‘That’s what a comeback is. You have a starting point, and you build strength and momentum from there. Stay the course…remain patient. Focus on small steps that are constantly forward’ Kara Goucher, Long Distance Olympic Runner.
I use the phrase ‘comeback’ slightly loosely here knowing that many leaders will spend some, if not, a large proportion of their summer break laying the foundations for a strong start in September. Having said this I sincerely hope this isn’t the case and that they are also taking the time to power down and regroup after what has been a testing and trying academic year for school leaders worldwide.
This time of year, a few years back, I wrote a blog for NQT’s about things I’d wish I’d known before embarking on my career as a teacher. https://teacherfeature2.com/2019/08/14/my-top-5-tips-for-nqts-what-i-wish-someone-had-told-me/ This year, I thought I’d try my hand at sharing some leadership musings to support those new to leadership or perhaps prompt some thinking for more experienced colleagues. Why? Because there’s no handbook on how to make a comeback from the ‘new normal’ to the ‘new, new normal’ (not quite sure what version we’re on now). I, by no means claim to have the answers but here’s a few things you may wish to consider as you make your comeback into the world of school leadership. I hope that at the very least, that this prompts thinking and reflection on your leadership practice for the academic year ahead. Why? (The purpose of asking why multiple times will become apparent later in the blog) Because leadership is such a key lever in school improvement and ultimately in the quality of education our pupils receive ‘on the ground’; it is therefore a moral imperative that we take the time to try and get it right.
- Making a strong start…routines and rituals
A common focus for teachers in September of a new academic year is getting the routines and rituals right in their classroom and setting the tone in terms of expectations and norms of behaviour. I would argue the same is true of school culture amongst staff. Making a strong start in terms of ‘setting out your stall’ and clarifying collective, shared purpose, norms of behaviour and establishing routines for the year to come ensures that strong foundations are in place before you begin to ‘build’ on these. If Professional Development is a key part of your strategic plan for the year as a leader, make this known by communicating this explicitly but also by ‘doing the do’ and ensuring that teachers are equipped with the knowledge and skills to enact your vision from the very beginning. It certainly isn’t feasible to cram this all into a few INSET days but offering a piece of professional development that can be immediately and practically applied to the classroom on Day 1 is a useful endeavour that can form that initial association in for teachers about the bridge between evidence and classroom practice. The fallacy of ‘don’t smile until Christmas’ is an extreme extrapolation of what I think began as a simple premise- the early days matter.
2. The 4 C’s of change management- (consult, communicate, collaborate, cement craft)
The academic year ahead may signal change for your school in your individual context and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing but as a senior leader who has got this *very* wrong in the past, learnt from it and then gone on to refine my own leadership practice, I’m here to offer some ‘lessons learnt’. Change management has always fascinated me because to grow, by its very nature, requires change of some sort. In organisations where change is mismanaged, ANY change becomes associated with stress, negativity, and general non-compliance. So, getting it right, is rather key. The 4 C’s of change management can offer a useful framework when considering change, be it small or large.
Psychology dictates that as humans, we have needs that if unmet, result in undesirable feelings which in turn can result in undesirable behaviours. The link between our emotions, our thinking and our behaviour is well-established in the field of Psychology, and we need only to look at the work of Maslow and his ‘hierarchy of needs’ to get an understanding of the various meets that we have as humans and the relative importance of these. Fisher and Royster (2016) carried out research with Mathematics teachers on their ideas about teacher stress and retention and used these to develop a hierarchy of needs, resembling that of Maslow’s. A summary of their findings is shown below:
Although this was not a large-scale study and focused on the views of four mathematics teachers, the purpose was not to produce results that were generalisable but to build on the work of Maslow in the wider context of the Teaching profession. One discussion point from the above is of particular interest:
‘Security: Teachers should also be able to work in a place that Maslow  describes as ‘predictable’ and ‘orderly.’[23,p.377] Although the teaching profession is rarely predictable, it should be orderly. Many schools are lacking in this aspect of the hierarchy, which, in turn, affects how students learn. Feelings such as ‘injustice, unfairness, or inconsistency’ can make the teacher feel anxious and insecure. [23, p.377] Those feelings increase the stress levels of teachers and produce dissatisfactory feelings about their school, colleagues, and, ultimately, the profession.’
As leaders, if we can spend time reflecting on this, perhaps we can ensure that our strategic plans are underpinned by as much predictability and psychological safety as possible so that we can best support teachers in enacting these plans.
Change is inevitable and this is a fact or life, not just in our schools. Communicating change clearly, however, can dissolve some of the natural anxieties, tension, concerns, or apprehensions that arise for individuals. We are, after all, creatures of habit. Some questions to reflect upon when considering change and communicating about change:
–How am I going to communicate this?
-Why is the change required?
-What tangible impact will this have on pupils?
-What does this change mean for individuals at EVERY level?
-How will this affect the day-to-day?
-What challenges might colleagues come up against and how can we avoid/manage these?
Once change has been implemented, collaboration is crucial for ongoing evaluation and continuous improvement. Teachers and support staff ‘on the ground’ will have the best understanding of how this theoretical idea that’s been formed in your mind, plays out in action. Without collaboration and ongoing dialogue there’s a real danger that initiatives will go stale, mutate, or even have outcomes that are counter to your original intention.
Once an initiative is well-understood, has been evaluated appropriately and is on the right trajectory in terms of impact it’s time to cement the craft. This is all about embedding practice. But what does that look like in action?
-Capturing great practice, disseminating, and exemplifying it
-Candidly discussing challenges and barriers and coming up with mutually agreed solutions on mitigating against these
-Codifying and sharing the ‘finished product’
-Further evaluation and continuous improvement followed by renewing shared understanding
The 4 C’s Caveat-
Before implementing any change it’s crucial to consider WHY we are making the change in the first place. Using strategies such as ‘the 5 why’ technique (asking yourself the question why five times to drill down to the root concern) can help us to establish the root cause of the issue so that the ‘intervention’ we choose is in fact addressing the underlying issue and not simply a consequential offshoot of the actual ‘problem’.
3. Building (and sustaining!) Momentum
As a leader, seeing a project or initiative picking up momentum is a great feeling. Quite often this is a marker of sound planning and secure early implementation. I’ve always found that keeping the conversation going is a great way of building and sustaining momentum. Having a key focus and ‘going all in’ on this, as opposed to flitting between varying foci, is often a better bet in terms of sustaining momentum. Momentum is closely linked to motivation, which can be a real challenge during particularly testing times. Motivation looks different for different people and relationships and knowledge of those we lead is at the very heart of getting this right.
We can also look to the work of Dan Pink here, who asserts that intrinsic motivation requires:
As leaders, how can we ensure that these are woven into the fabric of our school’s journey at the more strategic level but also in the day-to-day happenings of school life?
I hope these anecdotal lessons learnt from my own experiences as a leader, snippets of research and reflective prompts prove useful to you as you make your comeback this coming September. Until then, have a wonderful and well-deserved summer break!
Turner, Emma. Be More Toddler : A Leadership Education from Our Little Learners. Melton, Woodbridge, 2019. Print.
Fisher, Molly H, and Royster, David. “Mathematics Teachers’ Support and Retention: Using Maslow’s Hierarchy to Understand Teachers’ Needs.” International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology 47.7 (2016): 993-1008. Web.
Pink, Daniel H. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. , 2009. Print.