I wrote a 2-part article for SecEd magazine about what makes a great teacher – you can read it here and here.
I said that great teachers are relentless in their pursuit of excellence and that their language with students is infused with this sense of urgency and drive. They need not argue about expected standards of behaviour. They achieve this in different ways – sometimes through the gravitas of maturity and experience, sometimes through warm, interpersonal interactions with every student. They have the ability to explain complex concepts in ways that make sense, they ask good questions and give really good feedback – however it is done, students feel that they are learning, they know where they stand and feel confident about the process.
Great teachers, I said, know and care about their students and make personal connections. Although pedagogical and content knowledge is important, great teachers know that what matters most is how they apply that knowledge.
Great teaching is a nuanced, complex art form. And we refer to it as “teaching practice” for a reason – we are forever practising, forever striving towards excellence and expertise. And yet we will never master it. But great teachers never tire of trying new things, of taking risks. They experiment and evaluate; they try and reflect.
For a teacher to be consistently and sustainably great, however, they need to work in a school or college where is also great leadership. Great leaders, you see, create the conditions in which teachers can thrive; they build a culture in which risk-taking is encouraged and in which teachers are freed from any unnecessary burdens to focus on teaching. This is not to say that great leaders afford their teachers complete autonomy, as I argue here. Indeed, great leaders create a framework in which all their colleagues are assured of providing the highest quality of teaching, learning and assessment and do so consistently.
So what is a great leader? In my 2012 book, Leadership for Learning, I argued that great leaders are:
- Good listeners
- Able to care about and respond to people’s needs
- Consistent, fair and honest
- Transparent and above reproach
- Sensitive and able to show warmth and to empathise with people’s concerns and worries
- Able to give quality time to people, be available and approachable
- Able to show assertiveness, determination and strength of response, yet able to be kind and calm and courageous
- Able to communicate – through a variety of means and in an appropriate manner – with enthusiasm, passion and drive.
In addition, great leaders are not consumed by what other people think. That’s not to say they are insensitive machines with skin thicker than a Tolstoy novel but that they are resilient and guided by their organisation’s shared vision, as well as by their own determination and commitment to make a genuine and positive difference to people’s lives.
No setback will deter great leaders from achieving this vision.
However, resilience is not synonymous with an absence of empathy or social skills. Great leaders also have high EQs, that is to say they are emotionally intelligent. Some might argue that understanding how people tick is a more important quality in a leader than being highly intelligent, that EQ trumps IQ.
The best leaders, in my experience, do not themselves possess all of the answers, they just ask all of the right questions.
In my 2013 book, How to Become a School Leader, I argued that school and college stakeholders – staff and governors, parents and students – tend to respond best to a leader who:
- Is dynamic and forward thinking;
- Is sensitive to the needs of all and recognises hard work;
- Provides the necessary support others need;
- Trusts his/her staff and empowers them to make decisions and act on their own initiative;
- Does not place undue administrative burdens on his/her staff.
Sir Tim Brighouse – former Chief Advisor to London Schools – has wise words to share on what makes a school leader successful. In Jigsaw of a Successful School (2006), he says that successful school leaders have three qualities in common: energy, enthusiasm and hope. To this excellent list I’d add ‘kindness’.
So what do these four qualities mean in practice…
To my mind, leaders need to possess resilience and determination, plus an indomitable will and passion for success. They need to show an interest in every aspect of their organisation, visiting all areas and speaking to all staff as often as possible. For example, standing in the foyer first thing in the morning allows leaders to greet staff who can then book a meeting later in the day if they need to talk. Shadowing a student once a term enables leaders to see their school or college from the learner’s point of view – an invaluable and humbling exercise.
Great leaders need to stay calm during moments of crisis, and at such times need to be willing to acknowledge mistakes that have been made and then learn from them.
Finally, great leaders need excellent time management skills and that means using the diary effectively, delegating where appropriate and protecting their precious time. By managing their time well, great leaders can use the timetabled day to walk and talk, and downtime to read and respond to emails and letters, and to do paperwork.
Great leaders need positivity, especially when communicating their organisation’s vision and when reminding staff of past success as well as future promise. Such positivity can be exuded in state of the nation addresses such as assemblies, staff briefings, CPD events, and open evenings in which the leader gives a Henry V-style speech (in Shakespeare’s play, Henry V rouses his army as they go into battle at Agincourt with the words, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; / For he today that shed his blood with me / Shall be my brother”).
Great leaders need to have an intellectual curiosity, too, reading widely and sharing articles with colleagues. They also need to lead by example, as a great practitioner where appropriate, but always as someone who loves to learn and always strives to know more and be more effective. Great leaders can also be role models by performing well in assemblies, by visiting tutorials and lessons to talk to students, and by covering lessons for colleagues to allow them to engage in quality CPD.
Great leaders need to display a certainty that their vision will be realised, as if they expect it to be achieved rather than just wish it to be so. They should always seek improvement and keep colleagues focused on the process of improvement by describing the journey from the past to the present (what have colleagues already achieved?) and from the present to the future (what is their next challenge?).
Great leaders need to routinely recognise and reward success in a way each member of staff favours (some people like public adulation; others melt into a puddle at the mere thought of it). Celebrating others’ achievements should be an everyday part of what these leaders do rather than an afterthought or rarity. They also need to give quality time to people, having an open door policy does not mean being available twenty-four hours a day, but it does mean being able to meet with staff as soon as possible and listening and responding to what they have to say.
Great leaders need to be protective of their staff, showing empathy, respecting people’s privacy, remembering birthdays, and granting personal leave – without question – when staff have important or urgent personal matters to attend to such as family funerals. They should also set as their default position a genuine belief that everybody wishes to do well and will try their best, rather than assuming the worst of people.
And that, in my opinion, is what makes a great leader. But great leaders are also great because – like great teachers – they are human. And as humans they are fallible. They make mistakes. They do not always get it right.
Do not look to your leaders for perfection because, where you ostensibly find it, it may mask duplicity or inaction. Instead, look for humanity, for people who are energetic, enthusiastic, hopeful and kind but people who are also prone to making mistakes from time to time because they, like great teachers, are willing to take risks, to try new things, and to challenge and reform working practices in the hope of improving their provision. What sets these people out from the ineffectual is their willingness to admit their mistakes and their ability to learn from them, to dust themselves down, pick themselves up and keep moving forwards with energy, enthusiasm, hope and kindness.
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