Carl Hendrick’s musings are rare, their messages significant. What makes his thoughts even more resounding is the surgical precision with which they are executed, he always gives readers much to consider. His latest post is no exception to this. Carl’s observation of our obsession with leadership has finally given me the motivation needed to write this piece that has been kicking around in my thoughts for quite some time now. If everyone were to become leaders then what would happen to the followers? In being so obsessed with becoming great leaders are we failing in our contribution to the team? What is wrong with the desire to stay in the classroom and what factors influence an individual’s drive to join the ranks of school leadership?
I began to think about the leadership epidemic whilst listening to BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour in autumn last year (podcast available here) which coincided with a debate on Twitter about women in educational leadership, in particular the growth of the WomenEd movement. The argument that was given on the programme was that we should concentrate less on being leaders and more about being effective followers. This made me consider my own career progression thus far.
I went into teaching a year after completing my degree through a PGCE route. I’d spent the twelve months previous gaining “life experience” working as a project manager in the NHS. This had been invaluable for my personal growth while equipping me (although I did not realise it at the time) with the strategic skills I would need further down the line. Fortune smiled and I was employed at the school I had attended as a teen. I was incredibly lucky to be led by two excellent heads of department who had nurtured me as a student and who happily contributed again to my development once again, this time honing my skills in front of the class. My desire to be a great teacher was my overarching motivation, I was loyal, perhaps a little opinionated but always worked for the good of the team. I was sadly altruistic then, a trait which I still hold now. I never wanted to be any more than a classroom teacher. As the years went by, my HOD gave me more and more responsibility within the team; which I accepted, sometimes willingly, sometimes begrudgingly but always with complete commitment. His enthusiasm to distribute responsibility frustrated me at times but he always made sure I worked under his watchful gaze. Early into the summer term in my fourth year of teaching, he announced that he was stepping down and that he wanted me to apply. He told me that it was time to take the stabilisers off and step up to the plate. It was no secret that I was not flavour of the month with the headteacher at the time, we respected one another but I would have never been first choice to lead the department (which she told me when she offered me the role). What Jim had done in the couple of years prior was to develop my leadership skills unconsciously. I had the opportunity to shadow a head of department without knowing it. He taught me the grammar of good leadership and so, when the opportunity arose, I was ready.
Bees are fascinating creatures. They develop their own society in which everyone knows their role. They work harmoniously to achieve a shared goal and generally do this successfully. If the hierarchy becomes unstable, they collectively work together to address it.
We can learn a lot from bees.
I never aspired to be a Head of Department, nor an Assistant Headteacher. I just wanted to do my job well. The promotions kind of just happened, serendipity you might say. I find it odd when I interview trainees or teachers applying for classroom posts who tell you they want to be a headteacher. I’m in complete agreement with Carl here, the most rewarding and prestigious part of my day is being in a classroom with young people so to hear people plotting their route out before they’ve set foot in the door is beyond me! Equally though, the argument that length of service is not a measure of expertise nor a prerequisite to being competent in a leadership role is a founded one. Gone are the days where a deputy headship was given after 15 years of service. Martin Robinson asked his Twitter audience not-so-long-ago at what age was acceptable to take up a leadership position in a school? The responses were incredibly interesting, with the majority agreeing that age was not a measure of capability but leaders do require a certain amount of classroom experience to develop empathy, credibility and followership among their team. I’m sure there’s a normal distribution curve in there somewhere!
Carl’s blog highlights at length the characteristics that great leaders share. Furthermore, my experience of good and bad leadership supports his anecdotal evidence. Great leaders are different. Woman’s Hour highlighted the characteristics of great followership which perhaps we all could aspire to. Most notably it highlighted loyalty, flexibility, ability to challenge the leader respectfully to avoid group think, to be proactive in role, to accept your part within the team and to work cohesively towards a collective goal being the key attributes of a good follower. Maybe it’s time to address the culture of accelerated leadership within education, this unspoken rule that if you’re any good you move up and there’s something wrong if you want to stay in the classroom. There was a minor furore over the TeachFirst advertisement offering £65, 000 to teach which is understandable. Money shouldn’t be an overwhelming factor influencing a person’s decision to pursue a career in teaching but it would be naive to believe that it didn’t play a part in the desire to join the ranks. If an emphasis was placed on classroom practice rather than ladder-climbing then some teachers may be more interested in perfecting their craft rather than moving on up? If financial incentives keep the best practitioners in the classroom then schools should be given the opportunity to exercise them. Surely this is a much better option than promoting some great classroom teachers beyond their competence in order to keep them? Not everyone is suited to a leadership role so perhaps it’s time to encourage a culture where the classroom is king and together everyone achieves more? The world needs more worker bees than it does Queens.