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Gareth Southgate – Lessons in school leadership

Jordan Coombes looks at how leadership lessons from Euro 2020 apply to the classroom...

  • Gareth Southgate – Lessons in school leadership

A lot has been said about this England team: passionate, driven, conscientious… the list could go on. And it’s relevant for their actions both on and off the pitch.

However, for a team to truly thrive, leadership must allow them to do so. Gareth Southagte led his England team with an empathy, consistency and humility that provided a platform for them to succeed; attributes that are also seen in our schools, both in the classroom and in leadership roles.

Responsibility

After the disappointment of the final, inevitably questions were asked about some of England’s decisions: tactics, personel and why certain players were chosen to take the penalties that were sadly missed.

Without hesitation, Southgate spoke to the media and took full responsibility for every aspect of the game, doing his best to protect his players in the process. 

Although the country may not view it as quite high-stakes, a school day is made up of lots of decisions, too, and they can range in significance and vary depending on the role of the person making them.

Let’s be totally honest here, some of these decisions we make are wrong. We all care, we all want the best for everyone, but sometimes the choices we make just do not work out.

We can learn from Southgate during these times and accept that some of the our choices may not have been the best possible ones. Accepting responsibility when things go wrong is not easy, it makes us feel vulnerable and as if we are going to be judged negatively.

But in doing so we help create a culture that accepts mistakes (both from children and adults), and will give you long-term respect from the people you work with and teach. 

Empathy

We saw Southgate always put his players first, showing a huge degree of empathy to how they might feel about different situations both on and off the pitch. He spoke about the team he was leading as humans first and footballers second, understanding the experience of the players, their feelings and how this may affect them in both spheres.

Similarly, the children that we teach and adults we lead must also be seen as people first, before we consider them as pupils and members of staff. This may sound a rather obvious statement, however expectations in our schools are so high and days move at such a pace that there is often the danger of forgetting the human aspect of the jobs we have.

Yes, there should be challenge and yes there should be ambition, but these should coexist alongside empathetic responses to the people that we work with. 

Consistency

Consistency is an aspect of school life that is often one of the hardest to enforce. At times, this is because things are out of our control, but it is more likely that every day brings a totally new challenge to the one we have just faced. Southgate’s tactics were often called boring, predictable and unimaginative (some would argue rightly so), but nobody would ever be able to call them inconsistent.

The style of football remained the same throughout the tournament, this therefore meant that every player on the pitch and within the squad had a crystal clear understanding of where they stood and what was required of them.

If we are consistent in our classrooms and in our schools so that children and staff know exactly where they stand and what the expectations are, we provide a much sturdier platform for success.

Children respond to the same rules day in and day out and staff look to their leaders for consistency with their guidance and attitude; a lack of understanding of expectations will only ever lead to disappointing outcomes.

Humility

We all want things to go right, nobody sets off on a task and chases failure. However, showing humility after success and being able to recognise the efforts of everyone who aided that success is sometimes a skill that is overlooked.

At every turn during Euro 2020 Southgate and his players showed a constant humility that had been instilled in them, never over confident and always thankful after a positive outcome. Everybody wants the best in schools; teachers want the best from their students and leaders want the best from their staff, which there is absolutely nothing wrong with.

Although, when successes are evident and the best is achieved it is so important to remember others who have been on this journey with us. It is also vital to consider the fact that not everyone is experiencing success, some will be dealing with disappointment.

When we are wrapped up in our celebrations and revelling after the hard work has paid off, being humble is a challenging attribute to show, but it is one that greatly affects the people around us. 

Inclusion

There were 26 members of the England squad that travelled to Euro 2020 (although it has to be said there wasn’t much actual travelling) and with 11 players only allowed on the pitch at a time, there were inevitably people who were left out.

With this in mind, how did Gareth Southgate possibly keep everybody happy and feeling included? In post-match interviews he regularly spoke about players who had not kicked a ball and praised their attitude and contributions off the field.

He made sure that everyone felt valued at all times, regardless of their role. Every member of a school (both children and adults) has their part to play and deserves to be part of the journey, whether this is in the classroom or the school as a whole.

Teachers and leaders create roles for everyone and ensure that in classrooms and schools individuals become part of a collective, a greater good and ultimately achieve so much more that is beyond the purely academic. 

Bravery

Don’t let your past define you, but in equal measure don’t shy away from it. We all know that Gareth Southgate missed a decisive penalty at Euro 96; it was a moment that clearly affected him deeply.

He spoke about it regularly and never cowered when it was brought up in conversation, but he also spoke about this team being on a different journey, as was he; he was not defined by that one moment of disappointment.

As educators we have all had lessons, observations, meetings, discussions (the list goes on) that did not go to plan. We must not forget these moments, as they are all part of who we are, but use them as learning experiences to constantly improve; it’s not about righting wrongs, but creating new moments and situations along the journey.

Jordan Coombes is an assistant head teacher in an East London Primary School and has previously held positions including science co, literacy co and class teacher.

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