The role of teacher should be privileged over any leadership role.

One of the dominant narratives in contemporary education is the ubiquitous assertion that everyone is now a leader. Not only are all teachers now leaders, but even the kids are leaders whether they like it or not. Within such a climate we might want to ask; if everyone is now a leader, then what distinguishes the role of leader from any other, and who now leads the leaders? The other serious question is what does this say about teachers who just want to remain in the classroom?

Of course, on an abstract theoretical level all classroom teachers are leaders in the sense that they ‘lead’ a class of young people, but in reality they are not ‘leaders’ in the same way that effective senior leaders or heads of departments are. They aren’t making difficult decisions on a need-to-know basis about confidential pupil welfare issues, they are not organising whole school timetables and assemblies, they are not dealing with delicate staff disputes and they are not considering these issues from the same vantage point of actual leadership. If the entire crew on a ship were suddenly told they were now captains or chief officers and all stood at the bridge then how would the ship function?

Calling yourself a ‘thought leader’ because you put whacky ideas down on post-it notes and get a room full of people to jump up and down in order to “energise their creativity” doesn’t make you a leader. More often than not, you’re just wasting people’s time and time is something that teachers have precious little of. They certainly don’t have time to indulge some facile notion of motivational leadership dreamt up by a someone who has just watched a TED talk or read a bestselling book on leadership by yet another ‘leader’ who has never even been in a classroom.

So let’s be clear, beyond the motivational jargon, teachers are not leaders and leaders are not teachers and to conflate both the roles does each a disservice. What we need is both a divergence and an elevation of both of these respective roles in order to maximise their individual potential, and in doing so we should privilege the role of classroom teacher above all others. The overwhelming purpose of a school is to have an impact on the young people who attend it and the place where that happens for the most part is in the classroom not the assembly hall.

But this cult of leadership has its roots in a more ominous development in education. What seems to have crept into our profession is a sinister corporatism that views career progress in terms of leadership promotion and insists that everyone is now obliged to lead as a matter of course. What could be more suspicions that the teacher who just wants to be a teacher? This new cult of leadership is imperious and its followers are legion, indeed its various plenipotentiaries have been a veritable cash cow for the the encircling forces surrounding education. From the bloated list of academic qualifications in education leadership offered by universities to the often farcical leadership training days for teachers who are sent away from their classes on leadership courses, leadership is the assumed obligation of all teachers, without which any teacher is merely just that, a teacher.

So the role of teacher should be privileged over any leadership role. I labour this point not to denigrate leadership but rather to pay tribute to it. Great leadership is a rare ability role that requires a very particular set of skills, many of which are innate. Whilst they can be impersonated, they cannot be learned on a course or through an inspirational seminar.

In my career working in both the state and independent sectors I have been fortunate to work with many truly great leaders and the one consistent element in those people is that they had a set of skills that were sui generis – they were one of a kind individuals who were marked out by their difference, and that is what great leaders are – different. What made them true leaders wasn’t learned on a course or a book, it was a set of innate qualities such as drive, humility, patience, ambition and a certain kind of vision that others didn’t have. Their single biggest quality as a true leader however, was their willingness to selflessly take on a huge amount of unpleasantness that allowed those around them to flourish.

Great school leaders know that the purpose of schools is to endow students with a vital sense of themselves greater than they can yet imagine through the wonder of knowledge, and it is the direct impact of the classroom teacher that is ‘transformational’ here not the senior leader, or the school inspector or the education consultant. Truly great leadership does just that, it leads, intervening when it needs to, but for the most part it gets out of the way and allows others to flourish in a well structured environment. By telling everyone that they are leaders, we risk diminishing the unique role of leadership and we simultaneously perpetuate the idea that simply being a classroom teacher is somehow not enough. Let leaders lead, but more importantly, let teachers teach.

 

15 comments

  1. julietgreen

    Well put! There are two issues. Being compelled to take up a ‘leadership’ role is a common requirement of class teachers, many of us who have developed expertise in what we do – teach – but who are neither skilled in leadership, nor have the inclination to do all those things that it entails that have nothing to do with teaching. But the roles of leadership are also associated with power and as I keep saying (to state the obvious), positions of power attract those attracted to positions of power. They rarely have those qualities you outline. If you have a leader who does, count yourself very lucky!

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  2. José Picardo

    Hi Carl,

    Great blog. Two things:

    I agree with the main thrust of your argument that teaching should be privileged for the reasons you mention.

    But.

    Are you saying that leadership skills are innate and can’t be learnt? If so, what do you think about teaching? Are teaching skills innate too? If not, what is the difference?

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    • Carl Hendrick

      Thanks Jose.

      I think certain leadership traits can be learned but in my experience truly great leadership is a very specific quality and often unique to the individual such as vision, humility, ambition and a certain personality type that both inspires and commands respect.

      Again I think that despite the huge industry around teacher training and the current culture of “you can be anything you want to be if you believe in yourself,” that sadly a lot of the qualities of a truly great teacher are innate too and whilst you can learn how to plan a lesson or a scheme of work, the higher order abilities of truly great teachers are linked to personality traits that are again, quite unique.

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      • José Picardo

        Quite possibly. Everyone possesses vision, humility, ambition, wisdom, constancy, dependability and any other characteristic that you wish to associate with your particular definition of great leadership to some degree. But do they have them in the right combination? Over the years, my teaching has become more rigorous and ambitious and my – dare I say it – leadership has become more inclusive and reflective. If I looked back at myself 14 years ago, I would not necessarily have seen the qualities that I possess today, neither in the classroom nor in my role as SLT. Was I not destined then to become a good teacher or a decent SLT? Or perhaps I was and your argument is right – it was in me all along. I just don’t know. What I do know is that I have learnt lots throughout my teaching career and my inkling is that I am better now than my natural abilities would have given me credit for all those years ago. Was it nurture or was it nature? Or – the more likely option, I suspect – was it both?

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  3. David Cameron′ (@David_Cameron76)

    I think this is the key: “teachers are not leaders and leaders are not teachers and to conflate both the roles does each a disservice. What we need is both a divergence and an elevation of both of these respective roles in order to maximise their individual potential, and in doing so we should privilege the role of classroom teacher above all others.” I thought for a moment you were going to go all Rob-Lowe-inspirational… (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0745677/quotes?item=qt0299748)
    I agree, though, that we should value the skills of the expert – by which I mean the very best – classroom practitioners as much as we value school managers. And that means giving them both a similar level of pay and timetable release as senior school managers currently receive. Only then can developing mastery of one’s pedagogical practice be considered a viable career path, and simultaneously this would resolve the paradox of professional training and development becoming more school-based whilst remaining inconsistent in quality and provision because no-one has the time or resources to do it properly – at least, at a system-wide level.
    [Incidentally, this is kind-of what the old AST & Excellent Teacher grades was supposed to achieve, but they were never implemented as originally intended or resourced properly and, of course, have now been discontinued…]
    Imagine, though, if school leaders – properly resourced and supported by the encouragement of system leaders/agencies – had the confidence to release their best teachers from a 100% timetable load, and give them the space to lead CPD & ITE within and beyond their school, or work with subject associations on resource/curriculum development, or engage in & publish research with HEI colleagues, or form links with industry to better understand curricular relevance and employment pathways… That would constitute, in my view, the biggest and most significant shift in education for many years, redefine the nature of teachers’ professionalism, and create a new confidence amongst teachers in their own agency and identity.
    I remain hopeful.

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    • Brian

      Maybe all teachers should be supply, short term or long term. One day it could well come to pass.

      Teachers could set up practices as do solitiors and accountants and schools could be run by managers. Managers would be responsible for hiring teachers and retaining them but teachers would have the freedom to leave any school without notice.

      A bit like solicitors and accountants.

      Schools would hire the best they could afford and teachers would work for the best they could negotiate.

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  4. Brian

    “So let’s be clear, beyond the motivational jargon, teachers are not leaders and leaders are not teachers and to conflate both the roles does each a disservice”

    We all agree that debate can be useful therefore I won’t beat myself up because I disagree fundamentally with the post and those posting comments.

    Although I feel that the writer demonstrates a poor understanding of leadership, there is a always some element of confusion about terminology which enables arguments to circulate ad abusurdum.

    Without delving into the depths of the leadership literature I consider myself to demonstrate leadership both within the classroom and outside it. I have been a manager, with my own management teams. I have been a head of department, cuorse co-ordinator, curriculum leader,lecturer and classroom teacher. In all of these roles I have, I believe demonstrated leadership in one guise or another and doing so has enabled myself and my students/teams to be successful.

    I would go a little further and suggest there is a link between a belief in the need for leadership and management style. Very few people cannot lead in my view, but for some people leadership is tough except in certain circumstances. Even further, I believe that those who do not currently possess “leadership skills” often resort to “it is the kids fault because they should sit and do what they are told” arguments. They resport to highly didactic methods when these are not always the best solution.

    My idea of “progressive” is a teacher who adopts an approriate style of leadership for the classroom context they find themselves in. The group work and card sort for the sake of it ideas leave me cold and behaviour is non genotiable and nothing to do with progressive.

    If you wish to argue that management and teaching roles should not be confused in schools then that is another issue. If you are going to suggest that teachers should teach and do no management and that managers should manage and do no teaching then I disagree to a small extent but generally the argument is sound.

    If you are going to suggest that teachers should not lead either inside or outside the classroom then I disagree 100%.

    If we separate leadership and management, I feel that managers should manage, but teachers should be allowed to do a bit of management sometimes. This would be called delegation.

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  7. costadelsolent

    A very interesting read – getting to this a bit late in the party. Leaders are strangling education. When someone gets promoted in a school they become more expensive and teach less. This means that the ‘non leaders’ have to pick up the timetable and workload deficit left by the new leader who will inevitably introduce some kind of bullshit initiative so they can demonstrate their leadership creating even more work for the ‘non leader’ who is already teaching more because of that promotion. If a leader is on a timetable of 0.8 then they should be paid 0.8 of their teaching salary plus their TLR – that way there is money in the system to hire someone to teach the lessons they now do not, rather than just burdening those being ‘lead’ by them.

    Liked by 1 person

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