Reflecting on the school leader

The bad leader is he who the people despise; the good leader is he who the people praise; the great leader is he who the people say, “We did it ourselves”. ~ Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline

Part of my PhD literature review encompassed what makes effective school leadership, and effective leadership of change or reform in schools. If you don’t fancy savouring all 300 odd pages of my dissertation, the summary of my literature search determined that effective school leaders:

  • Develop shared vision;
  • Have high expectations and clear accountabilities;
  • Develop an environment of trust;
  • Empower others and allow them autonomy, space, and support to lead;
  • Solve complex problems;
  • Engage with the wider community; act as storyteller and sense-maker; and
  • Balance instructional and transformational leadership.

Many of these points are reflected in the Australian Professional Standards for Principals, which break school leadership down into the following components:

  • Leading teaching and learning;
  • Developing self and others;
  • Leading improvement, innovation, and change;
  • Leading the management of the school; and
  • Engaging and working with the community.

Both of these lists cross over one another, and each seems simple in its short-list nature (5 dot points! How hard can it be?), but looking closely at many of these aspects of school leadership quickly reveals the complexity of the mandate. On top of that, school leadership teams are under pressure from constant measures of their performance. Leadership itself becomes a quantified, evaluated performance. Meanwhile, on a daily basis leaders constantly code-switch as they move from the classroom, to the boardroom, to the parents’ committee, to the community event, to the performance management conversation, to the staff member or student who needs support.

My PhD study found that school leaders are constantly navigating internal, relational, and organisational identities. These complex and sometimes competing identities affect leaders’ experiences and decision making. The leaders in my study were moving, often deliberately and relentlessly, between leadership modes that were directive and empowering, hero and servant, visible and invisible.

Leading is a constant state of becoming and of identity work. Peter Gronn, in his 2003 book The new work of educational leaders: Changing leadership practice in an era of school reform, reminds us that leaders’ senses of who they are, and who they aspire to be, play a pivotal role in their engagement with their work. Having multiple leadership roles in my current school has meant that it is not only me who has had to shift my self-perceptions or identity enactments, but also my colleagues who have had to see me in new ways across my time at the school. Additionally, I have multiple, competing identities that exist simultaneously with my school identity; as parent, spouse, sibling, daughter, researcher. Boundary spanner and pracademic. Identities like plates precariously spinning atop spidery poles.

While Gronn suggests that individuals rework their perspectives in relation to their contexts, my PhD found that, while context does shape professional identity, individuals also choose their contexts to fit their own identities. My leader participants indicated that they stayed in schools that resonated with their senses of professional self, and left schools in which they did not feel aligned with organisational purpose and action. That is, school contexts shape leaders, and leaders shape their contexts. Leaders can and do choose schools with which they feel an identity fit, and leave schools in which they feel they do not fit.

Wellbeing is a real issue in school leadership, as reflected in the results of the longitudinal Riley study, which has found that Australian principals score lower than the general population on positive measures of wellbeing, quality of life, and mental health; but higher on negative measures such as stress, depression and sleeping trouble. Leaders need formal and informal support, as well as their own strategies for self-care and renewal. It might be that school leadership can be summarised in a series of dot points, but it is contextual, complex, and lonely. It is challenging and rewarding, exhausting and exhilarating.

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