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Brave School Leadership – an observational perspective

My philosophical approach to learning sees no finish line – unless we choose to draw one. I have come to recognise, that the most influential form of learning derives from listening and observing: not necessarily from those scheduled observations we have been prompted to attend as these have their bias limitations, but rather the random day to day observations which coalesce together to create a better understanding of transformational change. 

Leader Julie Cassiano

Back to the point… what have I learnt about brave leadership from networking and random observation? 

I have engaged in various conversations whereby colleagues share their impressions of what accounts as effective, brave leadership. I hear of those so-called “brave leaders” who have no difficulty reprimanding staff for their actions. Those who make bold decisions without the need to consult others – ‘they just tell us how it is’. Or leaders who have no difficulty managing underperformance using an authoritarian style, ‘you have a few weeks to improve or you are out; failure will not be tolerated here’. Also leaders who thrive on the accountability policy and use it to threaten staff to achieve targets with no recognition or cognizance of the narrative.

I have experienced first-hand the external and internal impact of this form of leadership early in my career. The external impact: high performing attainment, top of the league tables, and an ‘outstanding’ Ofsted report. What about the internal impact? The staff were incredibly talented but unfortunately, the solemn atmosphere was felt from the onset. The leadership style was harsh. Lunch time conversations were dominated by one of two things: staff’s poor mental health and from work-related stress (in their opinion) or how poor the pupils’ behaviour had been. There was an immense lack of motivation or admiration for the occupation. The Head Teacher’s vision always referred to the pupils’ attainment solely. Every meeting was opened with the Head Teacher communicating a drive to uphold the school’s competitive culture of ensuring that as a school we outperformed other schools in our neighbourhood and beyond. Unfortunately, the staff’s lack of motivation translated into the classroom. I recognised this was not the school for me and chose to move on to gain experiences elsewhere. 

The above experience led me to consider whether teaching was the right career choice for me. I decided to continue with my training so as to explore other contexts before making this decision. Since then, I have observed concrete examples of brave leadership. This blog will reflect on the practice of three practitioners I was fortunate enough to observe. 

Experience one
It is a Head teacher’s first term in post. A local authority visit confirms their own analysis that any forthcoming Ofsted inspection would deem their school ‘Requires Improvement’. As an employee, I observed transformational change within this setting via a brave leadership approach. Firstly, although there were challenging targets to address, the vision put forward for the school was always pupil centred. Setbacks at this school were framed as an opportunity to learn. At times, these setbacks led to the Head Teacher and senior leaders being held to account by Governors/SIPs. After intense external scrutiny, the Head Teacher modelled ethical leadership approaches; he would never allow his own emotional response to transfer onto his leadership team or staff. I once commented on his ability to remain so calm – the swan analogy was recited. 

There was this shared culture that taking risks was not only accepted but encouraged. I learnt the value of adopting a key set of values and staying faithful to them. Additionally, having the confidence and ability to transform a school, whilst enduring immense criticism, without ever allowing the cycle of negativity can you often feel transcend onto staff. 

A distributed leadership style was adopted through school, staff took complete ownership of the school’s growing success whereas the Head Teacher would often fade into the background observing from a distance with pride. The unspoken culture became: successes belonged to the staff and pupils whereas setbacks belonged to the senior leadership team. Teaching and learning was transformed subtly. This school is now recognised as a high performing school with a Good Ofsted grade. The school is not only successful because of its rise in progress and attainment data but for being an enjoyable school to work at, fully inclusive and offers a creative, broad and balanced curriculum.  

Experience two
As a growing leader, I was given the opportunity to shadow a Head Teacher for the day. A fly on the wall experience with no planned agenda. There were aspects of the day whereby this leader was put on the spot and made vulnerable, so much so, I offered to leave the room at times but was asked to remain. It was explained ‘if I invite you to shadow me, I must allow you to see all aspects of my role not just the icing on the cake’. Bravery is exposing yourself to vulnerability whilst not allowing the unstable feelings to tempt leaders into avoiding or controlling given situations.

During a tour of the school, the Head Teacher talked about their staff structure and their passion for ‘representation’. The Head Teacher explained, ‘My staff must represent the diversity of a classroom.’ The Head Teacher talked me through how their school had supported a teacher on the ASD spectrum. I was fortunate enough to meet this teacher. She shared how she had always dreamed of becoming a teacher. Unfortunately, she was rejected by several schools and PGCE course leaders due to the nature of her disability. It was not until this Head Teacher appointed her as a graduate intern (fully supporting her through her studies applying reasonable adjustments) did this person successfully gain QTS. I considered this analogy. We can buy a ‘ready meal’ every time. It has all the ingredients prepared and cooked; ready to serve, but the long-term gains are not healthy if consumed too often. Alternatively, we can make a fresh, slow-cooked meal which provides healthier, long-term gains.  A balanced diet serves well. It takes bravery to recruit someone who has not got all the requirements as inevitably, in the short term, you will observe less able practice. Nevertheless, with investment, you can grow your own professionals which subsequently results in greater long-term gains.  

Experience three
My final example is based on a personal reflection from a webinar I attended last year – mid pandemic. The Head Teacher described their leadership role in their school. She touched upon her perceived failures and used Brene Brown’s theory to reframe these failures positively. What stood out to me was the way she brought her whole, authentic self – she openly aired her perceived failures and vulnerabilities. She touched upon an area I have been considering for some time: the conflict between being HUMAN and PROFESSIONAL and where you draw the line. She shared that it was essential she was HUMAN first with her staff and community. I felt emotional as I could relate to her experience, especially her reflection on not being able to satisfy everyone. Consequently, she learnt her greatest strength was being clear about what her values were throughout the pandemic and giving clear rationales behind all decisions. She admitted she could not please all, but everyone understood her rationale and valued her authenticity throughout.  

I define bravery as showing up every day equipped with your moral purpose, values and virtues and remaining loyal to them. It is taking the time to think through all actions before you allow your emotions to get the better of you. Bravery is calm during turmoil. Bravery is having the VOICE and knowledge to accept external challenge positively whilst having the confidence to challenge if you do not agree (respectfully – no need for trolling). Bravery is having the confidence to challenge the status quo where positive, productive impact is not being achieved. Ask yourself regularly, ‘Why are we doing this?’  Especially practice which does not consider staff’s work-life balance. Bravery is placing your personal EGO to one side for the good of others. Bravery is taking risks in order to allow staff the time to develop in a safe, calm environment. Bravery is promoting a culture whereby setbacks are accepted as a developmental tool. Bravery is allowing others to witness your vulnerability. Bravery is accepting that learning is a lifelong continuum – never be afraid to learn from someone who is further down the hierarchy. Bravery is saying, “I don’t know… but I know someone who does.” 

‘If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be’ – Maya Angelou

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The author

After completing an English degree in 2009, Julie Cassiano began her teaching career in Brent, London. She taught across the primary age phase and has gained school leadership experiences across the UK. She is currently the Head Teacher of a school in Northampton and is finishing an MSc in Educational Leadership. Julie has always thoroughly enjoyed working in inner-city primary schools and is passionate about social justice and inclusion activism.

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