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'Too often, headteachers don't practise what they preach'

School leaders need to model good teaching and embed the core values of the school in everything they do, says this headteacher

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How often do we meet school leaders who fail to practise what they preach? Who talk about the value of lifelong learning yet demonstrate a fixed mindset; who talk about outstanding teaching yet rarely teach themselves?

I believe strongly that it is up to the headteacher to promote and model the core values and beliefs of a school. It is my assertion that the headteacher of a school should in fact be seen as the lead learner, responsible for establishing the conditions in a school that enable the continuous learning of all pupils and all staff. 

Research has demonstrated that school leadership is second only to classroom teaching as an influence on pupil learning and that school leaders improve learning and teaching indirectly and most powerfully through their influence on staff motivation and learning. How can school leaders get this right?

Showing by doing

First it is about being consistent. You cannot expect teachers to buy into your vision if you don't follow the basic principles of that vision yourself. If you want teachers to have high expectations for all, you need to demonstrate the same through what you say, what you do and in every decision big or small you make. If you want teachers to continually push on their learning, then you have to give them time and resource to do so, while ensuring you push on your own learning, too. 

Second, it is about modelling good practice and here is where some may take issue with me. In my school, my title is 'head learning leader', and I am aware that one of the most significant ways in which I lead and motivate my staff is the fact that I teach every day. I firmly believe that for headteachers, we should be modelling teaching. 

This view often appears to be controversial among school leaders and the two biggest arguments against it are: school leaders don’t have to teach to lead a school well; and school leaders simply don’t have the time to be able to teach. 

In response to the first argument, you may not necessarily have to teach, but I would argue that it is definitely preferable.

In response to the second argument, teaching need not take up additional time, and can in fact buy you time in a high-performing school. I am currently in my fifth year of headship and, despite the challenges of significant budget cuts, one of the characteristics of my headship has been that in each year, my teaching commitments have increased – I am finding additional time.

Mutual trust

It is essential that leaders and teachers are involved in the co-construction of learning. Peer learning activities give all staff, including headteachers, the opportunity to engage in professional dialogue about each other’s practice. This can only happen in a culture of high-trust and if a headteacher is prepared to model teaching to teachers. 

Delegation and a shared responsibility are also important. In successful schools, all staff and particularly school leaders, will model learning-focused leadership by talking about learning and teaching. All staff will observe each other teaching and plan and evaluate each other’s teaching. School leaders should accept that within this culture, all staff are learning from each other and teaching each other; a headteacher can be paired with a NQT. Leave the ego at home, 

In short, good leaders lead by example. If that example is poor, then eventually the experience of teachers and students in that school will also be poor. 

Kulvarn Atwal is headteacher at Highlands Primary School in London

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