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Why leadership positions in the education sector are particularly rewarding

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What constitutes effective educational leadership is something of a vexed question as people cannot decide what it really means, or do not have a clue about the day-to-day reality of what is involved. Friends who work in the sector have so many stories, some of success, where there is effective collaborative working and a genuine overall sense of collective ownership and respect. Unfortunately, others speak of school leaders who view the schools under their jurisdiction as their own private fiefdom and are not all that interested or supportive of the teachers and students under their care and supervision.

These leaders’ actions lack transparency. They operate using a ‘divide and conquer’ approach, stoking unnecessary tension between staff. They do not commit to the organization, engaging in a flurry of activity at the start of the role that involves spending a brief period of ‘pulling up trees’ to assert authority, then disappearing into the next role before a genuine transformation has been made. Radical change is all very well, but if the impact does not prove radical, it is pointless. In this situation, all that is left behind is an organization where the best employees have left or are ready to leave, the student body is disaffected, and there is a major mess to sort out. Those leaders appear to be more motivated by their own career ambitions rather than the holistic growth and attainment of the student body, and they are inconsistent by not exhibiting the behaviors that they claim they want to see in their organization. Let’s face it, these people are not true leaders, they are self-interested Dollar Store dictators.

As a sector, education has been having a rough ride for the last few years and it is easy to see why working to provide leadership in this area might be considered difficult. The reason why it is considered difficult is because of the many layers of complexity in the situation, and it takes an effective leader to sort through it all. It is safe to say that potential leaders in the field can be left somewhat aghast and put off by the apparently massive challenge that lies ahead of them. After all, there are lots of potentially unhappy people out there that it is your job to support, empower and energize, with a lot of sources of their unhappiness caused by factors that may not necessarily be something you can influence.

A very good example of this is that the chronic underfunding in public schools in some states that has meant that the teaching team (that are critical to the central function of the educational establishment) are growing increasingly unhappy with their pay and conditions. Teachers are often having to provide classroom supplies from their own pockets and, in some cases, repair their classrooms that are disintegrating around them. It is perhaps understandable that demotivation is creeping in. And in the meantime, this is all occurring while being subject to the whims of competing ideologies and differing political opinion. It is hard work to maintain focus and a sense of being valued when those who have never done the job and have not been in a classroom since high school, feel the urge to hold forth about the day-to-day realities of being an educational professional, and pass judgement on your dedication and professionalism.

Despite the apparent doom and gloom inherent in all the things above, being a leader in education is one of the most exhilarating and gratifying roles out there. For a start, it is the kind of role where the right person can have a deep and profound positive impact on people’s lives, as well as supporting and benefiting society at large. In short, good educational leaders need to be able to inspire and motivate, and be creative and forward thinking, while simultaneously being business savvy and possessing the persuasiveness and influence to make their vision into a reality.

There are a few key areas that are essential to being a good educational leader:

The power of community engagement

What sets someone who can provide excellent organizational leadership in education apart is that they are able to exploit and utilize the opportunity to ensure that:

  • The school is a nurturing environment, that supports and achieves results through encouragement, empowerment and no insignificant amount of pastoral care, which benefits everyone associated with it.
  • That the education setting is a genuine part of the community at large, because that is how success is generated. There is a collective drive from the school, the parents, carers, and the students to do their best and subsequently the institution becomes woven into a neighborhood. Schools are unique in this regard. Other types of organizations often do not need that same degree of holistic togetherness because those enterprises do not impact on the social fabric of a community in the same profound way.

A school that feels distant to its students, parents and carers alike is unlikely to achieve its goals. A good school operates best when everyone within it is wedded to the idea of the school’s collective success, which can help mitigate against the impacts of social deprivation and underfunding. Creating a family around the school means that people are invested in it, the students realize that they are vital to it, the teachers feel valued and respected. This fosters a feeling that it is worthwhile trying to improve the school together, to help support the wider community.

Schools are often where social problems and difficulties become visible, (at its most basic level, one should never underestimate the capacity of kids for ratting you out) but there is also a degree of teamwork required between parents, carers and the school to bring up and educate children in a collaborative way that encourages growth and evolution. Likewise, having this relationship means that parents entrust you with the responsibility of providing the education and accompanying care for their children, so it is best if you have an open and honest dialogue with everyone around behaviors, expectations, pastoral care and the feeling that the welfare of the child is central to the establishment’s purpose. The community needs to know that its school leaders genuinely care.

Good planning, drive, purpose and vision

You do not get any of that without having a cohesive vision and a distinct and identifiable purpose to your leadership. Being clear about your aspirations for your organization and being able to articulate them to a community so that they will come along for the ride is vital to any educational leader’s success. Clear statements of intent, backed by definite actions that can be measured, are fiercely important — as well as being able to take long-term responsibility for its delivery.

That is why the fly-by-night leaders are no good in an education setting, as to make a real difference that sticks an inspirational leader must be in it for the long haul. An appropriate plan for effecting lasting change does not involve a top-down approach where stakeholders feel they have no choice or influence. Nor can it be a quick fix. A battle for hearts and minds is never a short-term or swift undertaking.

Things that should be part of a good plan for an educational setting are as follows:

  • A baked-in, collaborative approach that encourages the development of consensus.
  • It is a plan that takes the time to reflect on the actions that have been taken so far and engages critically to ensure that they are genuinely the best ways to achieve the objectives that execute the leader’s vision for the school.
  • Clear ownership
  • High-level support
  • Good communication
  • A measured approach to achieving success.

Embracing kindness, respect and inclusivity

A mistake that is often made by politicians is the belief that children are empty vessels into which teachers pour their knowledge. This does not take into account the uniqueness of each child, or that they are all people in their own right. They may be small and mutable, but they are, every single one of them, an individual. Because of that, a leader in a good educational institution works with and supports different learning styles and abilities.

To put it more bluntly, as the saying goes, there is more than one way to skin a cat. Education is not, and should never be, one size fits all. As an example, adopting a ‘boot camp’ mentality to run a PreK is a terrible idea in most settings, as in most cases, kids will end up terrified and you may need to be worried about the ones who do not seem to be affected at all.

A spirit of inclusivity and a will to understand that a uniform and rigid approach will only benefit the few is so important. Accommodations need to be made for learning styles and cultural and economic backgrounds. Considerations need to also be made for challenges to learning like physical disabilities, learning disabilities, or neurodivergence that once would have marked a child out as a troublemaker or resulted in them being cast aside at an early age. The world is gradually starting to open its eyes to the gifts that different ways of thinking can bring, and a school needs to be a reflection of this. School should demonstrate the values that we wish to see represented in the world, to make it a better and fairer place and ensure that children and young adults achieve their potential in a supportive and nurturing environment.

A passion for learning

One of the most important but least recognized attributes of a strong educational leader is the drive and willingness to learn something new on every step of the journey and being dedicated to constantly embracing innovation in education. In addition to this, the effective leader will be seeking to inspire and encourage the performance and career aspirations of those that they are leading. It is the will to do better and develop, both personally and as an organization.

A very good example of this that has proven useful time and time again, and has paid real dividends for students, teachers and leaders alike has been in supporting and educating around autism and special education. The primary benefit of this is that it has given teachers and (through thoughtful teaching) students too, the ability to understand, adapt and empathize with autistic classmates. The simple act of knowing what to expect from someone, or knowing that a person might respond very differently to what most people feel is ‘normal’ stimuli, gives everyone the tools to accommodate and be aware of how someone else might be feeling.

Another dimension to this that needs to be highlighted is that by facilitating the passions of your staff you prove that you are investing in them. It helps to improve performance, and assists with enabling them to follow their dreams, which can only add value to the whole organization. Happy people do not move jobs, the student body gets the consistency needed to help them progress, and the leadership is not left with a high staff turnover and the constant headache of trying to recruit over and over again.

There are a lot of challenges when you are an educational leader, however the rewards have the potential to be massive in terms of professional and personal satisfaction. It takes a special kind of person to lead positive change, with an open mind and a passion for helping children succeed. However, these are matched with organizational knowledge, acumen and the personality to construct, support and buy-in for development and innovation.

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