Whether you’re an NQT or a seasoned head, everyone can make an impact on children’s lives by thinking and acting like a leader, says Bruce Waelend...
It was early morning in a Year 4 maths lesson on day two of our longawaited Ofsted inspection. The lead inspector and I walked into the classroom, which was buzzing with excitement and chatter. In the centre was Michelle, the teacher, and all around her children worked in pairs and small groups trying to grasp the intricacies of long multiplication.
Almost as soon as we entered the room, Iain (not his real name) bounded up to us, completely indifferent to the Ofsted badge by my side. With a joyous fist-pump he exclaimed, “Yesssss! I’ve got it! Now I can try decimals”. I could have kissed him.
Iain came to us late in Year 3 with a bit of a reputation – someone who had never been allowed on a school trip, and whose unruly behaviour meant he had spent much of his time out of the classroom. However, he had been transformed into a pupil who, while not perfect, had been inspired to learn by the excellent leadership of an outstanding teacher.
David Gergen, the former presidential adviser to Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton, described the role of a leader as being ‘to raise people’s aspirations for what they can become and to release their energies so they will try to get there’. I don’t know about you, but to me, this summary seems to perfectly describe the role of a class teacher. It also describes the dynamics of change for Iain.
While at times the leadership responsibility of classroom teachers can be underplayed, it is of considerable importance. So, here are just a few ideas of how you can develop your leadership skills in and beyond the classroom:
The best teachers are the team leaders of their class. Intentionally or not, they set the tone for the day and influence the atmosphere in which children live and learn while they are at school. I’ll never forget Mr Gascoigne (also not his real name) at my secondary school.
You could tell what kind of mood he was in the moment he walked in the room. If he was happy then I might just learn something. But if he came in with that scowl on his face, I knew that my best option was to retreat into self-preservation mode to avoid his sarcasm and bad temper.
One thing that children dislike almost more than anything else is inconsistency. It causes confusion and undermines the trust they put in us. While I was a classroom teacher, I always made sure that I left five minutes at the end of the day to reflect on the previous six hours with the class. It also meant finishing on a positive note, with someone taking home Gus – the class gorilla (his real name, but not a real gorilla). If a day hadn’t gone well, I’d asked the class what went wrong.
On one occasion, a pupil named Gemma put up her hand and pointed to the whiteboard. “You’ve put a lot of ticks under the frowning face, but hardly any under the smiley face”, she said quietly. It was a salutary reminder that I, as the classroom leader, had failed to provide a positive, inclusive environment that day and we had all suffered. I apologised and learned an important lesson.
Jonathan Swift described vision as ‘the art of seeing the invisible’. At the start of my headship we looked at our school vision together, and we began by describing pupils who would leave our school at the end of Year 6 having benefited from the outstanding education we would provide.
We thought about the qualities, knowledge, skills and attitudes that they would have.
Our vision for the school ran to a side of A4 and included statements such as: ‘Listen to the buzz of excitement as people learn from each other.
Hear them asking questions, pursuing solutions and learning skills that will prepare them to stand strong. Enjoy how people care for each other in a harmonious, united community.
Join in the many celebrations in a culture of praise and encouragement. Watch as they show patience, tolerance and compassion to one another, understanding that by working together, they can achieve so much more’.
Have a go yourself. Write a description of what your classroom will be like when it’s as good as you want it to be. Then, if you feel comfortable, share it with a trusted colleague.
Once this is written, start to think about what you need to do to make it a reality. What small changes will you need to make in order to move towards this compelling vision of your vibrant classroom? What challenges might you face? What strategies can you use to overcome them?
The start of a term or school year can be an excellent time to encourage children to become visionaries too, by spending time with them writing a class statement beginning with the words ‘Imagine a class where…’.
Here, they can set out their perfect classroom, and in my experience it’s proved to have far more impact and value than writing out a set of class rules.
Review your vision regularly. Don’t allow it to become diminished by the disappointments that may crop up, but let it encourage and energise you as you move towards it.
Great teachers often find that their passions and interests can be spread far beyond the four walls of their classroom and be used to develop their leadership more widely.
Michelle – the teacher I mentioned earlier – is a great example. She came to me a relatively inexperienced teacher with a passion for environmental issues. In only her second year of teaching she told me, “I want us to become a Green Flag Eco School”. I encouraged her to make a plan and to come back to me with it.
Within a short period of time, she was knocking on my door again with paperwork in hand. She had obviously thought it through clearly, and so I agreed, with a caveat that it shouldn’t get in the way of the main job of classroom teaching.
Throughout this journey, she remained focused, determined and endlessly enthusiastic. Her leadership and passion for Eco Schools became a vital feature of our little corner of the education landscape, and helped us to realise our vision of pupils who genuinely cared about the world. Needless to say, the green flag flies proudly on the flagpole. As a result of this work, she grew in confidence and stature as a leader, and is now – only a few years later – assistant head of a large school.
It’s easy to imagine how your top students could excel, but an ideal classroom has room for all…
You will probably have pupils who keep you awake at night for a variety of reasons. Dare to put into words what those children might become at the end of a year in your class, under your leadership. Start to think about the kind of classroom you’ll need to have in place to make this happen.
Take a tour around it in your head, look at the walls and the resources, and picture those same children taking up all the amazing opportunities that you present for them. Listen in on conversations, look back on the fantastic work children are producing and stand back and admire what is happening. Be idealistic.
Bruce Waelend is the former headteacher of an outstanding primary school. He now works as an education consultant ( bdweducation.com).