Being a school leader is a rewarding but challenging experience, and as the saying goes: it’s lonely at the top.
Every decision we make can have a profound impact on our colleagues, pupils and pupils’ families.
With pressure from every corner of education, it’s crucial that we don’t isolate ourselves and remember to work collaboratively, in order to develop high-quality practice that improves pupil achievement across the country.
When I was searching for leadership development programmes, a network was something I was particularly looking for. I’m from the States and we’re pretty good at networks in the sense that “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”.
I wanted to do something I could learn from. I was keen to gain access to a network of like-minded leaders to collaborate with. Other programmes offering the NPQSL didn’t promote a network that allowed for sharing resources and ideas as Ambition did.
Benefits of the network
1. Access to experts
It isn’t just other leaders working in challenging contexts that you meet at Ambition’s Residentials and Challenge Days, it’s experts in education, people who have done truly great things and had an impact on the education landscape. Ambition work with some big hitters and being part of their network means you can connect with people you wouldn’t otherwise have access to.
2. Peer learning groups
I’ve always wanted a platform to either refine or bin ideas without judgement.
For too many years I struggled with some of the practices happening in schools such as graded lesson observations, excessive marking expectations and overcomplicated policies that were adding to teacher workload. My peer coaching group gives me an outlet to tackle these concerns. It is not a giant ‘group think’ in which everyone nods and says “yes that’s great”. There is challenge, feedback and suggestions for improvement.
3. Free resources
The marketplace has literally saved me from hours of resource creation. I have received policies on performance management and behaviour, support in setting up alternative provision and a wealth of teaching and learning resources.
4. Building confidence
The network has given me the confidence to swim against the tide instead of following the current. We all have our doubts about our abilities and decisions, but we often feel that we are alone in having them until we meet someone who shares this experience. It’s a powerful feeling to know that people in similar positions understand exactly what you’re going through, and can offer their own personal advice and guidance.
"Ambition work with some big hitters and being part of their network means you can connect with people you wouldn’t otherwise have access to."
5. Great advice from great people
The thing that had the biggest impact on me was the question who are you as a leader? And what are your core values? I hadn’t even thought about this before Future Leaders, or I had thought about it in a vague and non-explicit way.
The best piece of advice I was given on the programme was from the then-CEO Heath Monk. He said “you’re an American, be American”. He could see I wasn’t being my authentic self and that I was trying to fit in, and I took his comments to mean “Be yourself because that’s your unique selling point”.
6. Lasting connections
It’s easy to keep networking while you’re on the programme, as the residential and challenge days throw leaders together, but it’s harder when you’re all back to the daily grind concentrating on the smaller picture once again.
The Learning Lounge is a great way to keep these connections going – it’s how I keep in touch with my coach and keep going to him for advice.
The networks are regional so it’s easy to still see people from your group as they aren’t far away. We hear of leaders regularly visiting each other’s schools to see best practice in action.
Because collaboration is so important to me, I know I’ll stay active in keeping up these relationships and keep encouraging everyone to come together so that I keep this network for the rest of my career.
On a personal level, access to the Ambition network has helped me make many positive connections that have encouraged me to become a better leader. My peer learning group has enriched me every step of the way. They provide the encouragement, support and challenge needed to build my confidence as a leader and, more importantly, to help me find my voice.
I went back to my school with a new-found confidence, which resulted in me being brave enough to spearhead a radical rethink of school policy. We moved away from a primary focus of pupil feedback placed on written comments to placing more emphasis on planning for effective formative assessment.
Barack Obama says “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” By joining together in collaborative networks, we can have a much greater impact on disadvantaged pupils and provide equal opportunities for every pupil, regardless of their background.
If you would like to find out more about our network of school leaders and how to get involved, follow the link to our network.
Allen is a graduate from our 2015 Future Leaders cohort. Future Leaders is a two-year intensive leadership development programme for senior leaders who aim to become headteachers of schools in challenging contexts within three years.
This article originally appeared on the website of Ambition School Leadership. In March 2019, the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.