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 an 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.