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Bringing about change in the way education is provided for needs clearly defined leadership virtues. A profit motive alone won't help. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

The private education sector is an important part of the UAE’s success story, and a key factor in attracting - and retaining - talented people and their families. Dubai has become a hub for transnational education, setting the standards for schools, teachers and principals, and serving a diverse and community effectively.

As the world goes through dramatic changes and children’s views with them, so must education – starting with educational leadership.

Today, leaders in education face not only the immediate disruption of COVID-19 and its aftermath, but also the ongoing challenges of a rapidly transforming educational environment. It is undergoing deeper changes reflecting broader transformations – social, economic, cultural, and technological.

According to the Word Economic Forum, education models must adapt to equip children with the skills to create a more inclusive, cohesive and productive world. All educators – especially frontline teachers – have a powerful influence in guiding the learning and development of children and young adults in the community. So, educational leadership is critically important to society.

It is one of the few leadership roles where people can make a really significant, direct and enduring difference to the lives of young people. At times of crisis, the distinction between leadership and management becomes apparent. Although in the unique setting of a school, with a committed staff sharing a collective vocational drive, teachers are already leading at some level, often by necessity.

But the role of overall institutional leadership remains vital – head teacher, principal, or CEO.

More than imparting learning

The role of educational leaders is to build capacity and positive teams of educators, while sharing leadership and nurturing the development of teams and individuals. They have to face the challenges of globalising education and the realities of financial pressures, resource constraints, and rising expectations of stakeholders – from regulators to owners and parents.

While no mean feat in itself, this is complicated by the need to balance these instrumental pressures with the core values of education, and do so with competency, sensitivity and compassion.

This means matching an understanding of educational leadership theory with its practical application as well as a rich critical knowledge of the field. Leaders and educators need to base their leadership style on mutual respect and dignity, within these complex, evolving organisations. Aspiring leaders need to look at educational models, policy and research, change and social development, and educational leadership as a social practice.

With privilege comes responsibility

Research finds international education to be a context of increasing privilege with precarity, and risk with reward. As globalisation changes the way people interact, connect and work, it is also important to consider how this affects the development of people, students and children. More than ever, leading education brings with it a wide range of challenges... but also opportunities.

As internationalism grows in popularity as a medium for schooling, the demand for leaders who are intellectually capable, culturally competent, and critically powerful is acute.

Under prepared

Of course, many teachers harbour the ambition to move into leadership roles. Some will find that their teaching roles are growing and they are already assuming some management responsibilities and leadership roles. However, they often find themselves without the training and mental development to flourish and withstand the pressures of these privileged positions with their high degree of accountability and responsibility.

Leaders should have the intellectual capacity that understands the clear difference between leadership and management. The critical point about educational leadership is the capacity for reflection by the leader on the overall role and objectives, and to develop the big picture that provides the clarity of vision to share with – and inspire - others.

Creating a learning environment is an intellectual process in which reflection plays a vital role and enables the leader to engage with the worldview of children. This is changing in response to the global issues we face such as climate change. These issues are influencing children powerfully, and the school and educational environment must also develop to engage meaningfully with the children and prepare them.

Education is a powerful social driver of change, and education leaders are central to this process. Those educators aspiring to leadership positions and those already holding them need to enhance their understanding of the role. This applies to a teacher or an educator who is engaged in day-to-day teaching, but can also have that strategic overview and bigger picture, alongside department heads and vice-principals.

Teachers in international schools can quickly find themselves operating in high-level roles, and in what is often a more challenging educational context than at home. It’s important for all educational leaders and those aspiring to remember that such leadership is ultimately a social practice and should be based on a collegial approach that creates many benefits - including fulfilled teaching staff who make a happy school and want to stay.

- Dr. Alexander Gardner-Mctaggart is programme director and lecturer in educational leadership at The University of Manchester.