Hindsight is a great thing. How many times have we said, as school leaders, I wish I knew that beforehand or I wish I was prepared or trained for that? Probably too many to mention. It is, therefore, pleasing to see that more and more programs are being developed to support new and aspiring school leaders.
In this context, school leader pertains to any person holding a formal leadership position within their school and has responsibility for leading and managing staff. I deliberately say staff, as school leadership involves working with a wide array of people, not just teachers. Perhaps this is where we should begin in terms of the five things all new and aspiring leaders should know:
- Look after and make the most of your support staff: In my opinion, the support staff in schools do not get enough recognition for what they do. They make it happen, from cleaning to maintenance of IT systems, from health care to the finance department, without the support staff the small details necessary to ensure that schools function smoothly are not there. Take time to appreciate your support staff. The simplest way is by saying ‘hello’ and taking an interest in them. The janitor is just as important as our best teachers, so make them feel valued. While so many schools spend a lot of time investing in professional growth and learning for teachers, not enough consideration, in my experience is given to developing and training the support staff.
- Be prepared to apologise for mistakes that are not necessarily yours: When we take on leadership, the buck stops with us for either the whole school or a certain portion of it. We things go wrong, parents or senior leaders wish to speak with the leaders. Subsequently, we can spend a lot of time apologising for mistakes that others may have made. Frustrating, yes,. So, our role, as a school leader, becomes one of working hard to ensure that mistakes do not happen, though we cannot do this 100%.
- Spend time giving feedback to your staff and thank them for what they do well: Timely feedback is essential for all of us to improve. It is great to receive positive feedback about what we are doing well, similarly, even though we do not always take criticism well, we want to do the best job possible. So, feedback regarding things that are not going so well is equally important for school improvement. Feedback, crucially, may involve engaging in some tense and difficult conversations at times, where specific improvement is required.
- Model the way for others to follow: No-one likes a leader who says one thing and does another. It is vital that that leaders model the values that they espouse. If we promise something, then we must deliver. Too many instances of leaders not ‘walking the walk’ will lead to a toxic culture of cynicism and distrust. Leaders need to be a beacon of trust that inspire confidence in our followers.
- Rome was not built in a day: We get appointed to a leadership role and we are excited and enthusiastic that we are in a position to make the changes that we feel are necessary. Beware that moving too quickly can backfire. Time needs to be spent ensuring that our team(s) buy-in to change and see a clear rationale for it. Similarly, adequate support must be given to changes so that they do not fizzle out, once that initial energy has subsided. Incremental improvement is essential to having most people on board and ensuring changes that are lasting and positive influence student learning.
Most of all, remember, leadership is challenging, if it was not, then a lot more people would be putting their hands up to take on leadership role. It is interesting to speak with those who have opted out of leadership citing burn out, difficult staff, not having support, amongst other things. It is easier to opt-out of leadership than to opt-in but we need to give our new and aspiring leaders all the support possible, so that they stay with leadership in schools in the long-term.