Although I completed the SSAT developing-leaders diploma between 2010 and 2012, it rarely touched upon the nitty-gritty, day-to-day trials and tribulations of the average middle or senior leader. It focused much more on theory, and wider themes of educational leadership, knowledge of different systems and processes.
It was great, and I learned a lot, but theory is one thing and practice is another.
Early on in my career, full of ambition, I developed my own perception of what a good leader should be, built on observations of those I worked with during my (limited at that time) teacher travels. It was a narrow lens. I entered my first nominal leadership role in 2010, leading a team of 16 teachers across a large secondary comprehensive, managing the skills curriculum.
I was only two years into my career post-training, so it was a challenge. I had convinced myself that I should be corporate and businesslike, and attempt to show minimal vulnerability, especially in meetings or other public forums.
This was a mistake, because I could have come across as cold and functional, rather than caring and inclusive – as defensive rather than approachable, looking for problems rather than starting from a position of trust.
A tad cocky
I was 24 years old, managing a team consisting of NQTs and teachers who’d been at this school for 30 years. I hold my hands up and would say that the way I presented myself to these teachers (some of whom were leaders themselves) could have been seen as a tad cocky or brash.
The reality was that I was role-playing what I thought a leader should look like and act like. I’d had no training on how to have difficult conversations. I’d had no training on how to run a meeting, apart from being part of a history department led by – fortunately – an excellent head of department.
I’d only been teaching two years (three years with my PGCE), so did I really know what I was looking for when I entered classrooms? Or was it simply based on my own practice or perception?
In essence, I was learning on the job, in terms of how to manage and lead people.
Of course, you could argue this happens in lots of professions. However, even in football you have to complete various coaching badges before you can coach players or manage a team in the football league. Good players don’t necessarily make great leaders and, even if they do, surely we need to prepare them properly to have a good go at it?
I almost feel we need another PGCE for leaders and managers, maybe over a few weeks or months, rather than over a year. Perhaps completed in their own time, but with extra pay. Whatever the stipulations, one-off CPD events for a day, or even recurring, aren’t enough.
The treacherous waters of leadership
The classroom is the bread and butter of school life, but it’s taken me until now, nearly 10 years on, to recognise how difficult it is to navigate the treacherous waters of leadership and management.
I entered my first job as a head of department in 2013. Again, the same thing: trying to be the Wall Street banker of the middle-leadership world. Slick, sloganistic, unflappable, rarely showing vulnerability.
I struggled to connect with my team, because I was too wrapped up in what I thought I should be doing, rather than in the person I was and the leader I could have been or wanted to be.
When I finished in that school, three years later, I can’t say I had a close bond with those I worked most closely with. I’d been too distant, too worried about always being on top of things. It saddens me, even now.
At the time, I rarely questioned what I was doing. I loved teaching and, with seven exam classes as a new head of department, spent a lot of time planning, marking and doing my classroom-teacher stuff. To be blunt, I hardly had time to pop my head into a classroom and ask how things were going. I burnt out.
Looking back, I wished I’d shared more, laughed more and supported the team more in the challenges they were trying to overcome. As my confidence has gradually risen over the last few years in the leadership domain, I now feel confident to say “no”, to challenge policies and protocols I disagree with and, fundamentally, to be more me.
So I guess what I’m saying is: we need to prepare people for educational leadership better. In the meantime, if you are a new middle leader or senior leader, you are there because someone wants you to be. You got the job. Therefore, don’t be afraid to be your professional self. Say what you think (in a nice way). Don’t be intimidated by anyone.
There may be a whole bunch of staff in your school, much older and wiser than you, who are waiting for someone to say something about something. Your voice is of value.