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How do school leaders keep their Mojo?

I have just travelled back from Cardiff having attended a leadership conference organised by @Incerts, who are a not-for-profit organisation who supply an on-line formative assessment and tracking tool to a lot of primary schools in Wales. At this conference I had the opportunity to speak to, and with, headteachers from all over Wales, a super networking and system leadership event. This conference has run for the last four years and has sold out each time, this time in less than a week. This demonstrates the demand for such high quality events and why the organisers are planning to hold two events next year, one in North Wales and another in the south, to meet demand.

I had decided to talk about how we as school leaders maintain our Mojo when faced with all the demands and challenges presented on a daily basis in our roles as school leaders. I was also asked to talk about some of the main messages we have perhaps learned in Scotland with the introduction and development of Curriculum for Excellence, as Wales is beginning to work on the introduction of their own new curriculum as designed by Graham Donaldson.

My presentation started with a film clip of Muddy Waters singing 'Got My Mojo Working' and then we considered one definition of what someone's Mojo actually is. The Cambridge Dictionary defines this as 'A quality that attracts people to you and makes you successful and full of energy.' I feel that even after over sixteen years in headship I still love my job, still love going into work each day, and still feel full of energy. I am sure many of the audience felt the same way, perhaps some didn't, the challenge for us all was how to maintain this feeling, our Mojo, to best be able to lead our schools and continue to improve outcomes for all our learners. 

My main argument was that we need to take more control of what we do and to recognise some of the steps we can all take to ensure we maintain our Mojo in what are very busy professional lives.

I asked the audience to consider a couple of important questions. 'Why did you come into teaching?' And 'Why did you become a school leader?' I suggested that the reasons most of us became teachers was because we wanted to make a difference, we loved children, and we loved teaching. I also think that the reasons we became school leaders were exactly the same, but perhaps we wanted to have a bigger impact at whole-school level. I noted that, of the hundreds of school leaders I have met, not one of them set out to be a headteacher or leader at the outset of their career. We all firstly wanted to be the very best teachers we could be. It was only over time, and possibly circumstances, that we started to feel that perhaps the formal leadership route was one we wanted to go down. I pointed out that if this was the case generally, then it was even more important that we developed leadership qualities in all staff and from the moment they enter the profession. I feel that many, if not all, the qualities that make for excellent teachers also pertain for excellent leaders, so we need to actively develop these in all.

Next I asked everyone to consider what their personal values were and what were the principles that underpinned these? My contention is that you need to be clear about these and keep revisiting them, so that you can match your actions against them. They should be the starting point for everything you do and, when they are clear and real, they can help you make decisions about what you will and won't do, and what is acceptable and what is not. Your values, individual and collective, should underpin all of your actions, otherwise they are just meaningless words. People will judge you by what you do, not what you say, so you have to live them. They can also help to manage your workload.

I then focused on  the importance of culture and ethos to all that we do. I had a quote from Michael Fullan's latest leadership book, 'The Principal-Three Keys To Maximising Impact'. I would recommend anyone in school leadership, or thinking about leadership, to read this book, and any others by Fullan. I am a bit of a fan. The quote that I used comes form page 30 and says, 'The primary tool for improvement in any organisation..... are the cultures that build in learning every day'. This was a lead in to my point that the establishment of collaborative cultures within schools is going to be crucial to their development, and for the headteacher to be able to maintain their Mojo. It is important that such cultures are founded on trust. All staff need to be able to trust the school leadership, and each other, and the school leader needs to aim to support staff in order for them to deliver the very best learning and teaching experiences they can for all their learners. School leaders still need to provide challenge and to have high expectations for all but I would argue that we are more likely to succeed with this when we have taken the time to develop the collective and collaborative culture and ethos of the school. This allows us then to promote innovation and indeed expect innovation in practice from staff. They will understand that they will be supported with this by the school leaders and will not be judged negatively when they make inevitable mistakes as they try new things out. It is crucial for school leaders to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. 

We spent a little time thinking about our core business. Sir John Harvey Jones had spoken one year ago at this conference and I noted how important he felt it was that 'we keep the main thing the main thing.' Our main role, in my opinion, is to lead learning. We need to deeply understand learning, we need to see ourselves as learners and model this too and with staff, and we have to have learning and teaching at the heart of what we do. I pointed out that many respected researchers, academics and school leaders around the world, including Hargreaves, Fullan, Timperley, Harris, Hattie and so on had noted that one of the best ways that school leaders can have an impact in every classroom and to raise attainment is to support teacher, and their own, continuous professional development. Helen Timperley takes this a little further and has said that not only must school leaders support professional development, it is crucial that they actively participate in this. We need to recognise personal and school development as part of a continuous process and how we can take relentless small steps and have deep sustainable impacts. I spoke a little of how my own schools had taken a practitioner enquiry approach to personal and school development of learning and teaching, as we sought to develop everyone with what Timperley calls 'adaptive expertise' and with 'enquiry as stance' as advocated by Maryln Cochran-Smith.

I talked of school development and how we should control this to achieve more. I showed another film clip, this time of some dwarf hamsters on a hamster wheel. My point was that for many years school development has been like this, in that there has been lots of frantic activity and busyness, without us really making much progress as a result. I have never been in a school that is not busy, my question is often, what is the sustainable impact for learners of all that busyness? We have to find time to step back from all our busyness, or even stop, and look at the impact. We might have to ask ourselves some difficult questions and come up with some uncomfortable answers before we can move forward.

So, if all are very busy what can we do about it?

The first step I suggested we could take would be to take control of the change and development agenda. Too often we have let this be dictated to us by others outside of our immediate school context. If we really know our schools well, and we should do if we have the correct self-evaluation procedures in place, we are the people best placed to understand where our schools are on their development journey. Context is so crucial at all levels and I would suggest that no-one knows schools as well as themselves. Therefore we and our staff are the people best placed to manage and set a pace for development and growth that reflects exactly where we are, not where someone else thinks we are, or should be.

My next suggestion is that we slow down. For too long we have rushed headlong from one development to another, often with little or no connection. This 'initiativitis' as Fullan calls it leads to a lot of frantic, surface-level activity rather than deep, embedded and sustainable change, which is surely what we should be aiming for. My own particular mantra is 'do less, but achieve more.' Once we have slowed down we need to be vigilant and ensure our focus is on impact of change. The activities and development we should be engaged with should have a focus on impact for learners and we need to make sure this remains the case. We should get rid of any distractions, in terms of activity which does not contribute to core business. If what we are doing does not contribute to the improvement of learning and teaching, and all that entails, we should stop doing it. We should be aiming for sustainability in everything we do and to do this we need to view development as a process and not a series of 'things' to be done or completed. There are no 'silver bullets' to school development or change. The only approach that truly works is one which is a relentless process and which makes connections between all that we do.

This is why our school improvement plans are so important. We need to recognise who these are for, ourselves. We need to keep them focused, manageable and achievable, because it is through them we can keep moving forward, but also protect ourselves from new demands and initiatives coming from outside of the school. They should also reflect the continuous process-based approach we are adopting. I always say that any teachers could write our own school improvement plan, because there will be no surprises and each one builds on the previous one, and leads into the next.

I had touched on collaboration as being essential in the culture and approach of schools and I now considered collaboration from a leadership point of view. Leadership can be lonely, if you make it so. We are not alone and nor should we be. We need to be collaborative, not only within our schools but also outside of them. Through collaboration we can develop our thinking, understanding and our practice as leaders. We can help and support others, and they us, through system leadership roles. I urged everyone to equally value their management role and their leadership role in their schools. Both are equally important, but it is too easy to be all consumed by the former at the expense of the latter. We should create time to read, and build networks, both real and virtual. I urged them to consider how they could develop their own PLNs through contacts and relationships outside of their own schools, but also virtually through Twitter and Blogs. I also recommended we should be adopting a dispersed leadership model within our schools. Where the culture is such that all are encouraged and supported to step up and carry out leadership roles as part of their own professional development. All of this can help ease the load for school leaders and help them retain their Mojo.

My final messages on this theme were about the thorny subject of work/life balance and how we really need to get this right. It is no use paying lip-service to this, it helps neither the school leader nor those they lead. Staff and personal wellbeing are crucial to performance and practice and we neglect this at our peril. I recommended that we all learn to smile more, genuinely smile. It makes you feel better and makes those around you feel better too. We need to have fun. Teaching and school leadership is fun. There is hardly a day passes when I do not laugh out loud at something that has happened in school. We are working with young people and staff who are fabulous and will never fail to surprise us and make us smile each day. Even when we are having our toughest of days there is always something positive that has also happened to counter-balance this, in my experience.

Believe it or not, I was running out of time by now to really do justice to my messages about Curriculum for Excellence and the new Welsh curriculum, so I had to go through these quite quickly. This post is getting a bit too long also, so I will pick up what I had to say in my next one. I will also try to give an overview of the messages from the other speakers Richard Girver, Sir John Dunford, Tracy Jones and Bethan Hocking.

I would like to say thank you to everyone I met whilst in Cardiff and for making me feel so welcome. It was my first time in South Wales and it was fab. Apologies for over running and making you a little late for lunch and  I do hope to be back soon. Thanks also to Chris and Ian from Incerts and the rest of their team. Apologies also for the typo on one of my slides, if you spotted it, which you probably did as that's what teachers do! We are all fallible. 😂

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