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What makes a ‘toxic’ environment? Part 3

This is part 3 of exploring and dealing with a toxic learning environment where we look at teacher retention.  Part two is here

Belonging only

I have mentioned that I have found that there are four needs we all share when it comes to engaging in learning, well it is the same for any activity in which we wish to collectively share and this includes teaching. Part two introduced the need for a sense of belonging for learner engagement.

Teachers are learners so it should come as no surprise that a sense of belonging is as important to teacher engagement, and importantly retention, as it is to learner engagement. 

I believe one of our greatest behaviour drivers comes from a sense of belonging.

As a teacher I have seen a student’s behaviour driven so powerfully by this need that they were willing to be excluded for something they did not do rather than break a bond with a peer group. As adults it’s no different, and if we feel a sense of belonging there is a great deal we will do or tolerate to remain part of something.

Creating and building a sense of belonging may just be the key difference between leadership and management.

Autonomous responsibility is a more effective way of achieving outcomes than directed responsibility but requires a strong commitment to the aims and ethos of the organisation – a strong sense of belonging, of sharing the same vision and wanting the same things. Being told to do something ‘or else’ is nowhere near as effective as encouraging somebody to do something for the ‘good of the group’. The ‘stick’ will only work so long as there is a stick and somebody wielding it whereas the promise of a collective need for ‘carrots’ will get people to till and work the land, plant, nurture and protect even when there is nobody to check or inspect.

I am trying to make these analogies to underline where I think schools are going wrong in trying to retain teachers.  Yes, some who come into the profession are not suited and leave but there are some who leave before their skills are honed and their experiences give them the greatest rewards of being a teacher – of making a difference to people’s lives and life chances. They do this because they do not have a strong enough sense of belonging to overcome the early struggles.

How long do these struggles last?

I was told in secondary education it takes six years to ‘get your feet under the table’ as it were and I believe it to be true. Why six years? Well because you have to see your own ‘first-year’ group, the one that started the school at the same time as you, through school and then you need at least one year to recognise and build on the benefits of your experience. I would imagine there is a similar time frame and rational in primary education.

What sustains you in these early years is the building of comradeship, establishing relationships and forming that sense of belonging. It does not happen by chance, I believe it needs leadership that is broader in its aims and function than achieving targets.

What prompts mid-career teachers to leave the profession?

This brings me onto why teachers in mid-career or before a normal retiring point leave the profession. I know there is more than one reason for practised teachers to leave the profession but in my experience the process starts once a sense of belonging is lost. As I said earlier we will put up with a great deal if there is a strong sense of belonging but once this is diminished we begin to reconsider what it is we are doing and why we are doing it.

Creating that sense of belonging

Chalk Design With Lightbulb, Business Mission

I suggest that to create and sustain a strong sense of belonging in schools it needs leadership that understands the purpose of a ‘mission statement’* and uses it effectively to challenge everything they do in order to build a shared sense of belonging.  Imagine how you would feel having collectively contributed to, and ‘bought into’ a mission statement and then seeing it ignored during key decision-making processes. In other words, doing something that the organisation to which you belong does not see as it’s purpose or that will further that purpose in order to follow some other path or directive rather than challenge it. You would begin to question why you are part of that organisation and your sense of belonging would be challenged. My view is that leadership should be aware of this and actively work to do only that which promotes its mission and where necessary deflect those that do not. We will support and follow those that stand up for what we believe in and withdraw our support for those who do not and in the process shatter our sense of belonging.

* A note about ‘mission’ statements. In my experience ‘mission’ and ‘vision’ statements are wrongfully used as one term, interchangeable, and meaning the same.

 

 

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What makes a ‘toxic’ environment?

I have written this article to address the debate around teachers leaving teaching and the stress levels of pupils presently being experienced and reported.

It is true that not all learners ‘like’ school and some do their best to avoid it. It is also true that we are seeing many teachers leave the profession, often down to a lack of job satisfaction or ‘burn out’.

We could say that any environment that causes us discomfort, stress or anxiety is ‘toxic’ but are there any factors that we can identify that makes the environment in schools, for learners and teachers, such that they want to get away from it? I believe we can and I believe it’s not that complicated to correct.

My first proposal is that if there is something missing from within our environment that we need to learn and to teach* that we will feel a level of discomfort. Whether we can tolerate that discomfort or not is dependent on a number of factors and includes the following:

  • Agency, our strategies for dealing with not having our needs met
  • The significance of the outcome or reward for ‘surviving’ the experience
  • Support systems and the impact of their intervention both within and external to the environment in which we feel discomfort
  • Relationships with people we consider significant or important to us within that environment
  • Stamina, the length of exposure and our mental and physical well being
  • Willingness to be compliant

Just like in a physical environment where, if we persist beyond our capacity to manage or endure, it is likely to cause us physical harm a ‘toxic’ teaching and learning environment will cause us harm too. In my experience this can also manifest itself as a physical injury but is more likely to be our mental health that is at risk. The danger with this is that mental health issues are harder to recognise and carry a greater stigma than those that are physical in nature. As a result we hide our discomfort and disguise it in some way. A dramatic but relevant example of this I believe is the reports of soldiers in the First World War who carried out self-inflicted injuries in order to avoid the combat environment that they were no longer able to cope with mentally.

In teaching and learning I have seen and experienced high levels of environment based stress and can categorise them according to the symptoms that are presented, these include but are not exclusive to:

  • Lack of a capacity for change
  • Reliance on habits and routines in order to cope
  • Irritability, a lack of patience or objectivity
  • Relationship breakdown and withdrawing
  • Out of character behaviours
  • Minor illnesses such as aches and pains, headaches and a lack of sleep.

My experiences and research has led me to believe there are four needs specific to teaching and learning that, if absent or not fulfilled in some way, lead to a toxic environment and the conditions I have listed. Ultimately and where possible people will look for and find a way to cope or ultimately a way out of that environment and in extreme cases, where agency is limited, this can mean the most drastic of actions relative to the individual. A younger student may throw a tantrum and be expelled from the lesson or not even turn up to school. A teenager or adult may withdraw or even attempt suicide if they can see no other ‘way out’.

*I suggest all teachers are learners too so there are a common set of needs for both groups.

Next I will look at what can we do and what I believe is at the heart of the problem?

Learning to say “No”

saying no

Teachers, on the whole, are a pretty compliant bunch. Ask them to do anything and they will often find a way to add it to their list. There comes a time though when enough is enough and for your own health and well being you have to say “No“, but how?

‘Enough is enough’ when work life is not in balance, in fact, your work is your life to the detriment of both.  We reach the end of our capacity to take on anything new or different and often retreat to known practices and routine. This is a not a solution only a coping strategy.

You may recognise in others and even yourself the symptoms of ‘enough is enough’ but how do you regain balance, take control once again?

You have to say ‘NO’ but you may feel you are letting down your students or colleagues if you do.

Let me ask you this question: “Do those around you, those you lead or those who lead you know what you have on at the moment?” It is my experience that we think they do but often they have no idea. This leads us on to how to say no.

There are many ways of saying no!

The word “No” is so final we rarely use it, possibly because it promotes conflict or we do not want to appear unreasonable.  So what are the alternatives? Here are my suggestions, those that I use with the teachers I coach:

  • How important is it? Is it more important than (list your current tasks)?
  • What do you want me to stop doing in order to do that?
  • Have I your permission to stop doing (whatever you decide) and do that instead?
  • If I do this for you what will you do for me?
  • How long will it take and when do you want it? (discuss)
  • Am I the best person to be taking this on (don’t fall for the flattery either)
  • What will you do to help me succeed?

There are more but I think you get the idea.

Whatever you do do not say the word “Sorry” when you are saying “No”, be firm but polite.

Finally, you need to work out what are your priorities, what destructive routines you have and what support network you have in place. All these things help you address the work/life balance in a positive way and will release capacity to be even more objective.

WHY?

Why dedicate yourself to introducing and promoting a way of thinking about, and going about, teaching and learning?

I was asked this question and have been asking myself the same thing as I struggle to make a significant impact on teaching and learning through the promotion and adoption of my concept of “learning Intelligence”. After a career teaching and seven years of reflection, research and developing a vocabulary and narrative for what works in teaching and learning I need to answer this question in order to continue to justify my efforts and to remain motivated. Motivation often comes from recognising the goal or benefits; here is my attempt at that challenge, of having a reason to continue.

  • The “one way” of learning does not work for everyone. Putting aside SEND challenges not all learners thrive in the school environment.
  • There are a lot of people who go through education and form the wrong impression about their abilities and about their ability to learn. As a result, there is a significant amount of talent that may never be discovered.
  • Learners who are unable to engage in the learning present challenges for teachers and often dealing with these challenges impact the learning of others and the classroom dynamics, or teacher/learner relationships.
  • The school has a lifelong impact on us and influences our careers and opportunities. To “fail” at school leaves a deep and lasting scar.
  • There is a need for a narrative that brings together what we know or think about learning in a meaningful and coherent way and gives us the flexibility to challenge the “one way”.
  • The benefits of the LQ approach are significant and build self-esteem in learners.
  • There are a significant number of teachers who could benefit from adopting the LQ approach to teaching and learning.
  • LQ promotes seeing learning as a problem-solving activity and develops life-long learners able to face new learning challenges with minimal support.
  • I want to make a positive difference to teaching and learning.

Through the Teach Meets at which I have presented and my workshops with teachers it is clear not all teachers see the issue of underachievement as a significant one to address. Perhaps many are happy to believe the mantel learners wear based on past performances and work within it. I would argue that to do so we accept labels as definitive and unchangeable.  Underachievement is not solely based within the group those who fail to “perform” it is also within the group who adopt compliance as a strategy to cope with the learning environment in which they find themselves. This group I find often do not possess the skills, attitudes, attributes or behaviours to manage their environment to meet their needs. They respond poorly to target setting without these needs being addressed, needs that are often overlooked as we race to achieve those targets.

Finally, I am reminded of a sobering truth.

It is no good having an answer if nobody is asking the question!

Let me know what you think. Should I continue to promote the concept of LQ and learners needs and if so how?

If you would like to get in touch to find out more about my work or perhaps engage me to challenge you and your staff about teaching and learning then click the link below.

Email link to Advocating Creativity

The two aspects of Learning Intelligence, “LQ”

LQ roundLQ and PBCF

Leadership Reflections

leadership reflections

I have been led by others and I have led others. I have studied leadership and I have experienced good and poor leadership. I have worked for leaders and worked with leaders.  As a leader I have made mistakes and learnt from them and I have learnt from the mistakes made by other leaders. This article is about what I have discovered about leadership (in a nutshell).

Google leadership and you get definitions, styles, skills, theories, books & courses.  There are probably T shirts and I know Edward de Bono came up with a set of coloured hats.  What can I hope to add to what has already been written? Well this is a more a practical reflection on leadership, experiences of leadership if you like triggered by a #SLTchat session on leadership. It is also specific to education.  You may not think education leadership is any different to any other form of leadership but I believe it is. Yes there are similarities but the process of becoming a leader and of being a leader is somewhat different.  So instead of an article about being a leader or leadership, of which Google suggests there are millions, this is more about working with leaders, being led by good and poor leaders, true leaders and simulacrums.

Firstly all teachers are leaders, they lead the learning of their pupils. This relationship is no different to the relationship between any leader and those they lead.  The maxim of “lead by example” is often forgotten by teachers, they forget what it is like to be a learner. This makes them poor leaders and poor teachers.  Poor leaders because leaders should never stop learning from those they lead. Poor teachers because forgetting the anxiety of learning, the need to belong, of having to face choices and needing a voice will limit your ability to build learning relationships.

Secondly the route to school leadership is based on teaching less. Doing less of the things you love doing, things that brought you into teaching in the first place. An ex head teacher shared what drove her to be a school leader; it was “the sphere of influence” factor. The more responsible the position the greater the sphere of influence you have. There is certainly passion and belief attached to this drive but perhaps also ego and they make for difficult things to balance in leadership roles.

As a teacher you have influence on the pupils you teach, as head of department this extends to the teachers in your department and as a leader of a school the pupils and teachers in your school. Some would argue you have an influence in the community too.  Others are driven by other motives, those of ambition, status, responsibility, notoriety. It often strikes me as strange though that we draw these people from a pool of talent that came to teaching to teach and many may be poorly suited to school leadership although they pursue such ambitions. Perhaps that is one reason for so many leadership books, courses, and even qualifications. There is more about suitability for leadership in my next observation.

The third observation I will make concerning leadership in teaching is about the nature of teachers and I know there are exceptions but bear with me. I have a theory that we explore careers that reflect the environments we favour, that we feel comfortable in, have the talent for, or are thrilled by. Fate may decide that is not where we end up but that is another story. If we take the case of teaching then I would argue that those who are successful in school, and who enjoy school and benefit from the rewards of being compliant (a requirement for success as a pupil in school) will tend towards seeking out careers with a similar environment. Teaching is one such career. The result is, since teachers were compliant students, a compliant teaching workforce. This has its benefits but when we consider many of the leaders we hold in high regard, those who have been successful, are mavericks, non-conformists, even rebels it begs the question about the suitability of compliant leaders when it comes to doing what is right rather than what is required. There is certainly a case for “horses for courses” and at times any organisation requires different styles or types of leadership however this is another example of how leadership differs in schools.

Education is exposed to political will, ideas and pressures.  Schools are not autonomous and be it a board of governors, an academy chain, local authority or any other body that is responsible for the school they ultimately set policy.  Where that influence extends to inspection, standards, and regulation (as in the Government) a particular set of powers are employed to direct what happens in schools. Many leaders in schools (at all levels) may disagree with policy but few will be obstreperous. A few will find creative ways around the direction and quietly do what is right other than what is required. Ultimately though, unless successful, there is no reward for challenging policy or being anything other than compliant. This creates its own set of problems for leaders in schools, how to operate a sphere of influence in line with their own experience, philosophy, and ideology when it is in conflict with a government directed policy. It is also responsible for setting up a certain style of leadership, one that is to do more with “enforcing and regulating” than engaging and enabling.

My final observation is possibly less specific to education and it is that there are two types of leaders. I am not talking about styles of leadership, anyone can adopt a style or at least try. I am suggesting that there are those for whom leadership comes naturally and those who aspire to leadership but who lack the understanding and drive to truly understand what leadership is about.  Knowing which one you are working with is essential for your own wellbeing. I believe you can tell which one you have by observing and noting certain behaviours.  The first type of leader is the true leader and the second is a simulacrum, an imitation that looks like the true leader but gives themselves away in the following manner. I have tried to layout in the table below what their approach is and what happens to individuals and teams when being led by each type of leader.

True leader

Simulacrum Leader

Engages and consults before making a decision. Narrow and selected consultation before making a decision. Often vulnerable to pressure from individuals.
Makes decisions in a timely manner and describes rational. Decisions are often delayed and changed without providing a rational.
Carries out actions with minimum delay but ensures resources are available with acknowledgement of consequences. Actions are instigated without considering incidental consequences. A lack of planning or co-ordination evident.
Accepts when an error is made and willing to re visit decisions openly and without seeking to blame. Evaluation of events provides useful insights that are acted upon. May blame others and events when things go wrong. Reluctant to re visit decision more likely to adopt another course of action without evaluation.
Views evidence objectively and without ego Tends towards subjectivity with possible bias based on self.
What you see is what you get. Although diplomatic also open and honest. You are never sure of the reaction you will get.
They build trust fostering the ethic of working with or for them. Those being led tend towards being sceptical, they begin wondering what is behind the actions or decisions.

A poster I designed to emphasise these points under “Good” and “Poor” leadership actions, something to print or pin on your wall, is available to buy and download. The links are at the bottom of this article.

If you have the option to work for a leader then look for the signs of a simulacrum before you decide. If you have no option but to work with or for a leader then “forewarned is forearmed”!

So there you have it, a practical look at leadership in education.  As for my own approach to leadership it is best summed up by the way of a poster I designed based on the mnemonic “ENABLE”. I see this as the most apt verb to describe the actions of a successful leader. “Leaders enable” has a certain ring to it I think too!

What each letter of ENABLE stands for:

  • E is for Engage – with those they are leading
  • N is for Nurture – both the team and future leaders
  • A is for Articulate – a vision, the challenges and the way forward clearly and convincingly
  • B is for Bridge – the gap between people, ideas and strategies in order to move forward
  • L is for listen and lead with empathy and understanding
  • E is for Encourage – all to participate, to challenge and to take risks

My thanks to @lenabellina for giving me the idea of turning my thoughts into posters. Each one is now available to download and print as high resolution files for a small fee. Follow the links to eJunkie, this is an online printing distribution  site that can accept PayPal.  
leadership posters

Leaders ENABLE high resolution poster file at £1 *

Buy Now

What Leaders do high resolution poster file at £1*

*Introductory offer

Buy Now

 

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