Written by Paul @teacherpaul1978
When I reflect on my experience, I can see how every hurdle, obstacle and speed bump have moulded me into the leader I am today. My understanding of what leadership is has also changed. As an NQT, I had a determined ambition to be a leader, not fully realising that I already was – a teacher; a role model to children. I giggle when I think back to me pasting the wall behind my desk with the Excellent Teacher Standards and post-it noting everything I was doing to meet them … as an NQT… lol! But my core values have always been there.
If I look back further, of my time as a supervisor in a call centre for example, I can see what I did well: I cared about the well-being of the team, of making sure they could rely on my help and support, but I can also see that I had a lot of growing up to do; I think I enjoyed the status too much. It was an arrogance that would have to be purged so that I could ever be humble enough to be a true leader.
Perhaps that is why the universe steered me into teaching. I remember thinking as a TA in secondary schools that I never wanted to be a teacher. Until I was placed in a primary school. I fell in love. I stayed at the school and completed the GTP with them under the wings of an inspirational mentor; this would play a crucial role later. The rest is history. I celebrated my 13th anniversary in April! Anyway, back to the blog.
So how was I humbled? How were my leadership values moulded and instilled or brought to life? Well, it is still happening. It’s not that I look to be humbled but that I know in facing new challenges and surrounding myself with the right mix of people to inspire me and challenge me, I remain humble. I can’t recall every moment, but here are a few that I will and perhaps should not ever forget, listed with the lessons learned.
1. Trust your instincts
After a year, I took on leading RE and then subsequently, Humanities. I was asked to re-design the curriculum and then present it to staff. Against my instincts to consult staff and involve them in the process (which I was told wouldn’t be necessary), naive little me set off, relished the task and put my heart and soul into it. However, when it came to delivering the re-invention to staff, it was to a very indignant atmosphere. It was a tumbleweed moment. Afterwards, I followed my original instincts, collected the staff together, discussed what to keep and what needed to be changed and as a community, built a curriculum we were all enthused by.
I should also add a lesson 2 here: take responsibility for your actions. I should have acted on my instincts and stood up for myself.
3. Keep it simple and clear
After a series of successful lesson observations, I was asked to demonstrate a good maths lesson as part of the maths learning walks. I will never forget the atrocious lesson that I produced from over complicating, over-thinking and filling what was originally a fine lesson, with approaches I didn’t fully understand and subsequently didn’t execute well enough. I even dressed up as some strange wizard… I cringe as I write this, and I remember the look on the HT’s face (dismay and shock) and the Maths lead’s face (who was trying not to laugh out loud) in the feedback meeting… The HT told me that they had been to 3 other maths lessons which were not very good and then they came to mine expecting a well-delivered lesson. When I think about it, it was necessary. I was still a bit cocky, ambitious and not nearly ready for leadership. It knocked me down, I might have shed a tear, but it put a stop to all the show, and grounded me to think about what I’m here for: to lead our children to be the best they can be. Clarity and simplicity became my new friends, not just in lessons but in my professional discussions.
4. Know yourself
I thought I knew myself. That would be the arrogance talking again. But I got to know myself when I began mentoring. In a way, it refined my practice and actually made me realise what I had to offer, not from arrogance this time, the experience was drawing it out of me, revealing it, like a soul mirror. I had a great mentor to look back on, to inspire my actions. Suddenly, I had a teacher who was relying on me. I learned that I was compassionate, that I was a good listener, that I was reflective, that I could deliver clear lessons, that I was a good role model, that I was a good team player. Qualities I used to take for granted early on, or worse, not bring out in others.
There were other experiences that I had to go through. I burned myself out (marking way too much, over planning, not taking any time for well-being), and had to step away for a while. Eventually, this period redefined my attitude to workload and where I learned the value of live marking. I would make sure I left early one day for my well-being. I read up on the union’s workload guidance and that became my authority :-). I would never again allow the bureaucracy and administration to ruin what I knew was the vocation I was called to do.
5. Listen and Speak up
So I was humbled. I knew myself and what I genuinely had to offer. So? Great! I had a foundation now. I felt I had a voice. I wouldn’t fight over every little tedious point, but I wouldn’t let teachers feel they had to follow certain practices that were damaging to their wellbeing, such as typing and sticking in LOs for every subject, making sure chns work was stuck in in advance (like chn can’t do it themselves), bulk photocopying, attending meetings during lunch breaks (this made me really angry) or having to meet twice a week for staff meetings plus morning meetings (it was bad). Things I would have previously just gone along with. It was an unhappy environment. There was no phase lead for KS1. So I called the KS1 teachers together and asked them if they would be happy for me to raise their concerns on their behalf. I took it to the HT and we had a long discussion but a fruitful one. Certain practices were steered away from teachers, meetings were reduced, eg when I asked the HT for a breakdown of our hours. The teachers then asked that I become their phase leader. Here was the turning point in my understanding of leadership. It wasn’t from my own selfish pursuit but arose from the needs and welfare of others; just as we are leaders of children. Lesson 6 then would be: Don’t chase it. It will find you. If you have what it needs. Which is how it has continued.
I worked in a few schools afterwards, but I never chased leadership any more. I simply responded to any areas I felt that I could offer some help in. In one school, the HT was desperate for someone to help with gathering historical and analysing assessment data to produce reports for an imminent inspection and to present to governors. It was a 1FE and there was no one that could help. So I stepped up and offered. It was something I did a lot as Phase Leader. She was so happy, she said she would have taken me on as her deputy, but I was on supply and there was no finance to fund it. It didn’t matter. I was happy to help. I was simply responding to a need.
Which brings me to my current school. I started last September. It is a lovely creative 1FE school. I feel as though I’ve come full circle, but this time with a much more mature head on my shoulders, a person tempered from the fires of the past, but knowing full well that there is more to learn. I was promoted to DHT, not because I asked or chased it, but because she needed a partner, someone who could take on the burden of assessment and like before I stepped up and helped.
My journey has not been plain-sailing. I have found my way into senior leadership not from wanting it as I used to, but from where the need has arisen. I’ve been in the right place at the right time with the right set of qualities, the latter being key. I am reminded of my past and it gives me strength, but also doubt. I doubt that I can do it, that I’m not ready. So different to the arrogant NQT 13 years ago. What do I know? Well, I do know my heart, and I know what I have to offer. There is more to learn, yes, and that is where I find hope.
7. Surround yourself with the right people
This is so important. I joined twitter a while ago, but only really started using it during lockdown. I started with #MTPMonday, #TVTUnites and #FFBWednesday. I just wanted to connect with other teachers. What I didn’t anticipate was making so many positive connections. I have connected with a variety of people who inspire and challenge me every day (sometimes every minute and hour). But there’s always that little humble part of me now that doubts I could ever be the leaders that I follow. They are well-established and are profound in what they talk about. I feel in awe. I feel humble. And that is why I know that they are the right people to surround myself with. They spread kindness. And therein lies the rub.
‘When all is said and done,’ (ABBA), you might have strong ambitions, a loud voice (we all know that person), bags of experience and self-confidence, but without kindness and love, the journey is futile.