Walking the Talk as a School Leader


This is part 4 of a blog series from Headteacher of Three Bridges School, Jeremy Hannay (@HannayJeremy).  To read the other blogs from the series, please click here.

This word is attributable in my leadership journey to Kevin Graham, a high school Principal with the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board in Ontario, Canada. 
He was one of my facilitators on the Canadian version of the NPQH, known as the PQP (Principals Qualification Program). Kevin used this term frequently.
At the time, I understood it one way – today, as a Headteacher, I see it in a new light.  My ability to lead others is based primarily on trust, and this trust is founded a a number of factors – with the largest, arguably, being alignment: are what I say and what I do congruent?  Am I being authentic, genuine and honest?
There’s no sense walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching. It is one of the reasons I host so many people at Three Bridges each year – my voice should be a whisper – my school – my practice – is the amplifier.

Not just what and how – think why

Alignment is first and foremost about your ‘why’.  Articulating this is often a very complex piece of work.  Simon Sinek writes and speaks about this.  We can all describe what we do, and many of us can talk about how we do it – but recruitment and retention, performance and standards, people going the extra mile or giving up before the job is done – is most often linked to the compelling and honest WHY.
Why are we doing what we’re doing – and how is it linked to what we believe about ourselves, our people, our community, the purpose of education and our vision of the future?
When staff morale is low, performance is poor, people are leaving – it can often be traced back to a misalignment with our WHY (and theirs!).
Have you compellingly articulated your WHY – so well that it becomes a common language in your school?  Other staff speak it and live it – not because it has been drilled in to them, but because they share it?  When you hire people, is your interview set up to find the alignments between your school and the person you’re hiring?
Let’s take marking as a practical example.
I am someone that talks a lot about my belief in staff agency and autonomy.  I believe that professionals can only truly flourish in an environment that encourages reflection and self-direction, coupled with development and research opportunities.  Having a marking policy that prescribes code, colours, frequency, and content is misaligned with agency and autonomy.  So I don’t have one.
The policy says:

‘Written feedback will only be used when the teacher determines that it is the most effective and relevant type of feedback for the subject/lesson/pupil or context.’

In other words, when a teacher thinks written feedback is the best form of feedback, they’ll use it.  When they don’t, they won’t.  That is alignment.

Defining Your Why

Unpicking your beliefs – your WHYs – is an important leadership task.  If you haven’t done it, do it.  It is important that we know ourselves before we try to lead others.  This helps us define our why.
– What are your core beliefs about education? About humans?
– What gets you out of bed in the morning – what excites you, inspires you?
– What is your story – how did you get here?
– What phrase will define your life?
– How will people describe you at your 80th birthday?
– What makes you come alive?
– What are your strengths?  Where do you add the greatest value?
– How will you measure you life? What will your legacy be?
I didn’t need to survey other schools, talk to the LEA, or see what Ofsted wanted.  None of that matters.  I believe in agency and autonomy – I believe in trust – I believe that people are fundamentally good and want to do their best – so I write a policy that says that.
We got rid of marking when most people were still debating what colour to highlight mark in – not because I was trying to be controversial or a dissident – because I believe in alignment.  What I believe, what I say and how I act must be aligned.
This goes for everything in the school.

In Practice

If I say that I value family and work life balance and a member of staff comes in to my office and asks for a day to go to their child’s graduation – and I say no – people don’t get upset with the rules – they get upset because what I say and what I do are incongruent.
If I say that I trust them, and then ask them to submit planning, evidence everything, scrutinise their books – even if I call it something nicer – like a ‘book celebration’ or ‘learning look’ – if what I say and what I do (and really, how they FEEL based on what I do!!) are misaligned, things will never run smoothly.
Being a values-led school is equal parts what you believe, how you behave and how people feel.  Often, the last part gets left out.  Lots of fancy words on walls – but as Mary Myatt says, these values need to be lived, not laminated.  Alignment.
There is no greater influence on leading a culture of trust than alignment.  Exploring how your values intersect is also complex.  You might believe in trust, but also believe in putting children first.  How do you negotiate this?
I want to trust teachers, but also want the children to have a world class experience.  If I just let teachers do anything, standards will drop and pupils will suffer.  At the intersection of trust and pupils is support and development of staff.  Brining your beliefs to life often lies in support, development, research and collaboration.  This takes time.  Alignment doesn’t need to be overnight.
Remember the cathedral?  If we say that we want to eliminate the marking-in-books nonsense because we believe in teacher agency, it is important we are transparent with the process.  This is where we’re going (cathedral) – and this is how we’re going to get there (the plan) – but we won’t be there tomorrow.  But know, that when we do get there, it will be together.
If you want to build a culture of trust – it starts with alignment.  How aligned is your walking to your talking?


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