Review by Kate Greig

Executive Head of Dane Court and King Ethelbert schools, Kent

22 Mar 2019, 16:00


The Unexpected Leader

By Iesha Small


Independent Thinking Press

Serendipity: I had just come home from an afternoon talking to a group of NPQH trainees and had been struck by the diverse group of would-be headteachers in the room. One of the senior teachers had approached me and said, “I like what you said, but I could never be you!”. “Thank goodness for that,” I responded.

There are, no right or wrongs of leadership. All leaders are different and that is what makes leadership exciting, challenging, daunting and often scary. That evening I started to read The Unexpected Leader and the parts of my day collided in a significant way.

I am not really a reader of teaching handbooks. I have dipped in and out of recommended reading lists and found some to be quite thought-provoking, but maybe through lack of time, or more honestly through an egotistical view that I could only really do things my way, theoretical educational literature has not been my bag. Far better a novel with a gripping storyline for me!

I was not grabbed by this book’s opening section, which spoke of a “journey”‘. I loathe clichés but I ploughed on. By midnight I had finished the entire thing and was engrossed in the true stories of different leaders and how they challenge the view of stereotypical school leaders.

The style is simple and the narrative so incredibly easy to read, that it gave me a strong sense of having a dialogue with the leaders chosen to tell their tale. I was particularly struck with Tait’s story (each leader is identified by their first name only), which explores the dilemma we all find ourselves in when we speak out about things that are important – while protecting the integrity of our school. Tait spoke out about Teach First, the Prevent agenda in schools and other very real, but potentially volatile issues, insisting that as leaders we have to speak up for what we believe in, “because no one else is going to”.

The feeling of having a conversation with fellow professionals is priceless

Over the past year my boss, Paul Luxmoore, and I have spoken out about local authorities sending looked-after children from out of the area to Thanet, the beautiful, but massively deprived area that we work in. It has been hard – and sometimes brutal and bloody – to have the moral courage to speak out about such a controversial issue. We have both been criticised as not giving vulnerable youngsters a chance, which makes me angry as the opposite is true.

Difficult parents, challenging budgets, Ofsted and DfE pressures have never put me off my wonderful job. Being told by others that I am immoral for standing up for young people has, however, and last year I considered walking away. In such circumstances one can often feel isolated but reading Tait’s story and wise words: “If you are informed about your decision and you’re informed about your ideas you have to stick with them,” made me feel strong and determined again.

Different sections of the book will resonate with different leaders, obviously, but the accessible way in which it is written means you can dip in and out and feel the privilege of having a conversation with fellow professionals: priceless. It is a book all leaders should have on their shelves.

It does not have answers and that makes it all the better. It is not preachy or academic, it is frank and open and thoughtful and, above all, it makes one feel uplifted and part of the wider community of school leaders across the country.

I enjoyed it and am grateful for the experience. Maybe I should dip into educational books more often – it made me feel I am not alone. And that is more powerful than anything.

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