Transforming leadership perceptions

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Leadership coaching is often seen as the domain of large corporate firms with extensive budgets. However, there is a significant need in the education sector for coaches to help teachers, particularly those from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds to break through some of the unique barriers to progressing their careers. Here, Viv Grant, founder of Integrity Coaching, shares her experiences and discusses how coaching could benefit minority ethnic teachers.

Overcoming personal challenges

A mixture of personal and professional reasons led Viv Grant to apply for headship at the London school where she was teaching. When she had first joined the school, four years into her career, Viv found that the impact of her ethnicity was bigger than she had anticipated. In some cases, she was treated with open hostility and prejudice from both the majority-white staff and a number of the black pupils in the school, who took their cue from their teachers. But in many instances the effects were far more subtle, and she felt that she had to work harder to gain the respect of colleagues, parents and teachers.

When the school went into Special Measures, Viv had been Deputy for only six weeks. After the inspection, when a child asked her, ‘Ms Grant, are we failures?’ Viv decided to apply for headship and do something for the school and the community it served.

“The decision to take the headship was a significant and daunting one,” she recalls. “This was at the same time a great personal opportunity and a real personal risk.”

Viv was well prepared for the generic stresses and strains of headship, such as the heavy workload, the long hours and challenging staff and parents. But she had not anticipated the unique stresses and strains of being a head teacher from a minority background.

Managing the prejudice of parents alone, even from those within her community, was a difficult task. In addition, a few teachers felt uncomfortable about being managed by a black woman and as a result would try to undermine her authority. Dealing with other people’s perceptions was another challenge.

“Occasionally visitors would come to the school and ask me where the head teacher was. Even though I had been introduced to them, and would be standing right in front of them they still sometimes failed to acknowledge a BAME head teacher,” she commented.

To add to the stress, at the time of taking up the appointment, Viv had also just become a new mother and was faced with juggling the new and unique challenges of motherhood with the challenges provided by the new appointment.

For all of these challenges, Viv adopted her own set of coping strategies but found a desperate sense of solitude and felt a serious lack of support. This eventually left her feeling that she couldn’t sustain the levels of physical, emotional and mental energy that the job required, and after the birth of her second child, Viv made the decision to leave headship.

This was an unfortunate decision to have to make, as Viv had been a highly successful head teacher. Under her leadership, the school was taken out of Special Measures in less than three months after Viv has taken up the substantive post   – a significant achievement, particularly for a woman so early in her career – Viv was just 32 at the time.

“After leaving headship, I often found that when I shared my story, there was a great deal of empathy from aspiring BAME teachers and many would ask me to support them on a one-to-one basis. At the same time, I decided to find myself a coach, which I found so personally rewarding that I later undertook a coaching qualification myself," Viv continued.

“The more BAME teachers I met, the more I realised that this type of support was exactly what had been missing from my headship experience and what is missing from the experiences of many BAME aspiring school leaders and head teachers. To put it simply, people in this situation require a safe, supportive and non–judgemental space in which to truly be oneself; a space to talk about all aspects of being that individual. For instance, being a black woman, wife, mother, head-teacher, sister etc and discover ways of being effective in all aspects of life, thereby enabling individuals to manage the demands of life and leadership as a whole. Integrity Coaching exists to provide this type of holistic support.

Harnessing the power of coaching

Viv’s own experiences and those of her colleagues revealed that within Britain’s current educational landscape this type of holistic support is simply not available to head teachers. Integrity Coaching’s work with aspiring BAME leaders shows that this is a service desperately needed if Britain is to build a more representative teaching force.

To illustrate the scope of the issue, while around 20% of teachers are from BAME backgrounds, when you get to headship level, this number drops to around 3% - leaving no doubt that this is an issue that needs to be addressed.

Since its inception, Integrity Coaching has successfully provided coaching services for BAME teachers and school leaders in Islington, Westminster, Wandsworth, Haringey and Hackney. The company has plans to expand throughout 2009, so that BAME staff in the majority of London boroughs can access these important services as part of local authority recruitment and retention strategies.

BAME teachers tend to face a number of issues related to their ethnicity, which employers sometimes struggle to understand and address. As a result, this can stifle local authorities in their ability to put in place systems that will progress the careers of BAME teachers at the same rate as their white counterparts.

In order to change this, local authorities benefit from reflecting on the types of support systems provided for BAME teachers. Viv’s experience in the field has shown that BAME teachers welcome systems that are not ‘one size fits all’, but are bespoke to the needs of the individuals and enable them to find positive solutions for their own specific situation. Coaching is a tool that can be used to meet this need and can help keep BAME head teachers in their positions longer and also provide more junior level teachers with the confidence to progress their careers into senior roles.

Coaching gives participants the self confidence and strategies to overcome obstacles and the ability to take a proactive approach to the development of their careers. It also provides individuals with a regular and designated time to reflect, re-focus and re-energise, whenever they feel isolated or need support and guidance.

Viv believes that to help build a more diverse education sector, increase the number of BAME teachers in leadership positions and pre-empt and address a future shortage of head teachers across the country, local authorities need to consider the important role that coaching, specifically for BAME teachers, can play.

She concludes, “When there is a real will and desire to move forward in this manner, we may begin to see  a proportionate representation of BAME teachers who lead our schools.”

Case study: Learning for Leadership Transformation (LfLT) programme – Wandsworth

In a bid to overcome the predicted future shortage of school leaders and to address the current lack of head teachers from BAME backgrounds, Wandsworth Borough Council has enlisted Integrity Coaching to offer a bespoke programme for aspirant BAME leaders who already have successful teaching careers and wish to progress to the highest level.

The borough realised that very few strategies implemented to support BAME teachers in the past had been successful and identified that steps must be taken to nip the problem in the bud before it becomes a more widespread concern.

“We are delighted to partner with Integrity Coaching, whose Learning for Leadership Transformation (LfLT) programme has encouraged participants to talk openly about their experiences, in a manner which enables them to feel listened to and understood,” says Brendan Ryan, Recruitment and Remodelling Manager at Wandsworth Borough Council. “The decision followed an in-depth analysis of the teaching workforce across Wandsworth, which showed that while 29 per cent of teachers in the borough are from minority backgrounds, the number in leadership positions (8.7 per cent) was not representative.”

The LfLT programme designed by Integrity Coaching began in January this year and is run with teachers and a cohort of aspiring BAME leaders from Specialist Social Care.

Viv Grant commented: “It is often the case that in order for BAME individuals to take control of their career paths and successfully move forward, a form of continued professional development is needed that addresses both personal and professional needs. Our work has shown that coaching enables BAME individuals to gain deeper insight into and understanding of personal experiences that may be specific to their context. This increased personal knowledge can then be used as a tool for growth and career progression.”

“The benefits of mixing occupational groups in our sessions have been noteworthy and have helped to identify common barriers to succession as well as raising awareness of peer roles across Children's Services.”

The mid-programme review has already received high evaluations from participants, with one participant landing a Headship at a school within the borough, partly as a result of the programme. She commented: “With the ongoing support from highly skilled and qualified BAME coaches, who were sensitive and understood the challenges of professional development within the BAME context, I was able to increase my awareness and confidence. I really feel that the coaching I received has allowed me to constructively break down barriers that had previously felt insurmountable.”

According to Brendan Ryan, the borough is impressed with the programme outcomes so far and is seeking to recommission Integrity Coaching for 2010 and increase its scale to include six of its Local Authority partners in South-West London.

Under the LfLT programme Local Authorities will:

  • Be recognised as having a diverse, positive approach, to the recruitment and retention of BAME leaders and managers at all levels
  • Be seen as attractive and supportive places to work for aspiring BAME leaders and managers
  • Receive more applications for senior roles from BAME candidates
  • Have a more diverse talent pool from which to select candidates for senior positions
  • Experience an incremental increase in the number of BAME personnel who feel supported by the borough and wish to continue their careers in their Local Authority
  • Benefit from having a strategic approach to continued professional development that supports both local and national priorities for diversity and succession planning
    Individuals will benefit from:
  • Support from highly skilled and qualified BAME Coaches who are sensitive to and understand the challenges of professional/career development within the BAME Context
  • Increased self-awareness, self-confidence and the ability to take a pro-active approach to the development of their careers
  • Understanding how to develop new approaches to building relationships and influencing others
  • Being able to assess the direction their career is heading and what their next steps should be
  • Being able to identify their career goals and developing clear and inspiring personal visions and action plans

Integrity Coaching ( was set up specifically to address the issues concerning BAME professionals working across children’s services.

Based in London, Integrity Coaching was set up in 2007 to provide team, management, leadership and performance coaching services to maximise the performance of managers in the public and private sectors. Behind the business lies the principle that in order for individuals to be effective in the workplace they need to be given the opportunity and support to reach their full potential.

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