I was recently flying on a plane to Dubrovnik when the pilot made a very skilful landing amongst terribly windy conditions. The day before the pilot had decided it was too windy to land altogether and we had been diverted to Bari in Italy (a very unexpected start to our family holiday!) But this time, the pilot was determined, if possible, to get a plane full of eager passengers to their chosen destination. I sat back in my chair and started to notice what the pilot was doing to ensure a safe and successful landing.
- Are the conditions right? He was checking the wind speed to see if it was within range to safely land.
- Air traffic control. He was checking in with the team on the ground to plan ahead for a safe landing on busy runways.
- Managing expectations. He was communicating with us constantly and reminding us that he couldn’t guarantee we would be able to land but he would keep us posted (as well as reassuring us that his primary concern was our safety)
This whole experience got me thinking about the school improvement initiatives leaders deliver within our schools and the way in which we can maximise the success with which our initiatives ‘land on the ground’.
The pilot in my vignette had a few things in his metaphorical toolbox:
domain specific knowledge + an awareness of the conditions + a responsive approach + an awareness of the importance of communication
Let’s reflect on a few of these…
Getting the Conditions Right:
Conditions is a broad term and can mean a number of things so let’s consider what this might mean in more detail.
The conditions within a school refer to the tangible and intangible ‘forces’ at play that can either support or hinder implementation efforts. It can include but is not limited to resourcing, the quality of relational trust between colleagues, staffing or the level of expertise than can be drawn upon within the team.
The reality of school life dictates that we can’t magic up some of these things e.g funding (if only!) We can however do something helpful to inform our implementation efforts. We can a) accurately assess the conditions at play b) actively address SOME of these conditions to maximise the chances of success upon delivery.
Say for example you’re about to introduce a whole-school approach to the teaching of reading in KS2. Understanding the conditions in the wider ecosystem of the school can enable you as a leader to plan your implementation accordingly, thus maximising the chance of its success. If for example, there has been a swathe of new initiatives around reading in the past few years from various leaders, your implementation planning will look markedly different to that of a school where the same reading model has been used to deliver reading for the past 5 years (this comes with its own challenges!)
The challenge around knowing the conditions (with any sort of accuracy) is that leaders are often IN the conditions. See the fish in water analogy below.
How might a leader step outside of this to gauge a school’s readiness for a new initiatives or to consider what approach is required given the current conditions?
- Leaders may want to moderate their own judgements with those outside the immediate vicinity of the school. This relies on having a support network beyond the school itself and having the ability to put aside one’s ‘ego’ and accept that ‘we don’t know what we don’t know’. This is true of us all, at any level. By actively moderating one’s own judgement of what best practice is we send a clear message to those we lead- we ALL need to be collegiate, collaborative and continuously improving. After all, this is the nature of the business we’re in as educators!
- Leaders may wish to collate information through various formal/informal diagnostics. The aim of the game is to have enough evidence to support your ‘claim’. E.g. collecting survey data, informal discussion and outcomes in Writing books are telling me that we need to review/rethink the efficacy of our writing curriculum
- Leaders may also wish to engage in some thought experiments and decide what the response might be to any given initiative, given the current climate or ‘mood’ within the school. This is not to say that this will wholly dictate the decision making about implementation but in knowing this, we can put in place mechanisms to succeed and fail-safes (a Plan B if all goes terribly wrong!)
Sometimes, the conditions may not be at all optimal for an implementation effort but the benefits that the initiative would have on pupil outcomes and the quality of education may outweigh the decision to halt implementation altogether. In these very challenging contexts, it’s crucial for leaders to consider HOW they implement, at a granular level, at each stage. In this case, establishing a clear vision of what success looks like and ensuring a truly experienced small-win can support with building enough momentum.
Anticipating and responding quickly to resisting forces can support with maintaining momentum at all costs, until the benefits of the initiative can be more securely felt and experienced. Leaders play an important role in this notion of success being ‘felt and experienced’ by those they lead. How are we positively reinforcing the behaviour changes that have led to this win? How are we highlighting this as a key milestone for success? How can we take this and build on it? These are all questions that can be reflected upon as leaders navigate this challenging terrain.
An Awareness of the Important of Communication…
Conditions and culture within our teams are inextricably related. Because culture often feels intangible and abstract as a concept, we can sometimes forget as leaders that culture is created through the small, daily interactions we have with our teams, as well as the larger, more strategic strategies to develop a strong school culture.
The most powerful thing the pilot did (outside his core business of landing us safely) that we experienced on our end, was the manner with which he communicated his updates. Now of course, on his end, this was not his primary concern and the technicalities and decision-making processes he was engaging with was most definitely occupying most of his headspace! However, as the recipient of his ‘leadership’, that’s the bit I remembered.
Communication is often misinterpreted as ‘purely positive and lovely communication’. This is not the case. Sometimes difficult messages need to be delivered. A combination of domain-specific knowledge, responsive problem-solving and our ability to communicate tricky messages, frame challenge and offer candid feedback makes for truly great leadership, that makes a difference on the ground.
But how we communicate can again, be difficult to gauge because we’re unable to experience our own communication and how it lands with others. What might a leader do to support awareness of their professional practice and the strengths and opportunities for growth?
- Leaders might ask a critical friend. Someone we know will give it to us straight and tell us if our communication isn’t perhaps landing in the way we intend it to.
- Leaders might film themselves delivering a session and in the same way video footage is used to support teacher development, consider what small action step is the highest leverage in terms of evolving their ways of working
- Leaders might intentionally observe another leader and consider their communication and how it may contribute to the wider culture/conditions within their school. We’re often better at picking out the actions steps for others than considering our own but if we can then bring this back to reflecting on a particular aspect of our comms this can work really well!
All of the above can often feel extra uncomfortable for a leader because it involves a level of vulnerability which is not typically a leadership-associated trait. But within the vulnerability is an opportunity for growth and innovation.
A Responsive Approach to Problem -Solving
There will always be a discrepancy between an intended and enacted implementation effort (much like an intended and enacted curriculum). Our role as leaders is to a) have a clear and evidence-informed mental model of what the intended vision is b) to reduce the gap between this and the enacted delivery.
Roadblocks are inevitable in a ‘living, breathing, school’ and as leaders we have to accept, not fight this. So what does being responsive involve? The same things it involves to be responsive as a teacher in the classroom.
- Robust formative ‘data’ (scary word for information)
- Quickly adapting implementation where neccesary in response to this formative data
- Regular checks against the overarching ‘benchmark of brilliance’ (in other words, ‘the dream’ or ‘what this would look like in 6-12 months time if everything went to plan!)
Not to sound like a broken record, but this too, in my humble opinion comes back to creating a culture of continuous improvement where it is EXPECTED to go wrong at points but it’s also EXPECTED that we ‘hold our nerve’ (shout out to Lauren Meadows for this mantra), adapt and continue down our chosen paths.
Ideally, we want to aim to mitigate against roadblocks as much as possible so that time and space can be dedicated to truly immersing ourself in new practice. And this involves deep-thinking about the finer details…
If we spend enough time in our explore and prepare phase (EEF Implementation Guidance), we can a) start building a culture of ‘fast forwarding’ and ‘slowing down’ to adjust practice b) reduce the likelihood our implementation efforts will fail entirely, which is a loss of resource, funding and most importantly time.
Slowing down and playing the long-game is very much an art form (one which I’m yet to master as a leader myself!) The best way to summarise it? I’ll leave it to this literary legend…