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08 February 2021

The Monday Briefing: Tell Me What You See

The Monday Briefing: Tell Me What You See

As we reach the halfway point of the academic year, a tumultuous one admittedly, a timely review of progress is invaluable. We’ve been conducting consultations with parents to do just that in the case of students within the College, and these have been extremely useful, but it’s also a felicitous time for staff to do the same. Before Christmas, appraisal meetings were conducted following lines of responsibility to identify targets for members of staff, congruent with the three priorities for development at the College: encouragement of student leadership; enhancing opportunities for students to develop outside the classroom, both in an extra-curricular sense and as preparation for university; and in developing staff capabilities further. The Winter Term saw new levels of commitment to continuing professional development for our teachers with a dedicated Friday afternoon session acting as an effective forum for sharing best practice and exploring new methods of delivery, principally retrieval practice. Staff have now formed break-out groups where time can be invested into individual areas for growth, working towards their individual goals.

Appraisal is an extremely important part of ensuring the improvement of standards in any industry, and I’m looking forward to having mine this week. Receiving professional judgement on one’s performance can be an awkward process, but I have always tried to embrace it. As part of my appraisal process, ratings and judgements across a range of seven competencies was supplied to my appraiser by all of the staff. I was able to then analyse this, with a view to formulating my own targets. Having access to honest, forthright feedback on my performance so far is indispensable - and I was pleased to read a number of comments which have, for me, provided affirmation that my approach during the first year of my tenure as Principal has been well received.

Though I’ve been afforded guidance from the group and a mentor by Bellevue Education, it has been left largely to me to define my own leadership style. One book which I have consulted on several occasions, both prior to, and after taking the helm in September is Wholesome Leadership by Tom Rees. A book which recognises that Headteachers have little time to sift through a giant opus of instruction, it offers succinct and insightful direction about the key structures of school management. Featuring a proliferation of perceptive ideas, it has helped me to focus my approach, and naturally develop my leadership style. An early part of the book explores Daniel Goleman’s six leadership styles, and when they are most effectively used. I quickly ascertained that a blend of visionary and democratic was my natural approach, and I have found that it has been conducive to a positive working environment. Staff don’t feel micromanaged, and I’ve been able to create widespread ‘buy-in’ by consulting them when major decisions need to be made regarding the future of the College.

At the same time, no one is infallible - and it is in reading the views of my colleagues where I’ve been able to recognise potential areas for further development, whilst realising that that my approach has matured in the last few years, resulting in an increased sense of self-assurance. I understand that I have much to learn, but I’m confident in my ability to overcome the challenges which will inevitably come. Having the overwhelming backing of the staff helps in this. Whilst reading through my appraisal feedback, the fact that this is apparent is extremely heartening. To be described as ‘empathetic’, ‘thoughtful’ and responsible for embedding an ‘all-encompassing vision’ only serves to build my confidence that I am capable of the role, in the right place, and that all of my efforts are appreciated. I’m also very accepting where staff outline potential growth areas, and a few staff pointed out that the perception that I am more lenient than my predecessor.

I prefer to think of my approach as more of a calm and considered adherence to the College rules than leniency, and there are several reasons for this. Where the last incumbent of the role provided more of a commanding, pacesetting style, I’m more methodical. I recall a story imparted to me by a former colleague about a Headteacher he worked under who would often exclude a student early in the academic year, making every effort to broadcast this occurrence in order to display his power to the student body. I find this approach objectionable for a number of reasons: it is often an unfair and premature decision; it elevates discipline to a place where in order to maintain fairness, exclusions should follow for a number of students to keep pace; fundamentally, it makes everything about the person in charge rather than the behaviour of the student being disciplined. I have taken the decision to exclude in the past and followed through with it, but I am strongly of the opinion that it must be absolutely the last resort of the disciplinary process.

Considering the implications of our actions beyond the short term is fundamental to good leadership. I revealed a few weeks ago that I was rewatching the Sopranos, and my mind is drawn to a situation which developed following the identification of Vito, a middle ranking mobster, as a homosexual - something completely taboo within their community. Demands on Tony Soprano by his incensed crew to act swiftly in ordering his killing were overwhelming, but he was at pains to consider the consequences. His stern refusal to immediately adhere through his retort, ‘are you going to take care of his kids?!’ quickly tempered the outrage, though it didn’t save Vito.

As an historian, I have studied leadership beyond that displayed in education and TV Mafia shows, and in this instance, my mind is drawn to the world situation of the 1930s. The public exclusion tactic was typical of the authoritarian approach adopted by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin - a show trial in essence - utilised to successfully root a climate of fear. I prefer to take the approach of former US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s ‘Three Rs’ when tasked with disciplining students threatened with exclusion. To offer relief to their plight through suspension, allowing time to consider options, recovering the situation with a fitting punishment and reforming their behaviour through extensive intervention. I’ve found this approach to be just and far more fitting with the College which we are. 

We must also consider what happens next when such life-changing decisions are made: will it be easy for the student to pick themselves up after the exclusion? Have all possible alternative options been exhausted? Is anyone better placed to help these students through difficulties? 

In the vast majority of cases, my answer has to be ‘no’.

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