Even though it was now many years ago, I remember one of my first school visits as an NPQH Tutor. I had been assigned as a tutor for a Deputy, who was hoping to secure headship within a year of completing her NPQH.
Her school served a neighbourhood that I knew well, bordering as it did the borough of Lambeth where I had been a Head. Her school faced many similar challenges to ones my school had faced:
– Social and economic disadvantage
– Low student achievement
– Lack of resources and funding etc.
In just a year, the expectation of the NPQH was that through study; face to face and online, peer group development days, tutor support and the completion of a school-based assignment, my aspiring Head would be prepared for Headship.
It took me less than 30 mins sitting with my aspiring Head to ‘assess’ that this would not be the case. She was stressed. She was tired. She had spent an inordinate amount of hours collecting and analysing data for her school based-based assignment. She’d poured over interviews with staff and pupils and extracted what she believed to be key evidence for supporting her school improvement work.
Yet as she sat and talked me through her assignment, there was no light in her eyes, no fire in her belly, no passion for the role she was aspiring to.
Headship requires inner fuel
Now, if there’s one thing I know about Headship, there has to be an inner fuel, an inner fire/desire for the role. The job is hard enough as it is and a person needs more than a dimly lit flame to keep the embers of their vocational passion burning.
Noticing this, I asked my tutee to put her papers to one side and to simply tell me what was going on for her. At the time, this was not part of the script or indeed my role as an NPQH Tutor (I know there have been some changes since then).
However, in the mid 2000’s the tutor roles was more that of mentor and a guide. We were meant to draw on our Headship experience so that fledgling Heads could learn from us.
With a sigh of relief, papers were put to one side and my tutee began to reveal all. She doubted she could ever be a Head. She’s signed up to the NPQH because she thought she was ready. But all the paperwork and the ticking boxes had left her feeling disillusioned.
There had been some value in attending the peer development days and applying practice in her school, but she felt that something was missing. The programme didn’t feel personalised enough for her. As much as she valued hearing from past, experienced Heads, she felt there wasn’t enough guidance on:
– How she could take on the role of Headship and make it her own.
– Understanding herself and the person she was becoming
– Developing her own levels of resilience and emotional literacy
At that time, I was only just beginning to step my feet into the waters of coaching, but I sensed that this was an individual with whom I could perhaps learn to swim.
Why coaching is a vital support mechanism
So, over the ensuing weeks and months, I stopped giving guidance. I stopped telling her what to do. I stopped using myself as a point of reference and instead, I made the whole focus of our conversations about her and I let her:
– Set the agenda (If I’d let those above me at the time, know that this was what I was doing, I am certain, I would have lost the contract, but I was prepared to take the risk!)
– Decide on the questions curiosities that were arising for her, rather than always expecting her to come up with answers to my ‘expert’ questions
– Share her vulnerabilities and concerns and decipher new meanings and lessons from them
– Delve into her emotions and develop a deeper understanding about their function and how they drove her behaviours.
It wasn’t long before I sensed a change in her demeanour. When I’d visit her school or call, there was no longer that sense of dread, that both she and I had felt in the past. Now our conversations were animated and she seemed to come alive when she became aware of the fact she had become the expert in her own situation and not me.
As she re-gained her confidence, as well as her understanding of the person she was becoming, the light in her eyes returned and so too her belief that she could one day become a Headteacher.
Looking back, I learnt at least three key lessons, through being the NPQH Tutor for this individual and the many more that I ended up coaching over the years.
Lesson # 1: The NPQH is probably best seen as a ‘technical’ qualification that simply says to others that an individual has been on an accredited Headship Training programme. It does not convey the extent to which an individual knows how to lead ‘out of who they are.’
Lesson # 2: Aspiring Heads need to be supported to have conversations that keep them connected to their vocational vitality. Conversations, that are solely focused on data, assessment and justifying outcomes, have the opposite effect and education/schooling become soul less endeavours.
Lesson # 3: Aspiring Heads need spaces where they can be vulnerable, away from their peers and the scrutiny of others. They need safe spaces to talk about their struggles, fears and doubts. Having such spaces enables them to let go of ego defences and steadily adopt more authentic approaches to their own leadership development.
If our leaders are to build effective schools in which both children and staff fulfil their potential, then there have to be systems in place that facilitate school leaders being able to have conversations that allow them to explore the inherent vulnerabilities that accompany the role.
For many new school leaders, there is no-one with whom they can “drop their leadership mask” and talk openly and honestly about the issues, questions, doubts and concerns they are experiencing in the role.
Without such support the reality of school leadership can sometimes prove too intense for those new to the role. Far too often this has led to many new school leaders sacrificing their well-being and subsequently feeling unable to continue in their role. This is not how things should be.
Social workers have supervision to help them process their toughest cases, and corporate executives have space for “lessons learned” and continuous improvement between projects.
Yet school leaders remain endemically under-supported and, as a result, many leaders are left without anyone to turn to when they are in need of support, clarity, guidance or even just some encouragement to keep going.
That’s why I am now offering free “Coaching for The Soul” support calls for school leaders to ensure they are provided with an opportunity to:
– Talk through the challenges they are currently facing in their role
– Get support in locating next steps and solutions to help them overcome the issues they’re experiencing
– Reflect on recent events and the impact they have had
– Gain clarity in their thoughts and their current situation