• Mar 82013

Brave Heads — a review

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If you’re not familiar with the brilliant ‘Yes Prime Minister’, there’s a running joke throughout the series. Whenever Jim Hacker, the hapless Prime Minister is told by Sir Humphrey Appleby that he’s made a “courageous” decision, he panics and changes his mind. In his world, a courageous decision is definitely not a good thing — in fact it means his neck is almost certainly on the line…

When our copy of ‘Brave Heads’ arrived on the doormat, guess what the first thing that sprung to mind was?

(fade to a Head’s office in a where the chair of governors is peering over a sheaf of papers)

    CHAIR: (concerned) Just to make you aware, this is a very brave plan, Headteacher.
    HEADTEACHER: (gulps) Brave, you say?
    CHAIR: Very brave, Headteacher. Almost courageous.
    HEAD: Oh deary me… We don’t want that. Are you sure?
    (Long pause)
    CHAIR: (wearily) Yes, Headteacher.

(Roll credits)

Well, it amused us anyway.

The second thought we had was that this was going to be a book entirely for school leaders. As such, we’d expect it to be riddled with management jargon and advice that meant little to non-leaders like ourselves. Nevertheless, we’d do our best to provide a helpful review for those who appreciate that sort of thing.

We were wrong.

Thankfully Dave Harris has nothing of Sir Humphrey about him! ‘Brave Heads’ (subtitle: “How to lead a school without selling your soul”) is personal, witty and pithy, showing not just what it takes to be a brave leader, but — we’d suggest — what it takes to be a brave teacher. Dave Harris speaks from experience — as the ex-Head of a 3–18 school (a fascinating story in itself) and Principal of the brand new Nottingham University Samworth Academy — and his book contains lessons learned, creative ideas and personal anecdotes to highlight his points. As Harris states, he wanted to write the book “that would have helped me at the lowest point of my change journey”. If you’re under any illusion that those in leadership don’t experience doubt, worry or wobbles in confidence, take a look. The author is a Headteacher with significant experience and he underlines the point that these feelings are pretty much normal for those in leadership roles. Its honesty is really refreshing from a book that (as we say) we thought was going to be jargon-heavy! Perhaps that says more about ourselves than anything else.

In ‘Brave Heads’, Dave Harris uses “Bravery is…” statements in small chapters to give you the confidence to be brave if you’re not and the encouragement to keep going if you already are. Some favourites were:

    - Bravery is giving teachers the space to encourage genius (No.9)
    - Bravery is not changing things, at least some of the time (No.14)
    - Bravery is having jobs, rooms and people that no one else does (No.16)
    - Bravery is making mistakes and then letting others know you made them (No.59)

There are 64 in all — this is just a sample.

The beauty of ‘Brave Heads’ is that it’s not just for those in leadership. It wouldn’t take much editing to title it ‘Brave Teaching’ and re-brand the book for classroom teachers. Take the above list. Here’s what we thought (as non-leaders) as we read it…

    - We’ve got to look for opportunities to encourage genius in our classroom.
    - Don’t change things just for the sake of it.
    - Teach in ways that no one else does.
    - Don’t worry about making mistakes — just make sure you admit them.

Thankfully, ‘Brave Heads’ isn’t packed with management-speak only for those who are in positions of leadership. Clearly, its target audience is Headteachers, Deputy Headteachers and so on, but we were intrigued to note its usefulness to a wider demographic too. This is solid advice for any teacher. And in our own small way, aren’t we all in positions of leadership?

‘Brave Heads’ encourages school leaders to stick to the things that are right and to let go of the things that aren’t necessary. See Dave Harris’ brilliant comments on moving away from that endemic disease “Wemustimpartforyoutolearn-itus” (isn’t “a propensity to talk too much in lessons” a symptom we’ve all suffered from? No? Just us, then!). It also challenges us to step outside of our comfort zone and think differently. Not for the sake of being gimmicky, but with “the whole pupil” in mind at all times. At NUSA, Harris employed an ‘Agent of Wonder’ (Matthew McFall) to run his own Wonder Room, encouraging natural curiosity and learning — not everything has to be taught with grades in mind (“Bravery is encouraging your staff to let go of the belief that their subject is the most important thing in a child’s life” is No.11!)

An admission:
As you may have gathered, we’re not massive fans of jargon. We’ve always been about getting pupils interested and being lively, creative and well-rounded in the classroom. That’s what matters to us. In fact, we were pleased to see that No.39 was titled “Bravery is admitting when you don’t know the meaning of a long word”!! However, special mention must be made of the author’s explanations of Key Performance Indicators. Truth be told, on any other occasion, those three words would have caused our eyes to glaze over and we’d have skipped to the next inspiring idea or anecdote. But Dave Harris does an excellent job of explaining the issues behind using things like league tables and revised exam structures to measure success. For anyone who knows that the issues are issues, but isn’t 100% sure why the issues are issues because sometimes the issues are written about as if we all know already why the issues are issues, this book is for you!

Written by another author, ‘Brave Heads’ would be a completely different book. Dave Harris’ honesty, wit and personal style shine through (in fact, we never thought we’d laugh out loud at a book aimed at Headteachers!). If you are in management, it should provide a refreshing change to the sorts of Headship advice manuals out there. It’s the fact this isn’t a manual that sets it apart. The author is very clear that different situations call for different leadership styles and that the ideas he has used to good effect shouldn’t just be replicated. Bravery is having the strength to do things your way because deep down you know your way is the right way (No.8!)

There’s a great quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson in the introduction: “A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer.” How fantastic is that? Bravery isn’t some golden quality for only the er… brave. As Dave Harris puts it:

Which is advice Jim Hacker could have done with.

If we had one criticism of the book, it would be that the title, cover etc. makes it look like a book for Headteachers. Don’t be fooled, though. Whilst it belongs on any self-respecting school leader’s bookshelf, if you’ve got aspirations of moving into management, need to understand that your Head faces the same doubts and fears as the rest of us or simply want to be encouraged to be a braver classroom teacher, ‘Brave Heads’ is well worth a read.

Think of the word ‘Heads’ in the title as being the bit that sits on top of your shoulders.

We all need a brave head, now and again, don’t we?

Find out more about Dave Harris
Are You Dropping The Baton? — also by Dave Harris
Nottingham University Samworth Academy
What is a Wonder Room anyway?!

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So, what do you think?

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