Katie Ashford is an English teacher in a secondary school in the Midlands, these are her individual views.
Put your hand up if you have ever moaned about a school leader…
Standing at the bottom of the hierarchy looking upwards, it’s very easy to point fingers and blame leaders for doing a poor job. Constant monitoring, OFSTED obsession, low staff morale and pointless paperwork take their toll on the best of us, making the odd management moan inevitable. When leadership is bad, it needs to be pointed out; there is no question about that. If teachers never pointed out some of the nonsense that some leadership teams get away with, I don’t know where we would be. It is vital that we voice our opinions on these issues, but it is equally important to offer credible solutions and alternatives.
We can certainly learn a lot from poor leaders: they show us exactly how not to do things and force us to think about how to do them differently. But negativity only gets us so far. It’s just as helpful to look at what the best leaders do and learn from them, as it is to look to the worst of the bunch.
Despite my limited experience, I have been fortunate enough to work for a few different leaders, all with different approaches and styles. Some of them haven’t inspired me into action; some have made me angry; some have put so much unnecessary pressure on me that they have made me question whether or not I want to stay in the profession. Others have brought the best out of people and have motivated and encouraged their teams to do great things. And when that happens, when a great leader empowers their staff and makes them feel as if they could achieve anything, it’s magic.
There is a lot that can be learned from both good and bad leaders, and I’m particularly interested in the differences between them. What do good leaders do differently? What is the impact of those differences on those being led? What can leaders do to encourage more ‘get up and go’ and less ‘sit down and groan’ in their teams? Here are a few thoughts from someone who is sitting at the foot of the food chain looking up.
Leadership 101: have a clear ‘vision’ of what you want to achieve. There is a lot of rhetoric surrounding the idea of ‘vision’ in education. It gets thrown around a lot these days: what is the vision for your school? What is your vision for education? How will you share your vision with your colleagues? It’s the kind of thing that has been said so many times that it runs the risk of losing all meaning, but used correctly, can be a powerful way to motivate those you lead.
Leaders have to know what direction they want their organisation to go in. Plodding along through life without a sense of purpose is fairly disheartening, after all. The best leaders not only have a very clear vision of what they want for the school, they have a genuine vision: they really have to believe it, they have to be so determined to make it happen that nothing, not even OFSTED, will stand in their way. School leaders that say their vision is to become ‘outstanding’ are possibly the most vision-less of them all. Pandering to OFSTED isn’t vision. Being innovative, unafraid to take appropriate risks and doing what is right for the pupils is exactly what many schools lack but most need. People are motivated by passion and conviction; inspectors and clipboards don’t quite have the same impact.
Making it happen
It’s all very well and good having a ‘vision’ for your school, but there is a distinction between setting goals and actually getting things done. The best leaders get things done, but they do so whilst making those beneath them feel good about themselves. Bad leaders blame their staff when things don’t go to plan; they ignore feedback and focus on the problems without offering solutions.
Great leaders do quite the opposite. They take the blame when things go wrong but share the credit when things go well. Instead of passing pressure down through the ranks, leaving their staff feeling battered and bludgeoned, they support them the whole way, reassuring them where necessary and guiding them as appropriate. That is, after all, the role of a leader: to put systems in place that will enable those you lead to do their job to the best of their ability. If teachers’ work is hindered by a policy that SLT have put into place, it is not a good policy, plain and simple.
As Dan Pink argues here, giving staff a bit of space to do what they need to do is incredibly powerful. Standing over their shoulders with a clipboard, battering them over the head with the proverbial stick will do nothing for their self-esteem or work ethic. The best leaders give their staff space and time to breathe, think and do what they feel is best. They trust their staff to get on and do a good job, recognise strengths and allow them to be guided by their own professional judgment. As Pink notes, a little bit of freedom actually increases motivation. It’s only insecure leaders who feel they can’t allow staff such freedoms; strong leaders loosen the shackles and watch as their teams flourish.
Bad leaders interpret ‘support’ to mean ‘constant, omnipresent monitoring’. That is not what support is. I don’t think I’ve ever met a teacher who felt that having more graded observations, more book-trawls and more planning checks helped them to feel more ‘supported’. All this does is alienate and disempower staff. Good leaders recognise that not all teachers are perfect, but that most really do want to get better at their jobs. They provide support that will enable them to do their jobs to the best of their ability. So that might mean putting a water tight, easy to implement behaviour system in place, or perhaps changing the marking policy so that teachers aren’t spending 14 hours a week getting through 5 sets of books. Blaming teachers for poor behaviour in lessons or expecting miraculous leaps in progress within a couple of days is a waste of time. Rather than motivating people to get on with it, this type of leadership might make people slow down or even give up: nobody likes to feel like they are climbing an impossible mountain alone. Great leaders recognise that everyone needs to climb the mountain together, and that they need to be at the front of the group, clearing and smoothing out the path.
Finally, great leaders recognise the strengths of their staff. They praise sincerely and are truly grateful when somebody goes the extra mile or does something exceptional. They have high expectations, but are quick to notice those who meet them. Making people feel that their contribution is valued is arguably the most important part of any leadership position. Bad leaders tend to ignore all the great things that happen in schools and focus instead on the things that need to get better. We don’t want a situation where people are complacent and rest on their laurels: what we want is a team of empowered and enthusiastic staff who feel that what they are doing is making a difference to the school and the pupils they teach. Simply acknowledging those who do great things goes a long way towards securing the trust and motivation of staff. It needn’t be a grand gesture: sincerity beats ceremony when it comes to staff praise. Most teachers I know would appreciate a quiet word of thanks at break time. Genuine ‘thank you’s go a long way in securing strong working relationships, far more than pay rises or token gifts ever will.
School leaders determine the shape and direction of the school. Those who do it well stand out from those who don’t because they see their role as one of support rather than suppression. Being a great leader isn’t easy, but having the courage and conviction to do what is right for your school will get staff on side and will inspire them to do the same.