Two very different books on school leadership

This week I have read books about two very different approaches to school leadership.

The first was Supporting the Emotional Work of School Leaders ( Leading Teachers, Leading Schools) by Belinda Harris. At last here is a book for school leaders that goes deeper than improving exam results and passing the OFSTED inspection. It is very telling that this book was written 10 years ago and if anything the education system has deteriorated in that time.
Belinda Harris draws on a wealth of experience and research, both theoretical and practical, to back up her claims. With so many teachers leaving the profession and suffering stress-related illnesses working from the inside out is not ‘fluffy stuff’ but vital to education’s future. With the current revolution in ‘mindfulness’ and ‘well-being’ in education things are slowly changing but a lot of it is still superficial and does not go deep enough for lasting change. In my view becoming more self aware and the importance of self care needs to be embedded from initial teacher training so this book should be read by everyone in education, not just school leaders. Every member of staff in a school is a leader, just at different levels.
A lot of what Belinda writes about is probably still beyond the comprehension of many school leaders. I’ve worked in over 40 schools and I have seen very few school leaders that are aware of their inner processes and how it affects their school ethos. However it will take a few school leaders to take that leap of faith and try it out for themselves to see the difference it can make to life in and out of school.

I was in tears reading this book because there is so much evidence that by becoming more self aware we can change the world for the better and yet very little is still being done in education.

The second was Headstrong: 11 Lessons of School Leadership by Dame Sally Coates.  I call this a ‘car crash’ book – I read the sample on my Kindle and had to buy the book because I could not believe what I was seeing. This is not a book in lessons of leadership but more a story of bad management. I do believe that Sally (sorry Sally titles don’t impress me, actions do) had the best interests of her pupils at heart but she appeared to be completely unaware of the lasting impact of her actions. She does not write much about her background or what makes her qualified to be asked to turn around a failing school. From what I can see, although she had been teaching for 40 years, her experience inside and outside education is very limited. She had only worked in two schools in London and, from the length of her experience, it would appear that she has never worked in any other fields.
There are many contradictions in this book and it would take another book to go through them all fully. She bandies about the term ’emotional intelligence’ but does not apply it to herself. She has no boundaries for herself or her staff and as any good leader knows self-care is paramount. She is proud of the fact that teachers ‘drag themselves in’ – her words, not mine – rather than take time off when they are sick and calls them at all times in the evenings and weekends. She says a lot of her staff are young so perhaps they can cope with this kind of pressure and don’t have many other commitments but I was under the impression that she has dismissed the wisdom and experience that older teachers can bring to the leadership team.
Here is a woman who is so afraid to be vulnerable and let any cracks show. Bullies are very insecure in themselves and she openly admits that she wants her staff and pupils to be a bit afraid of her. There is no reference to what happened in her early life that makes her so hard on herself. She is right about one thing though and that is the ethos and the culture of the school reflects on the headteacher. However she is blinded by her own definition of ‘success’ and does not see that might mean different things to different people. She was very dismissive of people outside London who in her view were not as ambitious. I wonder who cuts her hair? Her lawyer? Her doctor? There is more to life than GCSEs and not everybody wants to go to Oxbridge, just look at their suicide rates.
I am concerned about the lasting damage she has caused with her ‘headstrong’ approach; to those teachers she told were ‘inadequate’ simply based on the hearsay of SLT, to those children that did not conform whose spirits she broke by her punitive measures  (2 hours’ detention after school on a Friday and 8 sides of lines and then only looking at the cause of their behaviour if they came back 4 or 5 times), to her young staff who have not had a good role model in self care and not least to her own children, who as teenagers need their mother at this time more than any other, while she was working 60 hours a week.
This is not a sustainable model as evidenced by the school’s exam results which dropped sharply the year after she left the school. I sincerely hope she has retired and has moved a long way so she cannot inflict any further damage. We need heartstrong leaders not headstrong ones. Read this book by all means to see in why our education system is in the state it is and then read Supporting the Emotional Work of School Leaders and take your leadership lessons from that.

I was also in tears reading this book but for very different reasons.  I really feel for Sally who is obviously suffering deep inside, even if she doesn’t know it, and all the people who have had their lives and careers destroyed by her actions. I have had it done to me and I know what that feels like.

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