Book Reflection: 3 things I’ve learnt from “Leadership” by Stephen Tierney

“Leadership: Being, Knowing, Doing” is the product of many years of headship, which Stephen Tierney has distilled into a set of guiding principles (Ways of Being, Ways of Knowing, and Ways of Doing). At once richly thoughtful and informed by practical, real-world examples, this book is an interesting read for aspiring and experienced leaders. Here are a few of my key takeaways from this book.

1. The purpose of education is improving life chances for all students

It is always easy to become caught up in the daily challenges we face in the classroom and in schools, and to forget why we do what we do. Like swans, teachers maintain a calm exterior and teach expertly even while dealing with popped pens, a student arriving late, forgotten homeworks, and all the multifarious minutiae which threaten the flow of the lesson. The mental effort of preserving this delicate balance can mean that our grasp on our purpose can become tenuous – and so this is why it is useful to delve into a book like Tierney’s, which is so rooted in his vision of the purpose of education. Tierney writes that he sees education as “the empowering, acculturation, and preparation for work and citizenship of all our society’s children and young people” (p.58). Rather than seeing education as simply a stepping stone to the workplace, Tierney acknowledges this aspect of school life alongside a more holistic, rich, and meaningful sense of purpose. The word “all” is resonant here, as Tierney frequently restates a commitment to social justice – a quick glance at a news website will remind us that the cost of living is continually increasing, and we know that the most vulnerable students are most at risk of being left behind.

2. Leaders step into the organisation’s narrative

Alongside this moral imperative, Tierney asserts that success must come through meaningful and deep collaboration, rather than any teacher, leader, or school operating in isolation (more on this in a minute!). As an English teacher, I really like the idea of leaders at any level in school stepping into the organisation’s narrative – they join a story that previous educators have established, play a role in telling the next chapter, and then pass the narrative on to those who follow. By conceptualising leadership in this way, it is necessary to balance a sense of authority with collaboration and unity.

3. People Matter

Over the past year, I have been privileged to work on a number of projects in which leaders ensure that they create a culture of collaboration, seeking contributions from everyone involved. In these projects, it is clear who is providing direction and coherence to the group, and also that the leaders believe that their role is largely about harnessing the energy, expertise, and creativity of their team (time for a shout out to Freya Odell – Key Stage 3: The Wasted Years – and Sarah Williams – TM English Icons). Tierney writes that it can be difficult for a leader to cede authority, but that if our purpose is to work together for the best outcomes for young people, then it is necessary to do this and to focus on empowering the team.

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