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Lessons I learned, leading a school.

I believe that leadership is largely about influencing people whilst management is about control and predictability. I have seen many people promoted into management positions and they see that their function is largely about control, identifying weaknesses that need correcting. That view of a management role is somewhat limiting. People in leadership roles should motivate, inspire and energise staff by making their vision of the organisation relevant to their staff. Supporting staff with coaching, feedback, and role-modeling, always recognising success.

Good headteachers, in my experience, exhibit a number of common characteristics including:

- A passion for learning and an intellectual curiosity

- Empathy, committed to colleagues and pupils

- Creative and persuasive

- Calm in a crisis

- Good communicators

- Effective decision takers

- Open and honest

- Active doers and initiators

- Aspire to achieve goals

- Good listeners

- Reflect the school’s vision

- Strive for the highest standards for all

- Optimistic

Communicating to your audience

Leaders also need to have high-level writing and presentation skills. Sometimes that writing or presentation to staff has to be persuasive and very clearly stated. Public speaking doesn’t come naturally to everyone and even teachers can find it difficult to talk to audiences of hundreds. If you don’t like public speaking, then find opportunities to practice those skills outside of school in clubs and societies. It is an essential skill for any leader.

There are some basic tips to good public speaking: (I use examples from an actual initiative mentioned in the previous chapter about introducing a new behaviour management policy and procedure – an example I’ll use again, later in the book)

1. Get your audience’s attention early

Don’t waste time with boring formalities which will turn your audience off. Keep introductions and formalities to less than a minute and, if possible, inject a little humour. However, don’t tell jokes unless you are skilled at this. Introduce something personal of yourself in the introduction which will get people’s attention, it may be self-deprecating or amusing.

For example, when I was introducing the need for changing the way the school dealt with indiscipline, I started with a short personal story which I hoped got over the message that punishment isn’t always appropriate. I indicated when in primary school in Northern Ireland I was caned by my teacher virtually every day – despite being one of the best-behaved children in the class, if not the school. My crime was being poor at spelling which we were tested on daily and the punishment for getting more than one spelling mistake was one of the cane, for each additional mistake. The fear of physical punishment, in my view, held back my improvement in spelling for several years. As you can see it is a short, but true story and it has an impact because it is violent and makes a point early on that what was acceptable in the 1960s isn’t acceptable now – opening the door to what is acceptable now and how can it be improved.

2. Outline where you are now

The story in point one leads very neatly into the premise of the speech – What we are doing to manage indiscipline and encourage good behaviour? Why isn’t it working? What are the flaws in the current system? e.g. lack of consistent approach, ineffective responses/punishments/rewards, the breakdown in classroom relationships.

3. Describe your goal

Always best to come up with a clear and simple aim that everyone can buy into. It becomes the mission of the initiative. e.g.

To produce a better and more productive environment for learning in every classroom.

4. Now is the time for action

Important to emphasise the need for urgency and the need to work together.

Outline that no action isn’t an option.

Recognising the problems of indiscipline, we face together, need of solutions – a sense of urgency is required.

5. Outline the consequences of failure

Having introduced the goal of improved behaviour and the vision of a more positive and purposeful school the flip-side is that failure would result in poorer pupil behaviour, poorer staff morale – resulting in further negative consequences.

6. Finish by outlining a view of where positive action will take the school and when we could expect to get there.

In order to achieve the goal of a lower stress environment in school and a positive school ethos, the plan will have to be carefully worked on by all levels in the school and when ready, time will have to be spent on training staff and pupils to make the changes work.

There are other tips that can help when making important speeches. Repetition of important points, to stress them, is a common method used to help listeners remember central messages. Make the audience feel that you are addressing them personally. It might be by making it clear what they as individuals will gain from the plan or by mentioning groups in the audience specifically. Speak slowly because the most common mistake in giving a speech is to let the pace of speech quicken and lose the attention of an audience. A slower pace can give a speech impact and authority. Don’t talk for too long or your audience will stop listening before you finish speaking.

Headteachers like leaders in any field need to keep up to date and should be well read in their field, subscribing to journals and educational press. Distilling current thinking by writing a precis of articles maybe as a starter for any initiative describing the research that provides a basis for the initiative. However, you can’t know everything and if you don’t know something, it is better to admit ignorance than say something incorrectly. A leader must have an intellectual curiosity about the world if they are to creatively solve problems and design strategies for their organisation. The solutions to the behaviour management issues mentioned already – were not plucked out of thin air but based on research of the available literature and choosing appropriate training to move the staff in the direction of travel which I felt would provide the school with the best solution.

Leaders must on occasion take responsibility for others' mistakes to protect them from undue public scrutiny, shielding subordinates from blame is part of being ultimately responsible and will build trust within the organisation. Understanding when to take the blame is a crucial factor in building a reputation.

The headteacher’s job can be very taxing, emotionally and this can take a physical toll. I would advise all leaders but particularly headteachers to make every effort to be physically fit and healthy because you never know when you will need to call on deep emotional reserves to pull yourself through a difficult period at work.

I recall a couple of occasions when I was dealing with cases of child abuse that were particularly harrowing and despite all of the appropriate agencies attempting to do their best, I felt the children were failed. Not because of any lack of effort but because the damage was so great, they just couldn’t deal with the legal system. In this sort of circumstance, it is difficult not to take on an emotional burden and feel you could have done more. What makes these situations more difficult to bear, is that the confidentiality involved means you cannot share the burden easily. Only the children’s support teachers and I were fully aware of the circumstances and we weren’t able to share with other members of staff. These are not the only situations that will weigh heavily on headteachers, but they illustrate that when dealing with an organisation of hundreds of people there will be emotional lows as well as highs, and resilience is needed to cope with the burden of leadership.

Crises need to be seen as challenges rather than potential failures. The way you view crises can have a considerable impact on your institution and your personal career. Your subordinates will want to see a calm and firm hand in charge in a crisis, looking to you to rise above any chaos and maintain order. I’ve seen leaders descend into paranoia and insecurity creating a self-absorption that disabled decision-making, this reduces their authority and lessens their ability to be role models. Leaders cannot take every difficulty or crisis to heart, their job is to act in the interest of their organisation and do their best. Fear of making a mistake can paralyse a leader but failing to act is a greater sin.

For Headteachers and senior staff, their leadership skills are tested daily, as work arises out of the moment, the day-to-day events and incidents that punctuate and give the day’s work its flavour. Flexibility is so important for leaders because they must deal with the unpredictable and often unexpected events that crop up in any organisation, that contains hundreds of people. It might be impossible to stick to plans and simply follow set procedures, leadership is about having the flexibility and the ability to cope with the unexpected and make balanced judgements, based on experience and to some extent instinct. Effective leaders have the capacity to cope with confusion and uncertainty in their work, relying on their experience and inner confidence. Leaders should act with belief in their values and manage sensitive situations with the required insight, imagination and belief. If you are unfortunate and have to deal with the emotional fallout from the death of a popular pupil or member of staff, you will need to exude calm, even though you yourself might be grieving. With these sorts of sad events, I’ve noticed they take much more time to deal with in recent years than they appeared to 40 years ago. Perhaps we are better at outwardly showing our emotions and less likely to bottle them up. I found that mobilizing school chaplains and local youth workers in addition to school staff as well as drafting in specialist support from grief councillors gives more support available on the ground and then the task is to direct individuals and groups to the most appropriate support. Sensitively arranging a service of remembrance after an appropriate period can help friends and family move their grief on. A book of condolence can also help those affected most express their feelings. Giving pupils an opportunity to excuse themselves from classes for a time-limited period can help, as long as they can be supervised sensitively.

There are many crises that can emerge in a school’s life. I’ve had to deal with many including a devastating fire, asbestos scares and even an occasion where the father of one pupil was accused of murdering the father of another – requiring very sensitive but nevertheless firm handling.

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