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Leadership Story: Russ Dwyer

Nia Miles, Head of Insight at the National Academy for Educational Leadership, interviewed Russ Dwyer, Headteacher at St Thomas Community Primary School about his leadership journey. Find out his leadership story below.

Who or what inspired you to be an educational leader in Wales?

I think it is fair to say that several people have inspired me throughout my journey to educational leadership. My parents and their strong work ethic instilled a lifelong principle of commitment and a desire to always give my best. My A Level History teacher in school played a pivotal role in my own education; he was an excellent teacher and leader, and I always thought if I entered teaching, I would want to be like him. Finally, I learnt a great deal from the previous Headteacher of St Thomas. It was he who gave me the self-belief that I could be a leader and many of the elements that are important to me now, such as trust, relationships, inclusion and parental engagement, were cultivated during his stewardship.

What do you actively do to inspire and support the next generation of leaders in your setting?

It’s important to develop aspiration within an organisation and ensure that staff who show an interest in leadership are given the opportunity to lead. You need to fuel their interest with a range of engaging and appropriate professional learning opportunities, and you need to give them the autonomy to explore roles and develop skills. Potential leaders should be encouraged to be innovative, but to recognise that innovation carries risk and that this can mean things won’t always go to plan. It is also important to encourage reflection, collaboration and professional enquiry to encourage growth. Recently, we have introduced seconded roles to our Senior Leadership and Management Team, so that interested staff can have first-hand experience of a leadership role.

As a leader, how do you model prioritising your own well-being as an example to staff?

This is something that I have had to work at. In my first year of headship, I didn’t strike the right balance and ended up on the floor, quite literally! That was a wake-up call. I was trying to be everything to everyone, but really I was burning myself out and ultimately not setting a good example. Since then, I have been much more mindful of my own health and well-being, while still ensuring staff know that I care about theirs. I think compassionate leadership is key to creating a healthy work environment. Trust is integral to any organisation, and in ours it facilitates open and honest conversations. Staff know I value their well-being greatly and they reciprocate that care to each other. Things such as family and health are prioritised and in school, we have a mantra…if something isn’t ‘manageable’ and ‘purposeful’ then we should always question why we are doing it.

What book/professional learning opportunity/piece of research have you recently utilised to inform your leadership practice?

A lot of the research I have engaged in of late has been linked to our commission with the National Academy for Educational Leadership, to consider the well-being of educational leaders. In fact, this has inspired me to finally sign up for a doctorate in education, potentially focussing on this aspect. With regards to professional learning, we have been focusing on genuine inclusion in school and in doing so I have aimed to explore training that is delivered by people directly affected by the discrimination they discuss. The DARPL (Diversity and Anti-Racist Professional Learning) conference was an excellent example of this but training from neurodiverse individuals has also been inspiring. Finally, the last education book I explored was Steve Munby, ‘Imperfect Leadership’. I think the message in this book is key – as leaders we often seek perfection and see imperfection as a weakness. We need to recognise that acknowledging imperfection makes us stronger and more respected leaders.

What has been a career highlight for you during your time as an educational leader in Wales?

There have been a few highlights in my career thus far. Having the opportunity to visit Canada with University of Wales Trinity Saint David, to explore their education system was a real highlight and impacted on my leadership upon my return. I think taking a risk and engaging in research with King’s College, whereby we moved our reception classes to the Waterfront Museum in Swansea, was also a highlight, and this has continued to have a lasting impact on our curriculum. Finally, the opportunity to be an Associate with the National Academy for4 Educational Leadership and to access excellent professional learning opportunities, alongside the opportunity to network with education leaders from across Wales, has provided me with a fresh impetus to challenge myself and develop further as a leader.

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