inform and improve pupil progress.

School leaders also need to maintain knowledge of contemporary educational ideas and best practice in pedagogy, as well as staying up to date with technology tools and digital modes.

3. Developing self and others

Adaptability, optimism, diplomacy, contextual intelligence, resilience and calmness under pressure are necessary qualities for an international school leader to demonstrate.

This also requires the complementary skill of having cross-cultural competence, and understanding people from different cultural backgrounds; thus demonstrating intercultural understanding.

This all means prioritising the pastoral and wellbeing needs of others (and oneself) and relationship building is key, with a focus on an "emotional intelligence" skillset (Goleman 1995); including integrity, honesty, trust and courage – as well as being empathetic but also assertive when needing to be.

Performance management is also included in this area. A school leader needs to focus on the professional learning of their staff and also themselves, with a balanced programme for self-renewal in the four areas: physical, social/emotional, mental and spiritual.

Team building is key to support the busy life of a school, and it is an important part of the role of the school leader to build effective teams.

4. Engaging with the community

School stakeholder satisfaction, collaboration and communication is one area that is vitally important for an international school leader.

Fostering community building; especially building professional and positive relationships with parents, staff and pupils is critical.

Building trust within the school community, understanding the culture of the school, and using effective modes and mediums in communication is important to be successful in this area of leadership.

5. Leading the management of the school

In this area, the international school leader must juggle several balls in the air at once, keep all the balls moving, some at different speeds – but all moving in positive motion: without dropping any on the floor!

This area includes overseeing and managing resources; financial management; overseeing budget areas; and developing sustainable systems. The school leader must demonstrate high standards and accountability, modelling ethics.

A focus on leading in child protection, safeguarding and critical incidents is key; especially so in the current political and social climate we find ourselves in today in 2020.

The international school leader must also work in close partnership with the admissions team and the marketing team to ensure that the school’s core mission and USPs (unique selling points) are very visible in the market.

Therefore, staffing areas, recruitment and working with the HR department form a critical part of the role of the international school leader.

6. Time for reflection

For me, an international school leader is like a conductor of an orchestra; constantly reviewing, scanning, reflecting on all members and making sure all the different components are working well together; performing independently at their best and also effectively as part of a team.

Working in harmony, the end result is hopefully a stunning performance that is in tune, in time and pleasing to all stakeholders.

Jacqueline McNalty is founding principal of Malvern College Pre-School Hong Kong Island West

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