Diary of a headteacher: Inspired and driven by research

Written by: Diary of a headteacher | Published:
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Engaging in research has transformed how our headteacher diarist leads his school...

Since becoming a headteacher I have paid more attention to educational research. When I reflect on my early years in the teaching profession, I wonder how I managed to bluster my way through without a real understanding about learning and the most effective methods of teaching.

Maybe, back when my main focus was teaching my own classes, I didn’t have the time to think about how educational research could affect my practice.
It could also be argued that there has been an increase in the amount of research readily available since then (through the development of the Education Endowment Fund, the Chartered College of Teaching and NFER research publications, among others).

The increase in teachers connecting with each other through Twitter, sharing ideas and opinions and challenging each other, has also changed the way in which we can communicate. All this has provided us with a new dimension for accessing information.

The landmark moment for me came when I connected with my headteacher mentor four years ago. My local authority supported new headteachers by pairing them up with experienced and successful heads, who provided mentoring over a two-year period. The impact for me was transformational, but it exposed my lack of understanding of the importance of using educational research to inform school improvement.

I distinctly remember my mentor’s message to me as I sat there in the glass office overlooking the library of his sixth form: “If we don’t focus our leadership strategies on research-based evidence then we are just guessing at what might be effective.”

The penny dropped for me at that point. Although I had managed to work my way up to a headship position pretty quickly, I’d managed by the seat of my pants, relying on instinct, intuition and a reasonable amount of emotional intelligence. “Those things are important, but they’ll only get you so far,” was my mentor’s response – and he was absolutely right.

Since then I’ve devoured everything Michael Fullan and Andy Hargreaves could throw at me and I’m an avid reader of headteacher bloggers such as John Tomsett, Stephen Tierney and Tom Sherrington.

For me, understanding the theory of leadership has revolutionised the way in which I approach my role and it has made the job so much more rewarding, satisfying and interesting.

However, I’ve always been conscious that I am a teacher at heart and I have never wanted to lose sight of that. I’m one of those strange people who knew, at age 13, that they wanted to be a (PE) teacher when they grew up (the headteacher bit came much later).

It means that I am still incredibly interested in teaching. I see too many headteachers who don’t teach anymore because they believe they don’t have the time, or they simply don’t want the hassle.

For me, teaching keeps me sharp, it stops me from becoming deskilled from the profession I love, and it gives me credibility among the staff I lead. As a result, I have spent more time in the last year reading up on educational research relating to teaching and learning than I had done throughout the entire previous 13 years of my career!

But should we just blindly follow the recommendations and findings of the latest educational research? No. We should treat research with a critical eye and consider the practical implications as well. We should consider teacher workload, too, and we should certainly think long and hard about whether or not an approach is suitable within the unique context of our school.

For example, a recent research project found that peer observations have no impact on improving student outcomes. For a long time, I have felt that peer observations are extremely useful and are a very effective way in which to encourage a collaborative culture of trust within a school. Experience has taught me that teachers value a coaching approach to lesson observations that allows them to reflect and refine their practice and receive useful, timely feedback to improve their professional performance.

So does this research finding mean that I am going to scrap my approach to developing a collaborative culture towards lesson observations? Absolutely not, but it is always helpful to reflect upon our ideas and philosophies and to be prepared to consider alternative approaches.

  • SecEd’s headteacher diarist is in his fourth year of headship at a secondary school in the Midlands.


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