Knowing when the time is right for leadership

I have spent a lot of time recently applying for another leadership position. I’m currently an assistant principal in a school that does not have a deputy principal, so I deputise for the principal and have had a number of opportunities to be Acting Principal. The step up from assistant principal is a significant one and the process to make this step is challenging; applications are extensive and the emotional investment is considerable. I’m sure that many aspiring leaders can relate to the feeling of disappointment when you don’t make the short list, or get to interview and then don’t win the position. In spite of the fact that some of the challenge lies in the flat leadership structure of my current school and the fact that I do not hold a ‘deputy’ title, I am not deterred. In some respects it is very encouraging that competition for principal positions is fierce, seemingly challenging media hype about a shortage of prospective school leaders. The application process, whilst draining, is also very productive as it provides the opportunity to really think about what I stand for, my achievements and practices, and what these say about me a leader.

I recently heard a new principal say that he felt ready for leadership when he began to challenge his own principal, feeling that he would have done things differently. Disagreeing with your principal is not a sign of disrespect; in fact I think it is healthy to have robust conversation in leadership teams, discussions that challenge opinion or direction. Nor is it necessarily a sign of readiness for higher leadership; some people are just argumentative for the sake of it. I have learned a great deal from the principals and deputies I have worked with in my career; each leader has influenced my beliefs and leadership practices in some way. A great mentor or role model is more valuable than any paper espousing leadership theories and styles.

However, I can relate to this new principal’s sense of awareness that he was ready to take on the challenge of leading a school himself, conscious that his suggestions were not reactive, but well-considered, based on evidence, and firmly founded in his values and beliefs about teaching and learning. That is the point I have reached. In some respects I think leadership aspirations, style and practice can be influenced as much by leaders whose values or behaviours we don’t completely relate to or agree with as by those we admire and might wish to emulate. There is nothing profound in this but how many of us really articulate what it is that makes us leaders or potential leaders? Applications and interviews give us the opportunity to do this; they are helping me move beyond a simple list of achievements to reflecting on what they say about who I am, what kind of leader I want to be and how I can best serve the school community that I aspire to lead.

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Narrative of self

A few years ago when starting further study, I became convinced of the value of personal narrative as a means to make sense of experience (Ochs & Capps, 1996). Of course, any self-narrative carries the risk of conveying  my ‘preferred self’, although that is not my intention. Stories are a way of knowing (Connelly & Clandinin, 1985) and, in exploring my own story as a teacher, learner and leader I hope to better understand myself and learn from others. I have been teaching for 25 years, almost half my life. I began teaching secondary school History in the UK in the early days of the National Curriculum, and then spent two years in The Netherlands teaching English as an Additional Language (EAL) at an international primary school. Since 2001, I have lived and worked in Australia as an EAL teacher, consultant and Assistant Principal. I am an aspiring Principal and a life-long learner, undertaking a Masters in Educational Leadership having graduated last year with a professional doctorate in Education. My eldest son is in his third year of teacher training and it strikes me as interesting that when he begins his teaching career his context will, in many ways, be similar to mine a quarter of a century ago. In the global education system of which we are part, international ‘policy borrowing’ (Lingard, 2010) means that he will be teaching from a prescribed national curriculum and preparing students for participation in national testing for which he will be held accountable. Yet teachers’ work has changed, as has the role of leaders, and education is often shaped more by political and economic imperatives than moral and philosophical ones. Change is a constant, and the challenge of leading and managing change is what I aim to explore in my blog.