Monday, 1 June 2015

The importance of being a reflective leader

Johanne Clifton Principal of Billesley Primary School, Birmingham in conversation with Dr Sue Robinson

With her team Johanne Clifton has successfully worked to ensure not only that Billesley School was removed from Special Measures but also in its latest inspection was judged to have outstanding leadership.

The principal, vice-principal and assistant principal provide outstanding leadership’ (Ofsted June, 2014)

Following her success Johanne has worked as a system leader within the Elliot Foundation supporting a vulnerable school. She believes it has helped her own school and its development as much as she and her leadership team have helped the school they support.

I asked Johanne to what she attributes her success and she began by talking about the importance of being a reflective leader and engaging in reflection as a ‘process of critical learning.’

Initially, when Johanne and Karl, Vice Principal were first working to support another school, she felt she was ‘always just doing’:

“You try not to be just doing and to step back and have time to think but it’s difficult in the daily life of a school because you get pulled back all the time with different priorities and everyone else’s priority is more important than yours! It’s easy to lose sight of what we are trying to achieve… Karl and I were just into the doing process but we realized, quickly, that it wasn’t enough.”

This realization caused Jo and Karl to reflect on how they could work more strategically and use their staff as system leaders starting with their Maths, English and Early Years Leaders. While these specialists knew what to do, just having a plan wasn’t enough:

“They had a plan, which they wrote and included observing teaching and identifying any problems and reporting back. I think that’s okay in itself but you can’t just leave someone to do it;  you need to go back with them and explore which bits are important and which need more thinking about.”

Sometimes when supporting a leader to help improve a teacher’s practice:

“…it was quite formal and Karl would work through next steps and do some coaching and ask them questions to take them to the next level. Sometimes it was just informal and about the day and share  - what are we doing here and trying to achieve and that’s really important to reflect on.”

School leaders need to consider both the strengths of their staff in terms of their pedagogy and their leadership experience.  Having the opportunity for staff supporting others to be able to talk over their concerns, queries and practice helps to develop leadership. Johanne recognised this and regularly discussed with her staff how their work in other schools progressed as they had a varied skill set and level of experience ranging from an Advanced Skills Teacher to two colleagues who “had never done anything like that before, so it was new to them.”

 ‘They needed the time to sit with us and say ‘this is what I’ve seen and am I wrong in what I’m expecting from these teachers?’…. So it helped to sit together and reflect on how they were working. If we hadn’t they would have just concentrated on ‘doing’ and not the impact of it or the support.”

Johanne is aware that leadership style can change according to context. She acknowledges that her style has changed from when she was first working at Billesley and how she leads now. Sometimes a more direct approach is needed if a school is in special measures. The ‘hands on’ approach of the headteacher is more necessary to ‘build confidence and security’ as ‘everything has gone’ in terms of systems and structures. 

‘The children need you and staff. The front desk needs you for quick answers about ‘shall we send a letter about something?’  What shall we do about morning routines because there aren’t any?...The parents and children need to know you are about and what the boundaries are.”

Nevertheless Johanne is quick to say that even when ‘fire–fighting’ leaders should still find time to reflect and that staff should be developed with respect and time given to their needs:

‘Looking back at Billesley I think the bit which carried it through was getting people on board because they wanted to do it and not bullying them into it.  I think there are two sides to that sort of leadership. Yes, you’ve got to have structures and systems and if you didn’t have them then you’d fail but equally people need to have reasons why and to have a voice.  I think this has meant that people at Billesley feel valued and they say they feel valued. It’s down to quite small details about listening to people and letting people have their say.
As the HMI took us out of special measures she said ‘You are going to be successful because you’ve done the right things and brought people with you.’

Moving from Special Measures and on to being recognised for outstanding leadership has led to system leadership. Johanne acknowledges that her work in another school has contributed to a more mature system at Billesley:

‘We wouldn’t have learnt some of the ways we work now if we hadn’t worked at another school’Johanne and her team, particularly Karl, Vice Principal and Liz, Assistant Principal have discussed how they are now using lessons learned from system leadership to move to a more distributed approach to developing the leadership in others in the school and with it, accountability. She still ensures a degree of reflection is built into her practice: “Now we have a core system which is still evolving, and we can leave some practice to the lead practitioners, although they still need that time to come back and reflect with us… “

 Working as system leaders in other schools especially when the supporting school has been vulnerable and the staff are used to a ‘hands on’ presence means that a “lot of trust” has to be part of the relationship and contract between the leadership team and other staff:

‘You have to be aware as a head that your own staff may struggle a little because they are busy elsewhere (having been in Special Measures they still need that reassurance and security from having you available in the building.  It takes time to heal and re-build confidence following those experiences). If you are taking on executive headship you have to have strong systems but it’s not just the systems, it’s the trust of the staff in the other people who aren’t you.’

Johanne believes that even with trust in the people left to step up to leadership, she still needed to retain “that personal contact.”

‘I think there are a lot of schools starting to learn that from experience. You need people to come with you as well as structures in place. It’s not enough to just pop in and out.’

Reflective leadership and striving to be a learning and intuitive organization leads to a more sustainable form of leadership. Johanne was an outstanding leader when she worked with her team to take her school out of Special Measures. Now she has been recognised by Ofsted as an outstanding leader but that doesn’t mean she is complacent. Johanne’s final comments to me were that she wants to ensure she can find build a sustainable model building in research and reflection:

“I think we are going to have to work hard on our monitoring and evaluation calendar and maybe make time if only once per term for more reflection and research. I think it’s important because I read about areas in research and sometimes I think – oh it’s just about how to do something and then read a sentence about why, and it’s like a light-bulb moment.”

Johanne is a leader who enables her staff through her reflective leadership practice to have lots of ‘light - bulb moments’.

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