Will a good teacher automatically make a good leader?

Have you known excellent classroom practitioners who have failed to make the transition to successful school leadership – as Middle Leaders, Senior Leaders, or heads?  Have you known indifferent teachers go on to be skilful and effective leaders of their colleagues?  What is the relationship between teaching, and leading in education?

It has always seemed to me that teaching and leading are closely related, and when I work with training teachers, and aspiring leaders at all levels, there is a clear correlation between what motivated them to join the teaching profession, and what seems to be driving their desire to take on additional leadership responsibility.  ‘Making a difference’ is usually in there, and those who move into leadership roles reflect that their new responsibility allows them to make a positive difference to the lives of adults as well as to children – and in this leadership capacity they also have the opportunity to reach more children by working with and through the adults in their teams.

And many beginning teachers are enthusiastic about their subject, and about sharing that enthusiasm with young people.  As a Head of Department or subject co-ordinator, for example, your subject is very much central to your leadership role.  You are normally still doing a fair amount of teaching, and ensuring that your subject is well taught, well-received by the students and respected by colleagues may be part of your motivation for wanting to move into that Middle Leadership role.  I would encourage all Middle Leaders to aim to be beacons of excellence in their particular field.  Show what can be done in terms of the effective leadership and management of your specific domain.

I recognise, however, that the skills sets of the strong teacher and the strong leader are not exactly the same, and getting the best from the adults you lead may be more complex than you initially anticipate.  Certainly you cannot just ‘lead by example’ and trust that all members of your team will follow that example.  Helping others to achieve their professional best requires a balance of support and challenge and the courage to hold uncomfortable conversations at times – to be prepared to hold others to account but to do so with humanity, humility, compassion and empathy.  Some good teachers do this well – they have, of course, been trying to strike the right balance of support and constructive challenge with their students.  But not all good teachers are suited to leadership of their colleagues, and, despite how successful they may be within the classroom, encouraging, inspiring, motivating and enthusing other staff may not be where their strength lies.

In the same way, I do not believe a leader has to be the best teacher within the team they lead.  As a Head of English, I wasn’t necessarily the best teacher within the department – though it certainly helps not to be the worst…. I think I was good at certain things, and some of my colleagues were better at other things, and that was natural and understandable.  A successful team relies on the complementary skills of all its members.  A leader at any level needs to focus on helping the team be its best by supporting each individual team member to fulfil their professional potential.

So not all great teachers make great leaders, in my experience, and successful leaders may not necessarily be consistently high-performers in the classroom.  What do you think?

Photo credit: John Berry – Girls I taught during my headship

6 thoughts on “Will a good teacher automatically make a good leader?

  1. Whilst there is overlap between the capabilities required to be a good teacher, and those needed as a leader, there are also significant differences. Two common mistakes are a) an assumption that good teachers make good leaders; b) a lack of preparation for the new and different role. My research into the needs of newly appointed middle leaders unpicked this transition point. One of the key issues is moving from leading and managing children to leading and managing adults (often for the first time), and how this can be a bit of a shock for the unprepared. A really interesting subject area, Jill.

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    1. Thanks, Paul – and I agree. I do think we have got better at this in recent years, though. When I became Head of English in 1989 I didn’t have any leadership preparation at all. It seemed as if the view was that if you had enough about you to get a Middle Leader role, you had enough about you to work out how to do it!

      These days I do quite a bit of work with aspiring and serving Middle Leaders, encouraging them to think about effective leadership and how they can help the teams they lead be the best they can be. As you say, being a capable teacher isn’t, in itself, enough!

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  2. Great blog. Good for discussion in my HE Edu Leadership & Management class for sure. Regarding the question posed by your blog, whether all teachers would make good leaders, it’s a good debate with many underlying theoretical starting points to pick out and discuss.
    For example, great man or trait theories of leadership hold that leaders are born. Do you perhaps imply therefore the same? Behaviourist leadership theories suggest on the other hand that leaders can be trained. Therefore, I’d have to admit that I’d err on the side of caution and go for training for leadership for all, whether through NPQML, SL or H routes, and/or MA Edu Leadership & Management.
    If we rest our thinking on the premise that leaders are born and cannot be trained then we are left with many biases and prejudices about what said leaders should look, act and be like, along with many discrimination barriers that have kept so many women and BAME people and those with disabilities excluded from leadership and progression to management and senior positions for so long.
    Great man theories tend to also fit with tall hierarchical organisational structures, limiting power and control and delivering leadership in an autocratic way. On the other hand transformational servant leadership within a more flattened hierarchy where we’ll trained middle leaders are empowered through distributed leadership can lead to many an “outstanding” rated school leadership team.
    So in summary, while I don’t think everyone necessarily want to step up to a leadership role, I believe there are many forms that leadership can take and people are often more capable than they think they are given the right environment.
    We are also often blinkered by what we think leadership should look like.

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    1. Thanks, Carol – I appreciate your taking the time to comment.

      I definitely think leadership can, and should, be developed by training – both in preparation for assuming a leadership role, and as a way of supporting and developing once you’re in post. I do think we have got considerably better at recognising and accommodating that in recent years. I wasn’t aware of anything along the lines of NPQML when I became a Middle Leader – I know the National College wasn’t around then, and ‘CPD’ was a fairly undeveloped concept in the 1980s!

      I also think good leadership comes in all shapes and sizes, and is also strongly context-dependent, so someone who leads successfully in one context might struggle in another – it’s interesting, for example, to see that second headships aren’t always successful, even when the first one was.

      I do believe in supporting and challenging everyone to fulfil their leadership potential, as all teachers are leaders, even if they confine themselves to leading learning within their classroom rather than taking the step to lead colleagues. But I think leading colleagues requires a certain temperament and skills set (and the latter can certainly be developed through appropriate CPD) which not all great teachers have.

      So although I don’t go for the ‘great man theory’ of leadership I think that there are certain personality traits which lend themselves to school leadership – I’d suggest integrity, empathy, a degree of resilience, a capacity for humility and the courage to take challenging decisions when required, for example. I like John Dunford’s 4 Hs of leadership: Hope, humanity, humility and humour!

      Thanks again.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Totally agree. I’m currently doing an MA in School Improvement and Leadership, and we had a very similar discussion in one of our sessions recently.

    I think there are different skills required to lead adults then those required to be an effective classroom teacher. I will readily admit I am not the best teacher in my department, and equally the best teacher in the department has no aspiration or desire to become a leader & recognises that’s not where her skills lie.

    A teacher has to have a certain amount of empathy and respect for their students, but ultimately it’s about imparting knowledge and the relationship is unequal, in that the teacher has a certain amount of inherent authority over the pupils. However, as a leader of staff, the skills needed to develop those up work with are more subtle. You need to be aware of the fact that you may be leading staff who are older or have been teaching longer than you. As a middle leader, you are also balancing the needs of your department / year group with the demands of Senior Management.

    People skills, excellent communications skills and good organisation are common to both roles. Beyond that the differences are subtle, but they are there.

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