Saturday, 26 January 2013

What I'm learning on SLT secondment

I've been a Subject Leader since my second year in teaching. Virtually every time I've been appointed to lead a department, the appointment was to say the least fortuitous, if not utterly accidental. I have never felt the need for promotion, and have only ever gone for promotion consciously when I've got to a point of such frustration with the "I could do a better job than that" attitude that I've just gone for it. Never have I really believed I had much to offer at any level higher than middle management.

However, the school I work in at the moment have a habit of giving people opportunities to lead, and I've taken everything that's come my way in the last year. Again, none of this is out of any egotistical desire to be in charge, but much more out of curiosity, to see whether I actually have anything to contribute at SLT level: I'm not 100% convinced yet, but... Amongst the opportunities I've been given have been a place on the Aspiring Senior Leadership Development Programme, and a secondment for two terms onto our Leadership team. Over the next few months, I'm hoping to be able to blog about what I'm learning, and share it with anyone else who might, more fool them, be interested in what I have to say.

So let's start with this: Over the last few weeks it's been a privilege to observe first hand the remarkable group of people that is my SLT. I'm not saying this to suck up. None of them read this blog (I think). It would be embarrassing if they did. Not to mention a waste of their time. So this compliment is just between you and me, you understand?

I have always been impressed by the unity of the team since they came together three years ago. When I was seconded, one comment I received from a slightly cynical colleague in another school suggested that once I was on the team and could see what went on behind closed doors, "I'd soon see where the fault-lines were": But no...

Lesson One: Unity of purpose and vision
When you lead people, you have to have their confidence, and they have to believe you know where you're going, that you have a clear rationale for going in that direction, and that you know how to get there. Importantly, if you're in charge of a team leading another even larger team, then that SLT has to be behind your ideas, otherwise you get the sort of back-biting that undermines the team and the leadership completely. When the weavils start gnawing at the rudder, don't be surprised if your boat goes nowhere. Is a phrase you're not likely to hear again today...

So getting everyone on board is a very powerful tool in inspiring confidence.

Lesson Two: Keep it simple, stupid.
Uncontentious is a good way to get everyone behind your general principles. Teachers are all pretty well-intentioned people, or at least started out that way. They come to the profession with a desire to make a difference, and your leadership vision has to reconnect them to that original moral purpose they came with. They have to feel they are coming to work every day to do the thing they wanted right from the off: Change the lives of young people for the better. How you achieve that vision of success for young people can be debated ad infinitum within SLT, openly and honestly, but as long as you agree your general direction, then there is strength in your position as a group leading the school. The main thing is the main thing.

Lesson Three: Communicate the vision clearly and often
Alignment is a word much used on the ASLDP, and I must admit it is a word which is easily mistaken for coercion, which naturally gets people's backs up. But if you don't have a set of values and principles behind which people can align themselves, then why would they follow your direction? Learning to communicate your vision to the staff, and overcoming the suspicion people have of anyone who wants to go into a senior role, is a fundamental part of your job. Remember that most teachers came to teach young people, and therefore may well have a pretty legitimate suspicion of anyone who seems to want to "escape the chalkface". Your reason for being a member of SLT has to come through loud and clear in your words, but most importantly in your actions: It's about service. As a teacher, you can serve students. As a member of SLT you can serve students, and you can more importantly serve teachers in order to help them to do their job better. Repeat, in case you didn't get it first time: It's about service, and communicating your mission to serve others.

Lesson Four: Put in place the right systems
The word "system" conjures up a mechanistic view of management which most people hate, because they're people, and nobody likes to think of themselves in a box. But your systems are for two purposes: To make it easier for teachers and students to do their jobs, and to monitor and interrogate how that can be done even more effectively. Good systems of accountability should be light work, but provide excellent evidence upon which to act. If you are systematically asking the correct questions, the answers you come up with can automatically be looked at, and take into account individual variability such as student or teacher performance. But it's important that those questions be asked, that the story behind the figures be found, and that the knowledge that they bring is on the table for discussion.

Lesson Five: Create an effective team
A group is not a team. School "teams" are often inherited, and made up not of people who have ability and aptitude to lead the school or carry out specific tasks, but more often of people who have been teaching longer or have specific experience in schools. However, if this is the culture which exists in education today, we have to work with that, rather than bemoaning the fact that we can't just fire someone and hire the right specialist, as they might in industry. It's important to develop our leaders into a team, as they will model everything the school aspires to be: SLT should work towards becoming...

  • A team with shared purpose
  • A team which builds up complementary skill-sets and capacity (the right "chemistry", if you will)
  • A team which reviews the school's activities and processes (as well as its own) constantly for refinement
  • A team which learns from its mistakes and moves forward
  • A team which develops its emotional intelligence in order to make dealing with teachers and students more effective
  • A team which trusts its own members, the teachers it serves, and which is in turn trusted by staff and students to run the school in a direction which is mutually beneficial to all

Lesson Six: Everything is about development, not blame
Common purpose should always overcome individual egos. If it doesn't, the result when interrogating certain data or findings is that people get defensive and therefore will not give the whole truth if they can avoid it. An openly debating culture within SLT such as I have witnessed at my present school allows all the facts to be put on the table without embarrassment so that everyone can look at what can be getting better. Just because you've been put in charge of an area doesn't mean you're bound to have all the ideas, and sharing your results, your doubts, your qualms etc allows others to contribute, allows you to get multiple perspectives, and ultimately allows you to come up with better collaborative solutions. But if your team doesn't have that open culture and common sense of purpose, you have to build it first.

Lesson Seven:
This one's for the SLT rookies out there. When someone asks you if you would like to take the minutes, the answer is no. Or a more polite version thereof. And if at the end they congratulate you and say that you have got "your turn" out of the way, what they mean is that the busiest agenda of the term is now over. Mwa-haha-haha-haha...

Next they'll be saying it's my turn to pay for the SLT team-building curry outing...