Finding the Balance
Half-term week. Always a good time to take a day or two to reflect on the priorities, style, approach to school leadership and to consider the learning points form the last half-term (before the busyness of the business kicks in again).
Timely then for me to finish reading Mary’s articulate, authentic and authoritative book. A book I obviously highly recommend you read. “Inspiring chunks of very readable and reassuring wisdom” as Helen Wright commented on page 1.
As someone in their second year of headship the reassurance and focus on next steps for improvement are invaluable.
Everyone has an opinion on the education system and what and how school leaders should focus on. Parents, staff, governors, other heads, the Local Authority, Ofsted, and the DfE. None of these groups have a consensus on effective school leadership, but many within these groups are ready and willing to share their opinion with you when they think you’re going astray.
“Whatever we do, there are going to be some people who don’t like what we do and some people who don’t like us as characters.”
It’s also very frustrating that the approach from the DfE comes across as “High Challenge, Higher Threat” with added changing of goalposts and criteria thrown into the mix. Mary makes the point that “There’s not such thing as a quick fix. Especially not in education. It is slow, painstaking work.” A shame then that some people in the department and Ofsted promote rapid improvement, evidenced by bursts of improved data. (It does make me think back to the banking crisis: constantly increasing short-term targets, punitive responses, and all built on sand).
Some of the people in these groups think I have been too lenient or too harsh in the last 20 months. Too focused externally or too bound up with the internal day to day. Too removed from the pupils and learning or too heavily involved. Too focused on data and holding staff to account, or too lax and forgiving. I could go on…
Before taking on this my first headship, many other experienced heads told me that it was a lonely role. That it was important to delegate and stay focused on the strategic development and vision. That no head ever knows everything and at times each week have worries and doubts.
For me networking with colleagues through local groups and Twitter have enabled me to broaden the perspectives shared of people in similar roles. It has helped me question my leadership without being plagued by self-doubt. It has helped me stick to my moral purpose and the style of leadership I think most effective and beneficial, even when others fundamentally disagree or respond in ways seem opposed or to antagonise.
Reading Mary’s book has reminded me that rather than it being a case of “It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it” as Bananarama sang. I think it is:
It’s a balance of what you do (and focus on) and the way that you do it. That’s what gets results!
Below are ten quotes from Mary’s books and my evaluation of how much I agree and how well I think I am leading our school in relation to them.
1. “Top leaders manage to walk the line between the impossible and the possible, between the undoable and the doable and to create conditions for productive work which transcend the difficulties which come towards us every day.”
I certainly aim to find this balance, but regularly wobble from this fine line. As a small and new school (68 pupils and 3 teachers in September 2014), with so much to do to set up and embed school practice and systems, and so much change and uncertainty nationally this is definitely a challenge. As a team we have managed to achieve many positive things and definitely moved forwards, however in order to be productive we have had to allow slippage and re-prioritise development tasks each term. There is only a finite amount of time and people capacity. This can be frustrating where I can see where I want us to get.
2. “Not about greater quantities of work but rather refining and honing aspects of our practice so that it becomes effortless and efficient.”
As mentioned above we have deliberately moved some development points back in time. We have also collaboratively developed and reviewed at least once many key policies and practices, such as: Teaching for Learning policy, Teaching for Learning foundations, Assessment criteria and systems, thinking through planning, Behaviour policy and practices, Feedback policy, school Values and rules… We often broaden our discussions as we explore new aspects of our practice, before creating a succinct summary to apply and embed.
3. “Authority comes from the consistency and humanity with which a leaders goes about his daily business.”
Consistency can be tricky, as we are a growing school and our approaches adapt and develop. Also although I try to treat everyone fairly and consistently, sometimes those with whom I have had franker conversations may disagree. I do aim on a daily basis to be cheerful, positive, energetic and think one of my strengths is the way I value and respect others within our school community.
I need to continue to strive to be consistent in my approach with everyone in our community on a more regular basis. My first target.
4. “Top leaders create the conditions where critical guidance is not only accepted, it is expected.”
“Shared discussions about how to improve, rather than scapegoating and humiliating people.”
One of the strengths of our staff team I think is the positive way that people engage with their own development and take on board feedback in a proactive way. We have invested time on INSET days in giving all staff time to debate aspects of our school work, e.g. Teaching for Learning policy, school Values, defining ourselves as an Inspirational Learning Community. Feedback from observations, learning walks, book scrutinies… include celebrating positive and progress and phrasing areas for further development as questions, to promote a professional dialogue, not just a one way diktat. Even Ofsted noted this in our inspection (May 2015):
“Constructive feedback on strengths and areas for development are at the heart of continual improvement. Staff respond particularly well to this and the level of professional discussion is a credit to the school.”
5. “Managing by walking around is at the heart of ensuring quality, day by day”
When I do ensure I spend enough time walking in and out of the 4 classes we currently have, and also finding time for professional dialogue with colleagues I know this has impact. Often more by gaining information from staff, and being involved in open discussions, than in me delivering messages. It is also noticeable that new staff take a few weeks to relax with me wondering around, whereas as staff who’ve been with us more than a half-term, generally don’t even notice me (they certainly don’t pay me much attention, but focus on the learning as they should).
However I need to create more time to do this. My second target.
6. “The focus on negative things and what is wrong with our work and our lives is exceptionally draining.”
I always try to remain positive and cheerful, and those I trust within school tell me this is how I come across. However I am aware that I sometimes off load frustrations and concerns to a couple of key senior staff and my Chair of Governors. However what impact does this have on them? What impact do these changes in their view have on others? Everyone at our school is working hard, focused on trying to get the best outcomes for the children (in terms of welfare, personal development and learning). But it is exhausting and can be draining. Trying to keep the staff culture buoyant and positive is something that can never be taken for granted. I ensure I thank staff regularly, give extra time towards projects when we can, encourage people to have a work life balance and promote initiatives such as #teacher5aday. We also take time at the beginning of Staff Development Meetings to share ‘Marvellous Minutes’.
7. “If the message goes out loud and strong that people are to be trusted and that mistakes are not only OK but are also the springboards for new learning, then leaders in return need to be open about their mistakes.”
Every week I mess up, and every week I share this with at least some staff. I talk openly about my reflections about the mistake, often ask for advice from colleagues and try to come to joint decisions about the way forward. Generally the staff respond well to this approach, and model a Growth Mindset. Often they will come to me to discuss a mistake that happened, tell me what they have thought about and how they have already started to solve or improve their practice.
8. “The main thing in education, is teaching and learning…top leaders do their share of the teaching.”
I have provided some supply cover this year, and I try to use our Collective Worships to model approaches to teaching and learning with staff, and ask for their feedback. I run a lunchtime club, an after school club and the school Choir. However I don’t fully appreciate the full role of class teachers in this new world of education. So I have started a series of Team Teaching or demonstration teaching with each class. Each half-term I will work with one teacher on a subject they would like support on (and one I think I can help with). My third target.
9. “Making the wisest possible investment of time and energy so that we can operate at our highest point of contribution by only doing what is essential.”
Definitely the fourth target for me.
I try to prioritise time and energy, but as a small school, everyone has to do many things. Currently I am Maths, IT, Music and PE leader. We’ve been without a caretaker for two months. There is a huge amount of new curriculum, CPD, systems/procedures to develop. If I want our teachers to be able to focus as much as possible on teaching and learning (the key aspect of their roles) I have to take on more and delegate less than I plan to when we are a 630 pupil 3FE school by 2021. I have also got the following list on my office wall to make me regularly check that I am using my time most productively:
I also set a bad example at times to our staff in terms of work life balance. Yes we have to work hard. But sometimes we are too tired from long hours to be as effective as we cold and should be. Hopefully each year, there will be less new aspects of our practice to create and there will be more staff to share the workload. Hopefully.
10. Treat as high priority that everyone working in that organisation has a sense of agency and purpose…offer a draft of a vision and ask for it to be commented on.”
“Something interesting happens when we have a deeply developed sense of intrinsic motivation as well. We commit to our work because it is meaningful, interesting and worthwhile.”
Every time we introduce a new policy or initiative we discuss the principles behind it and what we hope to achieve so that staff know why we are doing it not just what we are doing. This has been particularly true in our discussion and decision about our school Values (Love Forgiveness and Hope).
As part of our work developing our Teaching for Learning policy, I asked staff to think about what over-arching learning values we wanted to promote. After a series of discussions as a whole staff we have eventually decided on the following INSPIRE values: Independence / Interdependence; Not giving up; Self-motivated; Positive attitude; Inspired by challenge; Risk-taking; Empowered.
We have also developed our agreed definition of ‘Growing an Inspiring Learning Community’. Currently we define this as:
- Igniting a love of learning
- Empowering partnerships
- Nurturing a Growth Mindset
Other key quotes.
I do love quotes. The way others distil wisdom into a few choice and memorable words. So although I know it will lengthen an already long blog, below are some further quotes that I really had to share from Mary’s book.
- “There is a deep satisfaction which comes from doing things that are difficult. To know that we are making a difference.”
- “Leaders do not shy away from the tough stuff…the conditions which these leaders create to allow colleagues to engage with difficult issues enthusiastically and wholeheartedly.”
- “Effective leaders are comfortable with the uncertainty of change.”
- “There is a paradox in going slow in order to achieve more. But the frantic rush through the curriculum content masks true performance.”
- “In order to make a difference they focus on fewer things in greater depth. This is incredibly difficult in schools, where there are intense schedules, unexpected challenges and sometime crises.”
- “Thoughtful leaders are aware of the dangers and the seduction of power. They know that it has to be used wisely. They understand that top leaders are servants of others.”
- “Everyone needs to be involved in an ongoing conversation about how to improve. And crucially, improvements which are secured through a balance of challenge and support…The we trumps the I.”
- “They understand that learning is messy. It involved hard work, making mistakes, having another go, scribbling out, reworking, redrafting, debate and discussion, unpacking and deconstructing…all these are held within a structure and a framework which allows for this messy deliberation to take place.”
- “Top leaders honour the work of their colleagues. They name the examples of good work they have seen, both formally and informally.”
- “Good leaders know that they are paying a compliment to someone when they ask for advice.”
- “The quality of relationships determines the goodwill and focus with which problems are sorted…this creates a smooth-running, productive and happy place, where all can thrive.”
- “Top leaders make sure their staff are busy on the right things…Fewer things in greater depth…The paradox of the power of less.”
- “When people, both adults and children, are engaged in deep work, they are enjoying themselves. And sometimes they are having fun. They know that this is a by-product of interesting, purposeful work. It is not the main goal.”
- “Top leaders have an ego that is so secure that it doesn’t need to be put on display…An ego which provides quiet moral purpose and compass.”
- “No-one grows to their full potential if the leaders are doing too much and if their colleagues feel they are being watched, stifled and not able to crack on.”
- “Make sure that every individual is valued through word, deed and action and most of all by being asked to make a contribution. It is through contribution to a wider project and welfare and success of other people that our self-esteem grows.”
- “Top leaders work hard on staff welfare and well-being.”
- “The purpose of life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others.” (Albert Schweitzer)