Head down or head up?
Where is your head? Do you focus mainly on the problems of leadership, or are you able to look ahead? Can your head be in two places at once? And what can we learn about leadership from the crisis of tonality in classical Western music. Jez Bennett offers some thoughts in part 1 of 2. Read part 2 here.
I spend much of my time working with heads and school leaders about the culture and ethos of their schools. Many have described how their values have kept them going during the Covid pandemic. Others have found the period incredibly challenging both professionally and personally, with problem after problem to solve. Some schools have their heads down. Others have their heads up.
Where is your head?
Like school leadership, much of western classical music is about problem solving. Typically composers build tension, such as through a discord, and then release that tension when the discord resolves to a concord. Much of Mozart and Haydn’s music from the late 17th century is built on this principle - a discord known as a dominant seventh (V7) followed by the tonic triad (I).
This particular pair is known as a perfect cadence. It is like a problem followed by a solution - tension and resolution. Sometimes in schools we face perfect problems like this - those that are resolved easily.
But not often. More commonly a problem is compounded by another, or left unresolved. We might call these imperfect problems. In music they are imperfect cadences, ending with the discord.
My first day as a headteacher went well. I gathered the staff together, told them I trusted them to do their jobs well (which came as a pleasant surprise to most) and the we got on with the day. During my first assembly with year 11 the following day my PowerPoint suddenly disappeared and the lights went out. Some builders had severed a cable and we had lost all power and water. We had to close the school and send the children home. This was an imperfect problem. Later that week my CEO revealed that I had inherited a budget deficit of more than a million pounds, and that I would need to begin a redundancy process, which I announced to staff the next week. Imperfect. At the end of that week I was discussing how to increase the profile of the school with the local authority when the police arrived at my door with a search warrant. I won‘t describe the following events, but they were far from perfect. The rest of term didn’t get much better as imperfect problem followed imperfect problem - the bus company went bankrupt, a teacher inappropriately restrained a child, and tragically and suddenly one weekend a year 8 student died.
I’m not sharing these stories for dramatic effect, but simply to illustrate the reality of school leadership. It can just feel like a series of problems to be solved, a sequence of imperfect cadences. I wanted to focus on the things that mattered to me most - the individual development of each child, teaching and learning, qualities alongside qualifications. Instead, I was drawn to all the “Bs” of headship - behaviour, budgets, buildings and boys. My head was definitely down.
Having one’s head down is not a criticism. “Head down” also means “having an attention to detail”, “industrious” and “cares about individuals”. Heads have been admirably responded to the pandemic with all these attitudes and many more. But in the last two years, some heads I know seem to have been so concerned in the detail that they have never had their head up. This is understandable - the problems we have faced have been unprecedented. We have been asked to make decisions and show leadership that none of us were prepared for, and often with information we received at the same time as everyone else. In school leadership, having your head down is not enough.
In the next part of this blog, read about how some schools have responded to these challenge, and what we can learn about vision from Wagner's operas.
The following websites offer excellent support for leaders' and headteachers' wellbeing: