Leading Improvement: What I’ve learnt this year

This year as been a strange one for school leaders to say the least. So, when I was asked to summarise my leadership learning this year, it took a bit of thinking. I landed on the following point:

“Throughout the autumn term I’ve learnt that the impressionistic knowledge that leaders have of their staff is crucial for ensuring the smooth running of schools in uncertain times. Knowing your staff is the key to preventing the impact of persistent problems and continuing the process of school improvement.”

Much of my leadership thinking this year has been framed by two ideas:

  • Hidden Expert Knowledge, which I reference in this blog
  • The Capabilities Required for Leading Improvement, by Viviane Robinson which can be found here

With there being so much uncertainty in schools, understanding our teams, and our staff has never been more important. The impressionistic knowledge we have as leaders, allowing us to predict how staff will react to changes in policy or work conditions, has been vital in ensuring the smooth operation of schools. So many conversations, when continuing to drive improvement, have been based around the idea of “how will this land with staff?”.

Alongside this, we have had to consider how we lead improvement. The work of Viviane Robinson has been central to my thinking here. She discusses three main capability required for leading improvement:

  • Using Knowledge
  • Solving complex problems
  • Building relational trust

“It (the leadership of improvement) requires capability in 1) using relevant knowledge from research and experience to 2) solve the complex educational problems that stand in the way of achieving improvement goals while 3) building relationships of trust with those involved.”

Not only have we used our impressionistic knowledge of our staff, but as a leader I have relied on formal and informal knowledge of my areas on responsibility to ensure I continue to solve problems as I drive improvements. Many of these problems are persistent, ones that arrive every time we try to drive improvement, or problems that always arrive as certain parts within a process. Through building strategies and training the staff lead to tackle these, I have been able to focus on a more strategic view and ensuring that I have the buy in of staff.

This, for me, is the most crucial lesson I learnt from Viviane Robinsons paper; the processes of building relational trust through demonstrating four key characteristics (summarised from the work of Bryk and Schneider):

Interpersonal respectExchanges are respectful and grounded in genuinely listening to what each person has to say. When disagreements occur, everyone still feels valued and heard.
Personal regardThe willingness to extended yourself as a leader beyond your formal contractual duties.
CompetenceThe ability of the leaders to deliver on desired outcomes of their role.
Personal integrityThe extend to which as a leader you can be trusted to keep your word, and ensuring that you are guided as a leader by a moral/ethical compass

In all my interaction with staff I try to ensure that:

  • They are heard, and they hear my thoughts
  • I put time aside to listen to and consider the views of staff
  • I complete my job role to the best of my ability, and deliver the outcomes we need for our pupils
  • The conversations I have lead to actions I which I follow through on, and continually communicate with staff

Driving improvement also involves engaging with a staff members’ theory of action. Through this process we are more likely to bring about improvement, rather than change, or resistance to improvement.

The key to working through this is the dialogical process between a teacher and a leader; understanding the teachers’ theory of action, clearly articulating yours as a leader, and agreeing on an interim theory of action. This provides a starting point, from which further change can be driven.

While the year has been a turbulent one, the process of driving improvement is not one that has changed. Know your staff, know the “knowledge” of your role, and gain a shared understanding of what needs to be done. Simple right?

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