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School SLTs – They’re not gods, they’re just colleagues

Statue of Julius Caesar shot from below, to connote notions of distant leadership

Far from being remote and infallible, your senior colleagues are merely occupying roles that you may well have the ability to secure for yourself one day, says Tracey Leese…

Tracey Leese
by Tracey Leese
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When I qualified as a teacher 16 years ago, I thought I’d attained the very pinnacle of success.

Armed with QTS and a work wardrobe from Primark, I started my career in teaching – but like a dog chasing a car, I didn’t have a plan for what do to next.

Looking back now with the benefit of hindsight, I was probably always going to end up in a leadership role. I’d already worked in the private sector, during which time I’d secured a qualification in leadership. And despite feeling during that first year of teaching that I was drowning in workload, I was desperate for someone to notice my potential.

A secret club

At that point in my career, I saw leadership in education almost as a form of hereditary peerage, with SLT roles awarded to the next in line once the previous incumbent retired.

From the outside looking in, leadership felt to me like a secret club with deliberately obtuse entry requirements. I knew I wanted to be in this club, but I didn’t possess the social capital or work wardrobe needed to pass the initiation test, much less join it properly.

Some years later, finding myself in a different school and actually in the lower echelons of middle leadership, I was shocked to find that the senior leaders I had so revered and admired were neither omniscient demigods, nor superheroes. They were simply dedicated practitioners driven by the desire to make a difference to students’ life chances, just like me.

I would liken my early experiences of leadership meetings to the fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes. The content of the meetings themselves was sometimes so stultifyingly straightforward that I’d convince myself there must be some extra layer of meaning or subtext to the discussion that my lowly mindset was unable to comprehend. Yet ultimately there wasn’t.

I’ve sometimes wondered to what extent these kinds of myths serve the interests of a certain type of leader. In the early phase of my career, I’d never have presumed to think I was as brilliant or capable as those leading me. But once the curtain is pulled back, and you see the Wizard of Oz for what he is, it can’t be closed again.

Demystifying leadership

The process of demystifying leadership is important and necessary work, though that’s not to say that leadership is easy – far from it. It can be frustrating, high-pressured, thankless and often endless.

There are days when I can’t believe my luck that I’ve got to where I am. At other times, I’ll convince myself that someone’s about to enter the school and unmask me as a fraud, because deep in my soul, I’m still that poor kid with the head brace and crap trainers.

Leadership is a privilege that I’ve made make a conscious effect to wear lightly, because as intense and difficult as it can be, it’s also joyful.

This shouldn’t be read as if I’m suggesting school leaders are somehow mediocre or self-aggrandising, On the contrary – as a profession, we can often come across chronically humble, as if the act of equipping children with knowledge and self-belief is anything less than astounding.

At the same time, however, we must collectively recognise that leadership needs to be seen as less elitist if we’re to bring about more diversity at the top, hence the reason why representation is key.

Imposter syndrome

As a senior leader now myself, I regularly urge all teachers to see themselves as potential leaders – especially women, who remain under-represented at all levels of educational leadership, despite the profession being one that’s largely female-centric. A rich, well-rounded conception of leadership is one that prioritises vision, values ethics and allows others to shine – all things that teachers (and women, of course) do brilliantly.

It’s easy to assume that senior staff possess more wisdom, insight and talent than you, but the reality is that they almost certainly don’t. I’ve yet to work with a leader who hasn’t internalised at least some degree of imposter syndrome, or who hasn’t at any point felt out of their depth.

Representation is the antidote to assumption, and there’s no room for assumptions within teaching – unless the assumption is that you’re making an impact.

Case study: Keeping it real

Ms K – a secondary practitioner who has worked as a SENCo, head of year and subject leader, generally within challenging, inner city contexts

Whilst working as a SENCo before the pandemic, not long after having had children, Ms K reasoned that she would leave more impact on students’ lives by working in a specialist school. Despite being beset by intermittent crises of confidence, she was thrilled to be eventually appointed to the SLT as literacy leader.

To Ms K’s surprise, she acclimatised perfectly to the unique challenges presented by the smaller SEMH setting she now worked in, often telling her mainstream colleagues, “It might not be for everyone, but it is for me!

Lessons learned:
Ms K grew in confidence working for a headteacher whose values aligned closely with hers, and who put students at the heart of decision making with zero delusions of grandeur. Two years into her post, the headteacher was appointed to a trust-wide role, thus leaving a vacancy.

Though aware that there was a strong field of both internal and external applicants, Ms K opted to apply for position – mainly at first for the useful interview experience she might be able acquire. While preparing for the interview, however, it soon became clear to Ms K that she didn’t just want to be in the race – she wanted the job.

At the end of the interview, Ms K told the panel she was well aware that after only two years of senior leadership, she wasn’t the most experienced candidate for the post, but was enthusiastic, passionate, could already evidence impact and had proven herself to be a worthy and credible leader.

The outcome:
To her shock, she was offered the post – and then shocked all over again to find that she was more than capable of doing the job well. It turned out that Ms K had overestimated the other candidates and initially underestimated herself. Ms K’s advice to anyone considering a move that might seem professionally beyond them is to acknowledge that fear, and then go for it anyway – because you never know where leadership might lead you…

Tracey Leese (@MrsqueenLeese) is an assistant headteacher at St Thomas More Catholic Academy in Stoke-on-Trent, and co-author, with Christopher Barker, of the book Teach Like a Queen – Lessons in Leadership from Great Contemporary Women (£16.99, Routledge)

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