When emotions run high

Teaching is an emotional profession. Whether one is in the classroom teaching history or leading the school through a busy week, teaching is emotional. There is plenty of research that indicates the need for a decent level of emotional intelligence when it comes to working in schools and this is certainly the case when one is the school’s lead learner. School leadership and emotional intelligence go hand in hand.

This is particularly the case when one is talking about change in schools and how a leader manages the process. If one can be tuned in to the emotional wavelength of those that they lead, especially through any degree of change, a school’s leader can gather information that will be helpful in walking through any transformative journey. Palmer (2003) suggests that an emotion is not just something that is felt but it is, in fact, a source of information.

It is not just on account of useful information that can be gleaned for the benefit of a change management process that we find emotional intelligence critical to the work of school leaders. Literature points to emotional intelligence being useful in transforming schools from good to great, effecting positive changes in schools that stick (Beavers 2005; Buntrock 2008; Fullan 2001; Moss 2008; Moore 2009; Patti, 2007). There is a focus on the constituents within the school, the faculty and staff. This post is briefly about the importance of emotional intelligence for school leaders when interacting with another key constituent group: the parents.

Emotional intelligence is a very important part of the school leader interacting with the broader school community. Being able to quickly deduce from the behaviour of a parent their state of mind so one knows what course of action one might suggest, what phrases or key terms to use, or, even, the type of tone in one’s voice can be the difference between a successful meeting or a complete disaster. Crucially, strong emotional intelligence will help to cut through the emotions that parents can bring to a meeting so that the real issue is laid plain for all to see.

Let us take the following as an example. A mother speaks to a principal about how her son is going at school. Emotions are running high because of the concern that the mother has and the fact that she strongly believes that the school is prejudiced against her son. She has itemised a number of instances that, to her, appear to support her claims. This has led her to make “requests” of the school that they communicate with her whenever there is an issue with the son. The mother has also implied that the faculty at the school are not professional in carrying out their duties in the classroom.

For me, the last issue would really rile me. To accuse members of faculty of a lack of professionalism, particularly without the opportunity to look into the matter more carefully, is not something I am keen on. Nevertheless, a leader with a higher degree of emotional intelligence would be able to read the situation for what it is: a need for reassurance that the school will partner with the mother in working alongside her son to improve his progress and general experience at school. All done without assigning blame or assuming that there is someone to blame.

Being sensitive to the emotional well-being of the parent is something that clearly helps in this small example. It is not the only thing that a school leader would have to do, however, for a successful resolution to this parental visit. I would think that speaking to the teacher concerned to find out more would be expected. Nevertheless, emotional intelligence, as a concept, implies that one processes a particular type of information into something that is actionable and useful, something that is objective and fair-minded: practical empathy.


Beavers, M. (2005). Emotional intelligence, school leaders and high performing high poverty middle schools in the state of Virginia. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia.

Buntrock, L. (2008). Differences in emotional intelligence abilities between principals in high poverty AYP schools and principals in high poverty non-AYP schools in an urban school district. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia.

Fullan, M. (2001). Leading in a culture of change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Moore, B. (2009). Inspire, motivate, collaborate: Leading with emotional intelligence. Westerville, OH: National Middle School Association.

Moss, M. (2008). Implementing the middle school concept in the age of accountability: A field study of leadership decisions and practices in successful NYC public middle schools. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Teachers College Columbia University, New York.

Palmer, B. (2003). An analysis of the relationships between various models and measures of emotional intelligence. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Swinburne University, Victoria, Australia.

Patti, J. (2007). Smart school leaders: Leading with emotional intelligence. Presentation at the First International Congress on Emotional Intelligence, Malaga, Spain: September 21, 2007.

The three “C-s” of change

I have been silent in the blogosphere for the past month. This is not to say that I have decided to end writing on a regular basis. Rather, it is just symptomatic of the busy life one can lead when being in education. That having been said, there have been several things I have been pondering on recently which I thought I would share: coherence, capacity and confidence. These are what I have tagged as the three “C”-s of change.

Coherence refers to meaning, to making sense. If there is a change that one wants to bring about it is important that both those leading it and those impacted by it understand what is going on and why something is taking place. Coherence is something that relates to both individual and groups. It is something that entails a deep understanding of the purpose and the nature of the work being tasked.

Part of making a change coherent is ensuring that individuals, either by themselves or in a more collaborative context, have the capacity to contend with the developments being pursued. To build capacity, or to talk about capacity, is to make reference to the skills, competencies, and knowledge that individuals and groups need to be effective in navigating change, whatever that might be or look like. There are some interesting implications to this notion, particularly in relation to those individuals or groups who draw their identity from the status quo. Developing the capacity of such people so change can be understood, embraced and followed has the potential to be the most challenging of tasks a lead learner will have when bringing about change.

Despite the skills, competencies and knowledge that individuals might have, there has to be confidence in the people who will be responsible for the implementation of those changes. Not to have confidence in one’s key players will make change challenging to bring about and most likely impossible for one to sustain. Conversely, confidence in leadership also has to exist. Those that are impacted by the change must feel that the leader is acting in the best interests of student learning. There are many different ways, in the context of building confidence, that this can be demonstrated. Steven Covey’s The Speed of Trust details 13 different behaviours such as talking straight, demonstrating respect, creating transparency and clarifying expectations that can build the confidence or trust in leaders.

Without successfully netting these three “C”-s, any educational change is going to be difficult to implement, let alone sustain. Three questions emerge from each of these concepts:

  1. Do I use a framework through which my actions make sense to others?
  2. Do my actions build up the capacity of those I lead?
  3. Do I have the confidence of those, and in those, I lead?

A “yes” to each of these should contribute to a clear starting point for implementing change in an educational context and making it stick.

Hastening slowly. The key to being a good school leader.

I have had, over recent weeks, reason to think through what it means to be a good school leader. It does not matter whether one is in a national school or an international school, a Christian school or a secular one. It does not matter whether the school is co-educational or single-sex. It does not matter whether the school is selective or comprehensive. At the end of the day, reflecting on the question “what makes a good school leader?” has led me to a one word answer:


This should not be confused with inaction. I don’t mean that a good leader is someone who does nothing (although sometimes, it is just as important to be inactive as it is to be active). It does not take a great deal of effort to google and collect pithy sayings on leadership such as:

“The task of the leader is to get his people from where they are to where they have not been”

“Leadership is not about titles, positions or flowcharts. It is about one life influencing another”

“A leader leads by example not by force”


“First rule of leadership: everything is your fault”

Patience is the common denominator. If you are going to take people from where they are to where they have not been, you must exhibit patience in explaining to them what is going on, why a decision has been made in a particular manner and how that might impact them. If you are going to lead by influencing others, through natural charisma, that is going to take patience as people and situations respond. If you are going to lead by example and not by force, you are going to have allow for time for the example you provide be seen and internalised by those you lead. And if everything is your fault, patience will be more than a virtue as you seek to work alongside those around you in order to make better the situation in which you find yourself.

“Hastening slowly” is a phrase or saying that I often fall back on as I go through the working week. Patience is at its core and as phrases go, it is not a bad one to help temper one’s leadership, whatever the situation is, whenever the situation is.


Why should school leaders continue teaching?

This is potentially a controversial question for some. It shouldn’t be, but, unfortunately, I suspect, it is. It is also a question that has been the basis of some interesting conversations recently with some colleagues.

So, the short answer to ‘why should school leaders continue teaching?’ is: because school leaders should be seen as learners. Lead learners, in fact.

Let me explain this a little more.

In The Principal, Michael Fullan recasts the role of the principal as a lead learner. He seeks to “reposition the role of the principal as overall instructional leader so that it maximizes the learning of the all the teachers and in turn of all the students” (Michael Fullan (2014) The Principal: Three keys to maximising impact, Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, p.7). The book is a compelling argument about the need to redeploy the principal within the school so there is a genuine benefit for all various and related parties: students, faculty and staff, parents, the wider community. Fullan argues that there are three areas within which principals, as they become lead learners, will make an impact: leading learning, becoming a system player and becoming a change agent.

The focus of this particular post is the practical implications associated with becoming “lead learners”. In being a lead learner, Fullan proposes that “the principal’s role is to lead the school’s teachers in a process of learning to improve their teaching, while learning alongside them about what works and what doesn’t” (Fullan 2014: 55). For me, this suggests that one of the things that a principal who is a lead learner should do is to teach. To put it another way, for a school leader to continue teaching, to remain in the classroom, is the best way in which that school leader can come alongside school teachers in the process of learning and help improve the teaching that takes place. The action of coming alongside other teachers and being a direct part of the learning environment is, for me, a practical outworking of Fullan’s words.

Here are three questions that help to clarify my thinking:

  • Would student learning benefit from the principal being in the classroom as a teacher?
  • Would teaching alongside the very teachers that the school leader seeks to assist be one of the ways in which that school leader can learn about what works and what does not?
  • If a school leader is looking to make changes that will have a positive effect on the school they lead, would it not make sense to be in a position to experience what those changes will entail?
  • Assuming ‘street credibility’ positively contributes to the changes an individual school leader makes, would being in the classroom assist with obtaining and maintaining that ‘street credibility’?

To remain in the classroom, even if it is to teach a bottom-streamed Year 9 class (in my case, that would be History), shows a willingness to ‘walk one’s own talk’. School leaders talk about a great amount of change and development and what constitutes ‘best practice’. Sometimes, it doesn’t go beyond that; teachers don’t see the school leader living through what he or she has suggested is the best thing to do. So, in remaining in the classroom, teachers would see a colleague struggling with similar issues or concerns, as opposed to a detached administrator whose experiences in the classroom as a teacher are but only a distant memory. Teachers would see a colleague working to enhance his or her teaching to the best it possibly can be, as opposed to an administrator that appears to leave others to demonstrate professional accomplishment in the classroom. Powerfully, colleagues would see a colleague who, despite being an administrator, shouldering the various responsibilities of school leadership, has not lost a love of learning and a love of the classroom. They see a leader who loves to learn.

Perhaps the most important reason for principals to remain in the classroom is that students get to see the principal in action, as a learner. Students see the principal struggling productively with the same material with which they struggle. Students see a model for learning; an experienced (and we can assume an expert, perhaps) spending time in the classroom to make sure that the students get the most out of a subject. Students see the principal work within the same structures they have to in relation to assessments and tests. Thus, the experience of learning becomes shared, contributing to a coherent approach to learning within the whole school as well as an environment in which deep learning can take place.