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Top Five Tips for Aspiring Heads of School
By Deidre Fischer 03-Jan-19
For more than 30 years now, my work in schools—first as a teacher, then a leader, and now a consultant—has been guided by two driving forces: finding ways to connect with others (relationships) and helping educators to reach their potential (building capacity). I have learned from the mistakes I’ve made over the course of my own journey toward head of school, and I continue to learn even as I coach and mentor aspiring leaders as well as established heads. Here, I’ve summarized five key lessons learned along the way. 1. Know your why. Being clear about your purpose will guide you as you navigate the challenges of leadership. I never really thought about my own “why” until four years ago, while I was attending specialist training for the facilitation of leadership workshops for school leaders and board members. Spending time thinking about my why, going through the process of distilling down to its essence what was fundamental to my school leadership—this process was not only necessary for the training but provided me with great clarity of purpose. Knowing my why allows me to connect what I think, say, and do. My why is that I find ways to connect with people and help them reach their potential. For me, it’s all about relationships and building capacity through responsibility. 2. Be financially literate. Effective decision making depends on your ability to read and understand financial statements, particularly as all schools are faced with the economic problem of unlimited wants and limited resources. One of my sub-majors is in Accounting, though I’d never really thought twice about the fact that financial literacy is a skill set and a key part of my toolkit. Over time, I have come to learn that most school leaders do not have the confidence or skills to read and understand financial statements. It is essential for any head of school to be able to make informed decisions about how money is allocated, as well as how to maximize the effectiveness of the funds available over the school year. My tip: educate yourself, through whatever means, to become financially literate. 3. Integrity matters, as does trust. Brene Brown wrote: “Integrity is choosing courage over comfort; choosing what is right over what is fun, fast, or easy; and choosing to practice our values rather than simply professing them.” Megan Tschannen-Moran writes about the five facets of trust: caring (benevolence), honesty, openness, reliability, and competence. I used her book Trust Matters to discuss how school leaders can foster these various facets of trust among their teams. A word of caution—don’t fall into the trap of trusting too much, and never assume that those with whom you work share the same values. In other words, aspiring heads of school need to avoid committing “assumicide”—a term I learned from Bambi Betts. 4. Work with both your obstacles and your enablers. In your role as a school leader/teacher, you need to have a positive, innovator’s mindset (see George Couros’s The Innovator’s Mindset) and learn to work WITH potential obstacles and enablers on your journey toward becoming a Head of School. To assist in this process, I recommend the ICU method. I devised this acronym as a mnemonic to underscore the importance of being realistic and honest with your CV in order to IDENTIFY potential obstacles or gaps. Discuss these with your “critical colleagues,” who can CONFIRM and verify the accuracy of what you have identified. Finally, always be aware of UNCONSCIOUS or implicit bias that could play a role in your recruitment efforts. I’ve had to work very hard to embrace the belief that, in instances where my best efforts don’t produce the desired result, there is another opportunity waiting behind a different door that I have yet to open. It’s about working with outcomes, not fighting against them. 5. Practice your team skills, in every group you work with. The building of an effective team starts with values. It requires an inclusive mindset and skill in fostering relationships. At the recent EARCOS Leadership Conference (ELC2018) that took place in Kuala Lumpur in October, we participated in an activity to identify our shared values and found that it was a great way to initiate conversations, to listen to others, and to be aware of the cultural diversity within the room and how that may impact decision making. Practicing the skills involved in building a team at every opportunity—with teaching and non-teaching staff, students, parents, and board members—is essential in my view along the journey toward becoming a head of school. Deidre Fischer is an experienced international education consultant to schools, and former Head of Schools in Bali, Cebu, and Ulaanbaatar.
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10/07/2019 - Mimi
I have learnt a lot from you in the 2 years I worked with you and your words help me to reflect and inspire me. Thank you Deidre.
01/21/2019 - Debbie
Hi Deidre, nice to see your words years after our visits at AlWaha pool. Keep up the great work! I'm off to China
01/09/2019 - Julie
Deidre, thanks for sharing. Your experience and reflective practices are thoughtful as we strive for positive purpose and engagement in our lives.
01/05/2019 - Miss L
I don't know if I want to be a Head of School, but as a Head of Department, I too found this article helpful.
There were many names I did know, and a few new names/ideas to look up now as well.
01/05/2019 - Sarah
Great read, lots of very important points!