School Leadership: Dispositions and Knowledge

I’ve been teaching for a while now. Sometimes I forget precisely how long it’s been, and then I depressingly realise I am working with teachers I could have taught. So yeah, it’s a while. And it only seems to have been in the last few years where some of the craziest teaching edu-myths have finally been properly challenged. And a big hurrah from me for that. No more mini-plenary hoop jumps required. But education is still preoccupied with leadership, and some leadership myths linger. And it’s absolutely right that we should think and talk about educational leadership, of course, but in my view there’s far too much preoccupation with the ‘how’, when we need to look at the ‘what’ in more detail.  Many new teachers aspire to be school leaders. I’m not criticising this at all; I find it interesting. What I also find interesting are perceptions of ‘good’ leadership. So this blog post is an exploration and a reflection. I don’t have any answers and haven’t come to any conclusions yet. Sorry about that.

 

A friend said recently that they found me an interesting mix of self-confidence and self-doubt. This is a fair and perceptive assessment of me. As a child, I was quite shy. As a very little child I remember hiding behind my Mum’s skirts at Mass. But I also remember hurtling in my StartRite patent shoes down the gentle curve of the hill at Birmingham Botanical Gardens, flapping my arms, and thinking that if I really tried, and if I practised lots, I would take off and sail into the Edgbaston skies. I didn’t give a hoot about anyone who said I couldn’t, so although a little shy, I was undaunted. Of course, I didn’t take off. This annoyed me and I resolved to do something about it. I didn’t fashion any wings in a Why Don’t You? pipe cleaner and tissue paper triumph, but I did decide that I could try really hard at other things and see if they worked or not. I grew out of thinking I could fly or that my Staffordshire bull terrier might turn into a unicorn if I fed her enough Pedigree Chum (she just got tubbier), but I did, in my little 1980s head, decide that I wanted to KNOW LOTS OF STUFF, and I recognised the value in working hard and in practice. I learnt how to use a sewing machine and practised sewing at Brownies: I made a half-decent pencil case. I learnt how to use a fountain pen properly and practised handwriting: my ks were looped and beautiful. I learnt how to read music and practised singing: I started to get quite good. I began to realise that, although I didn’t fly, my hypothesis was correct: knowing stuff + practice = improvement (most of the time.  I’m aware I’m simplifying this).

 

At primary school my small group of friends, like me, were the slightly geeky kids who liked hanging out in the library and researching information about saints for us to choose for our confirmation names. I didn’t speak out in class much because, remarkably for me now in 2019, I was teased for having a ‘posh’ voice. I decided I didn’t want to be teased, and I made sure I spoke like everyone else, which was different to my Mum’s well-spoken non-accent (she’d had elocution lessons as a child in London), and my Dad’s flatly-vowelled New Zealand accent. When I did speak out in class I still threw in what I thought was the odd poshly-pronounced word, barely perceptible, but my own tiny act of lingual passive resistance. I was also shy because I was teased for being clever, so I learnt to shut up in class and not to put my hand up to answer questions. In year 6, my small central Birmingham primary school took on a remarkable feat: the whole school was to be involved in the first full-scale musical the school had ever produced: Joseph And His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. And I was to be the Narrator. This was a massive deal for me, and also a big preoccupation for me between the end of Grange Hill and the start of Neighbours. I loved music, and I loved singing and performing, but I was reticent. At age 11 I decided that the joy I got from music and performing outweighed the fear of performing in front of a lot of people, so I did it. And I was good at it. At that point I realised that just as I was a bit shy, I was determined, too. But, though being determined is great, it’s a disposition. I had to know stuff about reading music and beating time and where to breathe in a line to make a good enough go of it. So although my determination was important, equally as important, or even more important perhaps, was my knowledge.

 
Things changed at secondary school. Being in Joseph did give me a lot of confidence, and I made new friends, so I became progressively mouthy, more gregarious, more outgoing. I enjoyed school. I loved learning. I really enjoyed knowing stuff and learning more stuff, and still do. I was sometimes naughty. I enjoyed all the extra-curricular activities my school provided for me. I enjoyed the routine and the consistency that school gave me. I’ve written about that before, here. But I was, and still am, interested in listening. I like hearing what others think, what others have to say, what makes people tick, what makes people behave in the way they do. This means that sometimes I do much more listening and observing than talking. Conversely, I also talk a lot sometimes. This isn’t my default position, but this was often seen as What A Good Leader Should Do in the ten years I’ve been a senior leader. Have all the answers. Lead from the front. Do all the talking. Be charismatic. I struggled with this when I first became a senior leader, especially as when I first started as a senior leader I couldn’t even get the lunch queue sorted. I thought that as a new assistant head teacher I should be able to do everything with verve and vigour and resolve. That I should stride the corridors and make decisions in a split second, because that’s what good, extrovert, charismatic leaders do, right? I hadn’t even considered that there were different ways of doing things, or that different situations called for different knowledge and perhaps a different approach. Or that I needed to know stuff very well and practise stuff, and that this was really, really important. This was the X-Factor era of school leadership: if you wanted a school leadership role hard enough then – why! – of course you must have it. It was the epoch of the cult of the individual. And it still lingers. There were some tub-thumping, very vocal school leaders, tiresomely bounding into assembly halls up and down the land. This was when those school ‘values’ began rolling through laminators and magically appearing on walls overnight: dreaming and believing is all very well, but it’s not going to get you far without knowing something, or even simply being aware that you don’t know what you don’t know.

 
I guess what I’m tentatively exploring here is twofold:

1. That not every school leader should have to feel comfortable being in the limelight all of the time, and that our school leaders are those “…who build not their own egos but the institutions they run.” (Quiet, Susan Cain, Penguin 2012, p.55).
2. That although there are dispositions (e.g. my steadfast determination as a little girl) that we may want to develop in school leaders, we must consider carefully what we need to know as school leaders, and that we probably need to focus on this more, because much of the knowledge we need to acquire as school leaders may be domain-specific.

 

All I have presented here are a number of questions and thoughts really. I’m thinking a great deal about this, and I’ll explore it further at a later date.