Getting off to a good start
It will be no surprise that some of the best leaders have started from scratch and worked their way up. Knowledge and understanding of the different jobs in a setting, and what each entails is invaluable. It may seem obvious, but developing as a team leader does not happen overnight, and is best thought of as a process of transition and growth. It takes time, hard work and commitment. As one of the leaders I spoke to reminded me, a sense of humour is also very helpful!
Although you may have plenty of experience as a practitioner, leadership can offer fresh challenges. Getting clear about your new position and exactly what it requires, along with the right support, is crucial. Our EYFS statutory document recognises the importance of coaching and training, together with effective supervision. Katie Coletti, newly appointed Assistant Head Teacher (BEYA – Barnet Early Years Alliance, London) reflected: “I know that my Senior Leadership team are always available for support, and I feel very fortunate to work with such a supportive team. I have also found that facing situations that may be outside of my comfort zone has really helped to build my confidence and experience.”
When Sam Randell (Chapel Street Nursery School Luton) took over as team leader, she found management training supported her confidence and practical leadership skills. “I said to my new team that I was open to ideas, and that if they had any suggestions about how we might do things better, I would be happy to hear them. I have found it extremely helpful to talk things over with my senior leaders and begun to trust my instinct about how to deal with something.”
Head teacher Natalie Wilson (Headington Quarry Foundation Stage School, Oxford) found the simple strategy of ‘wait, watch and wonder’ useful during the early days of her headship. “This enabled me to see what was working well and take the time to think through some of the changes I wanted to introduce.”
Knowing your team
Abby Kirwan (Chapel Street Nursery School, Luton) reflects on her journey to becoming a room leader and some of the skills she has developed along the way:
“My first experience as a room leader was covering a maternity leave for one of my colleagues. This meant I was able to ‘get into the swing’ of things, without putting too much pressure on myself. Of course, in the beginning I was nervous; when you’re in a team and supervised, you’ve always got the security of someone above you. My own children were just that little bit older, so personally the timing was right and I was keen to progress.
One of the things I’ve learnt to do is to gauge the different personalities within my team. I might be saying the same thing, but need to say it in a different way to each person. For example, perhaps bringing humour to one interaction or being more sensitive or assertive in another.
Flexibility is essential – I try to model this, and not make too many promises, as things can change in a flash. Even though one of the team might be due non-contact time, they may suddenly find themselves covering a staff absence in another room.
Recognising different strengths and interests is also important. One of my team has brilliant computer skills and has developed some great resources for our room. Another is skilled around SEND. I am always on the look-out to address weaknesses and ways we might develop further, although new ideas or initiatives need to be manageable and achievable. It may just be a case of me saying “have a go, see if you can do it”. There is no point pressurizing someone, or trying to make them do something they don’t enjoy or feel panicked by, as this is likely to backfire.”
Acknowledging the experience of long-standing members of staff is crucial. Katie Coletti recognises that making time to listen helps everyone feel valued, particularly those who have been there a long time. “One of the things that makes change possible is not to jump in and make lots of changes. People need time to talk things over and to adjust.”
Abby Kirwan says that for her, being organised, and thinking and planning ahead is key; “If I’m away on a course for a few days, I don’t assume that everything will be done, even if some of my team have been together a long time. I leave a clear list of jobs, and follow this up when I return.”
Not rushing ahead too quickly
Head teacher Natalie Wilson echoes many of these strategies and the value of not rushing ahead, even if you are enthusiastic about making changes. “Taking time to build relationships is key; really getting to know what makes people ‘tick’. I found it important to slow down and take time to observe how things worked, and that leading by example is really important. For example, doing some of those nasty jobs that someone else doesn’t want to do, such as clearing up some sick! I also believe it’s vital to recognise every member of the team. I make a point of giving everyone a card at the end of the year and being specific about their contributions and what I’ve appreciated.”
Effective communication and ‘I’ messages
Open and honest communication is an essential element of the growth and maintenance of a healthy team (Rodd, 2006 3rd Ed p146-149). A domineering style of leadership, where there is no autonomy or shared responsibility is likely to create a negative, resentful group. Ultimately, this will have an impact on practice, and children and families will suffer. ‘Negative contracts’, i.e. where a team member talks or gossips to others, or conflict within the team must be dealt with swiftly. Newly appointed team leader Sam Randall (Chapel Street Nursery School Luton) agrees:
“After a slightly bumpy start when I was away for a few days and there was a disagreement in the team, I introduced some new systems to support communication. We now have regular, end of day meetings – these are very helpful, as some of my team are part-time – and I also keep a log of what I’ve said to whom. Clarity about each person’s role and responsibilities has helped to make everyone feel more comfortable. I make sure to respond to the different learning styles of my team, for instance, some are quite happy to have a quick chat, whereas others prefer me to write down new information. I make a real effort to involve my team in decisions and encourage them to reflect, for example about what’s working well and what’s not. This means there are more chances for the team to come up with their own ideas to improve things.”
Owning your own feelings and opinions as a leader is important. One of the ways we can do this is to use the pronoun ‘I’, rather than ‘you’ or ‘we’. ‘You’ is likely to provoke a defensive response, and ‘we’ tends to lack clarity. For example “You were late again this morning, Aisling! This really upsets the start of the day - you must get here on time.” Instead you might try: “I was annoyed when you arrived late Aisling. I’d like to discuss this with you later, and see if we can find a solution.” This acknowledges the issue, and opens up the possibility of solving the problem in a more adult way (adapted from Rodd 2006 p85).
Multiple-roles – being a colleague as well as a friend
It is quite possible that when you take on a new leadership role, you will already have friendships with some of your team or colleagues. This may, from time to time pull you in different directions, and it can take practice to manage this dual role comfortably. It can help to imagine different ‘hats’ for each ‘role’, and what fits in each.
A guiding principle will be to focus on your professional relationship and team aims, and what will benefit children and families. In the hustle and bustle of early years work, shift patterns and myriad number of jobs, it can be hard to make time to nurture staff relationships. This can be further complicated by something unique to early years, which is that the team leader often has to switch from being in charge of administration and leading, to being part of the team caring for children.
As well as organising time for professional conversations, opportunities for the team to socialise and have fun together can help to build relationships. Small things, such as tea and cake before a meeting, or agreeing to celebrate something together are ways you might do this.
Although it can be tough, when difficulties arise it is essential to remain neutral and not take sides. Favouring a particular outcome because of loyalty to a friend will jeopardise other relationships within your team, result in others losing trust in your leadership. This is when professional supervision and the support of a more experienced colleague can help.
Tricky conversations and conflict
Several team leaders reflected that witnessing and observing how other senior leaders dealt with awkward situations has supported them to develop their own strategies and confidence to do so.
Natalie Wilson, Head Teacher, still finds these ‘tricky conversations’ one of the hardest aspects of her job, and says: “I make sure to give plenty of notice to the team member if we need to talk about something difficult. I try and depersonalise the situation and keep feelings out of it. I will have already tried to resolve the issue informally, but if this doesn’t work, then I try a different route. I find it useful to have a simple proforma with a list of bullet points, so I don’t get distracted. I care about the other person, and ask ‘is there a reason why this happened?’ I also want to know what the setting and I can do to help. My aim is always to try and problem-solve together.”
It is important to recognise that conflict within a team is healthy and normal – the crucial aspect is how we handle and deal with it. Keeping communication open and level, i.e. not personalising things is a priority. The following strategy is often used to begin the process of communicating a problem:
When (describe the issue or what has happened)
I felt (describe your feelings or emotions)
Because (explain the importance or reason)
I’d prefer (suggest another option)
It is possible that the process above may need to be repeated, and you may need to play ‘broken record’, and restate your request. For instance, you might say “I can understand your position, but I’d still prefer….” which signals your intention to persist. Team members also need to know that you have their back covered, and know that you will speak up for them when necessary.
Being part of well run team, and leading one, can be hugely rewarding. Forming your vision and values together will help you and your team move forward in the right direction. To explore these issues further, you might like to access the Early years team work and leadership materials, which are available free via the Open University.
Rodd, J 2006 3rd Edition, Leadership in Early Childhood Open University Press
DFE 2017 Statutory framework for the early years foundation stage (EYFS)
Edited by Rebecca