Leadership - Good leaders have to walk the walk

A head for business may be vital these days, but principals still need to know how to teach

The modern school leader is as likely to have as many conversations about finance, data, efficiency and key performance indicators as they are about behaviour management strategies or pedagogy. In some cases, the former subjects will be much more prevalent than the latter. So it is unsurprising that studies are emerging that foresee a time when the principal of a school will not require teaching experience to do the job.

Yet this seems an improbable recipe for a successful school. For starters, a school leader needs to be able to pitch in where he or she is needed. How would a principal with no teaching experience help out by covering a science class on a Friday afternoon, or advise a struggling teacher with some words of pedagogical wisdom?

More importantly, to be able to manage teachers effectively you need to know to some degree of accuracy - and from personal experience - what they are going through day in, day out. If you don't, how can you really know what they require, and how can you choose the right strategies to enable them to do their work effectively? As one principal noted, if he was not seen as a reasonable practitioner of education, he was "simply not credible in the staffroom".

It is important, then, for school leaders to demonstrate that they are a "reasonable practitioner", to showcase that they are not a business brain with no classroom experience but that they understand teaching fully. How they do this can be a tricky balancing act.

It is probably not sensible for a principal to have a regular teaching slot in the timetable. They are likely to be dragged away too often for it to be a fair deal for the students in that class. However, helping out with occasional lessons when a teacher is absent can be a great way of showing experience, as can going into classrooms to speak to students directly when there is a difficult issue to discuss. School assemblies, too, need to be grand occasions where the school leader showcases his or her ability to perform to and manage children.

It is not just about actively teaching lessons, though; teaching the teachers is just as crucial. The school leader should be an excellent coach. Conversations with staff should seek to identify what is good in their practice and how it might be extended. The principal should visit teachers' classes often and show interest in outcomes.

School leaders should also celebrate good practice and encourage others to follow it - something that requires a knowledge of what good practice looks like. They may even have a research project of their own and they should certainly encourage further study among their staff.

As important as it is to show experience and knowledge of teaching, it is equally crucial sometimes to step back and demonstrate an ability to be the learner in the relationship. Respecting the expert knowledge of the subject specialist is the obvious everyday way of doing so. It is the principal's job to bring all this expert knowledge together so that, coupled with their own greater understanding of what is happening outside the school, they have a greater sense of the whole.

School leaders, then, should not rush to take every lesson or constantly regale staff with tales from the coalface, yet they should always be aware that demonstrating a knowledge of the art of teaching and the experiences of staff is crucial to their success and the success of the school.

This is an edited version of the chapter "H is for Headteachers teaching, learning and assessing" from The A-Z of School Improvement: Principles and practice by David Woods and Tim Brighouse, published by Bloomsbury. To claim your TES subscriber 20 per cent discount visit www.bloomsbury.comeducation and use the code GLR 8RW


  • Schools are increasingly seen as businesses first and places of education second, leading some to believe that school leaders will soon require no teaching experience.
  • But this would be unlikely to be a success, as leaders have to help out when needed and take the occasional lesson, recognise the challenges that teachers face, advise them and help them to progress.
  • School leaders should also demonstrate their passion for and knowledge of education by having their own research projects and by finding articles and studies that would be useful for individual teachers.

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