Give me a G-O, gooooo principals!

25th July 2014 at 01:00
Cheerleading cited as leadership experience by US school heads

For American principals, everything from Brownie membership to high-school cheerleading is clear evidence of leadership ability. Asked to provide similar evidence, meanwhile, British headteachers stare at their feet and mumble.

This is one of the findings of new research that highlights key differences between the way that American, Canadian and British headteachers view leadership.

Karen Edge, of the University of London's Institute of Education, interviewed 60 headteachers and deputy headteachers in New York City, Toronto and London. She asked them to name their four or five most formative leadership experiences.

The Canadian school leaders mentioned an average of 2.5 experiences that had taken place before they began working as teachers. "Being a leader in Brownies, in the school athletics team or whatever," said Dr Edge, who presented her findings at the British Educational Leadership Management and Administration Society conference earlier this month.

In New York, school leaders mentioned an average of two pre-teaching leadership experiences. One in five cited having been head cheerleader at high school. "That's a lot of head cheerleaders," Dr Edge said. "They've continued that leadership role into the principalship. There's an academic paper in that: `From pompoms to principals'."

The London teachers, by contrast, only mentioned an average of 0.7 pre-teaching leadership experiences.

There were, Dr Edge acknowledged, a number of potential reasons for this. "It could be that, in London, it's only the formal and teaching-related experiences that people mention," she said. "The leadership experiences they look on as influential are ones they had once they became teachers or leaders. Or it could be that they don't have opportunities to engage in leadership in the same way."

But she did not rule out the possibility that, true to cultural stereotype, Americans and Canadians were simply much happier to boast about their successes than their more diffident British counterparts. "There's a national identity component to it," she said. "It could be that, in London, we only communicate and celebrate what we have evidence for."

Marwa Hamid, principal of Brookside Public School in Toronto, cited captaincy of her school soccer team as a formative leadership experience.

"When you're going through different experiences on the soccer field, you learn a lot about who you are and what you can bring," she said. "It helps in the sense that it gives you the confidence to know that you are where you should be - you can know that you are a leader. It's a question of all of the experiences that inform who I am."

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union in the UK, said: "I suspect British people are often more reticent to talk about personal experiences when it comes to the work environment. They'd be more tempted to refer to work-based experiences."

But he also pointed out that British headteachers came to the job via classroom teaching. In the US, by contrast, many principals were primarily administrators. "The role of headteacher in Britain is significantly more demanding than in other countries," Mr Hobby said. "So they might have a more formal definition of leadership."

Dr Edge claimed that her research had wider implications. Because head cheerleaders in New York already saw themselves as leaders, they were far more likely to apply for school leadership positions than one-time captains of school rounders teams across the Atlantic, she said.

She referred to this as the "glass floor". Unlike a glass ceiling, which limits upward rise, the glass floor prevents careers from getting off the ground in the first place.

"When people consider themselves leaders for longer, they have a longer time to develop a sense of their own efficacy in the job," she said. "Early leadership experiences can be quite helpful in terms of developing skills."

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