Recently, my eldest brother read my book: Making the leap – Moving from deputy to head.
He is far outside my target audience – now retired, he had a career as an engineer rather than as an educationalist, and leadership never appealed to him. However, he is a writer, and we often talk about the process of writing, and about what we are reading and enjoying (we are BCoT – ‘Book Club of Two’). I had sent him a link to some of the Amazon reviews of MTL, and having read them he decided he would read the book himself. And, having read it, he offered criticism.
I have written here about how I have not always find it found it easy to receive criticism. On balance, my brother thought the book was well-written, but there were a number of ways in which he felt it could have been stronger. His main point was that, although I talk a lot about what I think you need to do in order to manage the application, selection and transition process if you are moving to headship, his view was that I did not say enough about how this should be done. He preferred the later chapters where I did at least give some examples of how I and my research participants had navigated the process of transition, and in which I included quotations from those participants. He felt the early chapters would have benefited from such quotations, and certainly more direct advice about what you should do to achieve success in the selection process. And there was at least one occasion where he felt I had not made my meaning sufficiently clear.
I replied to explain why I hadn’t focussed on ‘how’. I cited the Brenda Despontin quotation, a former head who had said: “There’s only one way to be a head. And that’s your way.’ I suggested that headship is about who we are as well as what we do, and so each incoming head has to find their own way of enacting the role, though I felt they might benefit from my advice about some of the underlying principles, such as being aware that they both inherit a legacy from their predecessor, and find a way to inhabit the role and make it their own. I also explained that context is key, and tuning into the context and working out what this particular school needs from its new head at this particular time is crucial. So ‘how’ to be a head is not clear cut. My engineer brother wanted a Haynes manual.
And my brother’s response to these arguments was: “Don’t be defensive.”
This made me thoughtful. It’s interesting that the word ‘defensive’ has negative connotations, rather than simply meaning you’re defending yourself. What is the difference between defending your choices, and being defensive? Defending your choices, ideally in a convincing and persuasive way, seems to me to be a positive response to critical feedback. Being defensive – not so much.
My brother and I talked about this. I hadn’t said my brother was wrong – that isn’t something I would say. I did say that I didn’t agree with him, and I explained my reasons. But when does defending your point of view become being defensive? I wondered whether one factor was how emotional you are in your response – if you are immediately hurt, offended or angry and your defense reflects this, it could be argued that you are being defensive rather than giving a carefully considered rebuttal. If your response is aggressive, rather than measured and respectful, this might suggest that your reaction to the criticism is predominantly emotional rather than rational. Another factor might be the time frame. If criticism is offered and you respond immediately, have you given yourself the opportunity to reflect on the value of the opinions expressed, or has your reaction been an automatic defense and deflection?
Incidentally I agreed with what he had to say about the lack of direct quotations in the first three chapters – certainly in chapter three, on managing the lead-in period, I could have sourced and made good use of comments from my participants. It would have been less easy in the first two chapters, as, although I thought it would be helpful to readers to consider the headship application process, this wasn’t the focus of my research, which was specifically about making the deputy to head transition once successful appointment had been achieved. I was writing the book in 2016, three years after my doctoral data generation, so going back to my participants and asking them to recall their application and interview experience three/four years after the event, when they were now fully immersed in headship, wouldn’t have worked, I don’t think.
I also agreed with his comments about lack of clarity and this is something I would change were I given the opportunity to review the book prior to a future reprint. But the what/how issue was something we just didn’t agree on.
In last Friday’s ‘tes’ magazine, I read a comment by Martin George which related to “the pushback on social media”. Martin suggested such pushback is “an example of how instant ideological ripostes can trump more thoughtful consideration in debates about education.” Perhaps this is something we all need to think about. When someone’s choices and views clash with our own, does an immediate defense of our alternative perspective become automatic defensiveness? Would more time, reflection and perhaps tolerance enable us to see the worth in another point of view? Or, even if we still take a different line, could we at least defend our opinions, and choices, in a more considered and respectful way?
What do you think?
Photo montage: John Berry