NQT · Wellbeing and Staff Morale

What Makes A Leader?

My friend and I recently attended the Cambridgeshire Festival of Education. One of the predominant themes of the day was ‘Optimistic Leadership’. Whilst perusing (what a great word, am I right?) the brochure for possible workshops, we noticed that a fair few were classified under this category. Furthermore, a vast majority of the keynote speakers promised discussions of optimistic leadership in their blurbs. Whilst awaiting the first presentation, my friend and I both voiced the following concern: we’re not leaders, should we even be here?

Throughout the day, our minds had been made up: we should absolutely be here. As the day went on, we were exposed* to many incredible and inspiring educators who helped us to realise that being a leader isn’t about the job role you hold. A leader is someone who inspires others by committing to the values they believe in and who has a positive impact upon the wellbeing, beliefs and aspirations of those around them. Although I’ve been fortunate enough to have many fantastic official ‘leaders’ during my training and first year as a teacher, many teachers and teaching assistants I work with and have met during my training are also leaders in this respect, too. They have guided me during my early career and have inspired me greatly with their commitment and drive.

As the festival progressed, it became clear that my friend and I held many misconceptions towards what a leader was. Therefore, I thought I’d try and sift through and debug some of the myths I have only recently discarded. I want to also note that these myths are not ones I’d developed due to any leaders I have worked with in the present or recent past. As I said earlier, I’m lucky to have forward-thinking and supportive leaders around me. Instead, I believe I subconsciously adopted these notions of leaders throughout my life through a variety of sources I’ve been exposed to, including the media.

An ineffective, official leader
vs an unofficial, effective leader.

Myth #1: A leader is someone who just tells you what to do.
Truth: A leader inspires you to define your own path and then helps you to make this journey. They encourage you when you stumble and cheer you on as you proceed.

Myth #2: A leader is someone who is higher up the payscale than yourself.
Truth: Being a leader isn’t about how much you earn financially. It’s about the respect you earn without the need to demand it. Those who are respected will be far more effective as leaders than those who are feared.

Myth #3: A leader is immune to needing guidance.
Truth: I had a refreshing conversation with my two heads a while back where I brought a policy to their attention that I didn’t feel was working with my class. They thanked me for approaching them and admitted they can’t possibly know every single thing that’s going on in each classroom and so were pleased I’d raised a concern and challenged something. (If a leader ever thinks they do know every single thing that’s going on…it’s possible your school is actually the Big Brother set and you should get out quick.)

Myth #4: A leader is someone who’s been in the game a lot longer than you.
Yes, experience does help to make informed suggestions and choices. However, being in the profession for longer doesn’t automatically qualify you as a leader. It may lead you to believe you no longer need to develop as a practitioner or may leave you feeling jaded about particular aspects of the system, thus (perhaps unintentionally) spreading negativity rather than hope at a time when hope is very much needed. A fresh perspective can be equally as inspiring and valuable if your school rightfully values all members of the learning community, regardless of their time in the job.

Myth #5: Leaders raise morale by providing chocolate for staff.
Truth: This particular notion was discussed by Alexia Charalambous during our Festival of Education TeachMeet. Although our leaders provide chocolate for various occasions, they raise our morale much more through other means. For example, one of the heads explained the policy for dependency days during a staff meeting and encouraged us to apply for these when they are necessary. By being transparent with these aspects of school-life, which some might not even be aware of, it raises the wellbeing of staff far more than a few carbs on the staffroom table – although I’m sure these will always be warmly welcomed, too. Additionally, myself and a colleague organised two staff socials recently and the presence of numerous leaders at one or both of the socials did more to raise the morale as it was a great opportunity for all to let their hair down and build relationships with one another.

Myth #6: What a leader says, goes.
Truth: To be a leader, you need supporters not followers. Followers are ineffective minions who parrot beliefs without ever demonstrating them. Supporters are invaluable and equally respected members of the community who share the visions of their leader and challenge them when they disagree. If supporters become unclear of, unsure of, or unhappy with the vision and actions a leader is taking, they need to say so. A leader can’t lead without supporters who will contribute to the dream. If they don’t have the backing of supporters, perhaps the dream and/or approach needs to be adjusted. Of course, there are some who are part of a community who are just happy to get by. This is far better than being one of the aforementioned minions who cheerleads for empty validation and provides no impact towards the collective dream.

Myth #7: A leader must take things seriously all the time.
Truth: Committing wholly to what you believe in doesn’t mean you can’t have some fun. The best moments I share with the ‘official leaders’ of my primary school are always the ones in which laughter occurs. Furthermore, another leader, Rae Snape, who was a host for the Cambridgeshire Festival of Education, cracked jokes and danced to Jess Glynne whenever she could and I was in the best mood because of this. Positivity and happiness are contagious. Let the infection spread. (Does that sound weird? Quite possibly…)

I wonder where I established these ridiculous views of leaders from in the first place. I think the word ‘leader’ needs some debunking itself. A simple google defines a leader as one who ‘commands a group’, which sounds more oppressive than inspiring. Therefore, I wish to thank the Cambridgeshire Festival of Education for refueling my passion for education and for readjusting some of the misguided values I have grown up with. I’m very fortunate to have a number of leaders – both aware and unaware of their unofficial leadership status – to guide me during my career and I hope one day I can have such positive impact on others too.

*Perhaps ‘exposed’ isn’t the best choice of vocabulary for this occasion.


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