Transition – We do what we can do and we keep doing that

Transition is on everyone’s mind as we creep towards the end of the academic year without knowing what it will look like. Whether this be for those starting Primary school, Secondary or indeed A Level. Below I’ve focused on transition from Year 6 into Year 7.

Many of the decision around transition, I believe, just can’t be made just yet (you’ll see what I mean towards the end of this blog), until we have more clarity around what return to school will look like. However I think using the blog from Ben Brown @EdRoundtables to make sure that the key areas he describes are at the forefront of your mind is beneficial. I’ve certainly used it to organize my thoughts below.

The ideas below are just decisions we as a Secondary school have decided to make. I don’t believe there are right or wrong answers to the questions transition in these times poses, so please take from it what you please and ignore the rest.

The need to ensure that our children feel comfortable in their new environment is so important to ensure they have a happy start to their educational journey with us. Below are just a few things we have done to ensure this happens despite the current circumstances, but this is an ever evolving process and I’m blown away with the attitude of our transition managers who are being incredibly creative in solving this problem.

Communication with new students and parents at home

Welcome evening – we have taken this online using Teams, recording the Head, Head of Year 7, transition manager and other key personnel such as SENCO and PP lead to talk about the provision and support available and how excited we are about having them at our school.

Mini tour of our site – when we had our Open day some of our buildings were under construction and are just being finished off as we speak. Thanks to the lovely site managers we managed to do a video tour of these new buildings which were recorded on an Iphone and edited using iMovie so students could get a feel for the site as it has changed somewhat. We’ve also used this opportunity to reinforce our values mentioning them throughout the video.

In addition to the above we have also considered, depending on government guidelines, offering tours to students with Special Education Needs who really struggle with change. This would be on a 121 basis but we’re conscious that they have extra challenges when it comes to changing school.

Weekly emails and tutor videos – Our Year 7 tutors have been great about recording at home a short video to talk about why they love being at the school and how they can’t wait to meet their tutees. A different tutor video is released every week to parents so they get to know staff.

Transition booklet – the above is accompanied with a transition booklet which gives our future students quizzes and questions for which they must collect answers from the videos to complete the booklet. For instance, what book does Mr Harrison like to read every year? etc.. This ensures students and parents watch the videos and engage. We have also left spaces in the booklet for students to include information about themselves that their tutors can read when they arrive.

Using social media – Weekly questions such as Word of the Week and Maths brainteasers are put out on our twitter account to engage students. It’s been nice to see that some parents of our future year 7s have started a twitter account to take part with their child!

Forms – such as registration and friendship forms have been taken online in order to collect key data and put into our school systems. There is every chance we will need to print and get the parents to check this when schools return to whatever our new ‘normal’ will look like.

Communication with schools

Groupings – Our primaries have been wonderful in relaying information and have helped us decide tutor groupings and highlighted to us any areas of concern or additional need.  Year 6 teachers have been incredible in being available on zoom to discuss transition and also preparation for secondary school.

Key knowledge and skills gaps. Currently plans for testing are not being looked at. The focus has been on material that our Year 6 teachers think is critical and what the plan of action will be if they cannot deliver it. This has probably been the most challenging aspect of transition and a challenge I think that can only be dealt with by establishing good relationships with the primaries. Obviously, this will be easier if your Year 7 cohort comes from a smaller group of primaries than larger however, I think the insight from whichever primaries you can work with will be invaluable.

  • What do they wish they had time to cover with the kids which they might not get to now?
  • Why is it important?
  • What difference does it make to the kids?

I will illustrate this with an example: In the preparation for the SATS Year 6 students do a lot of work on literacy, for example Inference. We know in secondary school Inference is important in history when looking at evidence and English, not to mention many other subjects. So, we need to build in time in secondary to cover this to make sure our students can access the secondary curriculum.

Uniform

At the moment the line is you can order online and exchange if the fit isn’t right when the students start. At SLT we have discussed the need to relax expectations/sanctions around uniform. This is not ideal especially as we want the students to have clarity around expectations but I don’t think this is a decision we will make till the end.

The start of the year

The calendar has been a nightmare! Do we plan the usual one day for Year 7s to be in as the only year group? Can we afford to have the Year 10s out any longer and should they be in from day 1? Again, another decision we will leave for as long as possible or until we have more clarity about schools returning.

I hope the above is useful. I hope it makes you realise none of us have all the answers. I hope it makes you feel part of a community of professionals who are trying their best for our children.

Work Life Balance, Thinking Time and Lessons Learnt from Lockdown

As I sit here waiting for Boris Johnsons announcement on Sunday night I take a moment to reflect on what Lockdown has taught me. I mean it may all be over tomorrow, unlikely but the possibility is there that the PM will spring it on us that we are all due to go back into schools and well, just cope. This isn’t a blog about the announcement, its merits and drawback. This is a blog about what lockdown has taught me as a senior leader.

I’ve noticed that as I’ve worked my way up to VP my life is always divided into three and very rarely do they get an equal share. The three parts are:

Teaching and learning – whether that be me teaching, observing other teachers, having discussions about curriculum or organising and delivering CPD.

Business, behaviour and admin – The school calendar, on call, phone calls, meetings about business issues or logistics

Personal development and Family – My own development and time with family and friends

I’m not proud of it but the last one probably gets the least attention when I’m half way through a term and I think many people will agree.

But this time in lockdown has taught me so many things. I can certainly say it hasn’t been a period of slowing down but certainly given me many more periods of reflection.

These are things I have learnt and hope to take forward when we do return to ‘normal’ whatever that may look like.

Work

I produce better work when I have had time to mull it over. Therefore, I must build time to throw ideas around in my head. During lockdown this has been somewhat easier as I am not being dragged to the next ‘emergency’ which often finds itself not being an ‘emergency.’ I’ve actually blocked out time before a meeting to think about how I feel about the area for discussion or built in time to do something else before I write a paper. And the end result of all of this? I am producing better work. How do I apply this when I get back? A quick walk around the site? Moving myself to an empty classroom to work things out in my head? Locking myself in the loos? I don’t know, but I know I have to build it in.

I love people. I didn’t know I was a hugger until this point but I miss a hug. I love people, they fascinate me, my staff my students. I hate to admit it but I have probably had more face to face time with people than I would at school. I have had in depth, hilarious and fascinating conversations with all of my middle leaders, some of them one and a half hours long as we discuss our dreams for education and the school. When this is over I have vowed to spend more time in the staff room or in departments because that’s where the beating heart of our school is. This may sound obvious but ask anyone one in SLT and they’ll tell you this doesn’t always happen.

I have to get braver at pushing back on deadlines. I have had to do this a lot more as on some days I can have Zoom meetings back to back therefore expecting me to produce something in between them is impossible therefore, I have to block out time for writing and be proactive in deciding when work will be completed and sent. Many of the times I’ve found deadlines can be moved. If you produce good work people will be amenable to waiting 24 hours for it. This became really clear as I was reading Brendan Burchards’ High Performance Habits. In it he encourages people to control their time by really testing if deadlines are deadline.

I need to block my time out first. As people have been booking in meetings online a lot more I have started blocking out things I want to do in my diary on a Sunday. It might be a walk, thinking time or just time to read an article. This means when someone tries to schedule time with me they can see I’m busy and can work around those times. I even block out time for a cup of tea in the garden right now to get away from the screen. In the future this might be blocks of time for a chat with a colleague to get a different perspective or a walk around site.

Home/Personal

I’m a nicer person when I’m not reactive! My husband’s noticed it, my niece has noticed it. When I’m setting my week up and not just producing to meet other people’s deadlines and have built in some down time, I’m a better person! No surprises there. But it’s made me think more about transition times when I change from one activity to another. When I drive home do I take that time to wind down or make work calls? The former would be better. When I go into a meeting do I carry the thoughts and stress of the previous activity or take a few minutes to think positively about the meeting I’m going into? This might sound a bit woo woo but I think entering situations with a fresher mind can only be a good thing right?

I can use the phone well. I hate using the phone. I don’t have long conversations with friends and I’d rather just meet face to face. But the lockdown has forced me to use the phone well. Face time quizzes and chats have become the new norm and are great. I’m going to prefer face to face chats when I can have them but face time won’t be such a bad alternative if not.

Obligations. I’ve spoken to a lot of people and they have highlighted this one. How much of the stuff do we do out of obligation and because we don’t want to say no. Whether it’s fear of missing out or looking like a bad person it’s easy for things to creep into our diary due to this. Be on guard. I’ve certainly listed a few things I’m going to be doing less of.

I think the single most important thing has been thinking space. This period has given me thinking space and I’ve learnt that at work that can’t happen by accident, it has to be built into my week. It may be at the end of each day but I have to give myself some time to be, feel what I’m feeling and process.

So there you have it a few ponderings about work and life and lessons learnt from lockdown. Will I be able to stick with them all when life returns back to it’s chaotic madness in school? Of course not, but at least I’ll know its possible and there is a better way of working and living. So maybe I’ll try a little harder to have a work life balance.

What does success look like for a teacher who wants to remain in the classroom?

In our profession what does success for a teacher look like? I’m talking about career progression. I’ve been thinking about this ever since I joined leadership to be honest. To be really honest I’ve been thinking about it every time I’ve had a bad day in leadership. Every time I have felt too removed from the classroom and too overwhelmed by the constant barrage of problems those in SLT face.

During my PGCE year we were asked this question and the 7 of us round the table with our seminar leader agreed that short term success was being an excellent practitioner and long term success was headship. 8 years on and 3 have left the profession, 1 has become a middle leader, 1 has tried to avoid leadership altogether, one has moved abroad to teach in an international school and 2 of us are in leadership and our ideas of professional success have changed dramatically.

For many years professional success has meant teachers develop through the following stages (they may skip one or two levels depending on the size of the school):

This very rigid structure doesn’t leave much room for the professional who wants to remain in the classroom and doesn’t want to join SLT or become a manager. It assumes that all teachers will eventually be managers. Experience has taught me that is not the case. Either because teachers don’t want to go into management and occasionally because the best teachers don’t always make great managers. On occasion I have seen how trying to develop teachers into managers make them nothing short of miserable.  

As we see growth in the number of Academy Trusts we are seeing more positions develop for those who want to remain steeped in their subject, for instance becoming Directors. However this is often the case for core subject areas such as English and Maths. Some choose to specialise in a particular skill such as data but again positions are limited and require the member of staff to upskill in a completely different area than teaching which is where many of the most passionate teachers want to remain.

So how do we offer them a sense of development? Particularly for those teachers who want to be exceptional in the classroom and do not want additional responsibility that takes them away from the reason they joined the profession in the first place? How do we reward and create a sense of achievement and progression for our most valuable members of staff without taking them out of the classroom?

Of course I posed this questions to the great teaching community on Twitter and was amazed by the discussion it prompted. I heard of great examples of schools getting creative, listening to teacher passions and looking at how these can be developed. Some are offering Lead practitioner status, development in Lego therapy, teaching those with autism or dyspraxia and getting involved in teacher development. However, there was overwhelming feedback that this is something that needs to be looked at or explored further in schools, as the traditional route highlighted above still seems to be the norm and the expectation in many schools.

I wonder whether we should be moving towards a system like that of the universities where subject specialists are employed as Readers, senior teachers etc.. shown below. I know this is somewhat reflected in where they are on the pay scale however do we recognise it in their title?

An exploration of alternative jobs would need exploration of really clear expectations. For instance what would the expectations of a Reader in History look like? How much research would they be expected to engage in? Would they be expected to network beyond the school/trust. Would they be asked to research within the school/trust into teaching methods for that subject? Would the school expect them publish either on a school/trust blog or in publications such as Impact? How much time will they be allowed to do this?

And therein lies the rub. If we want to create more opportunities for teachers to develop in the classroom we have to be clear about what the expectations are of them and be willing to give them time to complete them. Time means money and schools are already struggling in many cases to manage budgets that are tight. I have no doubt that a role such as the above would add value to a school, bring a sense of pride to a department and the teacher carrying it out. Recognise a professional who loves being in the classroom. They could then upskill others with their findings. But it requires schools to get creative with their budgets.

I do believe it can be done. Many a time I have joined a school where staff have fallen into their TLR role as requested by a member of leadership many years ago but have now lost their way with no clear targets or sense of direction. I think they could be reinvigorated with clear research roles or areas of development to help the most vulnerable. In order for this to work and for us to ensure that teachers who want to remain in the classroom feel a sense of achievement, we must collaborate with them to create a new journey through their profession that doesn’t always lead to Senior Leadership. Exactly how we do this will depend on finance, timetabling and the conversations with the individual teachers. But if we want to champion our most valuable assets I think it must be explored.

Teaching and Learning in schools when lockdown is over

As someone who oversees Teaching and Learning at work, I have been thinking a lot about what to do once kids return back to school. I can’t wait to have them back and miss my pupils dearly, but also know that school closure during this time of year will pose a series of challenges. I know it’s difficult to predict when the lockdown will end but rumours of schools opening up again are popping up in the media and it’s something that requires thought.

Next week I will be holding a Microsoft Teams meeting with my wonderful Middle Leaders (again, who I miss very much!) about how we get ready for those challenges.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I may suggest, I’ve read blogs, asked the wonderful folks on twitter and looked for inspiration. The realisation I have come to is although the situation is unique we don’t actually need to do anything new. I’m a big advocate for embedding things well rather than jumping from one strategy to the other so here’s the advice I’ll be providing my Middle Leaders next week

Challenges per year groups:

We need to accept to that the challenges per year group will vary. For example, depending on when we reopen, Year 6s orthe new Year 7s for Secondary schools will not have been prepped for their SATs. This final push often makes students more confident with reading comprehension and Maths. As a secondary Vice Principal I will be reaching out to the Primary schools in our area to see what we can do to make this transition smoother as it will impact subjects such as Maths and English but also History where we ask students to make inferences and arguments.

For year 10 the challenge will be covering the content in time for the GCSE. The kindest thing the exam boards could do is allow students to pick option questions in the final exam paper, so if they have not covered a topic at the end of year 10 because of the closure they can focus on the others, but I’ve not heard any whispers of this happening therefore we may just need to plough through the content as quick as possible.

Teachers need to ensure they are familiar with these nuances and the challenges to each year group so that where possible they can address these issues. On that note, we need to recognise that all students will be out of school routines, so this will be a big push for us when we get back.

Its’ not all bad

I’m also not a big one for doom and gloom. Yes we will face challenges and yes the chances are that those from the most deprived homes will have a very different experience from others. However, we have to recognise that it will be a mixed picture. Yes kids will have been out of a routine and engaged to different levels with home learning materials but they are also likely to be rested, have possibly watched a documentary on TV that can be explored, read beyond the syllabus, gone for walks and we have to make the most of that and explore it. Many of our children will be excited about learning with staff again and crave routine and structure (even if they don’t admit it) so a return to school will be exciting for them. Again we have to make the most of that.

Lots of low stakes testing

Kids will be nervous, we know they have an acute understanding of how they are performing compared to their peers and what I don’t want is for the kids to come back to a barrage of tests. We know a child who has had limited access to home learning will be nervous returning to the classroom. I have asked my teachers to be mindful of language when completing low stakes testing. For example, rather than saying ‘let’s see what you’ve learnt’, saying ‘seeing as we haven’t done as much online learning before let’s see what the resources taught you and then we can fill in the gaps’ or ‘lets see what you thought of the resources and what I need to add to them to make things stick by doing a quick question round.’ This takes the pressure off and opens the classroom up for exploring where the gaps in knowledge have occurred.

If you’re anything like me I can get into a rut where I like certain activities and do them repeatedly. In the Middle Leaders session next week me and the HODs will be exploring different ways of completing low stakes testing such as Do it now tasks, Connect 3 (where students have to get across a noughts and crosses style grid by answering three Qs with varying levels of difficulty), Quizzes and others to ensure students don’t come back to a diet of 10 Multiple Choice tests every lesson.

Keep using the tech

I’m not sure about you but we have not used the technology we are currently using during lock down so rigorously. I will be urging staff to continue doing so in order to fill gaps in knowledge. This may be by uploading materials to enhance knowledge based on needs identified in class or by setting the quizzes online as homework to then pitch lessons appropriately. On the plus side even the most tech nervous of my teachers are now embracing the systems we have set up so students can expect consistency in approach (like I said silver lining and all that!)

Teach to the top

We must continue to be aspirational for our young people. I really believe this. I honestly believe our children are resilient and will thrive at the other end of this with the right attitude and support. In this paper Hattie argues that school closures will have a relatively minimal impact, but the real impact will come from home resources.  As teachers we know this.

To me this requires teaching to the top and ensuring we have careful scaffolding for our children. What do I mean by teaching to the top? Ensuring students have the same stimulus but adapting the way they may approach it. Some of the strategies we already use in school but will become ever more important are:

Posing a big question at the start of the lesson that helps tie some disparate parts of the content together. A challenging question that you keep coming back to and which students feel they have chipped away at together throughout it.

Best of three (particularly for year 10 if we need to get through content swiftly but want to develop deep understanding). This is where three sample answers to a big question are given to students (grade 9/5/3 for example) and depending on their confidence with the topic they are asked to discuss the pros and cons of one of them and then as a group compare the answers.

Role reversal asking students to explain elements of the content being covered to quickly understand their level of comprehension through a series of follow up questions.

The two things that tie all of these strategies are cold calling and strong knowledge organisers. These help us gauge where students are at in their learning. I think these will be incredibly powerful tools when we return.

You will notice none of these techniques are new or revolutionary, none of them require me to retrain staff, but I think they need to be done incredibly well and need focus when our students return. I believe that the work teachers do day in day out with students is incredible and that we must continue to do these well rather than adopt a range of new strategies out of fear.

The School we return to

The school we return to will be different post COVID-19 and it’s up to all of us to ensure it’s for the better.

Isolation has given me some rare opportunities to stare out of the window and wonder. Wonder what school will be like when we return. Wonder what I want to return back to. How will COVID-19 impact the culture of the school? And what culture do we need to adopt in order to nurture our students going forward.

When googling ‘school culture’ I was quite surprised to see that a lot of the definitions related it to the culture among staff, rather than students. Having worked at 5 schools I can honestly say not in a single one did the student and staff culture not mirror each other exactly. Test it yourself, what is your school culture? Is it only demonstrated by your staff or also by your students?

One of the definitions I loved most is by Anthony Muhammed where he defines school culture as ‘the environment needed to cultivate the characteristics necessary for student growth and learning.’ I would add to this to include not only student growth but staff too.

I recently tweeted (@secretVP ) asking people to share their thoughts about school culture. It’s beautiful so see the steps heads have taken to develop a strong and positive school culture. The beauty of the twitter community came to the fore as colleagues recommended peoples blogs or even schools where they had witnessed a wonderful culture.* Yet, however positive the cultural norm at our schools we will return back to a slightly different landscape and one we have not faced before. So here are the key tenants of the school I want to return back and build.

Being kind and showing value

I hope with every core of my being that we all come out of this experience as more kind.

Being kind means that we value the other, and to me that is golden. Being kind means we take responsibility for our behavior because at every stage we have the option to be anything less than kind. Showing kindness means showing power. A kind act in the right place changes the course of actions to come.

What does this look like in practice when we get back to school?

For staff

I hope every senior leader in the country takes the time to commend their staff and how they have embraced the challenge of COVID-19. I know in our school we found ourselves changing from a face to face institution to one entirely online within three days. This is no small feat and it certainly isn’t possible without staff buy in.

I can’t wait to get back and tell staff how incredibly proud I am to be part of a staff body that has embraced change when it mattered the most, that have adapted in difficult circumstances. That have shown kindness towards each other covering each other on the face to face rota system when we needed to get things done.

This is why I find it both shocking and embarrassing when I hear stories of leaders asking their staff to fill in time sheets or all staff to come into school so numbers of teacher outweigh that of students because I believe kindness will get you so much further ahead than the desire to control will. It’s how we show our staff we value them. At the school I am currently at we have operated a completely voluntary system of face to face provision and not one person has let us down.

And here’s the thing about kindness, you don’t get to do it part time. You don’t get to be kind to a few, show them how valuable they are and call yourself kind. I’ve seen many leaders have favourites over the years and I’m sure I have subconsciously had some myself. But being kind is not an opt in opt out choice and I hope when we get back we reach out to the quieter ones, even the disengaged.

One of my favorite activities at school has become the Fuddle. Every Friday before a half term we now have a fuddle. Food has been a big part of my life. My mother is an incredible cook and to share food is to say I want to sit with you and talk about what’s on your mind because I value you. Further, staff show how much they value each other by cooking for each other. It also gives us an excuse to eat cupcakes for breakfast 😉 I hope to be having a lot more of those soon.

Every teaching member of staff I know is short on time. To give your time is the greatest gift in education. And I hope as our staff return, with stories of what they have experienced during this lockdown, we take the time to be kind, to listen and to show how much they mean to us.

For our students

This is going to be incredibly important. Many people have already spoken about the need to support students who may have lost someone during this time or experienced trauma whilst away from school.

On a more subtle level we know that students’ access and engagement to online resources will vary. We know some will have engaged more than others. We know some will have grasped more than others. And as teaching professionals not only is it important to show kindness to those students who will undoubtedly be left behind but also foster a climate of kindness in our classrooms so that we can support those struggling. I know that many of my higher ability students can sometimes be quite impatient with those who are struggling to grasp a concept and although I need to make sure I am planning for them when we return I also need to ensure they are kind to their peers.

How do we show our children kindness and that they are valued when they return? I hope that we take a moment not to ask our kids how much they got done but how they were kind to those who needed it. Whether it be by face timing their grandparents because they couldn’t visit, babysitting siblings, baking cakes etc..

Resilience

When we get back we will be in unchartered territory and will need resilience to get us through. We have all shown resilience in bucket loads recently but I think this is something that will be tested once again when we get back to school. We will find ourselves in a situation where we are in front of children who have not been in a school routine for possibly 4 months. This is not only likely to test the resilience of teachers but also our students.

For the teachers, getting students back into school habits is likely to be a challenge, we will need to be resilient as we figure out ways to ensure that all of our kids, with various levels of engagement with home learning are on the same page. We will need to be resilient as we battle with the challenges of teaching the national curriculum on what is less time in the classroom.

I breath a sigh of relief that I have built a culture of honesty in middle leaders meetings over the past year, where we not only share our successes but our failures and ask each other for help, because middle leaders will need to be collaborative in their approach to bridge the learning gap and resilient as they figure out their approach to each year group.

Students too will be required to be resilient. How do we build the resilience of the child who knows they haven’t been able to access the work at home, either because they just didn’t get it without you there, were babysitting siblings or any other reason? I have spent the past year trying to get rid of the fear my students feel when it comes to any form of testing and I know that a big part of our return will need to be lots of low stakes testing to see how much they remember, know etc… I know this work will need to continue as we move forward.

Reestablishing routines is another challenge staff will face. Caroline Spalding (@MrsSpalding) speaks extensively about this and building in quick wins to motivate students to want to follow those routines. This links to the social ties we have built with our students and how they will need to be reestablished once we return. The trust we built with those difficult to reach students will be tested or need to be reestablished.

Some students will have been resilient in ways we can’t imagine and we will be expecting more of that in the classroom. Therefore, we need to take the time to think about how we will celebrate their first day/lesson back? What will we want to reiterate, establish and celebrate? I can’t wait to tell them how much I have missed them and how I can’t wait to get back on the journey of exploring history with them.

Honesty and open mindedness

A common saying I use with my students is ‘Let’s reach for the stars at the very worse we might hit the ceiling.’ I want my students to know they are limitless. But the other part of the coin is being exceptionally brave and honest about where they currently are.

For staff this means admitting that we are facing new circumstances, not one of us has all the answers but collectively we will have suggestions we can test. What we can’t do is get tied down to any of these ideas at the risk of seeing what works.

Honesty to admit when we are stuck, losing some students or just plain tired and the open mindedness to try something different will be paramount in our ability to adapt to the new landscape we return to. Senior Leaders should encourage it, model it and nurture it.

With students I intend to get inquisitive and try and take the pressure off. Rather than say ‘I wonder how much you learnt’ I will be asking them to let me know how effective the online resources were at teaching them X and checking that. Taking the pressure off of them and allowing them to be honest about how much they do or do not know/remember. Again, the wonderful Caroline Spalding talks about the effectiveness of self-testing here to remove embarrassment and give students a quick review of how they are doing so they can move forward.

Needless to say there will be a whole host of other skills teachers will soon be asked to pull on but we only have to look online at twitter for a few seconds to the level of commitment this group of wonderful individuals has demonstrated over the past few weeks and there is no doubt they are up for the challenge.

*a particular shout out to Chris Foley @HT_StMonicas and Mark Chatley @MrMChatley

The 10% Braver Multiplier Effect

Just over a year ago I went to my first WomenEd Unconference. I was nervous, I knew no one in the community and I didn’t quite know what I was doing there, going for, or looking for. I met a wonderful community of women and men who were just interested in the female perspective. But the one message that stood out above all else was the call to all attending or viewing online to be 10% Braver.

I carried that message home with me and rather than looking at all the things I wanted to do, I took the decision to spend some time thinking about where I had not been showing up. I have climbed up the career ladder in education fairly quickly so to speak, and deep down I know I thought I didn’t deserve to be there, in the Leadership meetings, presenting at Board level, none of it. Deep down I believed I hadn’t earned the stripes so therefore didn’t speak up in an authentic way, scared to be found out or busted. Not immediately, but eventually I worked on myself to ensure I did show up to work as my authentic self this meant I wouldn’t tolerate the bullying that sometimes went on in leadership meetings no matter how subtle, that I would entertain alternative points of view even if they were ridiculed because to entertain them, that was what mattered. To weigh up the credibility of ideas not natural to us is what makes us rational humans. I had frank conversations with my managers about what I needed and what I felt was missing to take the school to a better place.

Eventually I left my place of work and was brave enough to apply for a promotion at a new school as a Vice Principal and got it. But this isn’t about my successes through being brave but what it has allowed me to pass on. Because by showing up, whole, flaws and all, I have allowed others to do the same including, and I believe most importantly, my students.

This is why I thought it was important to tell them I was going for a VP interview before I did, no matter what the outcome. That one act meant I had a Year 13 student knock on my door with the usual prologue that women use before they dare ‘I know this is stupid but….’ She was entertaining the idea of applying for an apprenticeship at Google something she thought was completely out of her reach. I encouraged her to go ahead anyway. Do it anyway. Dream it anyway. I’m am pleased to say she is in London right now as a Google Apprentice.

One of my favourite acts of courage by my class was with a Year 13 group as we approached their final exams. I asked them all to be honest and share a concept /model or word they didn’t still didn’t understand. As a result, one of my students said he had heard the term ‘Vice Versa’ throughout his education but had never known what the teachers meant. I’m proud to say that we all whooped for his bravery and I explained it to him. This led to other brave acts in the classroom. Quiet students making goodbye speeches at the end of the year in our final lesson. Students pushing to have their work shared with and critiqued by others in class.

Being braver (and reading a lot of books, thank you Brene Brown and Chase Jarvis!) has allowed me to encourage others to be brave too. Writing a blog has allowed me to encourage students with particular interests to start their own YouTube channels and not hide their light. Prepping for my book has allowed me to encourage my niece to pursue her dream as a writer.

I am by no means insinuating that I deserve any credit for the brave acts of the lovely young people I work with. What I am saying is courage breeds courage. Whether we want to accept the mantel or not, we are role models for our students. Our brave selves give them the courage to shine in all their glory also.

And the more whole and gutsy women and men we have, the better I say.

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 and I would recommend it to everyone but particularly those who find themselves in leadership positions. 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!

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.