Baptism of Fire: Joining an SLT

Posted on August 31, 2012

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The other day @benniekara posted a blog about what it’s like to start as a Head of Department to much acclaim (and rightly so). Immediately another tweep asked why it seems that nobody has done the same for starting as a member of SLT. Ever one for a challenge and wanting to get my personal blog up and running I thought I’d give it a go.

Before I begin though, a note of caution. This was at a previous school in Watford with its own dynamic. An I was promoted internally, with all that that entails. And I am me, with all that makes me unique. I have no idea of the typicality of my promotion to SLT and I make no claims to universality.

The first thing I learnt about joining SLT (especially from within) is that it is a crossing of a line, in some ways for you and in some ways for others. You will be seen differently; often positively, often negatively, often with no judgement applied. I remember distinctly being told that I was a “poacher turned gamekeeper” by someone who intended it entirely as a compliment. More commonly I heard phrases along the lines of people having to watch what they said to me, or suggesting that my views were not really my own anymore. The levels of accountability in the education system are too high for any new member of SLT to avoid this ‘personality transplant’ assumption and to try and fight against it can be foolish and more off-putting for your colleagues than accepting it.

On the flipside of this the fact that you will, on promotion to Assistant Headship, find so many more opportunities to enhance the lives of colleagues and students available to you. You will bring with you all of the ideas about how SLT should have done things differently from when you were in middle leadership or were completely classroom-based and you can do something about it. And do something about it you must, because that will be the best way of reconfiguring your relationships rather than trying to cling on to former glories. And it will be the right thing to do because the main thing you’ll contribute to SLT in your first few months and, if you’re lucky, years is an understanding of the staffroom zeitgeist.

Perhaps the most important thing that you need to know, understand and fully appreciate on joining SLT is that the fundamental line you cannot cross is the ‘collective responsibility’ one. Whatever the decision that your team makes, however much you disagree with it, and however misguided you feel it to be, it is a decision of your team and it has to become your decision. Of course it’s easy to whisper in the ears of some that you would have done things differently, especially of you are trying to cling onto the ‘old you’ with colleagues following an internal promotion. But the long-term weakness done to you in the eyes of all (those you confide in perhaps moreso than your new SLT) is significant. It makes you look weak, incapable of influencing within your team and it makes you appear disloyal or dissembling too.

Again there is a positive flipside to this seemingly negative point. In both SLTs I have worked on, and in many others I have heard about or witnessed, there are frequent full-on discussions many of which can be feisty and even argumentative. Half a dozen or more highly capable people who have a track record of success across a range of middle leadership roles will never be short of an opinion or two. The trick for new members of an SLT is to realise that they are there on merit and need to join in these rumbunctious rows as soon as they can, to not wait for a month or two to pass before they too get stuck in. Perhaps even more than this, new starters in leadership need to provoke such debates, recognising (often in contrast say to departmental meetings) that conflict can often generate more effective decisions than consensus.

My final point for new members of SLT – and I am aware that I haven’t even touched upon your developing persona with students and parents – is that you need to lead. I hate the concept of school leaders as simply managers and in order to avoid this you need to establish an area of expertise in a school improvement priority as quickly as possible. You need to immerse yourself in the professional reading that underpins it and conceptualise it in a way that dovetails with your school’s improvement priorities. Most of all you need to do this quickly so that you are putting a significant item onto an SLT meeting agenda, complete with detailed proposals and action points, well within your first half term. In doing so you will establish the respect of your SLT colleagues and justify their appointment. Far more importantly you will be able to start impacting upon the lives of staff and students at an early stage in your leadership career, showing that you care about their needs and achievements.

The flipside to this last point is that you have to make the lives of children and adults you have a new-found responsibility for better. It is too easy to add to the workload of others when your are in a leadership position. Sometimes this might be the right thing to do, but often you need to ensure that something is being taken away to make room for a new expectation or, more sophisticatedly, that a short term workload increase will lead to a medium term workload decrease. You won’t be forgiven if staff and students don’t see the benefits (and sometimes they take some time to become apparent) of something you have introduced.

I suppose the main thing I have tried to illustrate here is that things change when you join an SLT, most of all you. And it is hard to take at times, but you have chosen to sacrifice being the leader of a team with relatively limited scope in favour of being an apprentice within a team with relatively unlimited scope. The only positive aspect of that trade-off is influence and so, if you want to be both happy and successful as a senior leader, you need to start exerting that influence in every positive way you can from the get-go.

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