NESLI: School leadership qualities for turbulent times - Education Matters
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NESLI: School leadership qualities for turbulent times

NESLI-Mike Gaffney-school leadership

Professor Mike Gaffney, Academic Director at the National Excellence in School Leadership Institute (NESLI) discusses why passion, priorities and persistence are key qualities for today’s principals and school leaders.

As a school leader, what drives you? How do you work with your community – staff, students, parents and others within and beyond your school community – to bring about positive and meaningful outcomes for students? These are questions at the heart of the principalship.

The questions we have about ourselves, as teachers and leaders, are a consequence of our personality and professional development – what has brought us to this point – and our aspirations.

Am I making a difference? That’s a good question. To delve deeper, we need to consider the passions we have and espouse, the priorities we identify and pursue, and the persistence with which we enact and model what is important.

What we have done in the past does not always inform what we do in the future. Shifting societal expectations, political concerns, changing social capital and disruption in how we communicate and learn are having a profound impact on how schools and school leaders operate.

School leaders are known by their actions. Leadership is inspiring work, but it is also fraught with tension and dilemmas about what is appropriate in changing contexts.

Qualities that underpin actions of inspiring school leaders in contemporary school settings are passion, priorities and persistence.

The report ‘Learning: The Treasure Within’ (Delors, 1996) identified four pillars that need to underpin student learning into the 21st century: Learning to know, learning to do, learning to live together and learning to be.

Since its publication, the relevance of its commentary and recommendations remains apparent. The importance of education in enabling student agency is highlighted, now as it was then, in a context characterised by issues of globalisation, interdependence, social cohesion, the impact of technologies, future of work, balancing and integration of economic growth and human development, and the sustainability of life on earth.

The four pillars continue to provide a ready reckoner to pass over curriculum and assessment frameworks. For school leaders, the challenge is to see through jargon to identify the worth of content being taught and the process of bringing that to life. Those who are authentic leaders ask questions about worth and value, and advocate their passion for student learning, engagement and agency.

So, what implications does this have for school priorities and the ways we design learning opportunities? In contrast to the depersonalised, key performance-indicator driven, systemically sanitised and politically correct priorities which have characterised ‘school improvement planning’, what is really needed is an educational overhaul – one where real efforts are directed toward enabling teachers to develop and exercise mastery and autonomy, and build a sense of shared purpose. The role of school leader is not primarily to ensure staff compliance but rather, as Ken Robinson advocates in Finding Your Element (2014), to inspire and guide teachers to discover (or re-discover) their talent and passion for teaching. This provides a foundation for developing innovative approaches to pedagogy, curriculum and assessment.

Life and learning in schools are not linear. Standards and programming can only take us so far. What is needed are school leaders who help teachers celebrate why they got into teaching in the first place and the value of their teaching.

This is a challenge about reasserting professionalism. It is risky, but necessary. To prioritise a system that advocates standards, standardisation and compliance is to be complicit in threatening the future of the profession. Who would be a teacher or stay in teaching in circumstances of supervised constraint and bureaucratic data checks, justified under the guise of gathering evidence and demonstrating accountability? Instead, we should be encouraged by school leaders who have the courage to have a go, accept barriers and risks, and stay on the educator course anyway – because it’s the right thing to do. To do this takes persistence: persistence in working with tensions, ethical dilemmas and problems. In their new book, Navigating the Principalship (2019), Jim Spillane and Rebecca Lowenhaupt focus on dilemmas that mark the principalship – those conflict situations (or ‘wicked problems’) that resist simple solutions. Addressing the demands of multiple overlapping stakeholders, achieving limitless tasks in limited time, sharing leadership responsibilities while being responsible for running the school, creating safe spaces and facilitating a balance between work and home can feel impossible.

It’s important to realise these are problems that cannot be solved; they can only be worked on. There is a freedom in accepting you can only do your best. You will make mistakes, people won’t agree with you and sometimes that will be hard to deal with. The key is to live with your decisions gracefully, sure in the knowledge that they have integrity with your passion and priorities.