I’ve sat in different halls when the newly revised and rewritten version of the school’s mission statement has been revealed. I’ve been on both sides – part of the SLT who is sharing it or a member of staff, being shown version number 473. I’ve heard the cynical sniggers from those who cast it aside immediately as a meaningless document at best or at worst an agenda-laden manifesto of the controlling management team imposing their ideas on the true educators. I’ve read different kinds of mission statements – the extensive, leaving nothing unsaid, detailed essay and the pithy ‘can we say it in ten words’, yes as long as it’s a meaningless educational soundbite. It’s not an easy job trying to write one, but it is easy to be critical of others’ attempts. What has struck me more and more is that it’s often a question that you only have to really tackle when you start showing an interest in promotion, but it’s as important a job from the moment you begin your career until your retirement year (and beyond).
What is a mission statement anyway? Ultimately it a way of communicating your purpose to others. Why are you doing what you are doing? I don’t think anyone properly asked me that until I’d been teaching for about ten years, already well into a Head of Department role. I wanted to really think about my answer and not through it away on something too logistical. To help you come up with your mission statement I’m going to slightly adapt a suggested approach from business via Forbes magazine and ask you three questions to come up with your own statement of intent. As an extra challenge, can you sum up your answer to each question in one sentence?
- What do you do? The obvious answer is to teach, but what do you actually do so that learning takes place? Have you developed a particular style in the classroom or adopted an approach to learning that influences your planning? Have you got a USP? If you are going for a leadership role or currently in one then what do you enjoy about the responsibility of leadership?
- How do you do it? What do you bring to your role? Whenever I was responsible for schemes of work I always wanted them to be flexible enough for individual teachers to shape the material with their own personalities. Are you passionate about your subject? What motivates you? Why would it be different to work with you?
- Why do you do it? For me this is the foundation of your mission statement, in that everything else should be built upon these ideas. What are your values? Some of you will know from my tweets and blogs that I am a big fan of Michael Fullan and his focus on moral purpose. I was introduced to him at the very beginning of my study of educational leadership, but I think it is something that should be considered right at the start. What are the principles that underpin your decisions and choices? Are there deal breakers for you that might cause you to look for another post if a request appears to challenge your values? What does it mean for you to be an authentic teacher and/or leader? Would colleagues be able to say what your values were, do you communicate them to others?
It is not surprising that an understanding of mindfulness and resilience is becoming more significant in teacher development. Rather than be seen as fanciful additions these ideas, along with our core values, construct a teacher who’s well being is integral to their success. As Fullan suggests (referencing Palmer’s Courage to Teach) in chapter 2 of his very readable book, Leading in a Culture of Change,
‘…the best teachers integrate the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual aspects of teaching to create powerful learning communities’
At this challenging time, when teachers are even being politically scolded for not being positive about their profession, it is even more important to know what your mission statement is. For many of us, taking time to ask yourself these questions will prove to be the chart that will help get you through the roughest seas and cope with the highest waves. In fact, your mission statement should be the most positive statement of intent and will also be celebration of everything you have already achieved.
I’ve interviewed a lot of people, hundreds and like many deputies I’ve read through hundreds and hundreds of application forms. By all accounts I’m quite a tough interviewer, but I like to think I’m fair. I’ve also been interviewed a lot over the years. Some have been great interviews, some make me shudder at the memory of them, some awful. I’ve also learnt a great deal from interviewing alongside some impressive leaders. There are always lessons to be learnt from the experience, whether you’re the interviewer or interviewee.
I’m currently researching the recruitment process and learning a lot about what happens to our identity when we go through these experiences. As an interviewer I’ve been amazed at some easy mistakes that some people have made that have hindered their application. Perhaps people think they don’t matter, but they usually do. So as it’s that fun time of year when minds turn to TES jobs pages, so I thought I would gather some of my thoughts together with leadership jobs particularly in mind.
- As soon as it start going for leadership jobs it stops being about the best teacher and it becomes about being what the school is looking for. You’ve got to fit in with their set up and because of that…
- Do your research about the school, it always amazed me how few candidates could talk knowledgeably about the school, or found some way to connect to the school.
- Do what they ask you to do, if they ask you to fill in their form, do it, if they ask for a letter, write it, if they ask for a CV include it, but DON’T your own thing, it won’t impress despite what you think.
- Take time over an application. If you can’t be bothered to fill in an application form well what will the rest of your paperwork be like once you’re in the post?
- Get your timeline right and don’t leave gaps, if you leave gaps they will ask about the gaps
- If you need to write a letter or an accompanying piece really take time over this. It’s so important to get it right and without sounding too Goldilocks about it, it needs to be just the right length, no more than two sides.
- If you’ve got to put a CV together, really think about layout, font, don’t stick with the same format you’ve used since school. Think about how it’s going to look in a stack of paperwork, but don’t go for gimmicks either. The chances are you’ll just come across as a bit weird. If you’re not sure you’ve got it right, ask someone you trust. A leadership CV can look very different to your first CV.
- Be prepared to answer the obvious questions, but don’t just give stock answers, for example, if you’re going for a head of department, don’t just say you want to raise the profile of the department, say what that means, how you’re going to do it and in what timescale.
- Be prepared to answer really tough questions. If you’re going for a headship or a deputy position they aren’t going to go easy on you. Start building up a list of tough questions you or your colleagues have been asked.
- With the questions, it’s important to get the balance right of talking about your achievements and then also talking about what you would do in their school. The more you can connect the two the better, people often talk a lot about their own experiences and drift away from the question.
- Don’t be critical either of current colleagues, colleagues you’ve worked with in the past or of anything you’ve encountered at the school. Even if you bumped into a late pupil who let a door slam in your face don’t pick that moment to bring it up.
- However, despite the last point remember that a massive part of leadership is change management and so think about examples you’ve can talk about of you implementing change and if you can’t think of an example…
- Make sure you are already looking out for leadership opportunities or whole-school opportunities in your current role. Internal roles not coming up is an excuse, you don’t just have to take on paid roles. I’ve interviewed a lot of people who say the reason why they haven’t had that experience is their current school’s fault. Look for any opportunities, such as leading working groups, that will take you into different parts of the educational world. If it is really impossible to find something in your school, look outside to examiner work, or subject associations.
- Really think about the extras – the in-tray exercise, the lesson, the problem solving, the presentation – do not just prepare these, or for these, last minute, because you can tell when someone does that. Practice bits that you feel are your weakest aspects.
- With regard to presentations, use a format that will enhance your presentation. There is nothing wrong with PowerPoint, it’s just that the reality is that most people use the programme really badly with no thought to design, content or delivery.
- Remember to look and listen as much as you talk. Firstly because you can pick up a lot from staff and students about the school’s priorities and secondly if you don’t then you’ll probably not be answering questions precisely. Listening allows you to make connections. Looking around gives you opportunities to reference what you have seen in answers. At one interview I was asked if I was Head what would I spend £250k on (after being on a tour).
- Remember that anything you say to anyone during the day is likely to be fed back to your interviewers, so watch for odd jokes in reception, the ordeal-by-meal, or during the tour led by the sixth former. They might laugh at the time, but it’s going to be reported back.
- Don’t worry about being nervous. Most decent interviewers account for nerves with applicants, just don’t let them overwhelm you. If you feel that happening ask to use the bathroom and just take a few deep breaths, think of the last time you laughed a lot and then head back out.
- Do make an effort over how you look, it definitely is worth it, but have your own style, because you need to be as comfortable as is possible.
- This might sound remarkably cheesy, but you really do need to be yourself. If there is any sense of pretension in your approach you are ultimately doing yourself no favours. Remember you are applying to be a leader there day in, day out and so if there is any pretence in your manner it will be impossible for you to maintain. It’s not about being the best person for a job, it’s about being the right person for this particular job. If it’s not a good fit no one will be happy.
I’ve read quite a few tweets and blogs that, I think, might make the heart sink of anyone who has ever been part of an SLT. There seems to be quite a lot written about things that SLTs are getting wrong, often written by people observing those roles from outside. In response I wanted to write a description of the work of members of a Senior Leadership Team by describing what they are not.
Being a member of SLT is not:
- About leaving your humanity behind. It’s all too easy to describe a decision as made by ‘management’ or ‘SLT’ because it dehumanises teachers into a thing, an object, that is making life difficult, rather than talking about people
- Easier than being a teacher with a full timetable, it is different, a different job with different challenges. Each role is of value and essential to the smooth running of the school
- A step away from the classroom, it should still be about everything that is going on in the classroom, the reason why we do what we do. Most SLT members will still have some teaching commitments & some have way too much teaching commitment (in my opinion)
- Irrelevant to Teaching & Learning. Better leadership means a better school, which can improve the standard of teaching and learning
- For everyone. It is not a natural progression that everyone has to aspire to, but it is something that if you feel you have an interest in you should not hold back, but investigate right away
- The ‘them’ of an ‘us and them’ scenario, it’s not about finding someone to take the blame for decisions that are often made elsewhere, but should be about colleagues working for the same goal
- A provider of answers to everything, teaching is difficult and there are many times when it is best to work together to work out what the best solution is for your school
- A heartless occupation, there is nothing harder and more heartbreaking than having to work with a colleague who is struggling for whatever reason
- A punching bag, although the are times when it can be helpful to take that role, if you assume opposition from the outset it ends up being a waste of time and energy
- Someone who should just let teachers get on with it, they are themselves still teachers and they are, in many cases, hanging on to their reasons for going into teaching in the first place
- About making changes just for the sake of it. As professionals we all want to make progress so that sometimes, but not always involves change
- Communicating one way. It might seem that many members of SLT are constantly issuing reminders, updates, emails, etc, but by far one of the biggest aspects of the job should be listening to everything that is going on
- About living in your office and this is sometimes really hard to avoid. Listening to others often involves lots of meeting with colleagues & this inevitably ends up happening in offices, but it’s not about hiding there
- About trying to thwart the professional development of their colleagues. They are not trying to waste precious budget on useless INSET days to irritate overworked teachers
- Being beyond criticism yourself. Members of SLT should have extensive appraisals carried out, where all kinds of members of the school community can have their say
- About being in it for yourself, in fact a personal vision of education & a shared vision for the school should be providing the motivations for decisions made
- An emotionless experience. Sadly, being promoted to an SLT doesn’t automatically make you immune to feeling hurt when unfair comments are made, but you just have to deal with it
- About being better than anyone else, as it is with the classroom, so it should be with the school and that is above all else people should be treated fairly
- About being infallible. You do not automatically have Pope-like status and therefore can still make mistakes, but you need to have the humility and integrity to recognise your failings, we’re all human
Now this is not to say that there aren’t failing leadership teams of failing individual members of those teams and if you’re faced with injustice you have a decision to make. Either move on to a school more akin to your values or challenge the way things are.