Leading Intentionally, Teaching Deliberately

Originally posted on Education Scotland's PLL blog




On finishing reading Matt Haig’s “The Midnight Library” as part of a staff book club, I re-read Walden. It features heavily in Haig’s bestseller and I was keen to remind myself of why I had adored it as a student, and why so many people continue to list it in their Top 10 books.

It didn’t take long to remember why it was so universally appealing. Despite being 170 years old, the messages are as pertinent today as they were when Thoreau sat by the lake in his cabin writing it.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

~ Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)

I have written previously on this blog about the never-ending plate spinning that we, as educators and school leaders, must undertake. Thoreau, then, describes precisely what we all dream of: the stripping back of our day-to-day struggles and to front only the essential tasks of teaching.

Teaching: the very business with which we all fell in love, before the great Sisyphean boulder of administration and bureaucracy threatened to crush us under its momentum.

As leaders, how do we support our staff to teach deliberately and help them feel valued as professionals? How do we help them take a step to the side and allow the great boulder to hurtle past, without crushing others with additional workload or assumed responsibility? Perhaps, it is by taking a step backwards ourselves. Identify the key objectives, but don’t overdo the management of the process.

In his book, Turn This Ship Around, L. David Marquet quickly gets to the core of this,

 "The problem with specifying the method along with the goal is one of diminished control. Provide your people with the objective and let them figure out the method."


At a recent lecture at the University of Oslo, Dr. Pamela Grossman (Dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania) discussed the importance of “a common language for teaching”. In her lecture, she explained that in order to measure something, we must first be able to name it. We must identify the components of practice that we might want to target for improvement, to look at intentionally and over time to better understand what we are doing.

Both Marquet and Grossman point to an informed, engaged and emancipated workforce. A staff which is encouraged to use their brains to think their own way to improved outcomes, ready to enquire and test, to throw in novel ideas, to challenge the status quo. Marquet never relinquished control of his submarine, but he did reverse the flow of information from top down to bottom up. In doing so, he freed up his crew to make decisions based on the evidence in front of them, he asked them to tell him what they intended to do. He then, with the safety of the ship and crew at the fore, could oversee and focus his energies where they were most needed. In a school using the power of the Hive to develop and improve, where every mind is focussed on the end result, how might you better use your energies?

As leaders, it is assumed that we will make the strategic decisions necessary to safely steer our schools on their course to success. Unfortunately, this can sometimes mean we allow school policy and improvement agendas to interfere with the intentions of our professional staff. The issue with that is it diminishes opportunities to listen to the ideas of our staff. Every school enjoys a staff team comprising a wealth of skills, life experiences and ideas, how many fully liberate those minds to make decisions, to think, and to steer? Again, Marquet is direct with his analysis, “If you want people to think, give them intent, not instruction.”

Are you ready to give your staff intent rather than instruction? Are you doing all you can to let your staff to teach deliberately?

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