Leadership - Empowering your staff to help you lead

24th January 2014 at 00:00
Take the leap and you'll find that a participatory approach ensures you land on your feet

In November last year, the Northern Ireland education minister John O'Dowd addressed a conference in Belfast. He spoke of the need for teachers to step up, not just to teach but to lead. "Leadership is not solely the responsibility of principals and vice-principals. I believe that every teacher can be, and needs to be, a good leader," he said.

He was completely right. Quite apart from the fact that there is a distinct dearth of school leaders-in-waiting, schools can no longer be led entirely in a top-down dictatorial way. The days of the person at the top knowing everything and controlling everything are long gone; the vastness and complexity of the task have seen to that. Moreover, the necessity for schools to wrestle with conflicting societal values and be a guiding light in their communities has made it vital for all hands to be on deck.

It is not an easy ask, however. In times (not long) gone by, schools were never places of participatory leadership, and old expectations of hierarchy die hard. Moreover, after a decade of increased government control over schools in almost every part of the Western world, it is hard enough for teachers to keep on top of their daily requirements to plan, record and assess, let alone step up to the task of leading learning and embodying the school's vision for the future.

We must find a way to enable our teachers to embrace this role - to rediscover that spark of zeal for education and change that brought them into the profession in the first place, and to do so in a smart and organised way that channels this enthusiasm and passion into helping the school in a wider way.

How can you achieve this? Try following these five steps:

1. Trust your staff

Believe in teachers' ability to lead and say so. For change to happen, school leaders and senior leadership teams must trust their teachers. An enlightened boss does not want to hire automatons: inspired ideas and a commitment to taking the school forward are vital parts of what teachers bring to the table. But in an environment that has traditionally been very rigidly hierarchical, this needs to be acknowledged loudly and repeatedly in order for the message to be heard.

2. Streamline the senior leadership team

It would be foolish to do this artificially quickly in an attempt to shoehorn people into a model - schools should be open to the unique qualities of individuals, often forged through their history in the institution, and their input is not to be discarded lightly. Streamlining the senior leadership team when the opportunity arises, however - not replacing members but rearranging them - will have the effect of creating whole-school leadership openings. This will encourage senior school leaders to learn to rely upon, and work with, other teacher leaders.

3. Encourage cohesion

Actively promote these whole-school leadership opportunities by creating new roles in middle management - roles focusing on areas such as how to ensure student well-being or effective assessment. Set up whole-school working groups focusing on areas in which the school needs to develop. Open these groups up to any teacher who has the passion and interest to want to take part. Ensure that there are structures in place for the school to listen to the outcomes, and make them meaningful. Leadership is learned through practice; participating in and leading groups that have a visible effect will enable teachers to develop the requisite skills.

4. Demonstrate high standards

Set sights high for existing leaders. Ensure that middle leaders are more than subject administrators, and that they know they are expected to engage their teams in contributing to whole-school curriculum development. Be open to creative thinking about reducing administrative pressures on teachers so that they can be released to teach and to lead.

5. Invest in teachers

Know who your teachers really are and help them to identify their particular interests and the ways in which they can contribute to the wider purpose of the school. Create more time for professional learning and sharing. Invest in their professional growth.

It is the daily interactions between teachers and students - and the nurture and guidance that spring from them - that are at the heart of our endeavours. When teachers are directly connected with, and contribute to, the leadership and future of the whole school, these daily interactions are yet more powerful and effective. When every teacher is a leader, it is students who reap the benefits.

Dr Helen Wright is head of Ascham School in Sydney, Australia.

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