Taking on an ‘acting’ role can be a great way to try out a new role with the safety of knowing it is for a finite amount of time. If you are thinking about moving into leadership, then it can be a perfect way to dip your toe.
The thing about acting positions is that their timing is rarely predictable. In my career, I have acted up twice and gone on secondment twice. The first time, my phase leader damaged her knee and was unable to walk for a term. The most recent time, my head gained a much-deserved role as an SIP (school improvement partner) in a neighbouring county. I was tasked by the governors to take the helm while an experienced replacement could be found.
The main differences between a secondment and acting up are that with a secondment you are able to choose whether to apply. It will be in a different school and usually takes the form of a fixed term contract. With acting up, you may not have a choice! If you are in school leadership and your line manager is absent for any reason, then tag - you’re it!
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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Which preposition: just leading, or leading to, leading with, leading through or leading for? I do love a question that involves a grammatical concept, and this is one that I have been asking for some time.
The challenges of being a school leader are massive now. Our expectations of leaders are huge. I think that we have now reached a point where the rhetoric of leadership is becoming intimidating rather than encouraging. Writing about the matter has become a cottage industry. Indeed, if one read all the books aimed at school leaders, one would never actually have the time to do any leading at all. We are struggling to recruit school heads in many areas. Even during the period when I was a director of Children’s Services, we were having to re-advertise posts, sometimes combine schools, and go forward with very limited leads - I honestly believe that things have become more difficult since.
The demands on leaders are greater than ever. Young people are more complex, society more diverse and, at times, more fragmented. Other agencies and institutions are in decline through funding cuts and/or social changes. Increasingly, schools are more isolated, yet face even greater demands to make a difference. They are seen, more and more, as the engines of social mobility, regardless of your view on that (you can read mine in The Working Class edited by Ian Gilbert). Many colleagues argue that they have never felt more accountable, while also feeling less supported. I could go on, but I suspect that if you have read this far, you are already well aware of the pressures on school leaders.
The question, inevitably, is how anyone copes with the challenges.
The worst way to cope is to avoid the preposition. There are still examples of people who harbour ambition for its own sake. They want to be at the top of whatever pole they embarked on climbing and want to be successful for themselves. These sort of leaders tend to display the same patterns of involvement. They don’t stay anywhere long. Sometimes they have a dramatic impact in the time that they do stay and even appear to achieve striking successes during their brief tenure. In general, my experience of these sorts of leaders is that they are disruptive rather than constructive. The changes that they bring rarely turn out to be transformative and the successes are inclined to be short-lived.
Reluctant as I am to enter into political controversy, there is a strong argument that policy over Brexit has been bedevilled by leaders prioritising the preservation of power over making genuine progress. School leaders concerned with their own reputation and not driven by a clear sense of purpose are likely to fail over the longer term.
My argument would be that those who choose a preposition for leadership are far more likely to bring substantive improvement for young people. I love field marshall Montgomery’s quote:
“My own definition of leadership is this: The capacity and the will to rally men and women to a common purpose and the character which inspires confidence.”
He is clearly a “leading to” person. Purpose is all and, interestingly, that purpose has to be “common” so clearly he would entertain ‘with’ as another of his leadership prepositions.
There might be an argument that “leading to” could be seen as far too focussed on outcomes and data, or in achieving targets set for a school. If that was the interpretation one took, it would be a preposition to avoid. Real change comes from the drive to achieve ambitions, and the more dearly held the better, rather than to meet someone else’s expectations. That may be where “for” comes into its own. It relates so well to the idea of leadership as service, that one leads for the benefit of others and never for self-aggrandisement. Nelson Mandela was such a wonderful example of that:
“It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership”.
That concept of appreciating leadership is another which seems alien when we focus as strongly as we do on the idea of leadership being rooted in drive and challenge. That model is far removed from the idea of leading through.
We should lead through vision. That is implicit in the Montgomery quote; it is writ large in Max DePree’s comment:
“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.”
It is a quote that captures so many elements of this discussion. The “reality” of which he speaks aligns with the idea of vision, of creating a way of seeing the context that you are in. That then creates the “for”. It certainly captures the sense of “leading with” and “through”. For me, the idea of thinking about the prepositions of leadership is neither indulgent or obscure. It is just another way of taking us into the fundamental questions about how we should lead. I tend to go with Fuchan Yang, when he says:
“There are three essentials to leadership: humility, clarity and courage.”
We need to be doing more than just leading. The self-satisfaction of that will only sustain the most narcissistic. For any of us who have a shred of self-doubt and, more importantly, an ambition to add value to the lives of young people and their communities, it will never offer enough. Adding a preposition just might.
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At the end of 2017, apprenticeship and skills minister Anne Milton released the Careers Strategy, outlining practical solutions in order to create a thriving careers system that is accessible to “everyone, whatever their age, to go as far as their talents will take them to have a rewarding career”.
Since creating the first version of Classroom Monitor over 12 years ago, I have seen both technology and assessment change beyond recognition. Now, pupil trackers come in all shapes and sizes; whether it’s using Excel or a web-based assessment application, you need to do more than just collect data. My founding principle has always been that assessment systems should fundamentally: save time, follow your specific curriculum and engage all your school stakeholders with actionable insights. But how should schools choose the best assessment solution for them?
A typically time-pressed Secondary school teacher, Rob spends most evenings planning lessons, marking work, grappling with new specifications, deciphering mark schemes and pondering issues of behaviour management. In his third year of teaching English, he enjoys his work, but increasingly feels there’s just not enough hours in the day. Oh, and he’s just learnt he’ll be picking up a GCSE Drama class in September…
With a history as long as ours, it won’t come as a surprise that we’ve learnt a thing or two about teaching boys along the way. The past 175 years has taught us much about understanding boys and how to motivate them to perform to the best of their ability. We greatly value our heritage and traditions, and our school motto - ‘Supera Moras’, or ‘Never Give Up’ - still inspires our way of thinking.
We live in age where there is unprecedented pressure on schools and school leaders. The pressure of a challenging and ever-changing Ofsted framework, budgets which are paper-thin, progress measures which force us to compare our pupils with other children nationally, and some of the most academically-stretching testing expectations ever. It’s enough to make the most experienced of school leaders crumble. Set against this context, it is easy to see why many school leaders are turning to formulaic and rigid schemes of work, as well as practises that promise to drive up pupil outcomes and produce the goods in terms of pupil attainment.
When there's a push to disrupt the status quo, those that feel most comfortable within it become defensive; questioning the change and downplaying it, or perhaps even claiming there is no problem. They may go one step further and warn of dire consequences, claiming the privileged will become the disenfranchised, which they’ll argue is no better than the current system. People are resistant to change, especially if they benefit from the current norm.
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