School leadership lessons from your favourite superheroes

Written by: Sean Harris | Published:
Image: iStock

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a newly appointed member of the senior leadership team! Drawing on the world of superheroes, Sean Harris offers his advice to new leaders

Latex-wearing, weapon-wielding, villain-backside-kicking superheroes may look fantastic in comic books and on the big screen, but until now how many of these crime-fighting super men and women have stopped to wonder the lessons that they are teaching those that have been recently recruited to their foundation year of senior leadership?

Here are five essential rules from the world of superheroes to help newly recruited senior leaders in their initial and important year.

Rule 1: A super human, not super-human

Braced for action on a chilly September morning, I arrived at my school ready for my first day as a senior leader. I had spent two-weeks on the intensive but highly rewarding Foundations Training course with Future Leaders in the summer. I had covered all eventualities in my training that would face me that term (so I thought), including difficult parents, underperforming colleagues and failing faculties.

However, that term I made a few mistakes because I tried to fit a mould. I tried to take on a persona rather than lead like a human being. Take off any type of a mask or false persona and be yourself. You were appointed to this challenge. The team probably doesn’t need another clone of the head or the deputy anyway.

In the first year, it is imperative that a newly recruited senior leader seeks out support. This might involve actively seeking feedback in the busy school environment from trusted colleagues – an in-school mentor, a fellow member of the senior leadership team (SLT) – but don’t be afraid of sourcing this support out of school either.

A well-timed latte with an SLT member in another setting or an experienced head of a school with no links to your own can provide you with a sounding board for reflecting on your practice and sharpening where you might be getting it wrong. This is your first year – you are not the finished product.

Similarly, academic holidays should provide you with a moment to relax. Make sure you spend time in these holidays to invest in the people that might be making an investment in you. For many, this might be family or friends. Even Batman hangs up the cape and spends the occasional evening watching a film with his butler Alfred, although I am not sure he gets the same holiday entitlement as academics.

Rule 2: With great power comes great responsibility

Peter Parker, aka Spiderman, regularly struggles with the work/life balance that comes with being a part-time photographer for the Daily Bugle and the web-slinging, crime-fighting Spiderman.

There are moments where he considers leaving the cobwebs in the corner and opting for a “normal” life. It is normal to have these experiences in your first year. Should I consider becoming a head of faculty again? Is this really why I came into the profession?

Take a moment to record and remember those occasions that define why you came into this profession.

Teaching Leaders, a leadership development programme to support and develop middle leadership in schools, regularly challenges their participants to develop a culture of “Moleskin Moments” – literally taking time to summarise their beliefs, learning and reflections into a moleskin journal (other journals are available). I have often been inspired while facilitating for the charity by the number of their fellows that will record and reflect upon a quote or key commentary that has reminded them of why they teach or why they are pursuing having a greater impact in their role.

The need to maintain integrity is also crucial to a number of superheroes. Batman chooses never to kill his enemies – believing this to set his moral compass apart from those that he battles against.

Every Future Leader in their first two years of training is allocated to a leadership development coach – I remember mine reminding me in a mentoring session once that “every conversation counts”. This was a reminder to me, as a recently appointed senior leader in a school where I had been a head of department, that it might be tempting to engage in a conversation with a colleague about your misgivings towards a member of staff or concerns over a particular curriculum area.

As a senior leader you are a beacon for the rest of your leadership team. If you allow your integrity to be questioned as a member of this team then the rest of the team is called into question. If you find yourself in such a conversation make sure you handle it appropriately by explaining that it wouldn’t be appropriate for you to discuss this.

Rule 3: We need to work as a team

Armed with a patriotic shield and sense of moral drive, Captain America regularly finds himself taking on the bad guys and managing to defend himself against all odds. In the latter stages of his career as a superhero he helps to form the Avengers; a highly skilled team of superheroes that protect the world against villainous enemies (I don’t intend to make links to any governing bodies or regulators at this point...).

The Avengers succeed because they function as a team. Despite his strong character and moral compass, the Captain is just not enough. He relies on those around him. It is too easy to try to succeed in your first year in isolation. Don’t fall into the trap of acting in isolation or developing your own agendas without the input or co-facilitation of your fellow SLT members. This extends to other colleagues too.

Before taking an item to your initial SLT meetings, consider running it by fellow members of the team prior to the meeting. This displays a willingness to gather and respond to feedback. It also means that it is a shared initiative.

You could also form a team around one or more of the priorities that you feel the need to address in your first year at a new school. I feel privileged to have worked alongside a “RAT pack” in my own school (Raising Aspirations Team).

I knew that creating a more aspirational culture around the school was key to my areas of responsibility and to our leadership team having an impact. The RAT pack needed just a gentle prompt before forming their own ideas and working closely with the leadership team to develop a range of strategies that have helped to create a culture of aspiration.

The team consists of classroom teachers and curriculum leaders and is testimony of how a culture of aspiration can be developed by the efforts of a few committed individuals. The RAT pack has created a new house system, organised end-of-term challenges for students, and formulated a system for reporting and recording praise across the school in a document called “Praise on a Page”. Contact me to find out more!

Rule 4: It’s not who you are, it’s what you do that defines you

Bruce Wayne (aka Batman) is a troubled soul. He witnessed the murder of his parents at an early age and, as a result, uses the family bank account to turn his attention to fighting crime while dressed as a bat – meanwhile, maintaining the persona of his billionaire playboy lifestyle to ensure the citizens of Gotham City don’t catch on to him.

I am convinced that he wouldn’t have been able to do this with the workload of a teacher – imagine the amount of marking and moderation he’d have to do in the bat cave into those early hours. Nonetheless, there are a number of practical points to take on board:

  • Roll up your sleeves: be prepared to work hard with your colleagues beyond the team. Demonstrating what it means to give regular feedback to your students in books and leading intervention sessions out-of-hours sends a louder message to teaching staff than asking them to work harder with their students.
  • Listen to your colleagues: don’t get consumed with giving orders. Why not develop an open door policy around some of your new initiatives or create a Friday forum where staff can openly reflect on an area you are leading on? One sign of good leadership is admitting that you don’t yet have the answer and that you want colleagues to work alongside you to achieve this together for the benefit of your students.
  • Take responsibility: When you get it wrong, admit the mistake. This enables colleagues to understand that you are human and that you also take time to hold yourself to account. Ensure that they leave with a sense of what you have done to resolve the issue and that you would have the same expectation of them.
  • Make it about the students: remind colleagues at every opportunity why they do the job. Your mission isn’t about HMI, it isn’t about action plans, it isn’t about scrutiny or about “raising standards” – it is about improving life chances for children.

Rule 5: What seems like our greatest disappointments are often our greatest opportunities

I am completely different to Thor. He is a God, I am not. He has the strength and the physique of a deity, I am still working on this. But I share the same mentality of Thor when it comes to facing setbacks and disappointments however.

In my first year as an SLT member I led on creating a nurture group for some year 7 students. In theory, it was a great plan that would assist our most vulnerable students and ensure that we were “secondary ready” in a matter of months. In truth, the plan failed.

The children enjoyed secondary school. Their attendance increased alongside their attitude to learning. They just didn’t make enough progress. In some cases, they didn’t make any academic progress. However, it did inform how the school would further develop their transition programme and enabled staff to see with greater urgency the importance of using data to inform transition rather than focusing just on the pastoral aspects of transition, which secondary schools too often fall into the trap of doing.

When action planning your way through the first year, make sure you build into your action plan timely and robust opportunities for monitoring and evaluation. In my school, we ensure that no member of the SLT is solely responsible for monitoring and evaluating their own impact. This enables each member of the team to hold each other to account and also provides a robust framework in which members of the team can promptly reflect on where an impact has not been made and what might need to change in order for this to happen.

Future Leaders ask that all participants commit to implementing a 360 review of their practice in their first year as a newly appointed senior leader and this continues after year one too. It is imperative that this encourages feedback from a diverse sample of colleagues – not just those alongside you in leadership, but parents, governors, students, classroom teachers and support staff.

When feedback is given have the resilience to take it personally on a professional level – it is a reflection of how that colleague sees you as a leader, not as a human being necessarily. Use the feedback to really discern where you are getting it wrong. If colleagues take this view of you then it might be that those parents you work with, students you mentor, and other key people see it like this too. Use it as an opportunity for personal growth.

In his book Complications, Dr Atul Gawande shares his frontline experiences of being a surgeon and provides essential reading for those working both within and outside of medicine. For Dr Gawande, mistakes are made at both ends of the stethoscope and the sharpened medical professionals are those that learn on the job.

Dr Gawande implies the need for professionals to regularly seek feedback and reflection from those that they exist to serve and save; this enables even the hardened skilled professional to develop a mentality that the job is never complete. There is always room for improvement no matter how great the feeling of achievement or disappointment.

  • Sean Harris is assistant headteacher at Norham High School in the North East of England. He is a member of the Future Leaders network. When he isn’t wearing latex or wielding a shield, he enjoys watching superhero films with his two daughters. Follow the superhero antics of the staff at Norham High via @MrHarris_Norham and @Norhamhigh

Future Leaders

The Future Leaders programme offers leadership development for aspiring headteachers of challenging schools who believe that all children deserve a great education. Find out more and become part of the network of over 500 senior leaders and headteachers at future-leaders.org.uk/futureleaders


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