And the moral of the story is ..

15th May 2009 at 01:00
I was asked last week what my advice would be for a headteacher taking up his or her first headship

Obscurely, my advice was that they laminate their notices; pick up in the snow; and have the courage to say yes. Here are three true stories which underpin this advice.

A new secondary head reached the end of her first year and was flattered to be asked to speak about it at a national event for prospective school leaders. As part of her presentation, she thought it might be an idea to speak to colleagues and ask them what they remembered about her first year.

She expected them to say something about her energy, enthusiasm, imagination or commitment. So you can imagine her surprise when one said: "That's easy, you got all the notices on the notice boards laminated." Well, she thought, the person was a relatively junior member of staff and perhaps didn't see the range of strategic initiatives she'd put into place in the last 12 months. But no, colleague after colleague came back to the notice board - and to one other thing, which was similarly unexpected.

It happened one morning when a light covering of snow lay on the ground. The new head had made her way to school from a good distance away without any difficulty, and so had every other pupil and member of staff. So you can imagine her surprise when she was informed that one of her new colleagues had phoned to say he wouldn't be coming in that day due to the snow. The office staff informed the head that this had been the case for many years - and was a source of great frustration in the staff.

Without thinking too much about it, she jumped into her car and drove to the teacher's home. She knocked and waited for a reply. Eventually, she was greeted by her colleague who, somewhat surprised, invited her in where she had a cup of coffee as he got himself ready for work. They made idle chat as they made their way back to school.

She thought no more about this issue, pleased with her good deed for the day. But the effect upon the staffroom had apparently been electric. Suffice to say the teacher in question never missed another day at school due to bad weather.

The third example is drawn from another colleague's experience as a new head. He had walked into a school where there was great mistrust between the management team and the staff. So much so that, at the first staff meeting, it was proposed that the staff be allowed to have a meeting without the senior management team being present - so they could discuss issues of concern.

The new head was faced with this incredible dilemma - which had never featured in any leadership programme he had taken part in. If he supported the staff, he risked alienating the SMT; if he refused the staff request, he risked being aligned with the previous management culture. His solution was to say yes, in the belief that he could change the culture in the school to the extent that the need for meetings without the SMT would not be required. And so it proved: they were abandoned within six months as the staff saw that he lived up to his principles.

So what lessons can a new head draw from these examples? First, allow people to see concrete things happen, however small. Rhetoric, policy, personal behaviours and values are important, but leadership requires those things to be translated into a commitment to action which can be observed - for example, find the equivalent of laminating the notices.

Second, colleagues like to see that the leader has the courage to confront inequality of expectation for all staff in a manner which addresses long- standing wrongs.

Third, believe that people can change and provide them with space to be professionals.

Don Ledingham is acting director of education and children's services in East Lothian.

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