Sunday, 4 August 2013

Leadership secondment: a great experience

Those of you who have been following my blog over the last few months will know/have surmised/been told/have no idea whatsoever that I was seconded to our leadership team for the past two terms. I can honestly say it probably came at the worst possible time for me, with a colleague who had just left the department and not been replaced, having to take on their exam classes, dealing with some serious personal issues of a couple of colleagues and trying to be a decent father and husband (the last two have been more or less accepted as optional by my family for all but the month of August each year, but that doesn't mean I stop trying, or at the very least feeling guilty about failing!). By the end of the process, however, I would say that it was one of the most worthwhile professional things I have done in the last few years.

The reasons for this might be divided into two: The worth lies in what I achieved (which is open to debate) and what I experienced. The latter I think is the most important, especially given the paucity of my achievements. I'm sticking with it as the most important thing at any rate. So what did I experience?

1. The opportunity to organise a whole-school project

Anyone who has read the non-leadership-y blogs of mine will know that the other element I've been captivated by this year is the potential for mobile technology to transform learning. Because of what I'd been doing in the classroom, other colleagues and leadership were getting interested in what I was doing (or wanting to know how I could justify all the expensive iPads at least). Having discussed the potential of the iPads, and the way they were transforming the teaching and learning in my classroom, it was clear that this was a way forward which could really benefit the school, but as I've written elsewhere, we were in no financial position to afford a 1:1 iPad programme. The compromise, which actually turned out to be far less of a compromise than I would have thought, was BYOD.

The scope of the project itself was huge: It consisted of getting SLT and teachers on board, getting technicians on board and working out how to get the network ready, getting student involvement, getting Digital Leaders trained, and trying to manoeuvre a lot of different elements into place simultaneously which gave me a sense of playing twelve-dimensional tetris permanently for seven months. It's arguable that there is no better training for Assistant Headship than exactly this! The whole project is now an integral part of our next three year focus in school, on the personalisation of learning, so I will genuinely be able to say that I have had an impact on teaching and learning across the school which, by the time the project is fully rolled out, will have affected every single student's learning. When you're a middle leader trying to take that next step up the career ladder, this is often the missing link, the whole-school dimension, where candidates come up short.

2. The opportunity to lead CPD

I have rarely worked in a school where there has been such a relentless focus on high-quality CPD, and where the majority of it has been provided by our in-house experts. The BYOD project gave me the chance to lead some of the individualised training our school runs for its staff in order to develop them all as far as we can, and also offered me a chance to view the principles and logistics behind that training programme. For my part, I was able to deliver CPD on how teachers can make use of mobile technology in their teaching and learning, to provide high quality assessment for learning opportunities, and to give students a huge amount of choice in how they learn, and how they present their learning. The CPD I delivered also gave my CPD co-ordinator a good idea of how advanced these practices were, and she in turn gave me the opportunity to deliver similar training to other teachers at TeachMeet Brum (1 and 2) and TeachMeet Cov, as well as at the Coventry Teaching and Learning Partnership. These consequently provided me with networking opportunities with other far-sighted teachers, middle and senior leaders and exposed me more importantly to doubts and questions about what I was introducing which were both sincere and legitimate. By the time I'd gone home to reflect on those questions and obstacles, the planned whole-school initiative was beginning to become much more water-tight, and much less likely to fail. That kind of high-level scrutiny and collaboration has been really useful in formulating my ideas, and also in giving me the confidence that the ideas themselves are worth carrying out from the point of view of enhancing teaching and learning, rather than being just another "initiative". My best moment was when a friend who is high up in the IT industry told me (after a half hour grilling me about our BYOD plans) that he couldn't find a flaw or a gap in them. High praise indeed. For the first time in my career I don't feel as defensive, and I don't see criticism as a negative, but as an opportunity for reflection and growth. Again, a real benefit to my career, no matter which direction it heads in from now.

3. The opportunity to observe a high performing leadership team

The chance to see how a high performing team operates, and what characterises them, was another key learning development for me this year. I got the opportunity to see how this team was shaped by strategic thinking and planning, long-term plans, conviction that your plan will do the job and get the best results, constant checking of the data, digging for the detail and the stories behind it, a focus on excellence rather than initiatives, a daily togetherness and opportunity to talk about operational matters, weekly meetings which were purposeful, focused and always about how to get the best for our students.
Copyright owner: Randy Glasbergen
I got to see that, while middle leaders and below often think of SLT as purely results-focused managers, they were actually focused now not just on the results, but also on the adults they wanted our students to become: There was review of the curriculum experiences of the students, their extra-curricular experiences, and the out-of-school opportunities we offer them. We spent time looking at different curriculum models such as the IB, the Middle Years Programme etc, and thinking about how closely the experiences they offered matched our aspirations for our children. Oddly enough, the current turmoil within our educational system served me well, as I got to see a team focus on the basics of the educational experience, and prioritise the things which really matter. I came to see that outstanding curriculum, teaching and learning, student experiences etc are never the result of accident or chance.

3. The opportunity to contribute

Within this context, I also had the chance to contribute to the above debates and see whether or not my own ideas stand up to scrutiny at such a high level. I think that's probably all I need to say on that section. They weren't laugh at. To my face, anyway. From my point of view, big win.

4. The opportunity to see how high-performing teams are forged

One of the most significant aspects of the secondment for me was seeing how high-performing teams are built and exploited to get the best out of each person. Like any good classroom, the team were divided differently for different tasks and projects, sometimes clearly in light of what they could bring to the project from their own expertise, but at other times to develop more latent skills which each member of the team perhaps needed to work on to become a more effective and rounded leader. There was a constant theme of support, and wanting to maximise the talents within the team, but also a feeling that they were constantly being asked to move forward, and become even better, even more balanced as individuals. What did I learn about myself within this environment? Well, apparently I've got some decent ideas. I have a focus on systems and strategy which will serve me well, but I also have a good eye on people, and hopefully won't ever put the systems above those people delivering them. Within a high performing leadership team, I held my own, hopefully, and would consider I had a shot at most AHT jobs. Having said that, you can probably see through the number of grammatical qualifiers and self-deprecations in the last few paragraphs that I haven't quite shaken off the demons of my own self-doubt. What I did get to see was that this isn't an entirely negative flaw, and that it also makes me a reflective person, which will again serve me well for the future as I try to grow professionally.

One interesting exercise we undertook as a whole team was a ColourWorks exercise, run by a company (ColourWorks, surprisingly) which asked us to answer a series of random and somewhat irritating questions and then presented us with a bunch of results about our leadership style. Considering how meaningless the exercise felt at the time I was doing it, I have to say that the results were stunningly accurate and insightful. I have  20+ page document at home about me and my leadership style from which neither I, nor any of my family, colleagues or friends have been able to fault more than about three statements. Interestingly, I am less gregarious in leadership than I like to think, and more reflective and logical. I am not pushy, or fiercely driven, and I always value consensus and people. As a result, I think I might be cut out for leadership up to certain levels, but not Headship. I am a good team player, and I can always help others improve their own ideas further, but I'm not necessarily a top leader. Perhaps it's a question of happiness or personal priorities: I find myself not driven enough by ambition to want to disrupt a work life balance which brings me great happiness and satisfaction as well as challenge. I'm not looking to be in a rut, I'm not wanting to coast: I genuinely want to be the best teacher and leader I can be, and to make a difference to as many students as possible. But I think at the very top you need a certain amount more self-belief and, let's face it, cojones, to take on those challenges and assume responsibility for everyone under you. One thing that does occur to me, however, is that someone like me, who doesn't allow things to get in the way of my own happiness, also understands how important this happiness and sense of personal satisfaction are for staff well-being as a whole, and that is an excellent attribute to have on any leadership team.

5. The opportunity to see where middle leaders fit in

As a middle leader I understand my function within the school much better now, and what opportunities I have to be able to help the leadership team by speaking up on matters whose impact I am better placed to understand than they perhaps are. This has also given me far more confidence to express those views, and I've noticed the same confidence emerging in others who have also had the same chance to undertake a secondment as I have. My bond with these people has now become much stronger as a result, and I can see that one of the points of offering secondments to middle leaders is to build this capacity for growth, self-discovery, development, and confidence. Similarly, from the leadership team's point of view, seconding middle leaders allows LT to gauge how broad or parochial the views of school issues are to those middle leaders, as well as how practical, feasible and strategic they are, so that when these middle leaders are consulted on matters affecting the whole school, the leadership have a good deal more faith in the feedback they get if they know the middle leaders in question can see things from both sides of the fence.

So in conclusion... 
  • I enjoyed the experience thoroughly
  • I enjoyed the challenges, and really enjoyed the whole-school responsibilities
  • I learnt an immense amount about how schools function, about how leadership works, and about myself and my own style of leadership
  • I learnt that leadership teams have real people in them too! And I learnt how to curb my natural tendency to bow in deference to superiors
  • I would recommend this to anyone, even if it's just to see what lies on "the other side of the fence"
  • If I hadn't been doing this on my full time-table, I think I would conclude that I might be able to manage a leadership job!
And finally, I would say I have learnt this, which I would like to pass on to all potential leaders, of the present or of the future:

Leadership without clearly defined core values, and aims which are consistent with these values, is nothing. Leadership without integrity is nothing. Leadership without reflection and questioning is nothing. Leadership without clear, consistent, transparent communication is nothing. 
There's a reason we are given twice as many ears as mouths, but once you're done using the ears, make sure that what you say is true, committed and strong.

Oh, and if any of you are thinking I could easily have describe Michael Gove here, go back and re-read the ears thing.

Now, who's going to give that job...?