The International School of Luxembourg’s Learning Loft hosted a variety of professional development workshops and conferences, which attracted many international teachers, curriculum designers, and school leaders who participated in learning experiences to positively impact student learning. One workshop entitled "Advice to my Younger Self" asked school leaders to write an intimate and personal letter sharing the advice they would give to their younger selves. Inspired by this event, leaders in the educational community have offered to write letters for others to read and learn from their experiences.
It feels strange to write this letter which rests on the benefits of hindsight. What would have been useful to me in my career, had I only been aware of it at the time?
There are three things I have learnt which, I think, have been of major importance and that I would like to share with you:
- use your time intentionally;
- leadership changes over time;
- and, most importantly, the importance of the people you surround yourself with.
The first piece of advice is that, for true learning to occur, both time and certain conditions are required. Goals are not neatly accomplished within a school year and neither does the human mind work in this way. Take it slowly, because not only does learning take time but new ideas take a minimum of three years to become accepted and an integral part of any organization’s workings.
Ensure before you start out that there is absolute clarity for all involved in the learning process, and a detailed plan in place that has been well-communicated. Any lack of skills, incentives and resources will lead to confusion and false starts and can create great anxiety. Lay down the conditions for learning; ultimately, this will save time. Although you may have boundless energy and don’t mind having several balls in the air simultaneously, others may find this propensity overwhelming which will, in turn, frustrate you. So be sure of what you are trying to achieve, put the right conditions in place, and then communicate all the time the why and how of what is to be done. Celebrate the successes as they happen and share these often. As your goals change from being very specific when you are in your 30s, to becoming more overarching, adjust your plan and take the time to match goals to a more appropriate timeline.
Over the years, it has proved enlightening to realize that leadership itself changes over the decades. What may make you a great leader in your 30s will be different when you reach your 40s, your 50s, and - dare I say it - your 60s.
In your 30s you need to show what you can do and leadership is about taking a stand and being heard- you are needing to set yourself apart from others. You need to be independent, to excel in a specialized field and to accomplish short term goals, demonstrating to others that you have the capability to take on additional responsibility. The then Elementary Principal at Hamburg International School (ISH), Nick Ronai, recognized this in you and encouraged you to spread your wings and gain experience in other international schools. The administrative structure at ISH back then did not allow for additional responsibilities, and he saw that you were ready for them. Having someone to sponsor and mentor you, saying, “You’ve got this” and “I have your back” is essential in life. As a young woman I was oblivious to the importance of such networks. Now that I can look back, I would encourage you to seek these relationships out and to listen and learn from them.
In your 40s you moved into your first leadership positions in Vienna, then New Zealand, and later Switzerland. You now needed to learn to lead without being familiar with each task you were responsible for. Moving from being a specialist teacher to being a generalist "Jack of all Trades" and being responsible for systems that make schools work is an enormous transition and it often made you ask yourself, “How on earth am I supposed to know this?” During this time in your career, you acquire a superficial level of skills in many areas as you find yourself suddenly responsible for transportation, budgeting, marketing, and running a cafeteria among other things. No one trains you for this, hence developing the skill of being a genuine inquirer is essential. Being vulnerable and asking the right questions in order to manage areas that are often a complete mystery, and which look different from country to country, requires you to re-learn skills that you may think you know. Being prepared to admit honestly that something has gone wrong takes confidence and is a challenge. You cannot do this work on your own so one of the most important aspects of leading is putting together a team that has complementary strengths to your own and being confident in that team. Knowing that together you will be able to serve the mission of the organization and lead consistent improvement is empowering and satisfying.
In your 50s you moved to Panama and then Norway, running schools where you as the Director were increasingly removed from the activities happening in each classroom. Your time was spent coaching and working through others, helping them achieve the mission of the school and trusting each to do their job, and being there for your team when you were needed. At this stage you manage change, with all that that entails. You are acutely aware of bringing and keeping your team together, creating unity and cohesion. This is diametrically opposed to the way you led in your thirties where you stood out by making a stand. You have to be honest with your team and have the “right conversations.”
Some things however have not changed over time, and they are: the importance of people, and of surrounding yourself with others with whom you can create the best learning conditions possible for your students. This is the team who you can trust 100% to create a place where everyone can look back as I am doing now, and know that we have together created learning environments that enable students, staff, administrators, and teachers to be skilled at their craft, to have genuine understanding of the importance of what they are learning, and - most of all –to be kind to one another, valuing, communicating with, and supporting each other respectfully.
So, to wrap up: use your time wisely; be flexible as you grow as a leader; and continue to be a little kinder than necessary.
Wishing you well,
Viki is Director at the International School of Bergen, having previously been Director at the International School of Panama and Elementary Principal at Zurich International School. Viki believes that we rise by lifting others and has been a strong advocate helping to promote young leaders.