Over the course of 40 years in education, with 35 in formal leadership roles, I have attended countless events intended to improve my “leadership” and been given numerous texts by “leadership gurus” (including some I have actually read, or at least glanced at).
Just before I retired – I’ve since worked as a supply teacher – I was asked by the local authority to deliver a presentation on leadership to deputy headteachers, many of whom were aspiring heads. When asked to perform a task like this, one’s preparation inevitably starts with personal reflection: how do I lead? Is my “style” effective? How could I be better? What matters? What lessons can I share?
Yet this sort of reflection, which is so valuable, is often neglected. We are all so busy “doing”, we simply don’t have time to reflect on our actions and their effects. Reflection becomes relegated to a “post-problem” activity. Analysing the past but not sufficiently influencing the future, as a learning strategy, means that mistakes can be repeated.
So, following considerable reflection, I have created “Thompson’s top 10 tips”. They are not complex or academic, just common-sense lessons that helped me to lead, manage and get through some of the more difficult days.
They are not about curriculum, the NIF, timetabling, SQA, attainment, Girfec, PEF, DYW, learning and teaching, GTCS, budgets, Seemis, data protection, personnel policies, parental involvement, HGIOS, legal awareness, child protection, pedagogy, professional learning, etc. All of these are important. However, they do not make a successful leader – they are to a certain extent transient, changing over time. Some 10 years ago, many of these concepts, ideas and policies did not exist; 10 years from now, there will be new things to think about. However, individual behaviours and the development of relationships will always remain key to successful leadership.
The thoughts below are not in any particular order – they are listed simply as they came to mind in my reflections:
1. Appreciate the influence you can have on pupils, parents and staff
Many of us believe that we have little influence, but a “hello” here, a “well done” there, a “thank you” when deserved, and even a “sorry” can go a long way towards creating vital connections with our community, colleagues, parents and pupils.
2. Be yourself
In my experience, you will be sussed almost immediately, particularly by pupils, if you try to be something or someone else. Be happy as you are and play to your strengths.
3. Remember that teaching staff do not get it wrong or underperform on purpose
I have never met a teacher who wants to be mediocre or make mistakes. We all want to do our best – some people just require more advice and support.
4. Try to disagree without being disagreeable
Model this behaviour at every opportunity with staff and parents. Be calm and respectful even when others are not. If someone is becoming aggressive, you do not have to respond in the same way.
5. Parents, you’ve got to love them
The important point to remember is that parents want the best for their children. Having worked with a small number who simply don’t care, I would recommend that we celebrate the vast majority who do, even though they may make unrealistic demands and believe their child’s every word. Remember that being challenged by a parent is not necessarily a negative – it can lead to positive reflection and improvement.
6. Colleagues will give you plenty of advice – which is easier to dish out than to act upon
Advice starting “If I were you, I would …” should be treated with particular caution. The person giving it isn’t in your position and they won’t be accountable for potential fallout – but you will be. Complex problems do not have simple answers; if they did, they wouldn’t be complex. Consider whose counsel is wise. It might be worth striking up a relationship with someone from a different background (for example, in the business sector). Who would you ask for advice if you needed it?
7. Don’t be concerned if you don’t know everything that is happening in school
You don’t need to know everything, and it’s impossible anyway, with hundreds of pupils and dozens of colleagues. Develop your team so they know when to act independently and when to ask for advice first. These judgement calls are vital at all levels. There are many things you do not need to know about; there are others you definitely do.
8. Remind yourself that faculty heads and principal teachers have expertise
What they think will be most effective, and believe in, will probably work best for them (within reason). Imposed solutions, which staff resent, are almost always doomed to failure. If staff think something won’t work, there’s always a danger of scathing “I told you so” attitudes. If staff want to try something a little different, let them – that’s how we learn. “A leader is best when people barely know he exists; when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: ‘We did it ourselves.’ ” So said the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu.
9. Keep a sense of perspective – 99.99 per cent of what we do is not life or death
Yes, we all want to do the best we possibly can for pupils, but they are amazingly resilient and will for the most part learn and grow up in spite of us. Words like “disaster”, “catastrophe” and “nightmare” have no place in our everyday school language. Watch the news each night to see the real meaning of these terms, rather than overstating the problems of forgotten pencils or pupils arriving 15 minutes late.
10. A pet hate: it shouldn’t be ‘my school’ and ‘I’ but rather ‘our school’ and ‘we’
I have never owned a school, and a school’s successes (or failures) were not entirely down to me. What we need is a combined team effort if we are to have maximum impact.
I am not sure if the leadership gurus who write so extensively on the subject would agree with my simplistic analysis, but leadership is about the way we behave, personally and professionally. This allows us to form the positive, trusting relationships we require with all our partners if we are to do our best for the children and young people of Scotland.
Derek Thompson is a former secondary headteacher in Aberdeenshire