I’m in the process of thinking more about school leadership and how we might get under the hood of persistent challenges in schools but with a keen awareness that schools as organisations are so human- orientated, they adopt the mannerisms of living things. If we consider the persistent challenges at play for school leaders, one of these challenges would be the matter of people.
Whether we seek to undertake work around curriculum, pedagogy, behaviour, operations such as administrative or financial systems, people lie at the heart. As people-centred organisations, much of what we do is intangible- we cannot see it- that there is a danger of us not always correctly identifying the source of change or shift in the first place. It’s why planning for and undertaking effective implementation is difficult: because its success it so reliant upon not just a select few but all stakeholders, invested in the process of change itself.
Placing people at the heart can leave us more susceptible to poor decisions, because decisions involving people are more difficult to make than decisions about tasks. In a previous career, I frequently made decisions where company money was at the heart and I will admit, this had little impact on swaying my judgement. In short, I thought less about making the right choice because it did not exist: it was simply a choice that I committed to and often, never considered again. As my role became increasingly centred around people, I found that my mistake making- at least, my thinking it was not always a matter of a good choice or a worser one- was more and more commonplace.
When making choices with people or involving people, our biases creep in because it is impossible to make a decision in a moment. It comes with a history and consequence and involves trust and . It might be that the professional relationship is fragile or irrespective of the choice, the decision will hold significant gravity. Perhaps we made choices in the past that we have since learned from but to that individual, we are showing inconsistency and unreliability.
Beyond all of this, people-centred choices cannot help but be subjective in the absence of being able to codify choice-making. We are not as effectively equipped to use what Rees and Barker (2021) refer to as impressionistic knowledge as we could with a more task- focused decision that simply required formal knowledge. Making predictions and applying judgement without an element of subjectivity is difficult – because it is a human- centred decision.
Three members of staff come to you and ask for tomorrow off. Six staff are already absent and this carries even greater cover implications across the school.
One is the Head of Year 8, incredible attendance record, has been present at every evening and sports event this year, attended the annual residential and it is their partner’s 40th birthday.
The other member of staff, an Assistant Head, has asked to attend their son’s school assembly. There’s a possibility he will receive a reward. They’ve yet to have to work any of the school events, have been covered by four members of staff for other appointments so far this year.
The third member of staff, a part time History teacher, has to take their husband to the airport. Their Father in Law’s brother has been taken ill and their husband needs to fly out to Greece to be at his hospital bedside. They have worked at the school for eight years and never had a day off. They are teaching a full day tomorrow.
How do we use retrospect, prediction and judgement to make a human- centred choice? What informs our decision that lies outside of our own bias, assumption or speculation? And possibly most important of all of this, can we teach people to make good choices for people-centred organisations?
Of the information I provided, what was least useful or relevant and why? If you choose to give the day to one member of staff, how might you share that information with them? What would be the consequences, both now but beyond?
And this is where usually, our choice paths might not be as easy to trace as we might hope. Our judgement becomes assumptive and based upon the interpretation of our own lives within the stories of others. Perhaps you contemplated why someone would ever have to miss an assembly for their child, or support for the airport or their loved one’s birthday. Maybe your gut response was driven by previous commitment and so the recognition of eight years uninterrupted service resonated with you. You might have assumed that the second member of staff’s son was pretty unlikely to get an award this week, or questioned why the first member of staff didn’t realise such a big birthday was coming up the day before. Maybe you viewed the third member of staff’s request with skepticism, to ask why their husband could not make the journey to the airport themselves.
We could of course revert to a rigorous school policy that states a limited number of scenarios for absence for which none of these scenarios apply. The problem is that policies provide a framework, not a process map and so judgement is still required. Alternatively, we could grant the day of for all and see the consequence of such a choice.
The decision is not important as such here, but the mechanisms we use to draw the subjectivity from the decision itself. The scenario presented naturally leads you to ask further questions, and I wonder if further information assists with judgement because it takes us to a place where we create the illusion of a task- centred decision and not a people-centred one. If we can draw comparatives between a number of factors, we could start to view years in service, attendance records, reason provided as nothing more than collated data and the guise of a more objective choice, concluded by the dataset. Only, not quite, because shifting ourselves to talk of people as data sounds a little cold of course, but more importantly, shifting people into numbers does very little to mitigate against our own unreliability. We had probably made our mind up before all of that.
What is it then, that drives these types of decisions? How do we ensure predictions and judgements are good predictions and judgements when it comes to people-centred decisions?
It would be naive to assume that school leaders can make better decisions through exposure to decisions alone: I grow cautiously but increasingly certain that it is not the decision making that needs to improve but the way in which the decision is engaged with, considered, implemented and returned to as an example (or non example) for ourselves to make increasingly better judgements. Think back to how you began to make a judgement. Naturally, you would have tried to find the comparative factors to find a ‘1,2,3G’ order, however this would have provided merely a starting point for questions like:
– have I engaged with this person to ensure that they are heard?
– to what degree can I help this person?
– how will helping this person impact the wider school community? (Both positively and otherwise)
– will this person help others in the future?
Some reading this would have felt strongly about providing all staff with the time and others may have deliberated. I would argue that it was a poor example because it leans on the lives of people and not the work as much. Some reading would have made lots of choices like this all the time and wrestled with what the ‘right’ answer would be when there isn’t one. But these decisions are moments where the living organism of a school is at its most fragile: these choices become conversations, which become relationships, which becomes the work.
It might be that what Rees and Barker (2021) refer to as impressionistic knowledge relies upon other knowledge types to underpin it for it to be acquired at all: knowledge of people. To have knowledge of people, we need to know the questions to ask ourselves for people-centred problems and how these differ significantly from task-based ones, in that we seldom get exactly the same decisions or conditions for decision making to be able to turn to mental models to make inform us. This is just one of many, many ways that school leadership is complex.
Barker, J., and Rees, T., (2021). Expertise, mental models and leadership knowledge, available at https://www.ambition.org.uk/blog/expertise-mental-models-and-leadership-knowledge/
Evans, M., (2021). Can we make our schools anti-fragile? Available at https://educontrarianblog.com/2021/10/02/can-we-make-our-schools-anti-fragile/