No leader should be an island

Jill Berry

Following a 30 year career in education, during which she taught English and assumed different leadership roles across six schools, Jill finished as a full-time head in 2010. Since then Jill has completed a doctorate and written Making the Leap: Moving from Deputy to Head, which was published by Crown House Publishing in November 2016. She lives in the Midlands.

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The novelist EM Forster exhorted us to “only connect”, and the poet John Donne observed that “no man is an island”. How can leaders at all levels in education make the most of the community around them, and use the power of collaboration to strengthen their leadership capacity? Whether you are a middle leader, a senior leader, a head, an executive head or a chair of governors, you can develop as a leader by working with and learning from others.

Working with individuals

Throughout your career, there will have been influential role models who have inspired and encouraged you. They may have been leaders or, perhaps, peers for whose professional practice you had admiration and respect. They may have been particularly significant as you developed your self-belief and recognised your own potential. Good mentors and coaches, for example, who could see nascent strengths in you before you even fully recognised those strengths yourself. Have you ever been ‘tapped on the shoulder’ by someone who has offered you the opportunity to take on something which has given you the chance to learn and grow? Perhaps you were initially hesitant or unsure of your ability to embrace the challenge but, with the support of these key individuals, you stepped up and saw it through, building your expertise and your confidence in the process.

And can you now do this for others? Are there colleagues you recognise have untapped potential and the capacity to go on to even greater achievements, within the classroom and perhaps beyond it? Are you able to spot and nurture their developing talents? You need to support them so that they can demonstrate their ability, rather than simply telling them they have that ability.

Working within and across teams

Consider the current teams within which you work. What is your specific contribution to each team? What do you bring that adds value, and how do your skills and strengths complement what others have to offer? How can you learn from those around you, and what can you contribute which enables others to build their leadership capacity so that the team becomes even more effective – the whole greater than the sum of its parts? It is perhaps too easy to see our specific areas of responsibility as the key focus of our professional activity, and not to take advantage of the opportunity to extend those parameters so that we widen our sphere of influence and develop new skills and areas of expertise.

Certainly if you are a middle or senior leader who anticipates moving to headship in due course, any opportunity to extend your knowledge of new aspects of how schools operate should be embraced – as a head, and the same is true of chairs of governors, you need the breadth of knowledge to take on the strategic responsibility for all elements of the school, to know what questions to ask and to understand the answers, while trusting others to manage the operational detail. That trust must be built on a confident grasp of the Big Picture. What can you learn from those within your current teams which will prepare you for this? And how can you encourage and facilitate the learning of others?

Learning from the wider educational community

Finally, do you look beyond your current school and identify opportunities to learn from members of the wider community? If you engage with educational Twitter, read (and perhaps comment on, and write) blogs, keep up with current education research and development through reading books and articles (organisations like The Chartered College are a good source of such publications, and offer helpful reviews to guide your reading), you should be well on your way to extending your learning by engagement with others from whom you can gain and to whose own professional development you can contribute.

By attending conferences and enrolling on programmes such as a Masters’ course, or one of the National Professional suite of qualifications, you secure for yourself entry into a community of educators, perhaps at a similar stage of their leadership journey, which can be energising and productive. As an aspiring or serving woman leader, have you considered what #WomenEd might offer in terms of support (practical and emotional), and could exploring #BAMEed, #DisabilityEd and/or #LGBTed widen your horizons?

So consider where you are in your career, where you might be heading and how you can get there, and what being part of a community of educators can offer both in terms of how you might benefit, and how you can contribute to the development and learning of others.

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