New tricks for old hands

27th August 2004 at 01:00
John Dunford reviews a guide to self-understanding that could give your working life a boost

Educational Leadership: personal growth for professional development

By Harry Tomlinson

Paul Chapman pound;19.99

Books and training courses on school leadership focus on fields such as teaching and learning, leadership style, values, vision and staff development. They seldom devote much space to the personal development of the school leader. Harry Tomlinson aims to fill this gap, believing that self-understanding and self-management are important components of a leader's effectiveness.

Tomlinson, who has long experience as a teacher, headteacher, college principal, education professor and leadership trainer, has recently acquired qualifications in performance and life coaching. So it is hardly surprising that he recognises the importance of emotional intelligence in an effective leader.

His starting point is that personal effectiveness is a precondition of professional excellence. Knowledge, attitudes, skills, creativity and consciousness are, he says, the components of self-development, which need to be considered if we are to be secure in our identity and affirmative of our "self".

How much time, I wonder, do most school leaders give to considering their personal development? To what extent are new situations regarded as opportunities for learning? Or mistakes viewed as learning outcomes rather than failures? Or fear considered the major limitation to our personal growth?

This, then, is no run-of-the mill book on educational leadership. Alongside a professional portfolio, which also serves as an aide-memoire for the curriculum vitae for the next job application, the author suggests teachers keep a personal journal. This could allow them to become reflective practitioners, not only in relation to what is happening in the school or college, but exploring feelings, thoughts, ideas and "action-tendencies", linking these to research and theory.

The first part of the book provides a brief introduction to the tools of self-understanding - personality tests, psychometric tests, emotional intelligence, 360-degree feedback, accelerated learning, neurolinguistic programming, stress and time management, coaching and mentoring. Each of these chapters is useful in summarising the essential elements and providing a good set of references for further reading. Neurolinguistic programming, for example, is a complex synthesis of cybernetics, neurology and linguistics, but Tomlinson, drawing on a range of authors, explains how it highlights the differences between those who are good at an activity and those who are excellent. By understanding how the excellent perform, others can improve beyond being merely good.

School effectiveness is more than the sum of its parts, more than any tick-box list of essential features.

The culture of the school is vitally important in developing the educational strategies that determine this effectiveness. At the core of institutional culture lie the behaviours and relationships from which staff and students take their lead. Tomlinson rightly recognises that this works best when leadership is widely distributed. Increasingly, distributed leadership is being seen by schools as not only the traditional leadership team (not so long ago called the senior management team), but also heads of subject and other teams, classroom teachers leading on specific initiatives, and students taking responsibility for certain activities.

Schools are increasingly listening, not only to the teacher voice, but also to the student voice.

To create the climate in which this distributed leadership can contribute to school effectiveness at all levels in the school requires an understanding of human relationships that, one suspects, was under-developed in previous generations of school leaders, but which can now be seen to demand a high level of emotional intelligence.

The first half of Tomlinson's book will undoubtedly help school leaders, and potential leaders, acquire a basic understanding of the essential elements in understanding themselves and others in the professional context. The second half of the book is a pot-pourri of leadership theory, attempting to cover too much ground in the available space. Thus, a chapter entitled "Ethics, values, vision, mission and gender" includes brief sections on each of these aspects, followed by sections on "women as leaders and managers" and "the female advantage". And all this in less than 10 pages.

You need to love lists to form a liking for this book. There are masses of them - bullet points, numbered paragraphs, tabulated columns - and, while they contribute to the book's comprehensive coverage, they are liable to leave the reader breathless. A chapter on strategy, for example, contains three domains of strategy, four approaches to strategy and five aspects to new thinking on strategy, culminating in a five-step beginners' guide. The frequent questions in the text do, however, provide scope for personal reflection and group discussion.

As the Government and the public demand more and more of schools and colleges, the pressures of leadership continue to grow, and finding a good work-life balance - the subject of Tomlinson's final chapter - becomes potentially less easy, but more important, for school leaders to achieve.

Understanding oneself and improving one's own way of working is an essential first step in fulfilling the latest contractual obligation of the headteacher, "to have regard for the work-life balance of the staff". The lesson of this book is that heads should look first to their own way of working.

John Dunford is general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association

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