The Secret Thoughts of School Leaders

Sitting alone in his office for the first time after another daily carousel ride of trivial and taxing meetings, a school leader reached for a beloved book, opened it, and read again the moving inscription from an alumnus.

The cursive inscription expressed gratitude for the school head’s powerful, life-changing influence on his life trajectory. Savouring the uplifting message, the head remembered (for a flickering moment) why he had entered the teaching profession and endured many gruelling days as a school leader.

Across town, at the start of a long governors’ meeting, another school leader conjured up the image of her grandmother in a red jersey – a fierce matriarch who protected her granddaughter during childhood and adolescence. She pushed the future school head to complete her education with the highest marks, against all odds; often arriving at school in the red jersey to protest unfair treatment.

This mental image made the head sit straighter; her shoulders squared as she readied herself for the rambling and perhaps combative meeting ahead. As a female school leader, she knew she would face an additional degree of scrutiny and questioning from the governing board, leading to a fitful night’s sleep ahead.

Across the country, as the sun set on a bucolic boarding school campus, another school leader made mental notes of the emerald-green gardens, fields and foothills. From his first days on the verdant campus, this school head wanted to identify and name the majestic trees dotting the grounds. He knew that his predecessors had planted these trees a century ago, in an education era that felt eons away.

He suspected that the rectangular green tree plaques, with their Latin and common names, which he had been responsible for installing, would outlast his reign at the school – a thought that gave him pleasure. He had been determined to achieve this unstated personal mission during his tenure, an antidote to his gnawing feelings that the traditional, entrenched school culture was ‘too big to turn.’

The mindsets of school leaders

Tacit knowledge and silent mindsets – secret thoughts – shape and colour the busy days of all school leaders. It’s been my argument that these leadership mindsets should be made explicit, explored in a safe place, and shared for the benefit of others.

It has been an honour for me to listen to untold stories from school heads across a wide variety of schools, both in my daily work and research. It has also frustrated me that these gems and mental models remain hidden to most.

Conversely, some hidden leadership mindsets in education are outdated, especially the ‘command and control’ and ‘positional authority’ leadership models in schools. Curiously, some school heads don’t profess to follow any leadership model: they simply hold on for the wild ride each day.

Many aren’t even aware of the growing research literature on common school leadership models, such as distributed leadership or instructional leadership. Heads can place their amorphous, silent assumptions under a microscope, to determine their usefulness – and benchmark them against new research.

Leadership, as a generic term and concept, has almost become so elastic that it feels meaningless. Indeed, the ever-burgeoning topic of leadership can feel like an overflowing bowl of alphabet soup. In research parlance, it’s a low validity domain. However, there is a growing body of solid, well-respected work in education leadership that deserves attention from school leaders.

Instructional leadership, carried out through new models of professional learning (PL), is one example. In a nutshell:

For the how of instructional delivery, research suggests the following PL formats can be particularly effective at producing changes in instructional effectiveness:

  1. built-in time for teacher-to-teacher collaboration around instructional improvement;
  2. one-to-one coaching, where coaches work to observe and offer feedback on teachers’ practice; and
  3. follow-up meetings to address teachers’ questions and finetune implementation.

Coupled with new knowledge from the science of adult learning – andragogy – school leaders have robust toolkits awaiting use. Using the three suggestions above as PL themes this year is a start.

The mindset of school leaders

The importance of new school leadership models

Obviously, we know that heads have rich inner lives, shared often only with a spouse, trusted colleague, or select few at school – a small but powerful cadre, of whom the entire staff knows and about whom they talk.

Groupthink amongst this small cadre is common, where perceptions go unchallenged and fresh ideas are few. Heads are also bound and sometimes beaten by the ‘accumulation of responsibilities’ that have shackled school leaders in the past decade or so. Some heads model themselves on stoic mentors who share little with their colleagues. It is not surprising that headship is sometimes lamented as one of the loneliest positions.

There are three main reasons why the mental models of school leadership held by school heads should be updated. First, the human endeavour to educate all children is a uniquely enormous undertaking.

Every day in South Africa during the school term, the school leaders of almost 25 000 schools (both public and independent institutions) enter their offices to start the school day, carrying their mental models of education leadership with them. At the same time, over 13.4 million schoolchildren stream through school gates, along with over 447 000 teachers, who head towards the classroom.

Secondly, these school leaders are responsible for the instruction practices and performance of said teachers, a gargantuan and expensive enterprise. Say authors Servaas van der Berg and Martin Gustafsson, writing in November 2002 for the think-tank Research on Socio and Economic Policy,

Teacher salaries are the largest single line item in the South African budget. In the 2022 budget, teacher salaries accounted for one third of all public sector wages at R222 billion, approximately 3.5% of GDP and 10% of total government expenditure. School leaders are the first and pivotal line of teachers’ and teaching accountability.

Third, the work engagement and well-being of these 25 000 school leaders is vital – they are tasked with leading the teaching and learning activities for over 200 school days, from January to December each year. Their performance and engagement is essential. Three definitions of school leadership encompass this charge:

  • ‘The main job of school leaders is to improve the work performance of those they lead’.
  • Three capabilities are central to the leadership of (school) improvement. It requires capability in (1) using relevant knowledge from research and experience to (2) solve the complex educational problems that stand in the way of achieving improvement goals while (3) building relationships of trust with those involved.’
  • Administrative leadership and support is one of the most critical elements because everything the teacher does is framed by the way leadership operates.’

School ecosystems are not quite a business and not quite a family, so equipping school heads for their positions (and enabling them to have a rewarding work life) makes good sense. Are the heads’ experiences ignored in this vast educational undertaking? Are they thriving, surviving, enduring or ruminating?

We know from research that a worrying percentage are often ruminating – about quitting outright, quitting quietly, taking early retirement, or straining from the repetitive stresses of the position. Some have hardened their internal views and external dealings with staff and school governing boards.

Statistics are telling. From the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) in the USA: ‘About one in five (21.6%) of new and interim heads of school in the 2019-2020 school year followed a head who held the position for three years or fewer…’ All of us working in education can relate sad tales about abrupt, even traumatic, departures of heads.

Different school leadership models

The road ahead: Professional learning

Many school leaders have found ways to manage their frenetic days, carving out tiny slivers of time for on-duty activities that nurture and, I would argue, extend their school careers with some measure of enjoyment and satisfaction. In order to cope with the position’s demands, school heads must find ways to manage the ‘persistent problems’ of school leadership.

As noted by Professor Mary Kennedy in her work on parsing teacher education – there are issues that can’t be solved, but only managed intentionally, iteratively and creatively, through professional learning and collegial support. Over time, professional learning for heads can lessen the cumulative toll of school stresses.

The following concrete examples of these ‘persistent problems’ are often related to me in discussions with heads and are strikingly different from a generation or even decade ago:

  • Days that quickly devolve into a bizarre series of non-sequitur issues, with scarce time to either prepare or debrief afterwards. This is twinned with blurred boundaries, especially post-COVID-19, where heads are expected to be on-duty at all times. Being ambushed at any time, in person or by instant messaging, is an ongoing stressor. Unexpected events, and being the last to know, in these social media days can lead to a dizzying array of issues.
  • Parental over-reach and uncivil interaction. Schools are becoming the last safe gathering points of fragmented communities (for example, alumni and parents demanding to use school facilities as a country club). Conflicts can quickly escalate.
  • At the other end of the spectrum, some parents are completely missing-in-action, abdicating their child’s growth and development to others.
  • Screen addiction and the concomitant attention and reading comprehension problems.
  • The rise of pupil accommodations (and staffing shortages) during examinations.
  • Governing boards are increasingly populated by disgruntled parents with their child’s agenda as their singular perspective (‘ruling from the desk of your child,’ as the saying goes) – not the greater, common, long-term good of the school.
  • Feeling paralysed by diversity, equity and inclusion issues, not knowing which action is ‘right’ or appropriate within increasingly complex dynamics and backstories at play.
  • Holding sensitive information.
  • Unrealistic expectations that heads act as local celebrities, being everywhere at once, solving every issue for each stakeholder. Note here the superhero adjectives that are widely used in heads’ job vacancies and role descriptions: inspirational, innovative, vibrant, dynamic change-maker, energetic, empathetic, empowering, etc.

New approaches to school leadership

What else does the new research on school leadership reveal?

We know what heads contribute: setting a vision and direction, developing staff, fine-tuning effective operations, and, most importantly, improving the business of instruction: teaching and learning. Returning to these four focus areas can provide heads with a foothold in the maelstrom each day.

New quantitative studies are revealing the specific results of principals who have this reflective mindset and foothold, as the following two quotes demonstrate:

The implication is that if a school district could invest in improving the performance of just one adult in a school building, investing in the principal is likely the most efficient way to affect student achievement.

Principals really matter. Indeed, it is difficult to envision an investment with a higher ceiling on its potential return than a successful effort to improve principal leadership.’

Three simple things

In achievable terms, how can heads update their leadership skills to (a) deal with persistent problems in education, and (b) enjoy a more rewarding work life? Begin by applying the professional learning themes to yourself.

1. Daily

Spontaneously invite feedback from a wide range of staff Be intentional about asking staff members for feedback every single day. During a meeting, invite a deputy or wise teacher to disclose their top three thoughts about the school. If you’re feeling brave, invite the chronic naysayer from the staff room. Every school has one.

You may have to probe three times to elicit authentic feedback – use the powerful questions: ‘Is there more? Is there anything else you have noticed? Do you have anything else to add?’ Pause to listen for real answers.

Use this peer information to truly reflect upon your activities, practices, and beliefs about your school. The leadership practice of inviting frequent feedback (and truly listening without being defensive) sets a powerful example for staff, creates psychological safety and allows you to avoid the ‘iceberg of ignorance’ at school.

2. Weekly

Create a non-negotiable block of time for your own professional learning each week, during school time Schedule on-duty time during the week, perhaps every Wednesday morning, to quietly attend to staff feedback and your nagging thoughts. Write down your top three issues and proactively search for solutions.

Read evidence-based education newsletters, such as The Marshall Memo, Education Endowment Foundation, or the Harvard Graduate School of Education, as examples. There is a plethora of resources available.

Taking three uninterruptable hours each week for your own professional learning during school time, while your mind is fresh, can release insights and boost stamina in the long run. Are you thriving, enduring, surviving or ruminating? Use a journal to jot down your self-awareness notes, even if your writing becomes a stream of consciousness blurb. Ideas will be generated.

An additional step, once you have established a weekly professional learning routine, would be to share your insights at staff and board meetings. Your end of term letters, at times either a chore or (sadly) a date-edit only, will be enriched with these professional learnings.

3. Monthly

Meet with another school head for coffee Set up a regular time to meet with another school head, whether from an independent or public school (or both) for coffee or a walk. Veteran heads are desperately needed as role models, so the appeal here is for seasoned leaders to actively share their hard-won knowledge and experience.

The Quaker principle of double-confidentiality applies here: whatever is said stays in the meeting and may not be referred to until the next meeting. Share your victories, and more importantly, your failures.

Peer-topeer collaboration, set in a relationship of trust, can be a powerful antidote to the private suffering, isolation or posturing that novice (and seasoned) heads experience during their days. Practical learning through neutral and joint reflection with a colleague is a central tenet of andragogy.

If you find yourself rolling your eyes or thinking, ‘These ideas will never work and I will never find the time’, then be prepared, sadly, to continue treading water. The key is to make your professional learning practice regular and continuous – to unearth, understand, and update your mental models of school leadership, much as you would update your cell phone’s software.

Some new heads are building PL time and costs into their contracts, as a prized activity. Ultimately, dividends will flow. The collective, cumulative positive effect of highly engaged, effective school leadership could be transformative for South Africa’s educational landscape.

School leaders support each other


Persistent school leader problems:

On a good day:

  • Focusing on teachers and teaching first, in every classroom.
  • For children, integrating a sound grasp of basic knowledge and skills within a broad, balanced and nurturing curriculum.
    Cultivating a culture of professional learning and a climate of productive peer-to-peer collaboration.
  • Managing behaviour and attendance.
  • Using data to identify academic patterns.
  • Strategically managing school resources and the environment.
  • Ensuring well-being of staff and pupils.
  • Establishing trust and being emotionally literate (schools, after all, are in the business of nurturing young lives).
  • Developing partnerships beyond the school to encourage parental and community support, both financial and moral.
  • Managing stress levels proactively.

On a bad day:

  • Complex, multifaceted conflict.
  • Parental over-reach or outright neglect.
  • Social media storms.
  • Blurred boundaries: being on duty and contactable 24/7/365, both in person and online.
  • Frenetic, interrupted, shapeless days.
  • Trauma.