Getting Out Back

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There has been some recent discussion relating to the length of school holidays and it struck me today that in very simple terms you’re worth it!!

This startling revelation came to me as I relaxed in the warmth of the Cornwall sun at the end of a lovely week with friends and family. Surfers talk about getting “out back” beyond the waves. I am no surfer but am happiest in the water. Today I floated around on my body board and realised that this carefree moment is pretty important.

School life is often lived at “full pace” and so it should be. We give it everything and often approach the holidays “running on empty”. Perhaps this is it – if we see that teaching is more than just a job and live and breath all we do it is important to occasionally press pause.

I hope all you fellow teachers have got “out back” in the last week so we can ride whatever wave we plan to ride for the rest of the summer term.

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What would you say??

I was recently challenged to express my advice on the early days of being a Headteacher. The person who had asked me had just been appointed in his first headship and had the slightly crazed, daunted yet inspired look in his eye. I started with a simple reflection in the 6 steps animation but have thought it probably deserves more!!

Be the person you are called to be…

On the road to Headship at times we are lured into the trap of looking to become the person we are expected to be. We almost try and play a role – what do the Governors recruiting want? Which Headteacher we respect can we be the same as? What is a Headteacher supposed to be like? Ultimately the answer to this is a Headteacher is supposed to be like you… I came to the startling conclusion that the only answer is to be true to yourself. This requires two key steps.

Spend time working out what you really stand for and in contrast what you really won’t stand for!

Be confident you will be the perfect match – the right person, the right school, the right time.

You cannot play the role for long if you are not true to yourself as the sharpest people I’ve ever met are the students we serve! It is equally clear that making this realisation is liberating – you can be who you are called to be.

Do what matters first

It’s easy to come into a school and not take the golden opportunities given to us in the “honeymoon period”. There is a collective holding of breath when change happens… What happens next is up to you.

My brother started in Headship and was appointed 5 months before taking up the post. He made a great decision to ask for a picture of every member of staff and information about them. This meant he could walk through the door and have a head start on the most important thing in getting to know the people around you.

You need to be clear on your core principles from Day 1 and stick to them. A key challenge is to look to initiate and prompt change as well as evaluating all that works well. Some headteachers become too cosy with staff, eager to please and avoiding challenge or conflict – this can be where you lose sight of your principles. Take people with you and recognise your attitude shapes the culture so you must be willing to embrace and initiate change.

Consistency

What people want most is someone who is consistent and fair. It’s easy to end up with your favourites – people who are “up for it” or seek out opportunities to get involved. I would suggest it is worth going out of your way to speak to everyone and avoid “doing deals” for people either by giving them extra pay, time or responsibilities. People need to know where they stand and as school leaders we need to be predictable and positive.

It is worth investing time in getting to know your students – do the small things like cover, duties and the buses. It is worth every minute…

Quality

Be clear on what “outstanding” is all about. Spend time getting into lessons and seeing the diet for learning in the school. It’s really important to know what is happening each and every day in the school – it’s how I take the temperature in our culture. If you don’t do it you will very quickly lose touch.

The quality of the leadership team is essential – you can’t carry anyone. It is really important they are respected, capable and committed to doing all that is right for the school. It is equally important to have a wide variety of skills and personalities however tempting it may be to surround yourself with people just like you.

The quality of teaching needs to very high – find where it is best and expose this to everyone. If anybody is struggling look to support and develop them. If it doesn’t work you need to do something about it. My litmus test is “would I want my children in this class?” I believe it is my moral responsibility to ask this on behalf of all parents.

A key task is ensuring you get the best teachers to your school. Interview every person who is coming to join the team at your school. Be imaginative and relentlessly committed to finding the right person for the job!

Integrity

It is likely in the first year of headship you will find there are some “critical incidents”. This is where you will earn your stripes as people watch how you will deal with challenge. If you deal with this well people will understand what you are all about. If you don’t it may take some time to win people over in the future.

Communication

Think carefully about how to get the message across… make it simple and repeat it. Think about how to get people to “buy into it” so it’s not just your idea. Doing your groundwork helps by talking ideas over with the key people to give them ownership. Find opportunities to articulate your ideas – staff briefings and meetings are a great opportunity.

Don’t rely too much on email – you can never replace the value of face to face discussions. People will actually watch what you do far more than listening to what you say! Find time for people 1 to 1 as this builds the best foundation for your professional relationships.

Extend your mobile phone contract and make sure the best people you know in education are on speed dial – you need to have critical friends who can challenge and support you every step of the way.

Time is what matters most

Your most precious commodity will be time. You will have some choices about how you spend it! When I first started Governors had eight committees and most of them met each term for three hours in the school day. We now have three committees that meet after school and dynamic working parties if needed to work on specific issues. So protect your time in the school day and prompt changes to the “way things are done around here.”

You will also be invited to a multitude of meetings, conferences and glitzy events. You need to learn to say no and attend only the events that you have to go to or you believe will genuinely move the school on. I have encountered people who specialise in not being in school. As my Irish wife would say “don’t be a stranger” to your own school! Get into lessons every day, work with your office door open, be a visible presence. For me I ask myself “can I do this after the school day?” If the answer is yes I will stick to this.

You also need to be confident to know when you have done a “good day’s work”. I aim to leave my laptop at school – the invention of the iPad may not have helped this. I used to describe Headship and school improvement as the Forth Bridge, a never-ending challenge … They then painted the bridge with a “new and improved” paint that will last 25 years. Rest assured this solution will never be the fix for schools. Ultimately each day it is about knowing you have used the time well and as you put your head on the pillow feeling you have done all you could to live out your vocation.

Meet the parents

Parents like seeing you out and about in primary schools, church (as a faith school!) and at school events. I also do “Open Door” where once a month where I spend 4 hours (4.30-8.30pm) available to discuss any issues, the timings are planned to suit working parents too. At times it can be a question about life at school, a concern about learning or even a chance for positive feedback. It is like a GP’s surgery – no appointments, all will be seen. Ultimately if any parent has a big issue and doesn’t use this opportunity it can’t have been that important. It sets the tone of honest, open relationships between home and school and often resolves any issues before they become a problem.

Trusting others

One challenge is to ensure that you trust people to do their job really well. Do you delegate tasks or responsibilities? If it is only tasks you will limit peoples’ potential. It is worth investing time in developing others – be really clear about your expectations but show that you believe in them and trust them to make decisions. Sometimes we can flatter ourselves into believing that we have all the answers – this creates a culture of dependency where people have to ask for your opinion on every decision. I have been in meetings with other schools where senior leaders repeatedly say “I will have to ask the Head” – ultimately this says “I am not trusted to make a decision.”

I try to stop myself launching into to offering an instant solution by asking “what do you think?” or discussing the options with someone so they can make their own decision. This takes longer but takes us all further in the long run. It also builds capacity and confidence in people.

Look to spot the talent in leadership, sometimes taking a leap of faith with someone. You need to ensure that anyone in this position can really deliver in the classroom including their results each year. This will give them the “cultural capital” to lead others as they are not asking anyone to do something they can’t do themselves.

The best Headteacher I ever worked with used to say “it’s not enough for you to be a good Head. I want you to be a great Head!” This led to some robust conversations along the way but definitely was a turning point in ensuring I was challenged and shaped as a senior leader. If you choose to work in an environment where you are comfortable you will feel flattered by positive feedback but never really be pushed to develop and grow.

I will be eternally grateful for this experience and I would advise you to seek out opportunities to work with great people like this. I have sometimes challenged people to choose their next job not on the school alone but on the match with the Headteacher. This is especially important in senior leadership, particularly as a Deputy Head.

Are you the lead learner?

I believe that being a Headteacher is in fact all about being “lead learner” – not by being a relentless academic but simply by being open to new challenges, adaptable and passionate about learning. You will probably have someone who leads learning and teaching but be informed and engaged in current debate on pedagogy and educational issues. One key way to do this is online especially by effective use of twitter where there are some excellent links to interesting, thought provoking discussion. Another excellent new addition to the culture in teaching has been the emergence of TeachMeets and LeadMeets where people can choose to spend time discussing meaningful issues in a relevant, short and sharp way.

I know that in reality I’ve probably got another fifteen years in Headship. I hope I have strong enough people around me to tap me on the shoulder if I lose my love of learning. I also believe you need to find new challenges that will keep you fresh.

The first subject leader I ever worked with had a file full of lesson plans and resources and each September would ceremoniously return to the start of the ring binder, surrounded by the settling dust, to start the year again. If we just start going through the motions this is when we should all just call it a day.

Starting your first headship is a time of immense opportunity, excitement and promise. You “set the climate” in the school. It is an amazing, inspiring job but equally demanding. Believe in yourself and you will do a great job – no pressure!

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Mastering Our Destiny

The first four years as a Headteacher have flown by and been as varied and unpredictable as could be imagined. At the heart of it Headteachers tend to have strong opinions on most things and a clear idea of what they want to achieve in their school. I believe that a clear choice has to be made about whether to sit back and see how the educational world changes around us or actively shape the future. During this time both my own children have embarked on the educational adventure… is all that we do great enough for my own children? It’s definitely a question that keeps me honest day to day. I have outlined five key themes to achieve this and shape our thoughts as school leaders in this context.

1. Be grounded in a moral purpose

In education currently we have a clear choice to make. Do we stand in isolation doing only what is best for our own school or do we actively commit to do what’s”best for education”? A key aspect of this reflection must be being clear about having principles in our leadership. It is an interesting challenge to reflect on this within your own school. What do we stand for? How does it effect the decisions we make? Ultimately in a time of change I believe it is essential to genuinely engage in these questions and articulate what we are all about and why we do the job we do. As a staff we started the year by asking “What gets you out of bed every day?” This led to some inspiring stories of vocation, energy, fulfillment and a deep rooted moral purpose. I believe it is worth connecting to this regularly if we are going to keep one another honest individually or collectively.

2. Embrace opportunities for change

I have witnessed some experienced school leaders freeze when faced by change or an unpredictable path ahead. Historically we have learnt behaviours at times where we have been dependent on a centralised vision from government or local authorities. If we stop and ask in our schools what we need to do to change or improve further we will often find some exciting and interesting work to be done. We can challenge ourselves to engage in action research and best practice nationally and internationally to shape the direction of education both now and for the future. As a profession and school leaders we need to develop a confident, clear and coherent voice to inform and shape educational direction. Currently the SSAT has initiated a “Redesigning Schooling” campaign which offers an opportunity to engage in dialogue, professional reflection and developing a shared vision for the future. By getting actively involved in any of this dialogue and reflection you could make a real difference.

3. Take education out of politics

We have an opportunity and an invitation now to ensure that education becomes more than a party political issue. We all accept that the election cycle demands change and impact that could at times lead to short term fixes. We don’t want our students to be caught up in the crossfire! The recent discussion on setting up a Royal College of Teaching has much merit and should be encouraged to help guide the long term development of educational vision and accountability measures for schools. If this is achieved this could provide a stable, respected benchmark for education for the future.

4. A self-improving system

We have been invited to lead, initiate and develop genuine change in the direction of education. An excellent example of this is the development of Teaching School Alliances and the radical overhaul of Initial Teacher Training through the launch of School Direct. It is expected that by 2016 all trainee teachers will come through this route. I would urge every school to make the commitment to invest in recruiting, developing and nurturing the best teachers for the future – our children all deserve it. I am confident that nobody could have predicted this rapid change even a year ago so we need to be responsive and not trapped in thinking about the old models that we sometimes herald with nostalgic rose-tinted spectacles. By the Autumn it is planned that there will be 500 Teaching School Alliances nationally – are you involved? If not, why not? This is your definitive way to work collaboratively for the good of all. It can develop inspiring links with some exceptional schools who will challenge your thinking and ultimately make you better at what you do.

5. Keep the faith and stay connected

I believe that every teacher has a strong sense of why the job matters. In my first school I vividly remember there was a teacher who would weep at the photocopier each morning – if we forget why it all matters we need to have a strength of conviction to do something else. It’s all too important to do “just as a job” to pay the mortgage. I remember that prior to Headship many people described it as a “lonely job” – perhaps if you choose it to be. I have consciously made a commitment to ensure that I engage in the daily life of our school – I genuinely miss it if I can’t get out and about each day! You can also choose your peers, I am lucky enough to have some of my closest friends and family as inspirational role models and an important benchmark for all that I do. Seek out these people if you don’t have them – they will be marked out as people who radiate energy, full of integrity and a passion for doing all that is right. What do I dream for my two children? I know I want the best for and the best from them so they becoma all they are called to be – if you are happy to master your destiny in schools I know I’d want them to be in your classrooms too.

Key links and references;

Rob is Headteacher at St. Paul’s Catholic College in West Sussex. He is a member of the SSAT Vision 2040 group who are involved in shaping the Redesigning Schooling campaign and also leads the Inspire Teaching Alliance.

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