Leadership from my dining room table

How school leadership requires radical openness and transparency, now, more than ever before

Edmund Coogan Head of Standards

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When schools closed on the 20th March I felt my leadership toolkit had been taken away from me.   No longer could I lead a morning briefing in the school hall bringing staff together in our common purpose; walk the corridors to feel the energy of learning around me; visit classrooms to hear rich dialogue between children and their teacher; talk to children in the playground to find out how their day had been and address the anxieties and worries of our parents and carers at the school gates.  My presence was now reduced to sitting at my dining table, behind a computer screen. A distance was created between me and the community I work alongside.  In this time of crisis, leadership has never been more important.  Leaders need to create safety and purpose in a time of uncertainty and panic.  

It left me asking myself really important questions.  How will we be able to maintain a sense of community and togetherness? How will we keep lines of communication open and allow space for reciprocal exchange with our children and their families about the effectiveness of our provision?  How will we ensure good wellbeing of staff and families are maintained? How will we make staff and families aware of all the new guidance and communication coming from the government?

Visible leadership now meant more than just a physical presence in the school building and with the community.  Never more so had leaders in the school been the custodian of the culture in our school community now that we’re operating in a virtual landscape.  It has required authentically engaging with children, parents and staff, one conversation at a time. That focus on fostering strong relationships and seeking feedback pulls us together for a single cause – community.

Making Entry and staying connected

Finding common interests and pursuits helps. This can be as simple as sharing pictures of the quality of the crumb in our most recent bakes, or talking about a photo from a recent walk. Quickly ensuring staff and their families are safe and well is essential, especially when our interactions with a member of staff that day are limited only to a 30-minute google hangout. As a collective staff body, we’ve modelled fun and  innovative ways to check in, for example, ‘which Gemma Collins image best represents how you’re feeling and why?’ These techniques can also work with students. Staff need to feel they still belong to the organisation. We’ve created several spaces for this to happen: our bi-weekly circle briefing; Wednesday whole staff meetings; our staff and students menti board (a virtual praise board). All of these keep us feeling connected, valued and informed. 

Openness

I’ve found that promoting a culture of openness helps too. Surveying parents has been an annual process in many schools I’ve worked in. But now, we’re seeking views and feedback almost weekly. Being freed from the shackles of the school timetable and structures, we’ve been able to genuinely listen and respond to feedback quickly.  We’ve been able to ask the question: would you like further support from the school? We’ve been able to channel additional resources to support families and staff. We’ve been able to reform our Y9 curriculum through an open collaborative dialogue between Senior Leaders and Teachers. We now feel like we have created something truly innovative and dynamic. Decision making has become much more democratised, no longer centering on a round table in the Headteacher’s office.  Making the time and space to listen to feedback is key, and the virtual space (Google Forms/ Jamboard) is a tool open to us upon return – exit tickets in the classroom, instant feedback on CPD sessions, consultation on reform and new initiatives. If we do this, school leaders can be more responsive to changes that come from staff at all levels within the organisation. This surely ought to become the new normal.

Transparency

Perhaps most important of all, is clarity of message. In a period of such volatility and uncertainty, the importance of school leaders getting this right cannot be overstated.  Staff have valued the leaders within our school sharing our processes. For example, how we respond when decisions are communicated from a Downing Street press conference, or when we receive several published Department for Education documents on a Friday afternoon. Corridor conversations to clarify and ask questions about decisions and processes within the school can no longer take place. When information is coming from lots of different sources, leaders need to cut through the noise.

Back in my dining room, time has to be put aside to ensure everyone feels confident. For example, decisions around grades for our students in Y11 and Y13. This is something teachers really want to get right, so discussion is needed to ensure staff feel confident in what they are doing. Even as a leader, I needed the space to connect with other assessment leads and Headteachers across schools in London all embarking on the same set of work in their school.  A one hour zoom meeting later and I’m buzzing with a range of ideas and approaches that will enable me to provide clarity to the staff at my school.  

To maximise transparency, policies and risk assessments can be shared at the draft stage. This way, they can be critiqued and reviewed with all key stakeholders in the organisation before becoming our published version.  I’ve also thought about how technology, such as screencastify, has enabled me to present my thinking and ideas behind new processes. I like to do this prior to a virtual meeting so that more time can be used for critique and discussion. Surely there’s space when we’re back physically in the school building to continue to use technology to enhance leadership.  Imagine the power of meetings no longer being presentational, one way dialogue with school leaders presenting to their teams, but rather a two way dialogic conversation facilitated through virtual presentations ahead of time.

The lessons learnt over leadership during the last three months, and embracing the technology available to schools will help guide us through this.  Parents attending whole school assemblies through live streaming. Key information being uploaded to our website in video form. Instructional videos from teachers explaining homework or how to support learning at home. School leaders and teachers virtually attending more networking events and collaborative spaces as the technology makes this increasingly possible. As the pandemic has continued, even bigger questions have emerged for us as leaders.  How can we safely open our school back to our community?  How do we make sure education disadvantage is not further widened for our most vulnerable children? How can we ensure an overhaul of our curriculum and move from being non-racist to an anti-racist organisation?  We can begin to start addressing these questions as school leaders; but only if we remain open to the conversation, however uncomfortable as this is the space where genuine innovation can take place.  To do so requires us to live our values and be visible through demonstrating authentic leadership, openness and radical transparency even when we’re no longer leading from our dining room table.

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