CPD: Books on the balcony...

Written by: Yvonne Gandy | Published:
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School leaders can find inspiration and solutions if they build reading for professional development into their schedules, says Yvonne Gandy

Harvard school leadership experts Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky coined a vivid metaphor that summed up the power of reflection time for school leaders: “Getting off the dance floor and going to the balcony.” This perfectly described how a school leader can step back to gain perspective, while still staying close and being tuned in to their leadership role.

In their 2002 book, Leadership on the Line (Harvard Business Review Press), they wrote about how achieving this balcony perspective meant taking yourself out of the dance, in your mind, if only for a moment, adding: “The only way you can gain both a clearer view of reality and some perspective on the bigger picture is by distancing yourself from the fray.”

Many heads will want that balcony time, but the day-to-day realities of leading a busy school often makes it an aspiration rather than a reality. So how can you build that reflection time into your routine? For headteacher Janet Westray, reading school leadership texts has been a powerful professional development tool that has given her precious reflection time away from the day-to-day role – and helped her to address some very real challenges.

Ms Westray, who is headteacher at Holy Family Catholic Primary in Preston, developed an appetite for school leadership texts when she was a deputy head and working towards the National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH). It helped her enormously when she joined Holy Family just over three years ago – her first headship post. Holy Family had been through a time of upheaval. A long-standing headteacher had retired and several years of leadership churn had followed. The school had, according to Ofsted, lost its way.

The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013) – a favourite text from her NPQH days – was one book that particularly helped her through those first weeks at the helm, Ms Westray says. It contains themes of reflection and standing back redolent of Heifetz and Linsky’s work. She explained: “There was a strong message in there about taking time to step back and observe and not plunge into making big changes immediately. It helped me realise that although there were lots of things I needed to change it was a case of being patient and making small changes at first.

“There were lots of staff there who were doing their best and had found the going difficult so I had to move with care in those first few weeks and months. Many of them are still here with us today, which says a lot for the insights the book gave me – the reading helped me hugely in dealing with some really difficult circumstances.”

The big question for busy school leaders is how to safeguard the time to do some genuinely improving professional development reading. Setting aside time in the diary and sticking to it is Ms Westray’s approach. And it is made easier if she reminds herself that the time will deliver real benefits. She explained: “I make it a weekly commitment and I set the time aside and make sure that my team are aware. I just know that it is important as it makes a real contribution to our journey of improvement. I tell myself that I need this time so that I can understand better what our challenges are and how we can address them using the leadership insights, experiences and advice from reading widely.”

Ensuring that your professional development reading is focused on a school improvement priority guarantees that it will be time well spent, Ms Westray adds. For example, when she arrived at Holy Family, children’s reading and comprehension was an area of concern. So Ms Westray and her team revised the teaching of reading, introducing more structured guided reading sessions, revitalising the range of reading books available and bringing in a range of initiatives to improve the children’s vocabulary, including new key words for all children and the teaching of Latin at key stage 2. Reading results improved dramatically in a short space of time.

A range of books informed the strategy, including Wayne Tennent’s Understanding Reading Comprehension (Sage Publications, 2014), Guiding Readers: Layers of meaning, by Wayne Tennent, David Reedy, Angela Hobsbaum and Nikki Gamble (UCL Institute of Education Press, 2016), and Alex Quigley’s Closing the Vocabulary Gap (Routledge, 2018).

Ms Westray’s advice to other primary leaders? “Give yourself some space to be able to read and don’t feel guilty about it,” she said. “It is important because it keeps you informed about new developments. An inspirational role model should lead by example and allow others to witness your passion for developing as a professional at the heart of a dynamic and successful school.”

And it looks like Ms Westray’s approach to CPD reading has been infectious: “Very often I leave my recommended reading out in the staffroom and colleagues do pick them up and delve into them. It does create a buzz among the staff and opportunities for professional dialogue.”

Ms Westray’s other book recommendations for primary leaders are:

  • Bringing Words to Life by Isabel L Beck, Margaret G McKeown and Linda Kucan (The Guilford Press, 2013).
  • Teaching Vocabulary in all Classrooms by Camille Blachowicz and Peter J Fisher (Pearson, 2015).
  • The Articulate Classroom by Prue Goodwin (Routledge, 2001 & 2017).
  • An Ethic of Excellence: Building a culture of craftmanship with students by Ron Berger (Heinemann Educational Books, 2003).
  • The Monkey-proof Box by Jonathan Lear (Independent Thinking Press, 2019).
  • Making Every Primary Lesson Count by Jo Payne and Mel Scott (Crown House Publishing, 2017).
  • The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to coherence by Mary Myatt (John Catt Educational, 2018).

  • Yvonne Gandy is programme director of the national professional qualifications at Best Practice Network, which manages and supports Outstanding Leaders Partnership to deliver the four national professional qualifications for school leaders. Visit www.outstandingleaders.org & www.bestpracticenet.co.uk/npq

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