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A Severe Case of the Dunning-Krugers

It didn’t take long for that feeling of not understanding what was being discussed to sink in. I was attending my first SLT (Senior Leadership Team) morning “huddle” meeting via zoom from my hotel room as part of the mandatory quarantine on arrival in Malaysia. The fifteen minute daily drop in session for SLT to clear tactical items was in full flow and the main topic of the day was ensuring all the last minute details were in place for the return to physical school after being remote since February. The pace was impressive and I was instantly drawn to the quality of leaders I was now working with. As the acronyms, names of people, names of areas of the school flew by I frantically scribbled notes trying to sense make of the reality of being back on site for them. Fifteen minutes later the meeting was done, my colleagues were off and into their day, ready to move forwards with the agreed steps and I was back in the silence of the hotel room looking at a page of frantically scribbled notes and wondering what to now do with them.

As an international teacher of sixteen years and four different continents I thought I had a good grasp of the challenges and opportunities faced when moving between international schools. I have held senior leadership roles for the past five years and was confident in my ability to learn in this new role and make an impact. However, this was my first move into a new school as a senior leader, having been promoted internally in my previous two, and certainly my first move during a worldwide pandemic! Now settled into post I am now able to look back on the process, my reflections and perhaps have a better understanding of the leadership journey I am on. Without doubt my biggest takeaway is:

Do not underestimate the impact your understanding of your current role and school has on your leadership

New in post I quickly realised I was suffering from a serious case of the “Dunning-Krugers.” The cognitive bias idea that suggests “experts” (of which I am not to be clear) underestimate their own ability and massively overestimate the ability of beginners. You will carry an incredible amount of domain specific knowledge about your current context and school. This knowledge that has been crafted over the years, whether consciously or unconsciously, will have significantly underpinned your previous decision making. Baker and Rees discuss this in more detail where they say “what are often described as generic leadership skills, are in fact underpinned by a great deal of knowledge”. I quickly found that I massively undervalued how often I used this in my leadership and then without having it for my new setting I was left thinking “so now what?”

The cognitive bias idea that suggests 'experts' (of which I am not to be clear) underestimate their own ability and massively overestimate the ability of beginners.
The cognitive bias idea that suggests ‘experts’ (of which I am not to be clear) underestimate their own ability and massively overestimate the ability of beginners.

Procedures may differ but your core values as leader do not.

I can’t recall the number of times I answered a question with “Sorry, I am not sure about here, but I think…..” and then an answer underpinned by my leadership values, followed with “Let me check exactly what happens here and get back to you.” The feeling of satisfaction of later getting an answer that supported this was a welcome boost. This approach works well until you’re faced with a situation that needs an immediate response. Obviously, experience of these types of situations really helps when the outcome requires a specific correct response (around safeguarding legislation for example) but what about when the question requires a quick action and you can’t? 

I can't recall the number of times I answered a question with "Sorry, I am not sure about here, but I think….." and then an answer underpinned by my leadership values, followed with "Let me check exactly what happens here and get back to you."
I can’t recall the number of times I answered a question with “Sorry, I am not sure about here, but I think…..” and then an answer underpinned by my leadership values, followed with “Let me check exactly what happens here and get back to you.”

Trust in the steps you take when looking for a school and their recruitment process as a leader.

I took solace from my rigorous appointment process, the leaders I work with and that I had my leaders’ support. I was drawn to my school largely as a result of their emphasis on their core values and asked myself throughout the application process did these resonate with me, are they similar to my own, do they inspire me. I trust that the school did the same when recruiting me. The more I develop as a leader the more important this has become for me. I now feel I have to teach in a culture where the school is underpinned by its values and as a leader I have to be able to stand behind these.

I now feel I have to teach in a culture where the school is underpinned by its values and as a leader I have to be able to stand behind these.
I now feel I have to teach in a culture where the school is underpinned by its values and as a leader I have to be able to stand behind these.

Therefore, I came to be comfortable in trusting that, although the actual policy might not be something I know yet, my immediate actions would be underpinned by values that both the school and I share and therefore any outcome would reflect these. This has really reinforced in me the need to ensure your values match those of your school, they might be all you have to underpin a quick decision when new in post!

I work with an incredibly brilliant leadership team and staff body. They did all they could to support my transition into post and have been nothing but supportive. As they keep saying “it’s okay, it takes time”. Good luck in the move, be reflective challenge yourself but be kind to yourself. 

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Matt Bennett
Matt Bennett is currently the Secondary Deputy Head Teacher at Garden International School in Malaysia.

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