It’s the start of a new academic year, new members of staff are joining the school and familiar colleagues are coming back off their holidays. This is a key moment for leaders. We need to make sure they can connect people, with all their different roles, to the vision with as much clarity as we can muster.
The story goes that a reporter spoke to two men who were working on La Sagrada Familia asking them both, “So what are you doing?” The first man told the reporter, “I have been laying bricks for ten years.” He told the reporter that he had laid one brick on top of the other, in the rain and baking sun, until he got to the end of the row and then started again on the next layer. The second man responded differently, “I am building God’s house. This will be the most fantastic cathedral in the world, right here in Barcelona.” These two responses show one of the biggest challenges for leaders – how to connect people to the bigger picture so they can make sense of the job they do, how it relates to others’ work and the vision of the school. A leaders job is to get everyone in the same boat all rowing in the same direction.
I’ve sometimes referred to my first day presentation as “the state of the union” speech. It has the familiar welcome to all, with new staff standing up and giving everyone a wave, the headline examination results and then a look at the year ahead. This will be my fourteenth first day speech as a headteacher and one that I am looking forward to immensely. We’ve come through a pretty rough few years with a £23.5 million capital build and all the hassles that goes with it. The new or totally refurbished secondary school is finished – looking absolutely fabulous – as is the new parish church (funded separately) and there is only the new Christ the King Catholic Primary School to build. This will be ready next April. It has been a massive effort by staff, students and builders (the superb Eric Wright) to keep everything running smoothly. So this start of the year speech is different and feels a bit special.
I came across the following slides when listening to Professor David Hargreaves talking about the Self-improving School System. What do the best leaders do?
As leaders we need to be able to “tell the story”, that is, articulate the vision for the school in a way that engages people and gives clarity. The Hay Group’s model for the climate of an organisation has six dimensions. The first one to get right, in an organisation, relates to Clarity. How would staff at your school respond to the following prompts?
Would they tend to agree with, disagree or not be very sure about their answers to above statements?
This year the presentation will start with the usual welcome and what are we doing on the first day followed by the results analysis. A-level results are good (officially backed up by ALPS) and GCSEs were a relief on the day and now I feel quite pleased with the headline results. There is always more to do and that is the balance I need to strike – celebrate the successes and a bit of “even better if”. In the past I have too often skipped over the first and moved straight to the second – not good when many staff have gone the extra mile (or two or three …) to educate our students.
The staff we have in September will be the best staff I will have ever worked with. As well as the on-going commitment to the school of many fantastic professionals we have also strengthened in key areas – this is part of what excites me. As a headteacher I have a privileged position of having sat in every interview of the new staff joining us in September. The new and the old will be our best ever staff (note to self – must tell the staff this).
Below is part of the core message for this year. We have been a school in a state of change for as long as I can remember. I was born with “ants in my pants” as my primary teacher told my mum and dad, she didn’t need to bother as they already had worked this out for themselves! I wonder how many times I have introduced improvements versus developments to St. Mary’s but that is for another day and another blog post.
Last year we introduced two really big policy changes – mid-build alongside a staff restructure – on behaviour and marking (actually the latter included assessment and tracking as well). It’s important that these policies give us some fixed points to operate from, unifying our approach and giving consistency. This is still very much a work in progress and consistency in particular remains an issue to address. However, policies will never produce excellence – you unleash greatness, you can’t prescribe it. Alongside more consistency around the fixed points I need to free up staff to “fill the gaps” between the points using their professional skills and judgement. This is always a tension and always a balancing act.
To help me the #5MinPlans that I have co-authored with Ross McGill (@TeacherToolkit) will be explained briefly and made available to staff. If they find them helpful they can use them. These are all available on this blog – possibly easiest to access from the resources page.
Now down to core business – we’re here to promote learning. This quote and analogy can be found in Vision 2040: Learners at the Centre III.
We need to make sure we have a balanced focus on all three elements – some maybe flavour of the month and others currently out of fashion. This will change, it always does when a particular body, group of individual suggest one extreme or the other there is a natural re-balancing somewhere along the line. I believe we need all three to make successful learners so that is what I’ll say.
A final thought, I used this story before when a long serving cleaner was retiring: a visiting dignitary to NASA asked a cleaner, “What do you do here?” The NASA cleaner’s response was, “I put men on the moon”. Our cleaners, support staff and teachers all educate young people. That is our purpose and we must strive to do it to the best of our ability.
Whether you were delivering or listening, to the start of year state of the union speech, I hope you had a good one.