Developing your leadership talent

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A programme to develop and manage leadership talent at Ninestiles School led to excellent leadership opportunities for young staff as well as an injection of new ways of working across the school. Principal Christine Quinn explains.

“Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in front of parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.” Attributed to Socrates by Plato in Plato’s The Republic: Book IV.

I came across this quote when I was reading up about generational differences. In a very accessible paper, Michael Jenkins and Alex Swarbrick from the Roffey Park leadership institute argue that developing and retaining people from each generation requires subtly different tactics and strategies. 

Though, as Socrates and Plato seem to suggest, older generations find it easy to see the current generation as having abandoned “accepted” (or what they consider to be “accepted”) standards.

The implementation of a strategy to spot, develop and retain talent needs to both appeal to the characteristics of the new generation and plan for managing the resistance likely to come from people who believe their full potential was not recognised in a previous phase.

Context

The first time I planned to develop and manage talent was five years ago, four years into my leadership at Ninestiles School in Birmingham. The school was two years into a large programme of redesign to establish structures, curriculum and, most importantly, teaching that positioned student learning and progress at its centre. The key features of the redesign were:

  • The organisation of students into vertical tutor groups, which were subsequently organised into six all-age colleges.

  • A year 9, year 10 and year 11 curriculum which created the flexibility for students to take some qualifications in one year and others in two or three, thereby personalising both the offer and the experience.

  • A commitment to continue developing teaching to support excellence.

The school had attracted some excellent staff in recent years including young and/or NQTs who were looking for opportunities to develop their leadership skills. Like most Generation X and Y professionals, they didn’t want to wait for existing middle leaders to be promoted, move on or retire. We decided that our six colleges, comprising the small, vertical, all-age tutor groups, would be headed up by assistant principals to start with. Two years in, however, it seemed timely to hand our colleges over to our Generation Y talented workforce.

Process

The appointments were made transparently. Applications were restricted to people with fewer than five years’ experience in the profession. There were 12 applicants for six posts. The successful candidates were appointed for a fixed-term of two years and were paid retention points rather than Teaching and Learning Responsibility points. They breathed new life into an important innovation and added a new perspective. They became a highly effective team, leading highly effective teams. Four of the six have gone on to significant promotions, with one of them becoming Ninestiles’ first Teaching Leaders Fellow.

Rationale

The innovation needed to retain its edge and sense of momentum. Deploying new people in new structures seemed a good way of doing this. There was a pressing need to retain good teachers who were motivated and felt their careers were progressing.

In hindsight, the appointment of these six young, relatively inexperienced teachers made a difference to more people than just the six. Their fast-paced, short-term focus injected a new way of working across the school. 

Our new heads of college embraced change and also demonstrated a healthy disregard for some of the old established structures. For these to be dismantled by people one step away from senior leadership, rather than by senior leadership itself, meant the change happened quickly and with less resentment.

Importantly, it presented our students with strong role-models from their own generation. Our determination to meet the needs of this next generation of students by refining our teaching to include facilitation and coaching alongside the more traditional presentation, teacher-centred approach, needed developments like this to succeed. 

These people were among the best and were able to act as catalysts for this associated change. Alongside a well-established team of advanced skills teachers and middle leaders, they were key drivers in the redesign of teaching and learning, provision and support.

Securing success

In the McKinsey Quarterly in January 2012, Teresa Amabile and Steve Kramer found that of all the events that can deeply engage people in their jobs, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. 

It seems rather obvious to say that all work in schools can be seen as meaningful. There is little doubt that many teachers regard teaching to be a vocation as well as a profession but to keep teachers deeply engaged, they need regular reminders of the meaningful nature of their work.

Giving recently appointed teachers the opportunity to find this relevance by early experience of leadership is an effective way of keeping their talent in our school, or at least in the profession. In addition to providing good role-models for our students it also presents other, even newer teachers with an indication of possible routes for them in the near, rather than distant future.

Finally, it challenges the complacency of those, who like Socrates, fear that standards will automatically drop when placed in the hands of the young or inexperienced.

Professional development programmes

There was a clear duty for senior leadership to support, coach and mentor these people through their new roles. An experienced assistant principal had a formal brief to do this in addition to the day-to-day informal support given by the whole senior leadership team.

To complement this, a recognised middle leadership programme, “Leading from the Middle”, facilitated and assessed by external providers, was established. This not only gave these teachers accredited professional development, it provided triangulated support as they progressed through their posts.

The role of middle leaders

Middle leaders can make or break the careers of teachers, particularly new, inexperienced ones in their teams. They are also key to student progress across a cohort or subject area. A good middle leader can make the difference to a new teacher who is struggling, transforming that new teacher into an effective practitioner. Conversely, a poor middle leader can lead to a new teacher with potential becoming ordinary and mediocre. Keeping middle leadership dynamic and effective is a priority for senior leadership, and a culture where talent is recognised, nurtured and developed is both a function of good middle leadership and a healthy challenge to it.

Conclusion

Current teachers’ pay and conditions guidance could be perceived as a barrier or at least a disincentive to nurturing talent in new and experimental ways. It doesn’t need to be this way, in fact pay and conditions can serve as a comfort blanket for those most threatened by the promotion of new talent. I believe we need to embrace innovation, seek solutions that fit the individual school’s context and ensure that the system’s hierarchical structures don’t dissuade our good, talented teachers to give up and leave the schools and pupils who need them the most.

  • Christine Quinn is principal of Ninestiles School in Birmingham, a National Leader of Education and sits on the Teaching Leaders’ National Heads Council.

Teaching Leaders
Teaching Leaders is a charity whose mission is to address educational disadvantage by developing middle leaders working in schools in the most challenging contexts. The charity is currently recruiting its next cohort of middle leaders to start the Teaching Leaders Fellows programme in 2013 (the application deadline is May 20). Visit www.teachingleaders.org.uk


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