We all want to be great leaders, don’t we? No one sets out to be a prescriptive and tyrannical boss. No thank you to being the Scrooge of the school, though I’m quite happily the Grinch when Christmas comes.
Last November as a part of my MA in Educational Leadership, I read a paper on ‘bastard’ leadership, managerialism and performativity (Wright, 2001), which hit me quite hard if I’m honest. It made me reflect how performative the UK system has made me.
I spent the first ten years of my teaching life in a renowned language school where the only measure of your success was your student satisfaction with what you taught them. No one questioned it: they were the paying clients, ambitious and wanting to succeed so we taught them and constantly thought of new ways of breaking down language concepts into chunks that would be digestible, swapping ideas with colleagues and thriving.
Skip forward to my fifteen years in the UK and suddenly I was working in an educational system that told me how to mark, how to start and structure a lesson and how to teach. Some of it was inspiring, some of it was just performative tickbox tricks but before I knew it I became part of it.
Having read Intelligent Accountability by Didau (2020) over the half term, I found myself reflecting more and more on my past leadership mistakes when my focus became too much about how and not enough about what. Didau argues that experienced teachers should be trusted to teach how they want to as long as they can show it is having the desired impact on the students. He made a point that leaders should be agreeing on general non-negotiables that focus on what we want to achieve rather than how to achieve these. The chapter on non-negotiables was a kick in the guts. ‘Oh, but I like non-negotiables!’, I thought. I have always been a huge advocate of them for any new initiative. They are something I can monitor and tick off my list. And there it was. I was right back to ticking the Ofsted box. I started wondering if the ones we came up with were phrased the right way or if they focused on the right things rather than just being purely preformative in nature.
The Ghost of Leadership Past
In the UK I worked in schools that told their teachers to mark with a purple pen, give feedback using WWW and EBI format, start a lesson with thunk or any other engaging hook and so on. I happily enforced those rules, never quite questioning whether we should be so prescriptive. Whenever someone did, I listened to them and discussed their thinking behind lack of engagement and then went on to point out why we were doing what we were doing, the research, the philosophy, the impact on the students. I found it easy to do so because these strategies were aligned with how I teach and what works for me. I didn’t stop to think about those who might not feel the same way or whose style those strategies did not match.
The Ghost of Leadership Present
I like rules and yet I grew tired of them, which was one of the reason why I chose to leave the UK. The constant adapting to yet another Ofsted framework and looking for performative tricks to tick their box took its toll. Moving to an international school was a breath of fresh air.
When I started as the Head of English in my current school, I found it refreshing not having to abide by any specific pedagogy. We started sharing effective practice across the faculty through faculty meetings and briefings. Learning walks and book looks are focused on spotting the gold dust and meetings and the faculty bulletin are the means of spreading it.
As the practice developed and staff engaged more and more, we have begun trialling different strategies. Last Wednesday we held an alternative book look, rather than line managers looking at books and offering developmental feedback, the teachers paired up and looked at each other’s books, holding each other to account, focusing on student progress and students responding to feedback. They all completed a feedback sheet for each other and identified best practice in books to share with the rest of the faculty. When we finished off the short 20 minute meeting by looking at the best books, one of the staff commented that although all the feedback strategies looked so different, all books looked like English books and students were engaging with their learning. We didn’t need compliance or consensus on how to mark, we focused on agreeing on the what and why: students responding to feedback to maximise progress.
The Ghost of Leadership Future
As I prepare for my first deputy headship as the Director of Teaching and Learning, I am reflecting more and more over my prescriptive past. This blog is part of my commitment to focus on what we are trying to achieve and not how. For the non-negotiables to be focused on our goals and not on how we get there. For the staff to be able to earn their trust and have the freedom to teach however they wish as long as it is effective so they can stay true to themselves.
Just like Scrooge, I hope to be better than my word. To do it more and infinitely more.
Didau, D. 2020. Intelligent Accountability. John Catt Educational.
Wright, N. 2001. Leadership, ‘Bastard Leadership’ and Managerialism Confronting Twin Paradoxes in the Blair Education Project. Educational Management Administration & Leadership 29(3):275-290. DOI: 10.1177/0263211X010293003