What do a principal and a head coach have in common?

What do a principal and a head coach have in common?

A quick glance at a day in the life of an Australian school leader reveals that they wear a lot of hats. Administrator. Instructional leader. Building manager. Counsellor. Chief communicator. The list goes on.

With 40 years of experience in the Catholic education system – including 26 years of experience as a school principal – under his belt, this is something Brendan Maher knows all too well.

In 2020, Maher became a Partner at Leading Teams, an organisation that has supported the culture at AFL clubs like Sydney, Brisbane, Hawthorn and Port Adelaide, plus the dominant Australian Diamonds under Head Coach Lisa Alexander (herself a former teacher).

Over the past five years has also worked with over 70 education providers, from Vineyard Primary in regional South Australia with eight teachers, through to TAFE Queensland with over 4,000 staff.

Looking back on his career in education, and drawing from his current work, Maher likens the role of a school principal to that of a head coach.

“In a school the principal is trying to create an environment of success for many stakeholders – their leadership team, their teachers, and of course the students. In a sports team, the Head Coach is also creating an environment that will support their assistant coaches, support staff and players,” Maher told The Educator.

“Think of the players in a sports team as the students in a classroom. If everyone is engaged and being supported, they are more likely to succeed. It is therefore not surprising that many of the cultural and leadership lessons can be shared between these two environments”.

Maher says that while relationships underpin success in every team, this is especially true in schools.

“You will always hear from successful athletes how much they trust and respect their coaches and teammates. Educational institutions should, and do, aim for the same sort of culture,” he said.

Students, parents, and teachers know when a learning team is united and trusting of each other. You cannot ask a class of children to commit to, support, and challenge one another if you are not doing the same in the staff room, at planning meetings and around the school generally”.

Maher said it is well established that the richest learning takes place in an environment where support and challenge is readily offered and received.

“The normalising of feedback is a crucial hallmark of effective learning, teaching and teamwork,” he said.

“This can only take place in an environment where mutual trust and respect is the norm”.

The other common theme, says Maher, is the team’s values and behaviours.

“Every school, and every team, has a ‘Way we do things around here’ code of conduct. The question is, does this get lived in the classroom, school yard, and frankly, in public?” Maher said.

“Great teams reward their teammates when they see their values being used, and they challenge each other when they are missed”.

Maher said the team’s leaders are the benchmark for these values.

“Often in a sports team it is no longer simply the best player who is awarded the captaincy, it is the player who best represents the team’s values,” he said.

“When you take this concept into a school it completely changes the culture”.

Maher said this is an important question for education leaders to consider in the context of what they seek to achieve and promote.

“Do we reward the longest tenure teacher with a leadership role, or do we look to the teacher who genuinely influences us to live our values? Are we interested in promoting individuals as ‘class leaders’ or promoting a ‘culture of leadership’ amongst all students in our learning teams more broadly?” he said.

“If ever there was an era where the nurturing of leadership was essential in addressing cultural issues it is now, thus the importance of helping all students and team mates to see they each have a crucial leadership role to play in their respective teams.”

Maher said he believes the end goal should be for every team member to have a voice.

“This can be done by creating psychological safety,” he said.

“This may mean breaking down traditional hierarchies and behaviours, but like a high-performing sports team, once the team is empowered to own its culture and legitimately author their own futures, the results will follow”.