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Leading in schools does not start, or end, in a formal leadership position

A significant number of educators aspire to move into formal educational leadership positions, or to move up another rung on the leadership ladder. Moving into an educational leadership position can be extremely competitive in some schools and districts, to the point where we may not be able to get the leadership positions that we aspire to. In order to secure particular positions, or to rise above the competition, being able to demonstrate leadership experience and articulate the impact of leadership matters. But what if you are not yet in a position of formal leadership to be able to speak with any authority on the topic?

While having been in a formal leadership role is an advantage, it is not necessarily going to land you the position. So, aspiring leaders should not be discouraged because of this lack of formal experience. It is essential, more than anything else, that aspiring leaders have shown initiative to lead, develop their skills and grow professionally, whatever level they may be at.

There are many different ways that aspiring and existing leaders can enhance their credentials in preparation for taking that next step. Unfortunately, some educators are not willing to do some of this less formal, unpaid and less recognised work in order to get there.

If we are to consider that leadership only matters in a formal, recognised and paid leadership position, then we have got the wrong view of what leadership is about. The first thing that any educator should be able to talk about in terms of leadership is how all teachers are leaders and the way we demonstrate this in our everyday interaction with students, colleagues and parents. Beyond that, it is down to other ways that we may show leadership, in particular, how we work with and lead adults:

The following are some ways to develop leadership without being in formal, recognised and paid leadership positions:

Leading a school or community event. Being involved on the organising committee for a school event enables us to gain valuable experience in working with different stakeholders within and beyond the school community. Our communication, inter-personal and organisational skills are all put to good use here.

Coaching a sports teams, or leading a club / activity. Extra-curricular activities are wonderful ways for us to be involved in the life of the school, yet clubs and activities pose challenges that help us develop leadership skills. When coaching a sports team, the role of the coach in working with parents and their level of commitment and expectation is a great way to develop all important leadership skills. For example, how did the coach manage the difficult parent who was expecting too much from their child? Clubs and activities also involve attending competitions and tournaments, which require activity leaders to be part in the running and coordination of an event, a weekend away, or a two-week tour. Think about the leadership skills needed to successfully take the the debating team away to State finals – addressing safety concerns, communication with parents and students, organisation of payment, transport, accommodation, and that is before you even get to the event.

Contributing to teacher skill share sessions, or teacher mentoring schemes. The opportunity to share your expertise but, more importantly, use that expertise to help other teacher grow is highly valuable. Through these opportunities we develop our ability to apply explicit instruction to leading adults and also supporting them to overcome challenges and frustrations. Through mentoring we gain a valuable window into seeing some of the challenges our colleagues face, how they view things and the different types of people we work with. A great mentoring, or coaching, challenge is to work alongside a colleague that is different from yourself. We have to lead others in our schools who may not think, act, or agree with us.

Developing a new course / program of study. Some of the best leaders are great at finding holes that need to be filled. A great way to start on a journey into curriculum leadership is to volunteer to be part of a team that establishes a new course for students. The conversations in that development team are packed with lessons in collaboration that are applied to leadership. Just trying to agree on the format, structure and content of a course can be a challenge in itself.

Two things that all of the above less formal, less recognised, (in terms of pay and formal authority) leadership positions have in common are that we must take the initiative to use them as a means to growing personally and professionally, while also understanding that leadership starts with serving others without expecting to be immediately, or ever, being recognised for our contribution.

If your motivation to be a leader is for the recognition it brings to you for your expertise, whatever that may be, then I’m afraid you may end up being disappointed.

Richard Bruford View All

Richard is currently Secondary School Principal of Suzhou Singapore International School, one of China's leading international schools. He leads workshops across the Asia-Pacific region for the International Baccalaureate in the areas of pedagogical leadership and approaches to teaching and learning. Richard consults with schools on the topics of school improvement and effective implementation and use of technology.

With a background in public and independent school education in the UK and Australia, Richard is enjoying his international school adventure in China. He is passionate about developing and supporting educational leaders, as it is essential to improving all schools.

Richard is a proud family man and feels lucky to be married to Kim and father of their son Austin.

In his spare time Richard enjoys to swim, bike and run and is a now retired football player and coach (with occasional guest appearances)

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