A portrait of five leaders and what they have taught me

I have to be honest: I steal relentlessly from school leaders. All the time. I watch them, often quite closely, often for a number of weeks… and then I’ll pounce. Here are the nuggets of gold I’ve stolen from five inspirational leaders:

  1. Greet students. All the time. Everywhere. Use their names. Say hello. Ask them questions.

My first deputy head never stopped walking. He would walk quickly and meaningfully everywhere. And everywhere he went, he would greet everyone he passed by name. He wouldn’t stop walking, and often he was long gone by the time anyone replied, but he made every student and member of staff feel known and important. When he could, he would talk to pupils, asking them about their days, their lessons, their lives. He knew a lot, and his knowledge was powerful.

2. Be visible. Know what’s happening.

When leaders aren’t in corridors, when they don’t know what’s happening, they very quickly seem irrelevant and detached from the school they are running. Morale quickly goes down, respect diminishes and a sense of camaraderie disintegrates. Be visible. Be present.

3. Love the job, love the children. If something’s hard and annoying you, throw enthusiasm at it.

My first Head of English loved her job. Loved it. She was always smiling and always excited about the day ahead. Her enthusiasm reminded me constantly of the worthwhile job we do and helped fight against that tendency to get a little miserable. Everything is easier if you tell yourself it’s great.

4. Choose your words. Speak slowly.

Naturally, I rush through life, impatient to get things done and tick things off the list. I speak quickly too, and like many of us, I’m often self-conscious of coming across inarticulately, especially in bigger meetings. One AST I was lucky to work with always had such poise and command. When she spoke in meeting, everyone listened, safe in the knowledge that her words would be measured and important. I asked her about it once. She told me it was simple: speak slowly and choose your words. I’m still rubbish at it, but it’s becoming easier.

5. Choose one priority and work on it.

My current line manager is a force of nature. She is responsible for raising achievement and she does it unbelievably efficiently. She’s one of those people who manages to juggle a thousand things at once while making it look easy in three-inch-high heels. She once told me something which helps hugely, especially on those days I feel like I’m flailing in gale force winds. You can’t do everything at once. Choose one priority, stick to it for a bit, then tick it off and move on. Gone are the days when schools could focus solely on C/D borderlines: with the new progress 8 measures, we want to prioritise the progress of every single child. But prioritising every single child as a middle leader is nonsensical: instead, focus on one specific group at a time. Investigate, work out what’s happening, try something to help and measure the impact. Then move on.

Considering education, schools and books. Elisabeth Bowling, Assistant Principal and Head of English. I tweet at @elucymay.

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