Leadership lessons from school principals

source: pixabay.com by @ThinkTanks

Part of my role in overseeing professional learning at my school is building a variety of ways to develop the capacities of leaders. Our termly leadership forum, a new initiative this year, provides a place and space for all of our leaders – from coaches and pastoral leaders, to heads of faculty, senior leadership, and the Executive team. We meet each term for an evening of wine, cheese, provocation, and connection. In Term 1 I ran a session with the Director of Strategy on thinking about leadership in terms of research, organisation, team, and self. In Term 2 we welcomed Professor Dylan Wiliam to our forum.

This term we welcomed a panel of three independent school principals to present to our school’s leaders. These three panellists represented more than three decades of principalship between them. They had some clear messages about leadership for leaders at all levels, including the following.

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Embrace opportunities

The panel encouraged everyone to embrace and pursue available opportunities, to take on challenges and pursue work and service that energise, inspire, and motivate us, and that align with our framework of personal beliefs and values. For me this is about aiming to do good work, without a clear vision of where this might take me.

Be yourself

All three principals said something that resonates with my own philosophy: in order to lead effectively, we need to be authentic. That is, rather than trying to perform the identity we think others are hoping for, each of us can be ourselves. Being ourselves means knowing ourselves. To be authentic leaders, we each need a clear sense of our own core values and beliefs, and a willingness to be transparent in our thinking.

Back yourself

The stories of these three principals showed that we need to be ‘in it to win it’; that is, to put our hat in the ring even when we might not be the obvious choice for a leadership position. Backing ourselves means having the courage and confidence to put our hands up to take on responsibility, and having the self-awareness to know what we bring (and don’t bring) to the work and leading we do. Part of this also means to be unafraid to challenge others or to call out injustice, and to have the capacity to be decisive even when faced with challenging issues.

Receive and give encouragement

All three principals had at some point received a ‘shoulder tap’ where a colleague or more senior leader had suggested they apply for a leadership position they had not considered. I have also had these experiences where someone has recognised for me an opportunity that I didn’t recognise for myself. These are moments that can help us to reimagine of what we are capable, and where our paths might take us. I am grateful to those who have taken the time or opportunity to challenge me on the limitations I have sometimes set for myself.

We can each listen to advice from others and be open to opportunities we may not have considered for ourselves. Each of us can also find opportunities to recognise, acknowledge, and encourage those around us; to let others know when we see leadership potential in them; and to pull others up with us, championing their work and helping them and others to see their possibilities.

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The panel also had plenty to say about being a principal. Principalship is leadership as service that can have very real impacts on those in the role. As the results of the Australian Principal Health and Wellbeing survey show, 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. Our panel discussed their own self-care strategies and the ways in which they look after themselves as they navigate what is complex, unrelenting, ethically-challenging, and often isolated work.

Our panel also noted that ‘principal’ is a leadership position that can be reached via a range of pathways. This encouragement comes at a time when Australia has a shortage of those aspiring to principalship, with a looming shortage as the majority of Australian principals reach or near retirement age.

The message from our panel was that being a principal is doable. Their stories brought a human side to the role and one panellist noted that the principalship is not a special place for an elite few but something to which many can aspire, and in which many can find success. The caveat here was that aspirant principals needed to be those with a strong values framework who is clearly aligned with the core values and mission of the school they are leading, and an ability to make decisions under pressure.

The lessons from this panel of principals are relevant for those aspiring to leadership and those already leading. Whether we have a leadership title, or are seeking opportunities to positively influence the world around us, we can be authentic and true to ourselves. We can be motivated by what energises us and by our desire to make a difference in the world. We can be courageous in our action and communication, make deliberate ethical decisions, and enact well-considered actions that are based on a solid foundation of self-awareness, self-efficacy, and self-belief.

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What does it mean to be a leader?

leadership according to the internet

One thing that drives me mad in my social media feeds are the images that accompany articles on leadership. Infographics about leaders often feature male suited figures. An Google image search for ‘leader’ results in swarms of male figures in front of a group or standing atop a mountain. This presents a very limited notion of what a leader is or to what leaders should aspire. The men photographed or illustrated for these images of leadership tend to be white and photogenic, and wearing suits or capes. Leader as man. Leader as hero. Leader as at the apex. Leader as forging ahead.

Some of the academic writing I’ve been doing around leadership, in the form of journal articles and book chapters, has me revisiting my thinking around leadership. I’ve written before about challenging traditional notions of what a leader is and what they do. I wonder how my own approach and journey might play a part in offering alternative narratives of leadership. How does my story allow others to imagine a leader who may not be out in front, or on top, or male, or in a suit, or wearing a cape? How might leaders or aspirant leaders give themselves permission to lead differently, or to aspire to images of leadership that are different: softer, more collaborative, less visible, more joyful?

This isn’t about being a woman or a man, but about everyone being able to access a continuum of ways of being and leading. Or perhaps it isn’t a continuum but a web of possibilities, connected but divergent.

I have always lived the educational cliché – doing my very best, striving for high achievement, immersing myself in lifelong learning. Many of the leaders in my PhD study said the same: not only had they drunk the Kool-Aid of education, but they also felt its essence down to their bones. Leading, teaching, and learning aren’t add-ons or aspirations, but ways of being based on deeply held beliefs.

I have been a school leader since my first principal took a chance on me by promoting me to a Head of Faculty position in my second year of teaching. I was 22 years of age. I was tasked with leading teachers who had been teaching for more years than I had been living. My approach then, similarly to my approach now, was around building trust and relationships as the foundation stones of leadership. As Bryk and Schneider (2002) assert, relational trust is the connective tissue that binds together individuals with the common mission of advancing the education and welfare of students.

Now, my leadership style is based in an understanding of leadership literature, valuing of relationships, belief in the capacities of those I lead, and willingness to listen equally to enthusiastic perspectives and dissenting voices. My PhD and current role mean that I am a practitioner committed to I research-informed and data-rich practice. I also, however, place great value in practitioner experience, the wisdom of professional practice, and the capacity of those with whom I work, to grow, improve, and serve their students and communities.

My approach to school and cultural change is ‘go slow to go fast’. Deliberate, collaborative change coaxes buy-in and ownership from stakeholders. It involves creating a shared need, designing a shared vision, and then energising, mobilising, and building the capacities and motivations of others to propel change. This kind of leadership isn’t about me, but about how to fire holonomy (Costa & Garmston, 2015): the nuanced interactions between ‘me’ and ‘we’, individual and organisation, cog and machine. As Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan (2012) point out, the group is more powerful than the individual in school and system change.

The reason that I continue to blog, to edit and contribute to books, to act as a peer reviewer for journal articles, to engage at conferences and online, is because I want to be part of shaping narratives of education and leadership. It is my hope that through sharing my voice I can be part of offering alternatives and providing solutions.

I have had two children along the way, and have navigated my way through the decision-making that comes with finding ways to be a good parent, a good spouse, and to do work that I think makes a difference in the world. As a leader I am mindful of the example I set for others in the decisions I make around work, family, and wellbeing.

As a leader, I don’t aspire to embody the hero, perform the all-knowing problem-fixer, or forge ahead with innovation at a rate of knots. I aim to be my authentic self and work to empower and elevate others in what Andy Hargreaves, Alan Boyle, and Alma Harris (2014) call ‘uplifting leadership’. Sometimes leading means holding the line or being calm in the eye of a storm. It often means giving others what they need based simultaneously on a balcony view of the macro picture, and an intimate understanding of the individual.

References

Bryk, A., & Schneider, B. (2002). Trust in schools: A core resource for improvement. Russell Sage Foundation.

Costa, A. L., & Garmston, R. J. (2015). Cognitive Coaching: Developing self-directed leaders and learners. Hawker Brownlow Education.

Hargreaves, A., Boyle, A., & Harris, A. (2014). Uplifting leadership: How organisations, teams, and communities raise performance. John Wiley & Sons.

Hargreaves, A., & Fullan, M. (2012). Professional capital: Transforming teaching in every school. Teachers College Press.

Tweeting and blogging: Selfish, self-serving indulgences?

Narcissus by Caravaggio http://totallyhistory.com/narcissus/

This week I’ve been mulling over a post in the TES written by Claire Narayanan in which she argues that teachers’ time is precious and they should quietly get on with their jobs, not spend time writing about it. In encouraging teachers to be ‘do-rus not gurus’ she writes:

In a world where self-promotion has rather shamelessly crept into education, the real heroes are not those who we may follow on Twitter, read about in leadership manuals or hear speak at conferences, but those who are at the chalkface.

These are the teachers who seek no recognition beyond a set of decent GCSE results; a thank-you from their headteacher every now and again and, best of all: “Thanks Sir/Miss, I enjoyed that lesson”.

They haven’t got time to attend every single TeachMeet in their region, read every piece of research written, attend every conference around the country on their subject area or update their blog. Does that mean they don’t care as much as those who do? No chance – they’re too busy marking and planning.

I found this interesting and a little challenging. Of course no-one attends ‘every’ TeachMeet, reads ‘every piece of research written’, or attends ‘every conference around the country’, but the suggestion that ‘real teachers at the chalkface’ are too busy marking and planning to entertain attending professional development, reading research, or blogging, implies that those who do make the time for these activities are perhaps neglecting their teaching jobs. Otherwise, how would they have the time? It also implies that these activities aren’t a valuable use of teachers’ time.

I agree with Claire that we shouldn’t pursue gurus and heroes in education. My PhD reveals the importance of leadership that is deliberately invisible and empowering, rather than visible, focused on the leader, or driven by outward performance. I’ve spoken of the silent work of coaches and leaders. And as a full-time teacher and school leader who also tweets, blogs, and writes peer-reviewed papers and chapters, I know the tricky balance between self care, time with family and friends, and service to the profession and to my students.

I wonder, though, about the implication that those who are on Twitter or presenting at conferences are shameless self-promoters or narcissists seeking heroic guru status. Many of those who tweet and blog, I would argue, do so because they are interested in learning from others, sharing their own perspectives and experiences, and engaging with educators from around the world.

Part of what keeps me blogging is that it helps me think through ideas and get feedback from others. Another part is how useful I find the blogs of other people in helping or challenging my thinking. I also see blogging and academic writing as a service to the profession and a way to reclaim the narrative of education from those normally at its apex. It is why I am involved in the Flip the System series of books, which offer and value the voices of school practitioners—those working at the whiteboard, in the playground, and in the boardroom—that are often ignored in education reform, and yet are crucial voices to drive change in education. As Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber suggested in the first Flip book, teachers and school leaders can be agentic forces in changing education from the ground up by participating in global education conversation.

When I asked Claire on Twitter whether she saw all who tweet, share, blog, and present as shameless self-promoters, she responded, “Not at all. I’m all for sharing and learning. We all get on with the job in the way that suits us.” We seem to agree that different things work for different people. I don’t expect everyone to use their time as I do. There are benefits and costs to choosing to spend evenings, weekends, and holidays on professional activities or presenting at conferences. Last year I paid the price of going too hard for too long without a break.

For me, social media provides an avenue for sharing, learning, and connecting. I can tweet out my thoughts into the nighttime abyss, and somewhere, someone in the world is there to respond. I found this especially useful during the isolation of my PhD. I connected via social media with generous, supportive academics, researchers, and doctoral candidates from around the world who provided crucial advice and moral support.

My understanding of the world is broader for the conversations I have with those around Australia and the world, on social media and at conferences. These conversations and relationships allow me to see outside of my own context and my own perspective. They spill sometimes into productive collaborations that shape my thinking. I wrote here that:

In a world in which we are more connected than ever, we can be buoyed, empowered and supported by our connections…. We can pay forward and give back. We can … share our knowledge, contribute our time to help others on their journeys, listen to others’ stories, and celebrate others’ milestones.

Do I think we should acknowledge and celebrate the quiet daily work of committed teachers? Absolutely. Do I think we should encourage teachers to be mindful of workload, wellbeing, and self care? Yes, yes, yes. Do I think this is mutually exclusive from professional learning, engaging with research, interacting on social media, or writing blogs? No, I do not.

Being bold, but for what change? #IWD17 #BeBoldForChange

Ms Marvel / Kamala Khan, Muslim-American superhero; source: dailydot.com

Ms Marvel / Kamala Khan, Muslim-American superhero; source: dailydot.com

Wednesday is International Women’s Day, with the theme #BeBoldForChange. While some might argue that there isn’t a need for an IWD, and men’s rights activists might cry, “Where is International Men’s Day?”, there is plenty of evidence that there remains a gender parity problem. Global events such as Brexit and the voting in of the Trump administration suggest that there are a multitude who do not value or champion diversity in gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity or ability.

Pay gaps, inflexible working arrangements, and representation of gender in media, film and the toy aisle, all point towards persistent social beliefs about gender. The wife drought, by Australian political reporter Annabel Crabb, is an excellent read on the ingrained gender disparities in Western society and the ways in which they disadvantage both women and men. Gender inequity is an issue for everyone, as evidenced by the around 2 million people – women, men, girls, boys – who marched around the world in the January Women’s March after Trump’s inauguration.

We live in a world where in the same month (February 2017) the US President can comment that he likes White House female staff to ‘dress like a woman’ and LEGO can release a Women of NASA series of figures to counter the highly gendered representations of girls and women in stores (to join LEGO’s female Legal Justice Team and Bioneers). The Gender Pay Equity Insights report can reveal ongoing gender pay gaps in Australia, and Australian Rules Football can introduce a Women’s League competition. The gender equity dance seems to be one of some steps backward, some inertia, some steps forward, and then a step to the side.

Hidden Figures screen shot source: huffingtonpost.com

Hidden Figures screen shot; source: huffingtonpost.com

The teaching profession is dominated by women, but school leadership globally remains a male-dominated field associated with masculine qualities (Cunneen & Harford, 2016). I work at a school that is co-educational to Year 6, and single-sex boys to Year 12. We have gender balance in our leadership team, but like most schools in Australia with boys in the high school, the title of the principal is ‘Headmaster’, implying that only a man can hold that position.

In my career I have benefited from the generosity of women colleagues who supported me and women leaders who gave of their time and expertise to support me in my growth. Equally, I have profited from the collegiality and support of men who have played pivotal roles in my work and my career. In more recent years, my nerd herd, Twitteratti and Voxer squad have provided diverse global colleagues, coaches and accountability partners. My mentors, coaches, advocates, professional friends and cheerleaders have been so because of their capacity for empathy and their willingness to give of themsleves to others, to pay forward and to reach back. Each has offered me something unique.

Rogue One film still; source: blastr.com

Rogue One film still; source: blastr.com

I have made deliberate choices in my life, reflecting the IWD theme this year of being bold for change. For me, being bold has been to be true to my own intuition about what makes a good parent, a good educator, a good leader and a fulfilled individual capable of being present with her children, present in her work, and occasionally present in her relationship and present with herself. Of course this tenuous balance is not so easily enacted.

For my male high school students, I aim to be an example of empathy, teaching and leadership. For my male children, I aim to be a present, engaged parent who is also engaged in her own pursuit of personal excellence and contribution to a good greater than myself. By modelling an equitable partnership in concert with my husband, I hope our boys will grow up accepting notions of gender parity at home and feeling comfortable to choose paths that suit them as individuals. Teaching, modelling and leading social justice, diversity and equity, at home and at school, can help our students and our children accept these as given.

Ghostbusters promotional image; source: blastr.com

Ghostbusters promotional image; source: blastr.com

Annabel Crabb’s words still ring true for me, even though I read her book three years ago:

The obligation that evolves for working mothers, in particular, is a very precise one; the feeling that one ought to work as if one did not have children, while raising one’s children as if one did not have a job.

There is the constant tension between the obligations of work and home. My inner primal mama bear feels the umbilical tug of my children no matter how far from them I am. Yet there is also the underlying and constant hum of hunger for intellectual stimulation, professional exhilaration and personal challenge. It is the hunger that propelled me back to work after having each of my children, and that led to my doctorate. My PhD—submitted within three years of enrolling and completed while working and parenting two young children—is my most visceral example of being bold for change. As a sustained challenging endeavor, in which life events intervened along the way to make things at times crushingly difficult, it shaped me and made me feel stronger in the struggle and via the conquering.

LEGO's new Women of NASA figures; source: sciencealert.com

LEGO’s new Women of NASA figures; source: sciencealert.com

One of the great challenges for me is, to use an airplane analogy, fitting my own oxygen mask before I can help others. I have learned to prioritise exercise, yoga and self-care as non-negotiables, rather than the first thing to go when life gets busy or an optional add-on. My children, my husband, my students and my colleagues all benefit when I am in one piece physically, emotionally and mentally.

For girls and boys, men and women, being bold for change can mean apologising less or demanding more from ourselves and those around us. It can mean calling out casual sexism at school, work or at social gatherings. It can mean sharing unpopular opinions or having uncomfortable conversations. It can mean advocating for your child’s, your friend’s or your own non-stereotypical choices. It can mean putting yourself first, or making a sacrifice for someone else. It can mean saying ‘no’, or saying ‘yes’.

International Women’s Day provides us all with the opportunity to bring mindfulness to issues of gender, diversity and privelege.

Shepard Fairey's protest posters for the Trump inauguration; source: theverge.com

Shepard Fairey’s protest posters for the Trump inauguration; source: theverge.com

References

Crabb, A. (2014). The wife drought: Why women need wives, and men need lives. Ebury Australia.

Cunneen, M., & Harford, J. (2016). Gender matters: Women’s experiences of the route to principalship in Ireland. In K. Fuller and J. Harford (eds.). Gender and leadership: Women achieving against the odds. Peter Lang.

Santa Claus Phenomenon: The hidden magic of coaching & leading

It’s not until you’re a grown up that you realise Christmas doesn’t just ‘happen’. That magical day was pulled together by the incredibly stressed adults in your family. ~ Rosie Waterland in this post about Christmas

Sometimes in adult life we engineer magic. With glee we secretly make the miraculous and enchanting happen for others.

As parents, we realise how engineered the magic of Christmas is. We kind of know it when we discover that our parents are really Santa, but it’s not until we create Santa for our own children that we appreciate the hard work that goes into it.

All the preamble, that constant constructing of stories of Santa and reindeer and the intricate goings-on of Christmas Eve. Answering questions about store Santas and how Santa gets into the house and where the reindeer park the sleigh. Stealthy gift shopping, gift assembling and gift wrapping. On Christmas Eve there’s waiting until the children are definitely asleep and then assembling the gifts, artfully nibbling a cookie, enthusiastically chomping a carrot, dusting snowy footprints to the tree (and then closing the pet out so they don’t ruin the footprints overnight). This is magic that requires long term planning and strategic operation. 

Then: Christmas morning! Children wake. Santa’s magic comes alive. The Santa narrative seems not only possible, but real and wonderful. The children shower gratitude on the mysterious and benevolent figure of Santa. There are joyous cries of, “Thank you, Santa!” and “Santa got me exactly what I wanted!” How they glow with appreciation for the jolly red fellow and his generosity. Somehow he knew exactly what they needed at this point in their lives.

Of course, I do all of this because I enjoy the looks of amazement on my children’s faces and the thought that they feel part of something fantastical. But sometimes, as a parent, I secretly think, ‘It was us! It’s us you should be thanking!’ In these moments, I want my children to realise that all that joy is down to my husband and I. We contrived and concocted this whole thing. Of course I don’t ruin the magic. I encourage their belief and enjoy their wonder (they are currently 4 and 5). But part of me still sometimes wants recognition for all the hard work of being Santa and providing the magic.

Christmas Eve vignette from our place

Christmas Eve vignette from our place

There are two professional roles where I think this Santa Claus Phenomenon (no, it’s not a thing; I just made it up) plays out in professional life: the coach and the leader. It’s not that these roles are magical, but both have a sense of hard work going on behind the scenes, potentially without recognition from the recipient. Like the parents acting as Santa, both roles require the person to provide others with what they most need in that moment.

Coaching is hard cognitive work. In this post, I used the metaphor of the duck to describe the coaching experience; the duck’s legs paddle manically below the surface while above the water, all seems serene. So the coach works hard, but in order to be effective, this work needs to be imperceptible to the coachee. In fact, in order to best serve the coachee, the work of the coach needs to draw out and draw on the coach’s inner resources, so that they shine brightly. The coach is the hidden passageway or the mirror to self.

Similarly, a leader who empowers their staff can sometimes feel like the unsung hero. This kind of leadership is the subtle and invisible kind. Stepping back so others can step forward. Subtly coaching and nudging and encouraging and scaffolding. This isn’t brave sword-wielding white-knight stuff, the celebrated charismatic leader on the public stage. It’s about believing in and nurturing others’ capacities, in sometimes imperceptible ways. It is hard work with plenty of setting up and engineering for successes, but it’s done quietly in the background and sometimes no one sees this leader’s careful preparation and toil.

How do coaches who want to build the internal resources of their coachees, and leaders who aim to build their organisations by developing their people, interact with the Santa Claus Phenomenon? How do coaches and leaders celebrate or measure their wins? One way in a coaching conversation is in the responses to the question at the end in which the coach asks something like “How has your thinking shifted from the beginning of the conversation to now?” Leaders can know their own impacts by tracking the progress of their teams and individuals. But perhaps in both cases, others won’t notice the impacts, or the careful steps the leader conducted to get there.

I’ve written a paper for the Heroism Science conference that explores the idea of the less-visible leader. The leader who empowers. The coach who helps develop the coachee’s self-efficacy through layered and complex, but barely visible, practice. I wonder how this kind of leadership plays out in reality. Is the knowledge of one’s own impact enough? What happens when others don’t recognise that a coach or leader is engineering the magic? What if, from outside, it seems like the coach or leader isn’t doing anything? Is that as it should be–the noble but unseen work of coaching and leadership–or is it problematic?