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Leadership Reflections: Making Headway by Aimi Vdovin
How are you finding headship?
A question that I have been asked numerous times over this past term and a half. Challenging, rewarding, demanding and exhilarating are among the short answers. The real answer is like the role: complex and forever evolving. The purpose of this blog is not to answer this question, but to offer some reflections on leadership from my short time as a head of school.
Lean and Listen
I have heard many headteachers describe the role as lonely and perhaps it is because I work within an incredibly supportive partnership that I have not found this to be the case. It has been important to me, from day one, to have people to lean on. I am lucky enough to have people with whom I can be myself and share my anxieties, but who also give me valuable feedback on my leadership. I would advise anyone in a leadership position, no matter how far along in the journey, to find these critical friends, people who can help you to unload but also support you to develop as a leader by giving you honest feedback.
Being part of the Getting Ahead London programme has shown me how invaluable a coaching model is. I have found talking to someone who really is there to listen a useful way of externalising thoughts and of halting any catastrophising. I have found it vital to be open to advice and support myself, as well ensuring that I spend time listening to staff and empowering them to be the very best that they can be. As a head, you quickly realise that you don’t have to be an expert at everything, but you do need to surround yourself with others who are experienced and skilled at the things you are working on.
Learn and Look
For me, coming out of the classroom was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made, but I soon realised that as head of school a passion for teaching and learning is essential and that learning would be at the heart of everything I do. I ensure that I carve out moments with the children, spend time in classrooms and play a role in professional development meetings. I know that I will never stop learning and it is important to be curious about what is out there. Although it can be hard in the day-to-day busyness, it is key to be outward-facing and make time to understand what is going on in other schools.
Recently, I attended the Inspiring Leadership Conference where one of the themes among the wide range of fantastic speakers was learning from each other. Pedro Noguera, a distinguished professor of education at UCLA, shared inspiring anecdotes of schools who have done amazing things in terms of equity and achievement for their pupils against all the perceived odds. Unfortunately, however, there were also stories of schools in the same communities who have not engaged with this learning, and in fact some who still don’t even believe that it is possible. It is true that sometimes we need to ‘see it to believe it’ and so it is imperative that all staff take ownership over their own learning for the children they serve. Steal good ideas!
Build and Grow
‘It’s people and not initiatives that get things done in schools.’
It takes two (or more) to tango, Ben Gibbs
'Culture eats strategy for breakfast.’
These two quotes have resonated with me throughout my first term of headship. I feel very privileged to work in such a special environment where there are so many different dynamics and relationships at play. As Daniel Coyle writes, ‘culture is a set of living relationships working toward a shared goal’. The staff, the children, the parents and families: it is all of these people who will make the learning at our school inspiring, and so It is a priority to build strong relationships and partnerships, getting to know what motivates others and who they are as humans. I would say that recognition through ‘thank you’ is important, but more so is recognition through trust and empowerment. Throughout my career, the times I have been surprised by my abilities is when someone has believed in me and given me an opportunity that I thought was out of my reach. It was this trust and support that allowed me to develop as a leader, and it is something that I aspire to. This, for me, means not being afraid to step back at times, which is not always easy, particularly at the beginning of your own leadership journey.
‘Leaders don’t create followers, they create more leaders.’
Effective communication with a lot of people is also something that I am constantly striving for. This means being highly organised and looking into the months ahead, again not always easiest of tasks. I have found that keeping people in the loop means that they feel valued and cared for.
Address and Adapt
It is can be oh so tempting to avoid addressing that single comment, that one raised voice or that one missed deadline, however someone once told me that ‘the standard that you walk past, is the standard you accept.’ This has stuck with me when I have needed that bit of extra courage to have ‘the’ conversation.
‘The real courage is seeing the truth and speaking the truth to each other.’
The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle
A culture in which people feel safe enough to be honest with each other is one that can grow and be successful. It is important to work tirelessly on your own leadership behaviours and also support others to develop theirs. One model that I have found useful to think about is ‘The Johari Window’. We can all have blind spots and sometimes need others to give us honest feedback so that we can address these and develop as a leader. This is why it is important to have one-to-one coaching sessions focused on leadership behaviours, not just tasks.
I have found the greatest learning to be in leading those with different leadership styles to myself. Just like, as teachers, we adapt to the children in our class, we must also adapt to the different members in our team. It is important to realise that not everyone is the same and adapt as such. Having honest conversations with your team around personal strengths and developmental gaps is highly beneficial and quite liberating!
Confess and Celebrate
“The road to success is paved with mistakes well handled.”
The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle
I have never worked so hard or doubted myself so much in my life, but at the same time have never been so proud, challenged and excited. Things go wrong and we all make mistakes, but it is admitting and accepting this, and confessing to others when things feel overwhelming, that is important. Be kind to yourself and pay attention to your own wellbeing. I have tried to focus on the positives and celebrate even the smallest of things this term, and there are many, many things to celebrate in a primary school. I think it is important to hold on to these and visualise the 238 little faces of your ‘why’ throughout it all. There is nothing quite like the joy and sense of promise you get from working in a school; the potential is endless.