Welcome to the school leadership team

Expertise in listening is both vital and rare. Listening for understanding builds credibility with students, colleagues and community.

Early days and weeks are important, first impressions do count. New members of the school leadership team arrive from different places. Some from inside the school, others outside. Some are experienced in similar roles elsewhere, others new arrivals from middle management or industry or direct from the classroom down the corridor. All need to lead and deliver. Leaders can recover from a fall at the outset but it is better to get off to a positive start, writes Dr John Lee.

Here are five interconnected insights that can support a new school leader as they find their direction in a new environment.

Know yourself

Knowing self and knowing others are important facets of leadership. Effective leaders have a clear understanding of their own strengths, weaknesses and how to connect with their people. The human dimension of leadership needs attention if a school leader is going to be an agent of improvement. Socially and emotionally intelligent leaders are thoughtful and respond rather than react. Consider:

  • What strengths and experiences do I bring to this role?
  • What are my ‘growing edges’ that I will need to develop to be successful in this position?
  • What aspects of the role excite and interest me?
  • Are there responsibilities of the role that I will be tempted to ignore or avoid and may come back to bite me?

Know your role and lead in this context

Schools are both similar and very different. Every school community has its own unique story and character. Get a sense of where the school is on its learning improvement journey. Find out the expectations about your role in the context of this place. Learn something of how the role was done before your arrival as useful background information.

Get to know and understand the principal and other members of the school leadership team. Be aware of the limits and agency that define the scope of your leadership. It is imperative to realise that your relationship with your principal can be a key factor in your leadership. Some principals are into centralised command and control, while others give school leaders a broad mandate to act with a degreeof autonomy. Consider:

  • What makes this school different?
  • What is the history, culture and context of the school?
  • How much scope do I have as a leader?
  • What are the expectations of the principal?

Be astute

New school leaders need to listen, observe and learn fast.

Expertise in listening is both vital and rare. Listening for understanding builds credibility with students, colleagues and community. Everyone has a point of view and a perspective on the educational matter under consideration. A leader who is a habitual listener before acting in a thoughtful manner will frequently gain respect.

Astute leaders are observant. On many occasions, a new leader needs to watch how the school operates before initiating a change in direction. Consult, test out ideas and take the people with you. Be a collaborative leader. No one has a monopoly on insight.

Make ethical behaviour a hallmark of leadership. Have and use a moral compass. Never underestimate the power of example and avoid being an unwitting ally in a power play or gossip. Consider:

  • What am I learning as I listenand observe?
  • Is there something I can do now that will have an immediate positive impact for the students and staff in my area of responsibility?

Be effective

Schools are hectic places and teachers depend on leaders who are competent. Doing the job, being organised, well prepared and delivering on the key accountabilities of the role are central to success.

Get some early wins with your team. Run purposeful meetings and with action on agreed outcomes to build confidence, collective capacity and efficacy.

Cultivate a culture where evaluation occurs, feedback is welcomed and improvement is implemented. Consider:

  • Are the people depending on me getting the support and communication that they need?
  • When I am teaching is my practice exemplary or do I view my teaching as an inconvenience?

Be discerning

New school leadership team members need to discern priorities. Everything can’t be done at once. Adopt a strategic approach to leadership.

Develop your own priorities in the light of the priorities of the Annual Improvement Plan and the leadership required in your role. Be patient and realise that significant change doesn’t happen quickly. Know your people and bring them with you.

Often new school leaders have a picture in their mind of how an ideal person might look in this leadership role. This can be problematic. It is highly likely that a new leader will need to grow into the role over time. It is extremely rare for a person new to a role to be outstanding from the beginning of their tenure.

Seek support from a mentor, coach or professional supervision. Professional supervision is a great way to deepen reflective practice, boost role effectiveness and enhance wellbeing. See Dr John Lee If it’s not Super then it’s not Supervision: supporting principals and educational leaders IE #3 2022

In all things, be a leader for the common good and education of students while exercising self-care.

Demands on school leaders are increasing and senior leadership roles have their own stressors.

Lead in a way that you can sustain into the future. Thriving school communities have school leaders who are grounded and human. Setbacks will occur. New leaders learn on the go and need to be patient with self and others. Consider:

  • What are my key priorities as a new leader?
  • How will I work sustainably within healthy boundaries?

About the Author Dr John Lee

John is a 40-year IEU veteran, who joined the union when he started teaching in 1982. He now lives his vocation in a creative portfolio of educational commitments including consulting, supervision as well as teaching part time at Christian Brothers’ High School, Lewisham.