School Leadership Qualities for Turbulent Times

AUTHOR: PROFESSOR MIKE GAFFNEY 

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

Am I making a difference? 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. The qualities that underpin the actions of inspiring school leaders in contemporary school settings are passion, priorities and persistence.

Passion for learning and student engagement. 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.  

In the time 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 and the future of work, the 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 the 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 in which we design learning opportunities?

Priorities for inspired teaching and creative innovative learning designs. In contrast to the de-personalised, 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, 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 that result in creative, engaging learning designs.

Life and learning in schools are not linear.  Standards and programming – even at their most ‘visible’ - can only take us so far.  What is needed are school leaders that help teachers realise and celebrate why they got into teaching in the first place, the value of their teaching, and how much potential it holds. 

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, arising from their passion for learning and student engagement to ‘have a go’, accept that there are barriers and risks, and stay 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 ‘wicked problems’.  In their new book, Navigating the Principalship, Jim Spillane and Rebecca Lowenhaupt focus on the 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 whilst being responsible for the running of the school, creating safe spaces and facilitating a balance between work and home can feel impossible.

It is important to realise that these are problems that cannot be solved; they can only be worked at. There is a freedom in accepting that 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. 

References
Australian Public Service Commission (2007). Tackling Wicked Problems: A Public Policy Perspective.  Canberra: Australian Public Service Commission Retrieved from: http://www.apsc.gov.au/publications07/wickedproblems.pdf .

Delors, Jacques (1996) Learning: The Treasure Within. The Report to UNESCO of the International Commission on Education for the Twenty-first Century. UNESCO Publishing

Robinson, Ken, with Lou Aronica (2014) Finding Your Element: How to Discover Your Talents and Passions and Transform Your Life. Penguin Books

Spillane, James P. and Rebecca Lowenhaupt (2019) Navigating the Principalship: Key Insights for New and Aspiring School Leaders. ASCD