Specialist leader of education training: be ready for a businesslike approach

First published by the Guardian on Wednesday 28 May 2014. 

Last year I had a conversation with my deputy headteacher on how to develop my career without looking for a new job. I had been devising, developing and delivering inset days on teaching and learning, as well as mentoring and coaching colleagues for some time. But I wanted to broaden my horizons and knowledge of best practice by working with other schools so I applied to become a specialist leader of education (SLE) via the National College for Teaching and Leadership (NCTL).

SLEs are middle or senior leaders who have the expertise to support colleagues in similar positions in other schools. I went through a thorough but straight forward application process although there were a couple of hurdles to jump over on the way. For example, although the training was very useful, at times it borrowed heavily from business leadership and management models as opposed to education-based research and case studies. Here are some of the challenges and benefits I faced during the process to help those who are about to embark on the journey or are considering it as a career option.

Hurdles to overcome

The first hurdle I faced was finding a teaching alliance that could accommodate my religious studies expertise. SLEs are recruited and deployed by teaching alliances (consortium of teaching schools) who broker contracts on behalf of the SLEs. Due to this, the teaching alliances require applicants to have subject specialisms or expertise in areas such as behaviour management. Unfortunately, appointments are largely geared towards areas targeted by Ofsted or current education policy. For example, many SLE posts focus on Ebacc subjects, but not the arts, social sciences or areas such as citizenship and PSHE.

I eventually located a teaching alliance wanting a RE specialist and made a successful application. But a subsequent hurdle for me was choosing the right training sessions. Aside from the core training, most teaching alliances offer enrichment sessions, but these can overlap with other areas of continuous professional development (CPD) offered by schools and external organisations. For instance, the school I work in offers extensive coaching and leadership courses, which are similar to the SLE sessions. The costs of enrichment sessions are also met by the SLE’s school so you need a supportive headteacher.

The training lowdown

The initial core training is useful in explaining how the process of SLE deployment works, especially the importance of understanding what is required of you by the school seeking help. I was surprised, though, by how businesslike everything sounded. For example, the importance of understanding the “fine detail of contracts” between “all parties involved” and that the teaching alliance acts as your “broker”.

Much of the enrichment training covers understanding what effective teaching and learning is, exploring strategies that can improve ineffective teaching and how to identify barriers to change within schools. All of this was informative and stimulating and involved the opportunity to discuss best practice with like-minded colleagues.

The training also emphasised coaching as way of facilitating improvement and change among colleagues in other schools. This emphasis is important as any peer-to-peer support needs to be built on mutual respect and trust. Importantly, coaching is largely seen as a non-directive form of development tailored to people’s professional goals, whereas mentoring can be more directive. Alongside observing lessons and giving feedback, learning to coach was a practical and rewarding aspect of the training sessions.

The importance of emotional intelligence

The most interesting thing I learned about my new role is the importance of emotional intelligence, which was something I had not given much thought to as a concept, even if I have always been sympathetic to emotions in professional relationships. The only issue I have with this is that the sources used in the training are taken from David McClelland’s research aimed at business leadership and I do not think his six best emotional intelligence competencies are necessarily right for educational settings.

In addition, another session used McKinsey’s 7–S Framework, which is a management model developed by business consultants. If I were to criticise the training in any way it would be that there was a lot of jargon borrowed from the business world. Although this can be informative and should not be dismissed, I would have liked to have seen more weight given to educational research and case studies where change has been effective in schools. Otherwise, the training is useful and an excellent way to take stock of your abilities while preparing them for future use as an SLE.

Picture credit: Pixabay (Creative Commons CC0)

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