School Leaders are not Data Technicians and children are not units of data. This mechanistic approach can be damaging to Head Teachers, because there are negative inferences behind the questions that are frequently asked of them.
Being held to account and responding to questions is no bad thing. As a public servant, it is only right that you are held responsible for your actions. However, the climate surrounding school improvement over the past decade has led to increased ambiguity and inconsistency. This has led to heightened levels of fear and mistrust within the profession. This has created an unhealthy dynamic between politicians, policymakers and schools.
It has also impacted negatively on the type of relationships that exist between School Leaders and those who the government entrusts with the power to hold schools to account i.e. school inspectors and advisors. Against this backdrop of fear and mistrust, when questions are asked, it very often leads to a lack of incentive and can be more of a hindrance to school improvement.
The Damaging Power Dynamic
The power dynamic that now exists between government, inspectors, advisors and Head teachers is now based more overtly on the exertion of power and control than ever before. It may be useful to analyse the relationship between School Leaders and their assessors using the ‘Naughty Child and Critical Parent’ model. If you’ve ever been the ‘Naughty Child’ in this type of relationship, you know the unspoken psychological contract that permeates every conversation and question has several negative subtexts:
– You are not good enough
– You need to do better/more
– You are failing
– You had better watch your back
Observe any child in any classroom where the family dynamic has installed these beliefs in them and you will see how they struggle to fully engage with the learning process. It is the same dynamic that now exists for many of our School Leaders. It is damaging for them and it is damaging for our schools.
The Type of Questions that Damage School Leaders
When you can see this relationship model at work in our schools, you will appreciate that when head teachers are asked the following questions it can prove damaging for them as leaders and in turn, their school.
– How quickly can you get your results up/turn your school around?
– Why hasn’t the school improved yet?
– Why have we not seen improvements in these areas?
If you regularly have to give account for yourself like this, and of course, as a school leader you do; you’ll know there is a part of you that quite naturally says, not out loud so that everyone can hear, but quietly inside, so that only you can hear;
“If I am going to have to defend myself, this means I am also going to be judged, and if I am going to be judged I need to protect/defend myself”
This line of questioning sends school leaders into a permanent state of high alert, a “survival mode” whereby they feel constantly on-edge and fighting to stay in their role. In this state, stress-levels are high and whilst stress in small doses at occasional moments can motivate, subjected to this state on a daily basis will inevitably lead to burn-out or worse.
Heads also find their behaviours and relationships with others at school begin to change. To protect themselves from judgement, they place an invisible shield around themselves. To avoid being wounded, they don’t allow their true self (their feelings, concerns and fears) to be seen by others in case it used or held against them.
This stops Heads seeking the help they often really need as they fear what the judgement that may come there way, if they do so. They fear that getting support will be seen as weakness and so rather than feeling able to reach out, instead they recede into themselves and are forced to endure an even more isolating experience of the role.
Because Heads immediately know that when questions allude to pace and speed of change, they are in effect being told to throw out everything they know about embedding change and good practice. They know they are being told to adopt quick–fix solutions for short-term gain. Without any questions that connect Head Teachers to their original vision, passion and purpose, many of them are left to feel as though they are simply a cog in someone else’s machine.
When you feel this way your whole raison d’etre is challenged. As a result, school leaders become disheartened and eventually begin to disappear’ from schools and the profession.
If the Powers-That-Be believe that this approach works, then they need to think again. Inducing fear and risk-averse behaviour only works against the creation of environments in which both adults and children flourish.
Changing the Questions
But what if we were to change the questions? What if were to replace these questions with more personal questions which seek to affirm and encourage rather than seek to illicit fear? What if the questions engaged their hearts as well as their minds and did not require School Leaders to argue, justify or defend themselves, such as:
– What would facilitate your growth in this role?
– What activities would support you in sustaining yourself and your passion as a leader?
– When are you at your best and how can you make changes to ensure that you are this way more often?
An inner re-alignment begins to take place. When they are encouraged to participate in a cogent dialogue with the deepest questions of their soul, a re-awakening of what it means to be human occurs. Individuals discover what it’s like to step out from behind their masks. They discover what it means to embrace their vulnerabilities and stay closely connected with their original passion and purpose.
The questions that individuals are invited to explore are not the archetypal school improvement questions that most school leaders are used to answering. Instead they are the type of questions that challenge school leaders to bring out the best in themselves.
Persist in asking me questions that seek justification for external outcomes and I become a stranger to my inner world, upon which these external outcomes depend. I will seek to defend, ‘who I am’ and what I bring to my role. On the other hand, ask me questions that invite me to explore the ‘how and why’ of what I do and then you invite the best in me to come forth. You invite my soul to come out from behind its defences and engage in a dialogue that awakens the passion and drive that is integral to pushing us forward and sustaining us in our role.
School improvement is more than just the presentation of data and a well written school development plan. It is a humanitarian endeavour that must ignite both passion and intellect. I just hope the system begins to realise this and then reflect this.
Exploring the Questions that matter
In order to sustain high levels of personal performance, confidence and motivation (particularly amidst the challenges of School Leadership), I believe our leaders need chance to explore the questions that are of real importance to them as a person and in their roles.
They need chance to step back from the daily grind of the role and reflect on the leader they want to be, what inspires and drives them as a leader and what they need to do to keep their hope alive.
That’s why we offer our “Developing Headspace” Programme, consisting of a 2 Day “Transforming Leadership” Residential in Suffolk, Group Nurture Meals, coaching calls and a half day “Review and a Reflect” session, all designed to support and enhance Headteachers’ capacity for authentic, inspiring and sustainable leadership.
The programme hopes to offer a space for reflection and active, informed listening, for Heads to renew perspective, think strategically, build lasting networks of support and refresh the vitality of their core purpose.
Spread across three school terms, the programme includes a range of activities designed to provide on-going care, support and encouragement for Heads across the school year.
Above all, it is our aim to ensure that the programme supports school leaders in 5 key areas…
Vision: Central to all aspects of the programme are processes and ways of working individually and collectively that keep individuals anchored to their vision.
Values: Heads are supported to identify ways of being that increase alignment with themselves and their key values.
Resilience: As Heads develop a deeper understanding of how they respond to the stresses of the role, individuals are supported to develop greater degrees of emotional, psychological and vocational resilience.
A Values Network: The programme design facilitates the development of new supportive and collaborative relationships with like-minded peers.
Confidence: As individuals experience a growth in self-awareness and appreciation of their core strengths, they also experience a growth in personal conviction and increased confidence in their own abilities.
If you’d like to find out more about the programme, and how it could help support you in your role, simply follow the link below…