Wisdom of Heads XII

Dr Denry Machin
Apr 5, 2019 · 6 min read
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“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” Aristotle

School leaders: What type are you?

These are the words of a school Head. Not a CEO, a Bursar or Business Manager, a Head. A Head who happily refers to parents as clients. Admittedly, he runs a fee-paying school, but the word ‘client’ is still jarring.

Yet, this type of language is echoing out of boardrooms, down corridors and into classrooms. Education, we are repeatedly told, is big business. School leaders are expected to balance the aims of educational and financial effectiveness. The bottom line, for many Heads, is that the bottom-line matters.

This presents an uneasy paradox. School leaders, international school leaders especially, must balance the aims of educational and financial effectiveness. How does the born and bred educationalist cope in this environment?

The response to this question was the focus of research interviews with Principals of schools, small and large, profit and not-for-profit, public and private. The result was a range of Principal ‘types.’ You may recognise yourself (or your school’s Principal) amongst them.

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Teacher-Principals identify as practitioners. Management demands are seen as functional requirements of the job, necessary but incidental. For this Principal, it is education that is emotionally fulfilling:

“I want to be in the classrooms, talking to the kids, talking to teachers; being out there, not in the office.”

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Principal-Teacher’s see themselves differently; the reversal of the nouns is significant. The Principal-Teacher understands that a Principal is not only a teacher but also Principal of the teachers (a manager).

These Principals are committed to education but recognise that leadership shifts them away from teaching and towards management. To an extent they accept this, but still want to be “one of them” — a Principal, but a teacher too.

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For the Pragmatist-Broker, being a Principal is about doing whatever it takes to support school improvement. They are willing to get “their hands dirty in the business stuff”; they see themselves as educationalists but accept that management thinking can offer pragmatic benefit.

As one Principal put it:

“I am focused on the educational well-being of the young people in my care but the business context provides a really excellent discipline for what I do.”

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The Educational Manager goes one step further. Affinity with education remains, but these Principals embrace their management responsibilities:

“Without the business perspective, we are missing huge elements of a school’s potential. So, you really do need to blend the two. I bring that blend.”

For these Principals, management responsibilities are no longer incidental; they are managers of education — a subtle, but significant shift.

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The Educational Executive sees education and management as complimentary. For this Principal, effective management is just as important as effective education. Efficiency, productivity, accountability, and, in some contexts, profit, all matter.

These Principals have come to see management (including non-educational tasks) as part of the job — an entirely natural, desirable and welcomed part of leading a school.

As the types show, today’s school leaders must demonstrate abilities beyound ‘instructional leadership’. Just as important as pedagogical preparation is the ability/willingness to undertake managerial tasks. In other words, the contemporary school leader must be a HYBRID.

Hybridity is a powerful concept. Hybridity — blending instructional leadership and management — enables Heads to maintain legitimacy as educators while also undertaking tasks that are not directly educational. In other words, a Hybrid can successfully be a manager and still be considered (and still consider themselves) a professional educator; they can enjoy spreadsheets, metrics and data, identifying with performance while still being a passionate pedagogue.

As Dr Stephen Whitehead puts it:

“…the hybrid professional does not occupy a singular professional identity but has the emotional intelligence and cognitive flexibility to move between identities, and organisational demands, situationally; e.g. they are continually in flux and not devoted to a singular way of being a leader. This means they can develop a wider repertoire of responses to leadership dilemmas and, importantly, are not afraid to do so”.

Being comfortable as a hybrid helps Heads navigate the uncertainty and ambiguity of what Headship (now) is and what Heads (now) must be able to do.

How then does one develop hybridity? My research suggests the following:

— MBAs may not currently be required for Headship positions, but they do seem to facilitate hybridity, or at least openness to new forms of managerial identification. Choosing to undertake an MBA (or similar) would therefore be an important first step towards hybridity. Further, the skills and knowledge gained through management training will add at a practical level to your ability to perform the occupational requirements of management.

— Experience in a corporate school environment is likely to demand the adoption and acceptance of hybrid practices. Paradoxically, this context need not be for-profit or commercially owned — many not-for-profit schools are run on equally corporate lines — it simply needs to expose you to ‘corporate’ demands.

— For some, this purpose will be an enhancement of social good, student well-being and service-led values; others will be more at ease with the Darwinian reality of for-profit education. Those positions, in many schools, are not mutually exclusive, but reflecting on whether you are comfortable at the extremes of the latter is essential when picking your way through the daily demands of school leadership.

— Hybridity demands adaptability and resilience; the successful hybrid will thrive amongst, not suffer, the slings and arrows of increasingly complex school environments.

— The successful leader must be sensitive to the needs of the teachers, technicians, carers and cared-for in their charge. Hard-headed, autocratic, paternalistic and masculine approaches have no place in the modern school. Moreover, whereas you may have the pliability, strength and resilience to accept, and indeed thrive in plural environments, you need the emotional intelligence to recognise that those they manage may not share the same openness — and, indeed, may feel very vulnerable working under those very conditions.

In short, if such a thing as the pure educationalist ever existed (a doubtful claim), then those days are long gone. Contemporary school leaders are required to operate effectively across (potentially) contradictory positions; they must be both practioneer and manager. It may be uncomfortable to sit on the fulcrum of this duality, but contemporary school leadership requires hybridity:

“I want the chalk dust under the fingernails, and I thrive in that, but if that’s all I was doing, I might not get the same sort of challenge from the management stuff”.

Instead then of education being replaced or degraded by management, instead of the educationalist bemoaning the ‘business of education’, what hybridity offers is a new view of school leadership — as hybrid.

Are you a hybrid?

Reflect on your reasons for becoming an educator. And reflect on your reasons for becoming a leader.

How do those reasons square against the breadth of responsibilities now placed on school leaders? Where will you be comfortable? As a Teacher-Principal or Principal-Teacher, your heart still in the classroom? Or, do you have your sights on the board room, an Executive-Principal maybe, as comfortable dealing with finances, budgets and break-even as you are pedagogy and teacher performance?

Of the strategies mentioned, which might help you to become more comfortable in different professional spaces? As part of your mid- long-term career plan, which might it be useful to gain experience of?


on education, by educators, about all things educational

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