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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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.

School leadership and resisting performativity

Performativity is a technology, a culture and a mode of regulation that employs judgements, comparisons and displays as means of incentive, control, attrition and change based on rewards and sanctions (both material and symbolic). The performances (of individual subjects or organisations) serve as measures of productivity or output, or displays of ‘quality’, or ‘moments’ of promotion or inspection. As such they stand for, encapsulate or represent the worth, quality or value of an individual or organisation within a field of judgement. (Ball, 2003, p.216)

We live in an education world that is highly-metricised and focused on hyper-accountability. Students, teachers and school leaders exist in a world in which data and high-stakes testing rule with a policy-clad fist. Countries, schools and students are pitted against each other. The media creates polarising narratives – public vs. private schooling, parents vs. teachers, home vs. school, this country vs. Finland or China. Governments create policies like competitive performance pay for teachers and additional testing.

Sahlberg (2011) frames the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) as a viral force of accountability, performativity, and commodification. Ball (2003) notes the panopticism of managing schools; all are watched and simultaneously scrambling to be visible in the ‘right’ ways. Zhao (2016) acknowledges the strong desire for measuring students, teachers, and schools, but argues for treating numbers with suspicion and expanding what is measured in education. Biesta (2015) notes that the view of education as encompassing only academic achievement in a small and selective number of domains and subject areas, is a limited one. He warns:

The problem with excellence is that it very quickly leads to a competitive mind-set, where some schools or some education systems are supposed to be more excellent than others. In my view, the duty of education is to ensure that there is good education for everyone everywhere.

This notion of democratisation rather than contestation or commodification is radical in our current edu-climate. Ball identifies institutional self-interest, pragmatics and performative worth as the new ethical systems of education. Heffernan (2016) points out that principals’ behaviour has changed as the focus of schools has shifted towards one led by performative numbers and specific sets of data; principals work to improve data. She cautions against “focusing on improving these specific data sets to the detriment of other, holistic, pursuits in education that are not so easily quantified and measured” (p.389). Keddie et al. (2011) express concern that the narrowing of priorities due to performative schooling cultures has pushed to the margins schools’ focus on social justice and equity. Ball suggests that ‘values schizophrenia’ is experienced by educators whereby they sacrifice their commitment, judgement and authenticity for impression and performance.

Leading in schools is complex at the best and easiest of times. Plenty of scholars have identified the qualities of effective school leaders. One example is Gurr and Day (2014), who in their reflections on 15 stories of successful school principals across 13 countries, identify successful principals as: having high expectations; being both heroic and empowering in their leadership; developing collective, shared vision; taking on the symbolic role of storyteller and sense-maker; embodying integrity, trust, and transparency; being people centred; and balancing instructional and transformational leadership. Navigating these multiple and complex roles is challenging even when everything is going well and there is plenty to celebrate. When things get tough and demanding, leaders are really tested.

In a world that values metrics over stories and test scores over empathy, it takes courage to hold the line on egalitarianism, advocating for individuals with difficult circumstances, or mining richer seams of data than the popular ones of NAPLAN, PISA, TIMSS, tertiary entrance examination scores, and an ever-increasing litany of tests. It can be daring and dangerous to advocate for an education that does more than pander to market perception, external measures and competitive league tables.

Sometimes, leaders have to make difficult but unpopular decisions for the greater good of the organisation, for the many, or for the principles of education. Leaders’ decisions can be objected to by those without the big picture context or an understanding of a situation’s complexities. Leaders can listen to others’ feedback and take it on board in decision-making, and they can be as transparent as possible in their communication. (Academic writing, especially the blind peer review process, has helped to shape my acceptance of and willingness to learn from dissenting voices, brutal criticism and those who disagree with me. I’ve applied this in my school context by finding ways to ask for honest, sometimes anonymous, feedback from others in order to inform my practice and the education reform initiatives in which I have been involved.)

Can we adopt Biesta’s call to pursue ‘good education for everyone everywhere’ while also pursuing excellence? Can leaders of schools help to create counter- or simultaneous narratives to those of high-stakes accountability around narrow foci?  I think leaders can buck against the push for compliance, performance and the enterprise mindset. We can choose resistance to performative pressures, although not without a price.

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Post-script: Interested in democratising education? This Re-Imagining Education for Democracy Summit, in Queensland in November, could be a great place for presentation and discussion of ideas. It’s being spearheaded by Stewart Riddle, who wrote this 2014 Conversation piece Education is a public good, not a private commodity.

References

Ball, S. J. (2003). The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity. Journal of Education Policy, 18(2), 215-228

Biesta, G. (2015). What is education for? On good education, teacher judgement, and educational professionalism. Eurpoean Journal of Education Research, Development and Policy, 50(1), pp 75-87.

Gurr, D., & Day, C. (2014). Thinking about leading schools. In C. Day & D.Gurr (Eds.), Leading schools successfully: Stories from the field (pp. 194-208). Abingdon, OX: Routledge.

Heffernan, A. (2016). The emperor’s perfect map: Leadership by numbers. Australian Educational Researcher, 43(3), 377-391.

Keddie, A., Mills, M., & Pendergast, D. (2011). Fabricating an identity in neo-liberal times: Performaing schooling as ‘number one’. Oxford Review of Education 37(1), pp. 75-92.

Sahlberg, P. (2011). Finnish lessons. New York, NY. Teachers College.

Zhao, Y.  (2016). Numbers can lie: The meaning and limitations of test scores. In Y. Zhao (Ed.), Counting what counts: Reframing education outcomes (pp. 13-29). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.