The search for James

I have told myself many lies as teacher and Vice Principal but none of them is as regular or benign as making a cup of tea during the school day, knowing full well it will never be consumed. I continue to boil the kettle regardless.

The dreaded crackling begins. ‘Hello on call’ I grab the walkie talkie like a surgeon being called into life-saving surgery. ‘Go ahead’ I say.’ James Burton* is missing from curriculum support. He has stormed out after kicking some bins and swearing at the LSA’s.’ The possibilities run through my head. Could he be kicking in a bin somewhere else in school? I mentally make a note of all bins around the school site. James has quite a knack for pranks. Could he be sitting in a bin? Ready to jump out and give one of us a heart attack as we approach him? Another possibility I make a mental note of. Could he be off site quite possibly causing a danger to others more than himself with his old ‘pull my finger joke’ and farts on demand? I visit Curriculum Support where he was last seen and the staff quickly point towards the direction in which he left. On passing his friend James Seager I enquire where he went and am told he headed towards the music rooms. Likely, I think to myself, he’s probably written a bloody musical about his escape and is going to perform it to the school as the bell goes at the end of the day. I pop my head into classrooms where I hear loud noises thinking he may be doing his usual monologue whilst standing on a chair but no luck there either. I look at my watch, nearly home time and over 14,000 steps covered. I think about entering the London Marathon again, there is no way I am not fitter now than when I last ran and was in sales, driving hundreds of miles in my car every day. The search for Wally continues.

Eventually I give up. Defeated, I decide to walk to reception and call his mum to say we can’t find him and ask her to come into school. Hopefully he will appear in time to be taken home. As I approach reception I thank James Seager for his help in finding his friend although I have been unable to locate him, at that point I hear his mum stomp in and scream at the top of her lungs ‘You’ve found my boy!’ I look at the ladies who notified me of a missing James Burton in the first place. It seems they got the wrong James. I make eye on contact with the other James, the one who I should have been searching for. We glare at each other. ‘Yes we did’ I say smiling at his mum. ‘Yes she did’ he repeats. I go to make another cup of tea. It seems we are all little liars in the end.  

2nd March 2020

Monday

All staff have been asked to complete a half hour online course on the use of the internet and email. Apparently, this is due to a virus that an ITT recently opened and was then sent to all staff in the Trust. I dutifully sit at my desk I am already a day over the deadline and this is no time for a philosophical debate about the madness of this all. Only, I can’t log in. I send the IT Director who has commissioned this unusual form of punishment upon us all, an email explaining I can’t log on to the course on the internal system. He asks if I am using my usual log in details. I reply I am and that I know they are correct as they are the same as the  ones used to log into my email, which he can see I am managing to use successfully. He explains to me that information such as this must be kept confidential to avoid hacking. I explain having not completed my training he can expect such mistakes from me in the future. I await a reply….

Tuesday

My husband snores into the early hours of the morning and after I weigh up the pros and cons of murdering him with my pillow I decide to just get out of bed and start the day by tackling my email. To be frank I feel like quite the superior being, having tackled my inbox before I even enter school at 7.15am. People are staring at me and I can only imagine that my organisation skills this morning are oozing such power that everyone can see the powerhouse I am. At 8am I enter the bathroom and am shocked by how much I have aged overnight! Grey hair appear at the top of my head and I rub at them to check if it really is my own reflection I am seeing. Some investigative minutes later I realise that I have not had a reverse Benajmin Button moment but in tiredness have sprayed my hair with deodorant rather than dry shampoo.

Wednesday

Question. What is the experience of someone who has tourrettes and a stutter? I too was stumped by this question when asked by a student at the end of lunch at the bottom of the humanities stairs.

Thursday

Aha! IT Director has got back to me suggesting I change my password for the system on which previously mentioned training is run. I am struggling to do this without being able to log in at which point he frustratingly exclaims that I should contact their help desk directly. He reminds me that the course must be completed by the end of the day or Armageddon will occur and all my emails could be deleted if I accidentally click on a virus. I reply to his email explaining that I can’t imagine anything more delightful followed by a screenshot showing that his own security systems have denied me access to the helpdesk he would like me to access.

It is World Book Day and I have no end of Wollies and Wanda’s roaming my corridors. Lady Macbeth walks towards me and her intentions are definitely sinister. She asks if she can miss a CPD session to attend a doctors appointment she could not book at any other time. I do the usual and remind her that dates for CPD are shared at the beginning of the year and she is expected to attend them but if she really can’t go at any other time then she should go and catch up with me later regarding the session. She smiles politely but I can feel her scowling at me through her eyes. I imagine she’ll offer me tea from a poisoned chalice in the near future.

Friday

Eyes down I look at a small hand with a choco crispie cake and then up at a spotty face smiling. Student X is offering me a chocolate rice crispie cake he made earlier in Food Tech. Usually I would wolf down such offerings but having spotted the state of Student Xs hands I’m certain that the coronavirus is not currently the biggest threat to our school. I find a tissue in my pocket, smile politely and wrap the cake putting it in my pocket reassuring the student that I will enjoy it with my cup of tea later. I cannot walk to a bin fast enough the ticking time bomb that is melting chocolate potentially seeping all over my coat.  

Radical Open Mindedness – Thank you Ray Dalio

I recently read Ray Dalio’s Principles. It’s a heavy book with real wisdom at its core. One of its core principles is the idea of radical open mindedness. About leadership actively surrounding themselves with people who disagree, question and pose alternatives. However it also states that the people who argue these points need to be equally intelligent, confident with the information they put forward and be informed.

I’ve spent a lot of my life in leadership meetings and wonder if this exists in education.

If you yourself want to test how open minded the leadership team in your school are try a hot potato question. Such as:

  • Why do we have homework?
  • Why do we have uniform?
  • What’s the point of detention?
  • Or something else the school holds dear.

And then watch whether a discussion ensues or one person shuts down the question.

Of course this is not the case if you have been discussing one of these questions quite recently and invested a lot of time into it and therefore the leadership team look at you like you have lost your marbles and got amnesia. But you get the gist. How much can your leadership team entertain alternative thoughts?

Research in education is relatively new in terms of teachers researching what does and doesn’t work in classrooms etc.. and we have a wealth of information coming our way as education continues to be an area with growing research. The best researchers tell you nothing is conclusive, particularly this early on. I had the pleasure of listening to David Didau at a ResearchEd conference and was amazed at how candidly he embraced this. Stating he had interviewed thousands of children (in this case he was questioning them about marking) finding the evidence was inconclusive, we have some threads we can pull at but we have to ensure we remain open minded, he suggested. This was music to my ears. Everything about the way we teach is up for question. What an exciting field to be in!

All the more reason to adopt radical open mindedness. We have never seen this landscape before. Trusts and their structures, OFSTEDs focus on curriculum, Data collection, life without levels, it’s all new and I challenge anyone to say they have it all figured out. Therefore we have to keep having the radical conversations, questioning our practices and being radically open minded especially when we hear something we don’t like.

The second reason I love this is because in my experience the biggest frustration for staff and leaders alike is that not everyone is singing off the same hymn sheet. Many schools have no end of policies and practices but consistency is where it goes tumbling down. I believe you can’t have consistency without debate. You want all your leadership staff and then teaching staff to push forward with an initiative? Debate it regularly, in front of them, so that they can buy into the rationale. Far too often however leadership teams try and cram in 5 agenda items into a 90 minute meeting and the room for debate goes out the window. People leave without buy in and to no ones surprise things go a bit pear shaped and are implemented inconsistently.

I speak from experience when I say this. Just a few months ago I questioned the value of homework. The conversation was very nearly shut down by the head stating that we didn’t have time to go off piste. Yet the issue we were dealing with was about why homework isn’t being set in line with a policy that all staff had agreed to and what should be next steps. So as far as I’m concerned this is exactly the time to have this debate. It in fact led to a great discussion which showcased how much we valued homework but the barriers to some students completing it and what we can do about that.

So how do you encourage radical open mindedness in your school? Be the debate maker, be the questioner, ask people to explain, generate buy in from all around the table, encourage the quiet members to speak up. Speak and encourage others to speak. Because we are all better off for it.

Difficult conversations

During my time in Education and as I’ve managed people I’ve had numerous difficult conversations. Having never been told how to handle these I’ve had to work my way through quite a few to know what the best approach is. I’ve had to tell teachers they smell and need to wash more thoroughly, that they need to be kinder to their colleagues, that they are not kidding anyone and the whole department knows their books aren’t marked, that kids have commented on their animosity towards them, the list goes on. My saving grace is I make a real effort to have positive conversations to counteract these!

So here is my advice. The way I see it difficult conversations can be categorised in three broad areas (If we do not cover unprofessional behaviour which should be covered by school policy with next steps depending on the seriousness of it). These are:

Not their fault bad news

This is where you have to deliver bad news and the member of staff has not done anything in particular. Redundancies is a classic example. Unfortunately in secondary education due to options coming in and out of fashion this can happen more often than you’d like. In this case you should really have had the conversation a while before to prepare the member of staff. If numbers seemed to be dwindling you should have spoken to the member of staff about retraining. If this is a no go then you have to tell it straight and as soon as possible to give that colleague a fighting chance of finding a job they love elsewhere. Again how redundancies are handled by the school will be in the HR policy so not all the steps below will be needed but can be used as a guide).

Bringing people up on how they behave to other members of staff

This is something that I have had to do surprisingly often. The majority of teachers I have met are fantastic team players, I believe you have to be to survive the pressures of teaching. Unfortunately, every now and again I come across a staff who is incredibly negative. What these people will cost you is priceless, it will be camaraderie, positivity in whichever dept they function in, positive attitudes in the classroom, so you have to bring them up on it straight away. I have only ever had two reactions to bringing people up on their negative attitude and that is crying or aggression. Either way you have to keep a straight face, state the facts and move on (sometimes hoping they will to).

Performance focused

There are some members of staff which suddenly find themselves in an education world that they did not enter. This can be incredibly hard and the best way to deal with this is by offering clear examples of how things can be changed with a caring support plan. They will need a lot of time and support and I have put several members of staff through these and am pleased to say only two have chosen to leave the profession and actually go on to things they feel more passionate about and are aligned with their skillset but most have found their way back and gone on to a wonderful career in teaching.

A guide to handling difficult conversations

1) Get clear -Before you have the conversation about get clear about three things.

a) About the actual problem and make sure you have evidence

b) What a good outcome looks like for the school and your colleague. You have to know what you are working with and working towards.

c) What support can you/or someone else provide

2) Be honest – once you have evidence and are clear about the above be honest with them about what it is you are trying to address. By being honest you are doing them the greatest service. Dishonesty or flowering things up will most likely mean you don’t get the outcome or acknowledgment of the problem you need to move things forward and most times you are doing it so you don’t feel bad as opposed to doing what the person needs.

3) Sit in it with them but don’t try to soften the situation – this is hard. At this point the person you are addressing will either try to justify their behaviour or just get very emotional. You must sit through it with them. Sometimes this can reveal their journey in getting to this point and help you understand why you are both sitting where you are. This is good. I had a colleague who was addressing poor performance with a colleague but had assumed she had been teaching for several years because she was a mature teacher. She had however been an LSA for many years and he’d never known! This encouraged him to provide more layers of support because she was earlier on in her career than he’d known. If the person is getting very upset and defensive keep coming back to what it is the students/staff in your school need and how their behaviour is not meeting that need. You are all in it for the students and to improve the life chances of every child in your care.

4) Ask them how they see things improving. On some occasions you may have to be prescriptive about next steps however if possible get them to come up with them so they are invested in the change

5) Set corrective course and tell them how and when you will check in with them to monitor their progress.

6) Document your conversation. This is incredibly important both for yourself and for them so you can measure progress from the time you have had the conversation.

Unprofessional behaviour

Schools should have policies on how to address this but again this must be documented and evidence recorded. Follow the school policy as the extent of the unprofessional behaviour will determine next steps.

I hope this helps!

Fail Fast, Learn Fast in 2020

I once heard someone say ‘You can have 5 years of experience in 5 years or 1 year of experience in 5 years it’s up to you,’ and that just stuck with me and got under my skin.

I was just starting out in teaching, shifting from a different career and I thought about my previous career and really asked myself how many years I had wasted doing the same thing over and over or going through the motions. I would guess at least 40% of my actions were a repeat, rehashing the same things and not trying new things with risk. At the same time I was beginning my career in teaching and realised that Leadership teams in any school I worked for were desperate for enthusiastic teachers to have ideas and run with them on the condition that they would be self-evaluative, critical and share their thoughts. So I had a prime opportunity not to repeat my past.

How we should educate has always been an area for debate even amongst non professionals, take some of our political leaders for example who have never set foot in a classroom but claim to know what is best. However, we are seeing a flurry of new material and research in the field. The only way to know what is and isn’t worth pursuing is to discuss it in education spheres and then try it.

This has been a thoroughly enjoyable blog to write. Casting my mind back to things that I have tried but have not worked has made me laugh, cringe and eventually feel proud at the things I have tried and tested. Here are some examples of things I have tried and may have failed depending on what we are looking at for an outcome:

NQT year, I took the hardest to reach group of girls in Year 9 with no aspirations other than to marry drug dealers (their words not mine) and did 11 1 hour sessions with them on careers. To be honest this was a pretty easy sell to the principal who just desperately wanted someone to keep an eye on them and wanted them out the corridors so he literally said ‘How much?’ I’d seen an online package for £250 and we went through it. The package failed, was clunky, boring and is no longer in circulation but I had some great conversations with the girls about their dreams. I showed them online listings of the average earnings of numerous jobs and they hadn’t heard of 98% of them. So we would discuss what different jobs did. We calculated the costs of wanting to live the lives they dreamed of. Did it change their GCSE grades, nope. Did it teach them better maths or English or science. Nope. Did it make them feel like someone at school was listening to them and invested in their future. I think so, yes. Failure or success? You decide.

Do you remember the craze with ipads in classrooms? I heard about schools giving ipads to every student in Year 7 to enhance learning. My Principal at the time was considering it. I started an initiative to train a small group of teachers to try incorporating technology into the classroom more regularly. It was a mess. To be honest in my heart of hearts I thoughts I pads could add some value but I’ve always believed in traditional teaching methods and direct instruction over snazzy apps. Failure? Absolutely and thank god for it. I’m so glad that fad is over.

On to my next IT failure…..I love screencasting (basically filming your screen whilst you talk  over it and have used it to give feedback to students on their essays.) I tried to get my dept to take it on and soon realised not everyone feels that way. To be honest it only worked with my A level classes and even then only one class. I don’t know why I got so attached to it, perhaps because the idea was more effective in my head than in real life. Luckily, my dept staff telling me to stick that laptop where the sun don’t shine soon brought me back to my senses.

My first Inset to organise for the Trust. Imagine over 400 teachers. I can honestly say this is more daunting then standing in front of 400 students. Teachers are a hard bunch to please. I booked a speaker who is really popular online. Really popular. I’m not going to tell you who but you will have heard of him. I also booked another in the morning who was not even on twitter but who’s work I read and thought was brilliant. Due to the second in my mind being an unknown entity I vetted him on the phone a lot more. The blog guru I didn’t. On inset day, my unknown speaker was an absolute triumph and the well known blogger killed us with boredom. Now I vet them all equally and politely cancel anyone I don’t get a good sense from. It’s not worth the humiliation, trust me.

My very first observation as a department head was a complete failure. I was desperate to show I was a good dept head. It was the first post I had in that position. I was struggling with a few of my classes but didn’t want to show it. My first observation was with THAT class. It was terrible. When I say terrible I mean my students actually heckled the observer. I could feel beads of sweat down my back. My cheeks were so red with embarrassment I felt like I’d been slapped. In fact that seemed like a better outcome than the observation outcome I was about to get. Long story short. It was awful. I cried all the way through the feedback. I’m talking snot bubbles cried. The amazing AP helped me with the 3 students who made it impossible for others to learn in the classroom. She supported me with the parents. I have never taken behaviour like that in the classroom since. And I have never been able to thank her enough for showing me what kind leadership looks like. Failure? On the day yes. In hindsight no. And it didn’t kill me in fact the same AP encouraged me to apply for a leadership post when it came up and I got it.

I’m sure I have introduced lots of stupid ideas in my time of leading teaching and learning and made more fumbles then I care to remember. But the great thing is whilst writing this there are many I don’t remember. Maybe that is why I don’t mind failing fast. Maybe I’m going senile. Or maybe, just maybe they weren’t that big of a deal in the first place although they felt that way in the moment. I think we spend too much time promoting our successes and are too nervous talking about things that don’t work. There is real gold in that too. So my hope for you in 2020 is that you work through lots of things that aren’t working so you can double down on the stuff that does. Be brave.

Stop waiting for your hero

This may sound like a strange blog to begin with but I think it sets the tone for what is about to come. This blog is about what you can do to take control of your own leadership journey. It is not about pointing fingers at who has and has not helped you along the way. So if you need to leave something behind in 2019 make it the search for your hero or educational saviour, the person with the golden key, the answers and a personality that sets the room on fire. We have a tendency to really lap them up in education, the next big thing, but we all know they go as fast as they come.

I’m going to be honest I’m a sucker for a hero, I watch all the marvel movies, I love the underdog, I love the triumph of good over bad, I love wise people taking others under their wing and I have been looking for my hero for a long time. Someone to take me under their wing and show me how this god damn education thing works, The Mr Miyagi to my Daniel Son (Please reassess your life if you do not know what movie this references ;))

I have looked everywhere, Conferences, Unconferences, work, obviously, Twitter, Facebook and my hero is nowhere to be found. Before you roll your eyes no I am not about to tell you that you are your own hero and turn this into some blog that will lead you to your spiritual awakening. But what I can tell you is every time I have settled upon a role model/hero/mentor whatever you want to call them they have disappointed me not because of who they are but because of who I need them to be. I need them to be a superhuman figure who has all of the answers. What I really need to get my head around is that if they are human they are figuring it out just like me. I said this to my husband earlier this year when I exclaimed, I don’t know if I can’t find a mentor because I don’t like people or because I’m a pain to manage and there is probably a grain of truth in both of those statements. But each time I have been disappointed in a role model or mentor it is because they have acted in accordance with themselves rather than me. I have resented them for acting in a way that is not in line with my values. But they are just that, my values. So I need to stop expecting other people to live up to them.

In the end I have come to the conclusion that you are better off surrounding yourself with lots of  people that you admire for lots of different reasons, their reasoning skills, business acumen, empathy, ability to get people to carry out instructions, but good luck with finding or being someone with all of them. The first time this really struck home was when I was meeting teams doing lesson study. I was going round meeting lesson study groups and discussing what they would be focussing on and asked some challenging questions. This may have caused some groups to rethink what they were doing. When I got back to the office a member of staff popped in to tell me that I had upset a lot of people. At first this really upset me. As that was not my intention at all. But then I can honestly say after thinking about it I had to let that go. Because those questions needed to be asked, and things to be straightened out. I may not have done what staff wanted me to, such as agree with them after a long day, but I did what was right. In the same way I hope my previous heroes don’t give a hoot what I think either. I hope they keep strutting their stuff and are their own heroes rather than pandering to my needs.