Some time ago I made an offer to any teacher in East Lothian to observe my practice for a whole day. The offer was intended to demonstrate my willingness to reciprocate the welcome I’ve had in East Lothian classrooms over the last term observing the teaching process. I received the following account last week from the observer who has given permission for me to post it here.
I like opportunities. Opportunities are good. When I was offered the chance to spend a day shadowing Don Ledingham, Director of Education, I leaped at it. Don visits schools during most weeks to watch teachers teach; now I was going to watch a director direct.
I met with Don in advance to find out what we each hoped to gain from the exercise. This meant we could choose a day which not only fitted in with our diaries, but also would provide a structure to fulfil our joint criteria. I was keen to find out how Don organised his time: how did he manage to cope with emails, reports, phone calls and, at the same time, keep his finger on the pulse and find time for strategic thinking? I was also interested to see how he ensured he had an integrated understanding and overview of the range of individual nursery, primary and secondary schools in his care, all with their own take on council and national policies.
Consistency is very important to Don: this applies to everything from treating all people with the same respect (as illustrated by the unconditional positive regard which forms part of our teaching and learning policy) to ensuring consistent approach to matters of policy. He wanted me to check that he was achieving this aim.
Our day began with answering emails, moved on to a head teachers’ executive meeting, took in a visit to a reading festival, followed by a meeting with an EIS rep, a meeting of the QIOs, and a final appointment with some staff from Musselburgh Grammar. When I went home Don was still beavering away. Some of the meetings lasted for two hours; others were much shorter. Don’s diary allowed him short blocks of time in-between for dealing with emails, phone calls etc. But these weren’t long chunks of time. So how does he fit it all in?
Efficiency is everything. Firstly his office is virtually paperless: no filing cabinets, no piles of reports, no mess; admin heaven, basically. Don stores files electronically where possible and paper is taken away when it’s finished with. Don’s PA, Mary Horsburgh, manages Don’s diary, types letters and deals with some emails, leaving Don to focus on his job and not be waylaid by admin. My questions about time management were answered. But when does Don find time to think strategically? Partly this is achieved at the end of the day when he adds to his learning log, but also, I found, by sometimes standing back at meetings and devoting his time to listening and reflecting. A silent leader can be a very active one.
I am glad to report that I observed Don being consistent throughout. However my understanding of his role changed. I spent a long time trying to think of a suitable metaphor for the way in which Don performs his role. Driver and engine? No, that’s too mechanical; the engine simply does as it’s told. General and army? No, it too describes a one-way leadership style. Then I hit on the idea of catalyst which does rather nicely. A chemical catalyst causes change in other substances. Don seeks to change thinking, perceptions and attitudes. The process itself is often not very dramatic but the results can be. The other feature of the catalyst metaphor which works well, is that the catalyst (unlike the driver and engine) is put in the test-tube along with the other chemicals – they’re all in it together. Don is certainly more of a lateral leader than a vertical one as shown by his willingness to open his door to me.
Now before you think I’ve been given a back-hander for writing this, there was one other feature of my day which deserves mention. I became very aware that Don had none of the interruptions I have become used to: children knocking on his door because they’ve been ‘sent down’ by Mrs So-and-So, the janny asking if he can store the paper towels in the corner of the office and an angry parent demanding the immediate release of her offspring’s confiscated Gameboy. Yes, the short times between Don’s meetings were very peaceful by comparison with school. But perhaps there’s something to learn from that. Members of school management are sometimes too ready to deal with the problems which occur each day. Perhaps there’s a case for covering for each other to allow every person on the team some protected quality time each week.
I enjoyed my day shadowing and learnt a great deal which I am still thinking through. And to relieve my head teacher’s fears, no I didn’t follow Don when he visited the toilet.
Don, you must have been very encouraged by this feedback; have you discussed this with other directors of education? Do you feel this idea of reverse observation might catch on? I’d be really interested to hear how you set about creating a paperless office; we seem to have created more paper in direct proportion to the growth in paper-saving means of communication! Are you hoping to create such a culture within the authority?
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