I NEVER aspired to be part of a school leadership team. My passion is first and foremost for comprehensive education – in the power of education to promote social justice, and in sharing my love of literature with the students I teach.
So, why did I decide my next step in my career would be into senior leadership? All senior leaders will have their own diverse stories to tell: my own journey from classroom teacher to a member of a school leadership team was not a typical one, and, unlike more ambitious senior leaders, I definitely didn’t follow any sort of predetermined strategy.
After years as a part-time English teacher, I felt ready for a different challenge. I began studying for a master’s in education, looking specifically at lesson observations and alternative methods of teacher-centred professional development. I had the opportunity to use the findings of this research in my school, giving me experience of whole-school leadership and what it’s like to have a positive impact on school culture.
I went on to study for a professional doctorate, which enhanced my passion for creating a culture of critical self-reflective practice in schools, and solidified the importance to me of recognising and celebrating teachers’ professional expertise.
Teachers stepping up into school leadership
An opportunity arose to take up a position on the school’s leadership team, and I knew that the time was finally right for me to lead at a whole-school level. But how did I know after so many years in the classroom?
1. Personal circumstances
Senior leadership is incredibly fulfilling, but highly pressured, and I wouldn’t be enjoying it in the way that I am if I had too many other demands on my time. If my circumstances were different, I would have considered alternative leadership opportunities to explore.
Leadership comes in many different forms: one of the best forms of CPD I undertook before taking up my senior leadership role was as a school governor. This role gave me real perspectives and insights into how the school was run, particularly into aspects of management that I had been less aware of previously.
Everyone will have different opinions on the number of years of experience you need in the classroom before applying for senior leadership roles. Now that I have taken up the challenge of senior leadership, I can see that my years of experience in the classroom and the fact that I have “earned my stripes” means I have a deep understanding of the uniqueness of my school, as well as of the community it services.
I’ve also found my experience invaluable to draw on in managing the uncertainty and undeniable chaos created by the consequences of teaching during the pandemic. One advantage I had to help me navigate the turmoil was my career history as a long-serving member of the school’s teaching community.
3. Recognition of the importance of personal qualities
School leaders need to be engaged in constant change management, which, of course, requires support and collaboration from staff and the wider school community. I choose to lead with a high degree of trust in my staff, and find that ensuring issues are addressed collectively as they arise, and with clearly communicated strategic objectives, is what works best. I’m not really sure about the efficacy of emulating the individual traits of leadership described on school leadership courses. To me, the reality of school leadership is more nuanced and less reductive.
4. Being part of the right leadership team
My passion is for teaching and learning, the role I have on the team. The others around me all have their own strengths, and are motivated by the same purpose: to drive school improvement while supporting the school’s staff, students and each other. We have a shared vision, and work collaboratively but with a clear view of our individual responsibilities. We are also comfortable with asking each other challenging questions, and are resilient and optimistic in the pursuit of our goals.
5. Remain reflective and flexible
I know I still have an incredible amount to learn. Despite my classroom experience, I am new to school leadership and every day I continue to develop my domain-specific knowledge. One of the main lessons I have learned about school leadership is that, from the perspective of teaching staff, most of the work of the leadership team is invisible. And quite rightly – one of the key roles of leadership is to protect classroom teachers, leaving them free to do their daily work of impacting on the lives of their students.
You will know you are ready for leadership when you acknowledge that there are challenges still to face. At the moment, the narrative of lost learning looms large and threatens to undermine the tenacity and perseverance shown by many of our students. For the students who do need extra support, the promise of financial remuneration seems to be fading, and schools will find it even harder to help their most disadvantaged students. However, a focus on classroom culture and prioritising staff wellbeing by giving teachers opportunities to hone their craft will allow our communities to thrive, not only now but well beyond the pandemic.
Dr Julie Smith is the vice-principal academic at Wyedean School in Gloucestershire.