Editorial: The personal is political, for principals most of all

19th September 2014 at 01:00

If a leader is said to be a dealer in hope, then a school leader has to be a dealer in faith, hope and charity.

Leadership itself may be difficult to define - vision, courage, conviction, ability to motivate, to delegate, take your pick - but most teaching staff will know when they see it, and even more when they don't. And it's probably fair to say that we haven't seen much of it in the political sphere in recent weeks.

The soft skills of communication, listening, teamwork and empathy are obviously important, but leadership is also about having to make tough choices. And they don't come any tougher than the one that confronted Roger Pope, principal of a school in a small, close-knit Devon town, this summer. As Roger's father was dying in hospital, one of his sixth-form students was fatally stabbed in an incident witnessed by some of his schoolfriends.

This presented Roger with an impossible dilemma: should he drop everything to be with his father or stay and lead his school at this time of crisis? Family or school, both need you, which way do you go? The responsibility would weigh heavy even on Atlas' mighty shoulders.

Roger was well aware that when tragedy hit his school everyone was looking to him for leadership. After all, there were assemblies and briefings to deliver, media interviews to give and distressed people to support. It is the headteacher, he writes, who "sets the tone and gives staff the strength to stand tall for the students".

But when the person at the top hits rock bottom, from whom do they draw strength? It's often lonely being a leader, but in such situations a head can feel more isolated than Napoleon in exile.

Crisis management and bereavement policies are, of course, vital and will give headteachers the confidence that staff will know what procedures to follow when disaster hits. But little can prepare school leaders for that devastating moment when the personal collides with the professional. There are no disaster-planning scenario sessions that can prepare you for having to make decisions like this; there's no Harvard Business School module to help.

Acquiring the ability to roll with life's sucker punches is important. School leadership development expert Deborah Leek-Bailey says that effective school leaders learn from an early stage that resilience is a necessary and vital part of their role.

Staff, parents and pupils all expect headteachers to support them in times of crisis and sometimes the expectations far outweigh an individual's experience - family bereavement, divorce, critical illness and catastrophic tragedies on school trips are among the many scenarios they have to tackle. And, as Leek-Bailey says, "they deal with these situations with compassion, understanding and empathy, because teaching is a profession with dedicated teachers at its core".

No one really knows what they would do if they found themselves facing the dilemma Roger found himself in. There are no right answers, no wrong choices.

So what did Roger do? "I did what teachers do every day and put the job first."



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