How do your teaching staff see you?
What do they want from you as a school leader?
Sometimes there is a disconnect between teachers and their Senior Leadership Team (SLT) and when this happens it can be professionally very challenging.
As John Tait (2021) says in ‘Stepping Into Senior Leadership’, “Irrespective of how good you are, or how good you think you are, nothing is achieved in senior leadership without the support of the team around you.”
If we look to parallel industries to discover the science of management then according to Terry Bacon in ‘What People Want: A Manager's Guide to Building Relationships That Work’, the top 9 things people want are: honesty, fairness, trust, respect, dependability, collaboration, genuineness, appreciation and responsiveness.
Very few would argue with this wish list even though it relates to a survey of 500 business bosses.
Is this the same for school leaders?
There are lots of myths and legends about headship and everyone has their own idea of what their Headteacher should be ‘doing’ but there are some common attributes and behaviours that are expected of all headteachers as leaders of their school community and profession.
These benchmarks are clearly articulated in The Headteachers’ Standards 2020 and describe the professional qualities that are expected of leaders in their day-to-day work both in and out of school.
Like the previous standards, they are non-statutory, but they are an extremely useful and offer Heads guidance that is of real practical use.
1. Set the standard
First and foremost, Headteachers set the tone, the standard and the scene. You are the linchpins and decisive element in your school and your colleagues, children and community will take their lead from how you act and the things that you do.
Senior leaders must uphold and demonstrate the Nolan principles at all times. These are the Seven Principles of Public Life and form the basis of the ethical standards expected of all teaching:
Teachers expect their leaders to set the bar high and model these behaviours as a professional way of being so the culture of the school is characterised by consistently high standards of principled and professional conduct.
2. Respect and empathy
Promoting relationships of congruence through a caring professionalism and stepping into the shoes of teachers is key. Feeling respected, understood and supported improves loyalty, dedication, and engagement in the workplace.
Empathy transforms relationships between teachers and their SLT because it reinforces mutual supportiveness, creates a culture of psychological safety and enables teachers to know that they are valued and being listened to. Heads with emotional intelligence have the capacity to understand and connect emotionally with others.
Headteachers need to be seen out and about ‘walking the shop floor’. High-vis Heads make it their business to be seen so that they can connect with the whole-school community in order to build trust, respect and inspire confidence. Office-bound Heads can become siloed; can easily miss what is happening around them and so fail to nip in the bud any problems and issues.
Leadership is an action rather than a position and Heads that are visible are therefore accessible, approachable and relatable.
Teachers don’t want to be micro-managed. They want to be able to get on with their jobs and to exercise their professional judgement and be trusted to do their best for their students. Teachers want to be recognised for the professionals they are, to make decisions, to be creative and to take some risks.
Teachers who are trusted to teach and are allowed to have greater involvement in their professional development goal-setting, enjoy greater autonomy and research shows this is associated with higher job satisfaction and intention to stay in teaching.
Teachers want their Head to ask the tough questions, challenge the status quo when things aren’t working, unpick biases, construct counter-narratives and champion the rights of children and adults in the school. Heads that do this have equity at the core of their work.
They are committed and dedicated to social justice, equality and excellence and understand the true value of human capital.
6. Model vulnerability
We all make mistakes and that includes Heads. Rather than hide these away by sweeping them under the staffroom carpet, they need to be owned, shared and spoken about. This sends out the message that it is okay to mess up because no one is perfect.
Modelling vulnerability has a positive impact on staff because it promotes a transparency, normalises mistake-making as opportunities to learn and is better for wellbeing. Staff don’t expect you to be perfect, and you can alienate them if you are unable to admit fault when things go wrong.
7. Supremely optimistic
Heads need to have a positive, enthusiastic outlook and be the chief energisers of their learning communities with a complete absence of paranoia and self-pity. As Brent Davies and Professor Sir Tim Brighouse (2008) once said, “Teaching is for optimists. Headship is for supreme optimists.”
Optimism breeds hope, confidence, resilience and promotes a can-do culture throughout the school especially in the face of difficulties and challenges.
Teachers want their Heads to show determination, press on in the face of adversity and have the willpower and patience to see things through. Successful Heads are courageous, embrace risks, innovate and are steadfast in facing challenging situations.
Teachers want a Head that doesn’t give in to self-doubt, but someone that displays grace under pressure, is decisive and leads with conviction to achieve the best outcomes.
Far too many teachers claim that they feel their Heads are out of touch with the realities of classroom life. There is a simple solution to that: teach. Heads need to keep their teaching skills up-to-date by making time to engage in classroom teaching so that they can continue to earn the respect of their colleagues and students.
10. Time protectors
Teachers respect leaders who value their time because this is precious and they listen to, appreciate and follow leaders who allow them ownership of time.
Teachers have umpteen things to do and they need time to do it without burning out. With so much to cram into a week, teachers can soon get snowed under and overwhelmed. Heads can help by giving their staff more time and helping to ease their workloads through time-stealing decisions that will make an instant impact such as only holding meetings when absolutely necessary.
Teachers need their Heads to have their backs and support them and to fight their corner when the going gets tough, so helping your staff feel supported and cared for is one of the most important things you can do. There will always be instances when staff need personal and professional help and you should be the first person they turn to as a trusted colleague and leader.
Teachers want their Heads to have a clear vision for the school. The best school leaders are visionaries with a clear sense of moral purpose, who have the ability to formulate and shape the future, rather than be shaped by events.
Teachers will feel even more passionate about their work if your vision is crystal clear because it provides everyone with a common cause.
It is difficult to have faith in school leaders who say one thing but do another. Heads therefore need to be consistent in all that they say, as inconsistency breeds uncertainty, resentment and fear. Staff want their Heads to keep their word and commitments because it inspires confidence and a sense of reliability. If you walk the talk, you can expect that others will walk the talk.
Effective leaders inspire others and effectively align their teams behind a concise and consistent narrative.
Heads with the capacity to be flexible and adaptable are respected for their ability to meet competing demands. They are androgynous leaders and ambidextrous leaders who can change roles and adopt different leadership styles according to context and circumstances. They have a wider behavioural range; they step in and outside of the box and are quite prepared to stamp on it too.
15. Outward looking
Teachers don’t want their Heads to be introspective but outward looking and engaging in collaborative partnership working, within and beyond the school. Effective leaders are focused on empowering others, not on their own progress or ego.
Teachers don’t want an inward-looking Head that is egocentric, myopic and self-serving. They want someone who is curious and orientates the school’s purpose, intent, attitudes and behaviour around the needs, values, interests, and aspirations of people both inside and outside the school.
Staff want their Head to be honest, trustworthy, and reliable and like to work with a Head who is ethical. They know that if their Head acts with integrity, they will treat them right and do what’s best for them, the students and the school.
Headteachers need to model integrity as their words, actions, decisions and methodologies help to create the school’s values and its culture.
Heads are passionate about their school and put both the students and staff first. They care intensely about teaching and learning and take an active interest in the whole-school community.
Intelligent passion is leadership fuelled with energy, commitment and a belief that every pupil can succeed. They make things happen because they are driven and dedicated and lead with their heart and soul. They are high energy leaders who make dialogue a priority and are hungry to make improvements.
Being a leader does not exempt you from chaos, stress and pressures, as you are in the thick of it all day, so how you respond matters.
A constantly overworked and frazzled Headteacher creates stress for everyone around them which is why teachers need their Head to be in control and not rocked by every disruption that comes along.
Leaders who are in control bring a calm presence and stability to situations by harnessing their experience, resilience, intuition, wisdom and maturity to a range of situations.
Effective headteachers are confident communicators, great storytellers, intelligent persuaders and active listeners. They are also mindful motivators who know how to get the best out of people and can energise others by investing time in them and learning about their priorities, strengths and needs. Motivated staff make a stronger, more dynamic and hardy school.
Teachers like to be consulted and included in decisions. Heads who demonstrate good judgement understand that their staff have considerable collective expertise that can help inform and guide their thinking.
Teachers possess an incredible amount of information about the day-to-day operations of school life and they are more than happy to share what they know, and that knowledge can be harnessed to shape school improvement and corporate success.
When things go well, they go swimmingly, but when they don’t then there is nothing worse than staff frustration and unhappiness because it can cause friction, resentment and sometimes toxicity.
Given the huge number of qualities Heads need to possess, perhaps the 4Hs of school leadership, as proposed by Sir John Dunford in Rae Snape’s ‘The Headteacher’s Handbook’, are the most essential ingredients of successful leadership…
If you can display these then you are showing your staff that you are emotionally intelligent and they are in safe hands.
About the author
John is an ex-primary school teacher and Ofsted inspector who has spent the last 20 years working in the education industry as a teacher, writer and editor. John’s specialist area is primary maths but he also loves teaching science and English. John has written a number of educational and children’s books, and contributed over 1,000 articles and features to various educational bodies. John is Eteach’s school leadership and Ofsted advice guru, sharing insights on best practice for motivating and enriching a school team, as well as sharing savvy career steps for headteachers and SLT.