Two things to remember about leadership in schools

ADVICE FOR A (NEW) HEAD OF SCHOOL FROM AN OLD ONE

For Malcolm, and all the others who have reported to me and gone on to be better at it than me:

When you reach a certain age and level of experience in any field, especially education, you realize that it’s important to mentor the next generation. Just as when karateka reach black belt level they are called ‘sensei’ which means ‘teacher,’ so too do those of us who reach senior positions in school leadership have a responsibility to pass on what we have learned. We must teach our teachers to be leaders.

It struck me this week when I said goodbye to a young man going off to head up a school of his own, how I hope I have passed on some wisdom to those who have worked with me, and for me, over the years.

I always joke to student teachers that we need them because one day we would like to retire, and while that is correct, the truth is we need to inspire them as much as we need to nurture our school children, because they will steer the next generation of students.

I told the new headmaster that he needed to remember the most powerful tools he would have at his disposal would be his own personal example and his integrity. I said to him to guard them both and make sure they always align.

The most powerful leadership tool you have is your own personal example.”

– John Wooden. Basketball Coach

It’s lonely and windy at the top because that’s where the gales are.  As leaders in a tempest, we must therefore have the strong roots of integrity and the proof of example in our branches. This is especially true now as we lead our schools through the COVID-19 crisis.

Calamity is the test of integrity.

– Samuel Richardson. 18th Century Writer

We should remember these two things:

1. PERSONAL EXAMPLE

How we deal with storms dictates what kind of a leader we are and what kind of leaders we shall inspire.

In a crisis and even on a good day, everyone looks at you if you are in charge. When I first became a head, a retired principal told me that the one thing to remember is that it’s all on you, when you’re in charge.

It’s hard, but you have to be the calm one, the decisive one, the brave one and the strong one. You have to be the one they all look up to. No matter how hard it is, you have to be a model of grace under pressure (fortunately for shorties like me, not a ramp one.) You must inspire, no matter how tired or low you feel. How you respond to everything dictates how your staff and therefore your pupils will behave.

If you haven’t run away yet, or become lost in the labyrinth of admin that may overwhelm you, remember that your vision must be clear to your staff.

If you want your staff to be creative, you have to be innovative; if you want them to work harder, you must set the pace and if you want them to be well-groomed, so should you be. (I use this one to fuel my Zara addiction.) If you want them to be compassionate educators who build relationships with their learners, you must get to know them all.

What I have learned on my own though, is that if you are really lucky, you will have a team around you, who will help you. If you empower them, they will be your eyes and ears and assist you with decisions, but you also have to trust them in their own departments so they have room to grow. I have such a team.

I may be accountable, but they make me look good.

2. INTEGRITY

Integrity requires us to truly know ourselves and remain faithful to the core values and principles we espouse. Know what you stand for… because you will be tested on it. These are what anchor your leadership tree to the ground and hold it firm no matter what the weather may be.

Your integrity will be what determines the example you set. It will describe the measure in which you lead with compassion, your style of management and how consistent you are.

Integrity is about being truthful and honest in what you say and do. You cannot be a hypocrite if you have integrity and it’s worth noting that insincerity will be spotted a mile off. So, your personal example must be aligned to what you say you stand for.  You must know what that is first though.

In my career, I have left two institutions when it became clear that we stood for different things or when I realised that what a school said it stood for, could not or was not being maintained in practice. When you run your own school, you are it. A colleague once said that when you are a head, ‘YOU are the brand.’ So aligning your beliefs and the school’s mission become paramount.

While you may feel the storm at its fiercest, at the top of the leadership tree, that is also where you feel the sun first. And it’s a place where you can look down at the glorious blossoms that are the products of your institution. Don’t forget to pass on the sunshine to those who assisted to produce the flowers and celebrate the fruit of their labours.

When you see how well your alumni do, and how they are changing the world for the better, as they blossoms in the spring, you will know you are on the right track.  

It’s also true that you may get it all wrong at some point, but just as you may have a poor harvest one year, and then produce a better yield the next, there are times when you have to do some pruning, and some shaping, some manuring and some frost-shielding. Plants grow better when the farmer is attentive.

It’s also important to be kind to yourself and know that you can always improve and that no one reaches perfection…ever. You may have passed on some less-than-idealistic traits. You can fix mistakes you make though if you are transparent and honest, and have the will to keep growing.

Remember finally that farmers get an early night so they can be up at dawn. So make sure you find time to rest.

“Sleep. Nature’s rest. Divine tranquility, that brings peace to the mind.”

– Ovid

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