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Leadership: more like whack-a-mole than spinning plates


School leadership is often compared to spinning plates.  However, after three years of senior leadership, five years of middle leadership and three years of classroom leadership, I see it more like playing a game of whack-a-mole.  You see, plate spinning is predictable and the variables can be controlled (unless you're doing it in an outdoor environment).  Whack-a-mole, whilst we know what happens and understand the game, sends random combinations to challenge the player.  School leadership is like whack-a-mole but with a few extra burrows opening up every now and again in the guise of new government directives or a multitude of other events.

This post is an attempt to reflect upon school leadership, in particular life as an Assistant Headteacher.  If you have a good search of this blog, you'll find similar reflections around middle leadership. I've tried to distil these into a number of simple to follow points. I'm not saying that I always do all of this, so they are a mixture between wishes and what I try to do.

1. Be clear about your role 

Schools are messy and not everything can fit into a neat box. Leaders can't walk away and worry about what needs to be done by whom, and leading within silos results in extra workload and a diluted vision and mission. However, it's important to have a clearly defined area of accountability. It's worth clarifying and asking. Schools are messy and that's what makes them fantastic places to work.

Ask: What is it I am accountable for?

2. Be visible and sweep the sheds

Don't hide within an office. This is tricky, especially when admin support is limited, but get out, especially around transitions. Be seen to tackle the uniform infringements support staff to get students into the room, challenge and see everything. Most importantly don't do what one headteacher I worked for did: see the trouble and then walk away. Speak to children, ask them how they are and wander the school.  Being visible and doing the basic jobs gives credibility with students and staff.

Ask: Have I seen everyone I line manage this week?

3. Be credible in the classroom

If you're going to lead learning, you'd better be quality in the classroom. This is challenging especially as there are many competing priorities interfere, for example being on lunch or gate duty and teaching period 1 or straight after break. This is something that I need to get better at, ultimately the hour of learning time with each and every class needs to be sacrosanct. In addition, that policy, better in modelled in your classroom.

Ask: Am I prioritsing the teaching of young people?

4. Understand that planning is easy, but the PR is tricky

Writing the development plan is the easy part (and they should span at least 3 years rather than 12 months.....). Actually implementing it and delivering what you set out to is much harder. Spend more time in communicating and seek the views of others. Think about the NQT and the teacher on a full timetable - how realistic is it for them? I know that perception is more powerful that what you think about yourself so listen to the canaries. Don't be driven by them, but gauging staff and student views is important. I believe that teachers need trust and autonomy within a tight set of principles. Ultimately, we will do what we know works.  Teachers should be engaged with decisions on what and how to teach and this shouldn't be dictated by senior bods. Finally, remember that a great vision and idea is one thing and will be derailed by the detail of the everyday implementation. Trial things and be honest when things are pants. Whatever you do, accept when things are bad and do something to change them. Model growth mindset and grit by admitting to mistakes and getting them sorted.

Ask: Is this a fad or an important fundamental part of what we do? Have I thought about the detail?

5. Be prepared to stand by your moral compass - standing as the lone voice against the storm

Leaders in schools need to ensure that the school is driven by what matters for the young people inside it.  It's easy to forget this and I remember one of the first decisions I was involved with was driven by school accountability rather than what is best for the young people. I'm still recovering from this and, of course, leaders do need to balance both. However, the education secretary is not in our schools and I strongly believe that strong school leadership can overcome whatever is thrown out by government and other organisations.  If I allowed myself to think otherwise, that would mean giving up hope and conceding that I can't make a difference.

Ask: Is this really needed? What message should we be giving to staff and students to reassure them?

6. Be on the side of justice

This is a tricky one to describe. Have fire in your belly and get angry when children are shortchanged. Ask killer questions and be restless, knowing that we can do things better. In the early stages of SLT I forgot about this and was too silent. Challenge, change and be on the side of justice and not yourself. At the moment, I know that most of the safeguarding incidents in the school involve PP and SEN students. Sometimes we must challenge the status quo.

Ask: How do I make a difference?

7. Be driven by data not anecdote

Data is a bad word for some. Data means information and, when making decisions, it's important to be driven by what is actually happening rather than a skewed viewpoint gained by a few conversations or a couple of learning walks. If we are driven by data, then we are also thinking about the impact and outcomes of our decisions. If the outcomes (and here I mean outcomes in the wider sense, not limited to academic outcomes) are right, do we care how they were reached? Our core purpose is learning and in that we must be accountable for allowing children to change their lives by allowing them to leave with excellent qualifications.

Ask: Ultimately, how is what we do today going to make learning better?

8. Understand that doing the job is CPD

I have always taken a rather proactive approach to my own CPD. However, doing the job is CPD. Sometimes the best way to learn is to shadow others above you, do the jobs you've never done before and just work it out. Be honest about what you need to learn to do the job and focus on the practicalities: all the theory and research evidence in the world won't help you if you can't hold a conversation or turn that idea into an action plan that is them implemented.

Ask: How do I get this done?

9. Be collegiate 

Have stand up fights and argue, but when the decision is made, get behind it. Call it a trial if need be and be ready to revisit with data.  If you don't like the direction of the school, suck it up. I found that I had more power as a Head of geography in terms of shaping a unique vision.

Ask: How do I link what I know will transform learning to the school's vision and direction?

10. It's not about being a hero: multiply don't drain

But empowering other leaders to do their job. It's a cliche, but a good one: take the blame and pass on the credit. Within this never shy away from the tricky conversations and holding others (including those at the same level) to account.

Ask: Is is about me, or the young people and teams?

What would you say are the important things? Ultimately, I believe that the detail is important but it is the softer skills that will make the difference.

School leadership, at every level, is like whack-a-mole. However, one can train, adapt and develop faster reactions. Leaders can develop prioritisation skills that mean some new burrows can be ignored. We can control what happens in our schools and the direction in which we travel. There is hope. There has to be.

Image credit used via a Creative Commons License.

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