Gail Peyton is Ark’s Regional Director for primary schools in Birmingham. In this blog post, she discusses school leadership and how her own personal experiences helped form her leadership style.
When you look at articles about school leadership, they are often a list of attributes that great leaders have: vision, courage, passion, emotional intelligence, judgment, resilience, persuasion and curiosity. Those are all important characteristics, but when I look at these lists, I can’t help but think that there are a few things missing…such as humility and respect. Being a school leader is a privilege – we should always ask ourselves: ‘Why me?’ ‘Am I the right person to lead?’ and take that responsibility seriously. If we don’t get it right, the time just simply doesn’t come back – our children have one opportunity and it’s our duty to deliver the best for them.
Leading others should be a humbling experience. From my perspective, I see leadership as an inverted pyramid (I use the term pyramid rather than triangle, because you need broad shoulders to carry and deliver on this!) I see myself very much at the bottom, children are absolutely at the top, and our teams in schools form the layers in between. My role is to make sure everyone else becomes the best that they can be in order to achieve great pupil outcomes. In other words, I am there to serve others. It is our staff who are at the forefront of our work – delivering on the outcomes we want for our pupils. They go more than the extra mile, day in and day out. Truly valuing them is really knowing them and appreciating everything they do.
I think another thing missing from the list is the ability to see potential in others. When I was young, I faced many difficulties at home and the latter part of my teens was spent in Local Authority Care. I had low self-esteem, and I had been subject to the low expectations placed on me at school and society. I remember a teacher telling me I had the makings of a very good typist, if I only I applied myself. I didn’t want to be a typist – somewhere deep inside me I felt I was capable of more, but I lacked confidence. As a young adult, I started the process of learning to take responsibility for myself – this meant I had to begin to believe in my own potential. This process enabled me to eventually contribute to and create value in society through my work in education. I’m not for an instant suggesting this is an easy process – taking absolute responsibility for your life is tough! However, I can now see that it is precisely because of the personal work I undertook to rebuild my life in a more positive direction, that all of my experiences came together to shape who I am as a leader. Life is a process of challenge and response and it’s important to recognise and remember this. For me, I lead in the manner I do because of my experiences, not in spite of them.
As a profession we can often become judgemental about pupils or their families – “If that pupil wasn’t in my class, my job would be so much better or easier”. But we must always remember that people have dignity, and we must be determined to see their potential, no matter what. When I hear someone talk negatively about a child or a family, I think to myself: ‘I was that child, that was my family’. It’s a great reminder. Similarly, we have to continue to see the potential in our staff and continue to invest in them if we really want to make a difference. As they are at the forefront of our work, we have to develop them so that they can be the best that they can be. We don’t become educators to have an easy life. That’s not what we’ve actually chosen. I believe leadership is walking alongside someone, not in front of them or dragging them behind you! You see the potential and foster this – you allow them to have their own ideas and give them permission to lead, and you have high expectations of what they are capable of. You lead by your own example, but you let them find their own way. You are there to guide them.
There’s also nothing in that leadership list about the team. For me, great leadership isn’t just about the head of the school – everyone in the team should be leading and this is more about the head’s ability to truly foster capable leaders. In many respects I think if I’m doing my role effectively, I should be aiming to make myself redundant; to build a team which absolutely leads at all levels. It’s about everyone standing up and taking responsibility to deliver the mission we all believe in. So yes, leadership is all of those skills listed above, but you have to awaken them and foster them in everyone you work with if you want to really make a difference.
Finally, it’s all about attitude. At Ark, we don’t work in schools that are doing comfortably. We choose to go into the most challenging schools and by doing this we are essentially accepting a challenge to make a difference in children’s lives. Since we’ve chosen to be here, we’ve also chosen the very obstacles we face every day to make our schools great.
What should our attitude be then to affect children’s lives and to deliver our mission? To see that the challenges we face are actually a gift. If there weren’t any challenges along the way, we simply couldn’t be affecting that change, or delivering on our mission – they are in effect ‘essential proof’. That’s why we are here, that’s why we became teachers and leaders, and that’s why we choose to work where we do. We live that moral imperative.