The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Liz Worthen

The stretch zone is for grownups too

Good leaders find the stretch points for their team and empower them to take action.

Proofing the entirety of our primary and secondary Insight magazine is a somewhat arduous task. However, it does give me the opportunity to fully appreciate (and actually read!) the resources which the Optimus team have been producing.

In the March issue, I particularly enjoyed an article by Neil Farmer about building an effective Reception team. Partly because I think early years teachers rock (they’re generally the last people to shout about their work but their adeptness in creating personalised learning experiences for a whole classful of small people is amazing), and also because I like his expression of what a good leader does.

This paragraph neatly sums up his thinking.

Through my years of supporting schools and leading teams I have found that the most important element is empowerment – getting the right people for the right jobs working at their highest level of competency. The point where challenge meets ability is where people will be working at their optimum level.

This isn’t about the ‘lone ranger’ style of leadership espoused by Michael Wilshaw, or a Steve Jobs-level of Messianic zeal. It’s more akin to the servant leadership model, which dates back to classic Chinese texts from the 4th century BC and was brought more up-to-date by Robert K. Greenleaf in the 1970s.

If you want a high performing team, you need to work at ensuring each team member is fully utilising their strengths. Vygotsky’s notion of a zone of proximal development has a lot of currency in discussions about pedagogy and stretch and challenge in the classroom, and Neil Farmer suggests the same can apply when thinking about the adults in your team. ‘If a task is too demanding and competency not equal to it, anxiety develops; if the challenge is not demanding enough and competency above it, you get boredom.’

Creating a culture in which team members are empowered to make decisions is important too. Of course, you need to have a framework for that decision-making and a review process to ensure that decisions are serving the goals of the team. But don’t feel that as a leader you need to have all the solutions! Seek recommendations from your team and don’t be afraid to delegate responsibility.

While Neil’s article is written with Reception teams in mind, I don’t see why his approach shouldn’t serve as a model for any subject or key stage.

Getting the best out of your team is a challenge to any leader, but ensuring you have a team that can take your vision on is crucial to improving the provision for the children, the levels of involvement and wellbeing, and the quality of your team.

Recommendations for team leadership

  • Make sure there are shared and agreed values for the team.
  • Create structures which enable team members to be proactive.
  • Match people to the tasks to which they are best suited.
  • Delegate responsibility.
  • Empower team members to find better solutions.

Neil Farmer will be delivering workshops on questioning skills and high quality observations at the supporting progress in reception conference in April 2016.

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