Head to Head

The value of making time for research as a school leader

I come to this as a doctorate student and a headteacher. When I was a full-time classroom practitioner my main goal, like all teachers, was to educate children and run a safe and structured classroom. Significant points in my own learning came when notable individuals believed in me or inspired me. I remember clearly my own English teacher at Secondary School going out of her way to help scaffold my learning, the same with my P6 teacher in Primary School. Now as a headteacher, I have a supervisor who scaffolds my learning and motivates me to do better and be better as a human.  She also inspires me to try to make changes that, in the current teaching environment, I may not be able to do this without personal reading. As a headteacher, I work in an insecure and uncertain world. I need to maintain core business functions within the current framework and as part of that, risk assessment has become a priority.  My own learning is directed towards Strategic Change Initiatives within a standard for headship. Thankfully, in my view, the standard is values driven and so my learning is aligned for the most part with values. Many school leaders look to research and books presented by heroic leaders who ‘tell us how it is’ or ‘I did it my way’.  As readers we can, from these accounts, almost taste the school environment. As the narrative rings true and we are in school experiencing many challenges, grabbing onto such narratives is attractive as a fix to ‘win hearts and minds’ of staff, pupils, parents, community and to transform practice. I argue that these things go around in circles and in order to really make change as school leaders we need to firstly know ourselves, our schools and the world in which we live. Without these critical lenses on our own identity, we will not be able to lead our schools effectively. Leadership and management is more than a way of doing things, it is also a way of being. As Pat Thomson states in her book Heads on the Block?  ‘It is a job with very particular benefits – and very particular costs’ (2009:1).

I love the first line of Dewey’s (1933) How We Think:  
‘No one can tell another person in any definite way how he should think, any more than how he ought to breathe or to have his blood circulate’ (p.3).
I think that it is crucial to bear in mind, as a headteacher, that there are many ways to do things in schools and some ways are better than others. As school leaders, we must plough our own furrow by thinking it through for ourselves and being critical of our own actions and those of others in order to become more effective in our roles. To do this we have to understand what being critical is and there are many robust texts available to help us do this. The most notable to me, one that is used in many headteacher and doctoral students’ courses currently in Scottish Universities, is Brookfield’s (1995) Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. This text is specifically aimed at teachers and offers lenses on adult learning and building our ability to be reflective and critical in our roles. In our role as headteachers, we have to enable pedagogy, education and praxis, and we are unlikely to be able to do that successfully if we do not understand each of these terms in its own right. As headteachers we are told of educational research that should inform our work and directed towards common understanding based on a shared understanding of vocabulary. I suggest this is not enough. We have a duty to ourselves to understand our craft, rather than being technicians of a curriculum.  I think it falls to us to create our own worthwhile lives so that we can feel fulfilled in our capacity to lead.  But how do we do this if the surface of our own enquiries is narrow?  
Stephen Kemmis (2008:4) discusses pedagogy, education and praxis as a series of windows through we may see, even if darkly, other ways of doing things. I like this idea as it is about an exploration of theoretical aims and critical development of key concepts and associated understandings, which we can then bring to our own settings as headteachers. For me this journey led to my own school’s curriculum rationale and our pupil journey created in praxis with our community in order to make it valuable, robust, sustainable and worthwhile. Another way of saying this is that ‘considering situating praxis in practice led to the creation of my own school’s contexts for learning.
As headteachers we also have a duty to look after the health and wellbeing of all in our care. To do this we have to understand our own needs and be able to address these to enable us to support and understand from the point of view of the other.  For me this has led to considerable reading about cultivating humanity and human development.  Martha Nussbaum ( 2011) has been a key influence on my thinking and allowed me through my research to create with my school community a singular and simple aim for us as a school : to allow everyone in our learning community the opportunity to flourish.  While this seems like a simple aim, it takes on board a broad range of ten capabilities and an approach that we all need in order to flourish. It fundamentally allows us to be critical, philosophy-infused and theoretically informed in our own learning.
Being philosophical as a researching Headteacher, I have recently read texts around terms we are seeing in current policy such as ‘empowerment’ and ‘autonomy’. This was to help me gain a better understanding of the history of Scottish education but also to try to understand how we got to where we are now. The most notable book for me was Education and the development of reason (Dearden, et.al, 1972). This book raised a whole host of questions that I want to answer but as I do not have time to do so in this article, I shall cite Hirst for you to think about and discuss.
Starting from the problems of education, in this case the characterization of its aims, philosophical analysis thrusts us back onto work of much wider philosophical concern and interest. It is only in the light of clarification at this level that we can return to the particular issues of the educational context to contribute, from a philosophical point of view, to the rationale determination of educational practice (Hirst, 1972). Rehana Shanks
HT of Dean Park Primary School (Edinburgh) and Chair of BELMAS

Brookfield, S. (1995) Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. Jossey-Bass Inc., San Francisco.
Dearden, R.F. (1972) “Autonomy and Education”, in Education and the development of Reason. 1st ed. R.F. Dearden, P. H. Hirst & R.S. Peters (eds), Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.
Dewey, J. (1933) How we Think. D.C Heath and Company, New York.
Hirst, P. H. (1972) “Introduction”, in Education and the development of Reason. 1st ed. R.F. Dearden, P. H. Hirst & R.S. Peters (eds), Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.
Kemmis, S & Smith, T.J (2008) Enabling Praxis, Challenges for Education. Sense Publishers, AW Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Nussbaum, M. C. (2011). Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Thomson , P. (2009). Heads on the Block? Routledge, Oxon.