Skills to lead honed at Harvard

1st June 2007 at 01:00
THREE YEARS into the job as headteacher at St Michael's, a small primary school in Dumfries, Dennise Sommerville was hand-picked by her authority to go on a leadership course to the elite Harvard Graduate School of Education in the United States, paid for by the Scottish Executive.

One of 12 individuals identified with real leadership potential, she was whisked off to the States to participate in an eight-day intensive course as part of the Ambitious, Excellent Schools initiative. It has changed her professional life.

"It was really arduous - eight 12-hour days, immersed in working with people from the US, Australia and Argentina. But it was amazing," she says.

"It encouraged me to challenge my own thinking in light of what I'd heard and it gave me the confidence to try out new ideas and implement change."

The course confirmed many of the leadership concepts she already believed in, such as coaching and mentoring. But it also gave her insights into ways of improving parental and community involvement in the school, encouraged her to focus on inclusion of pupils, especially those with disabilities, and helped her step back from feeling personally involved in every decision.

She was also encouraged to extend her ideas of distributed leadership, a process of sharing responsibility across her team.

"It is a way of encouraging everyone to assume a leadership role," she explains. "But to do it you have to know your staff well, and use the continuing professional review system effectively. You need to know what they want to be engaged in and give them opportunities to further their learning."

Mrs Sommerville wanted to be a teacher from the time she was a little girl but, increasingly over her years of professional practice, she has recognised teaching is more than simply classroom work. She has become passionately committed to improving leadership within her field.

"I wanted to continue my journey after finishing my Scottish Qualification for Headship," she says. "I was ready and looking for a different aspect to leadership, and I needed something else to challenge me."

Adamant that the course was no jolly, Mrs Sommerville does admit that one of the most enlightening parts was run by Malachi Pancoast, president of The Break-through Coach, an educational coaching programme. He focused on how to create a good work-life balance, instructing participants to identify productive days and rest days and, through good time management, to achieve an efficient system of working.

Since Mrs Sommerville's return, her local authority, Dumfries and Galloway, has made sure it takes advantage of her learning.

She has made various presentations to headteachers in her local authority and to SQH candidates, as well as discussed it informally with her peers.

She has also spoken at national conferences for the Scottish Educational Leadership Management and Administration Society and the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Adminis-tration. Later this year, she will be presenting at the Scottish Learning Festival.

But her enthusiasm for her Harvard experience has made her the ideal person to act as facilitator for this year's visit to Chicago. So preparations are already underway and she has met the five other participants who are giving up two weeks of their holiday in late July to head off to the US.

"We are really hoping that their local authorities will recognise their experiences and buy into the expertise they will have developed," Mrs Sommerville says.

OTHER KEY MESSAGES FROM THE EXPERIENCE

Learning and teaching is the core business of teachers It is important to have uniform, high expectations of all pupils Teachers need to share their practice and learn from one another more There is a need to make more use of research and its findings to inform practice The leadership capacity in teachers needs to be developed Coaching and mentoring have an important role to play in professional development It is essential to use support staff effectively to free up time to focus on what happens in the classroom

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