A few years ago a colleague I was working with first mentioned the term 'professional courage' to me. She was using it to describe actions we sometimes have to take as educational leaders that might not be particularly popular with colleagues, parents, employers or others but which we still should take if we believe them to be the right actions. I really liked the term, and the thinking that lay behind it. Since I first began considering and engaging with the term, I have extended the definition to include difficult conversations that we sometimes have to have and difficult decisions we have to make. Often deciding the route to take in any of these areas does require a degree of 'professional courage' especially when it can bring us into confrontation with others as a result.
If you are a leader, are there times when you have chosen not to take a course of action that you wished because you knew others you work with, or for, would disagree or not support your intended action? Have you sat in meetings where decisions are being made and 'consultations' are taking place, and not voiced honest opinions or disagreements for fear of upsetting those to whom you might be responsible? I think at various times, most of us have, especially when young and new in post. What I have come to believe and have decided as I have matured, both in age and professionally, is that if we truly believe in something we should be prepared to stand up for this, whatever the circumstances.
The starting point for these decisions and actions are your values, and the principles that underpin them. I am sure all of us do the job we love because we want to make a positive difference to the lives through the education of the young people who are in our schools. We will want to do this in a fair and just way, that shows no particular favour to any one group and which is totally non-discriminatory. We will wish to display honesty in all our dealings and display a level of wisdom and intellectual rigour in our work and interactions. On top of this will be our professional knowledge, understanding and experience that comes with educational leadership, our expertise. Our values and our professional expertise should be the factors that underpin all our actions.
I do wonder if we sometimes let what we desire for our careers get in the way of what we believe to be right for our learners? I have heard from others,and been told myself, on occasions that expressing a certain opinion, or choosing an action, would 'not be good for your career' if it was seen as being opposite to what others were thinking, planning or wishing to happen. I have heard of school leaders, and have experienced myself, being 'warned' or admonished because they have expressed opposition to some planned action in a meeting or conference. What then results is people refusing to openly engage and debate planned changes and actions for fear of the repercussions for them personally and professionally. Such an ethos and culture is damaging to organisations and damaging to the opportunities we have to improve what we are doing.
Equally, school leaders can be guilty of the same practices in their own schools and leadership practices. There are leaders who really believe only they know what is best for their schools. They make the decisions about what will and won't happen, and then expect staff to carry these out. Change does happen in such circumstances, but it tends to be surface level, with no depth, understanding or sustainability to it. Change is slow and fleeting in non-collaborative cultures, and colleagues are de-professionalised. Plus, we lose the opportunity to harness the strength and collaborative power of the team.
I would argue that professional courage is required at all levels to challenge what needs to be challenged. If we muffle our voice and our opinions because we are afraid of repercussions, what hope do we then have to develop our learners as critical thinkers and vocal responsible citizens? That is not to say we should be reckless, unthinking and belligerent in our responses and our actions. There are ways of expressing opinions without resorting to downright opposition to every new change or initiative proposed. We need to engage in a responsible, informed and professional way, and in that way our views and opinions are more likely to be heard.
Professional courage and responsibility should be part of what it means to be a leader. Never has there been a time of such challenge, but also of such opportunity, in education. We need to engage and ensure our voice is heard. What education needs at such times are more courageous leaders, not more sheep.