From Cliche to Clique: A Bluffers’ Guide to SLT

Posted on April 19, 2015


Ever mindful of my role in persuading others to join the ranks of senior leadership, I am writing this post to outline the dos and don’ts of “talking the talk” to enable you to “walk the talk” of SLT membership.  I take as my inspiration this poster on quoting Shakespeare (if you haven’t seen it chances are it’ll be in the English office at your school), in which Bernard Levin strings together the various neologisms coined by the Bard that have fallen into widespread usage over the centuries since his works were written and published.

Who knows, in 400 years’ time this post might adorn Headteachers’ offices all over the country.  Enjoy!

Selling yourself

First of all, as a highly values-driven, emotionally intelligent and resilient middle leader, you will need to ensure that you have a compelling vision and/or shared vision and a proven track record to back it up.  Some of you will have a moral purpose, whilst others will recognise the moral imperative to be lead learner, lead practitioner or leading professional within that school you wish to lead (never forgetting how important it is to be a model of best practice).  You will, of course, be engaging, motivating and innovative as a professional, because such qualities allow you to be an inspirational leader (or an aspirational leader, dependent upon how much of a God complex you have).  And on that religious note, you will be certain to be deeply passionate: how else can one be transformational?  Your core vision and values will stand out because you are open, honest and transparent (these come as a three-for-one package) as befits a courageous leader.  Most of all though, you will need to decide whether you have high expectations of yourself, the highest of expectations or the very highest expectations.

Doing unto others

Getting the basics right is the number one goal for a zero tolerance (with no excuses, naturally) approach to leading a school. As a leading exponent of self-evaluation – in which you are never found wanting – you are ideally placed to monitor and evaluate everything that moves when you are action planning, thanks to your ability to triangulate stuff.  In a fast-moving educational environment, you will often pursue excellence whilst at the same time be responsible for driving improvements as you implement change and, crucially, embed it.  This quality assurance function is done in conjunction with the staff you nurture, because building capacity allows you to share good practice or (should you be lucky enough to find it) share best practice.  Because you are instrumental to the school, you constantly strive at things and fully embrace them, secure in the knowledge that when you secure accountability, you align everything in sight and – like the very best postal workers – deliver excellence.

Adverbial adventures

As Bananarama once said “it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it”.  Unremittingly, you need to remember the French acronym CRISE (let’s call it CRISE management).  The four Cs will help you lead coherently: everything you do must be done constantly, consistently and continuously, regardless of the variety of people and situations you lead (squaring this with inclusivity being the main challenge).  The four Rs are the non-negotiables of robustly exercised leadership, particularly when applied to staff development/envelopment which is rigorously, routinely and relentlessly enforced.  Every leader needs two Is to see their work clearly, approaching problems intensively as they innovatively do what all the best schools do.  The two Ss hiss away as you steam sustainably forward in a strategically minded way (even if 99% of us don’t fully understand what exactly that word means).  All of which combine to give us the one E which needs to be swallowed by potential school leaders, who wish to do everything effectively, for without effectiveness we are nothing.

Working (with) staff

Investing in people to sharpen their focus is key for a school leader who wishes to empower others or develop othersAddressing underperformance is crucial in this and, through the conspicuously paired support and challenge you offer, you will be able to have those challenging discussions and difficult conversations that will help you to make those tough decisions for which you will be paid in order to move the school forward.  Of course, this shouldn’t stop you from using the phrase team work regularly (in line with your shared ethos) because holding others to account must not preclude celebrating success.  You will be fully aware that developing the leadership capacity of your staff will mean bespoke training and coaching conversations so that a distributed leadership model can emerge.

Driving learning and teaching

Meeting the needs of all learners so that learning is personalised should be the raison d’etre of effective school leaders.  But the strategic leadership of learning involves taking a more holistic approach of the curriculum experience of students.  Monitoring procedures are of paramount importance, with learning walks, joint observations, work scrutiny (or book audits for the more accountancy minded among you) and lesson drop-ins being the bread and butter for a modern-day school leader.  These departmental review procedures will very much inform the learning conversations that need to be had to ensure that every child is on the right pathway and maintaining their flightpath to success.  Student voice (or learner voice for the more pedantic among you) is a key strand of the collegiate and collaborative leader’s work, with key stakeholders engaged in the process of co-constructing learning, in spite of their expertise in this area.

The meat in the sausage roll

Like a medieval warrior King (you Lionheart, you) raising standards is what it is all about.  Improving learning outcomes so that they are the best possible outcomes will necessarily involve you maximising achievement.  The two key weapons on this battlefield of monitoring progress are a forensic approach to data and your tracking systems.  If you get these right then you can provide appropriate intervention, or perhaps targeted intervention, or even (if you are feeling particularly ambitious) meaningful intervention.  Your victory will come in the form of expected progress and, with a following wind, better than expected progress, allowing you to claim that every child has achieved their potential, with some defying physics to exceed their potential.  Surely this will mean that you narrow the gaps or even close the gaps: you Lionheart, you.

The pastry on the sausage roll

Of course, exams aren’t everything, and a senior leader must consider the wider student outcomes that improve the life chances, particularly of the most vulnerable, so that all students leave the school as lifelong learners who are independent and autonomous individuals with positive attitudes to learning that will stay with them forever.  You will want them to be rounded individuals (at a push some of them may even become well rounded individuals) because your leadership has ensured that their individual needs have been taken care of and the whole person has been looked after.  In doing so you will have shown that – whisper it quietly – every child matters and, summoning the spirit of George Bush, that there is no child left behind.

School level outcomes

Every senior leader wants their school to become a centre of excellence, in which a first class education (possibly even a world class education if we want to be truly outward facing about it) is delivered in a student-centred and fully inclusive way.  Such a learning environment, nay learning community – rife with educational opportunities – will be vital to ensure we move away from a factory model and into a truly 21st century paradigm in which we effectively prepare students for jobs that don’t yet exist.  If you are successful in these endeavours you will have created a leading edge school that is also a cutting edge school, one that is a beacon of success and a flagship on which you and your crew can sail, safe in the knowledge that each and every one of you (but particularly you) are outstanding.

From cliché to clique

In case you haven’t quite got it, let me elaborate.  I write this post with the twin spirits of cheekiness and humility sitting on either shoulder.  Cheekiness because I hate the soundbite nature of what school leadership has (at times, and probably all too often) become and I wanted to give the lazy clichés a very good kicking or, (if I have hit my mark fairly) let the clichés give themselves a good kicking.  Humility because I recognise that in doing so I am giving myself a good kicking.  However original or authentic I purport to be a school leader, I have enough self-awareness to recognise that I have been guilty (and am still guilty, but striving hard to become more innocent) in using the kind of language I have ridiculed in the post above.

In my defence, I have written the post because I hope that all school leaders (or school leader wannabes) will read it and question themselves about how far their choice of words and turns of phrase have become disassociated from the reality of schools, staff, students, parents, the communities we serve and humanity generally.  Leadership, like language, needs to be thoughtful, considered and faithful to the spirit of human endeavours and relationships.  Cliché, jargon and technocratic language demean and cheapen school leadership, and there is too much of it.  The end result is, as the title of this post suggests, a school system where the systematic use of clichés is dividing school staff by creating a clique of leaders and potential leaders who absorb and act out the ‘language of leadership’ in order to achieve leadership positions.

As this has happened, two equally disastrous consequences have followed.  The first is that staff with amazing leadership potential have either ruled themselves out of the running for leadership posts, or have been ruled out because they don’t ‘sound like leaders’ to those reading their application letters or judging their responses on interview.  The second is that the school system has got what it seems to have wanted, an echo chamber of leadership thought in which dissent, disagreement and disunity are perceived negatively (and cast aside) at just the time when we need them to fight for what we value and to fight against the imposition of what we don’t.

We can do better.  We can challenge ourselves to unlearn the clichés and to express anew (the poster at the start of this post is a celebration of Shakespeare’s capacity to say something new), with the clarity of language with which we entered the profession, that which we see and hold dear.  And if we can’t do so?  If we can’t find a cliché-free way to express that?  Then maybe it isn’t something which we hold so dear after all, and we should stop drinking the damn Kool Aid.

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