A fresh start: leading in tough times

23 Sep

The last time I wrote a blog post was August 2017. At that time, I was full of hope that the school I had moved to three months before could come out of special measures and become a school that the local community would want to send their children to. I’d read various leadership books and was excited about my new role as deputy head. I don’t want to dwell on what turned out to be an annus horribilis… but on my first anniversary at the school, my head had resigned and we’d had nearly a week of strikes. I honestly did feel like jacking it in.

However, as with many things, bad times pass and as we began the summer holidays, I genuinely was excited about my school joining the Ark network. Many colleagues were worried about the move to Ark and there were a lot of scare stories doing the rounds but the resources, training and collegiality Ark offered made me feel optimistic for the future.

I spent much of the summer preparing for September. During the summer term, I had received fantastic support from the Ark Central team and other Ark colleagues who gave up their time to share their resources and time with me as I went about planning two weeks of high quality training. I’ve delivered countless training sessions over the years but never have I felt under such pressure to make the training the best it could be. The training would set the tone for the rest of the year. I wanted colleagues to feel confident for the year ahead and have the necessary tools to plan and deliver high quality learning experiences for our students.

On the first day of training, staff arrived in the hall with a mixture of curiosity and nerves. What was it going to be like working in an Ark school? After an introductory session from the regional director setting the vision for our new school, it was then my turn to try and inspire the staff. Nervous doesn’t quite cover it! The main thing I was most worried about was the inclusion of live practice in the training sessions; I wasn’t sure if staff would buy into practising in front of their colleagues – it’s an alien concept to most of us. I’d set up the hall into nine mini classrooms, each one led by one of our coaches. I needn’t have worried: after a few nervous giggles, the staff really threw themselves into the practice and I was so proud of the coaches giving real-time feedback and watching teachers keep practising until they got it right.

At the end of the first week, we finished early and had a staff BBQ. There was a real sense of excitement and pride amongst the staff. School felt different. Although teachers still had valid concerns, the vast majority of staff were on board and ready for week two of training. We finished the first week by asking each coach to nominate the member of staff that had made the most progress with the training and they stood up and received a round of applause from their colleagues. It’s a moment that I’ll hold onto in the dark days of February when I’m bound to have a low moment. That weekend, the head and I received several emails from long-established staff saying it was the best training they’d had in 20+ years of teaching; others said they felt proud of the school for the first time in a long time.

The second week of training was centred upon the queries staff had at the end of the first week. We split the week between practising the things staff had found most difficult and teachers co-planning in their departments. By the end of the second week, every member of staff was building their muscle memory of the key strategies and routines we need to embed this year. It was a pleasure to walk round school and see colleagues working together in an atmosphere of real purpose and enthusiasm.

Sunday night. I probably slept about three hours! I was far too nervous about the students returning and wondering whether we really could create the culture shift we so desperately needed in our classrooms, corridors and playground.

Over the past thirteen years, there’s been several moments that make me smile when I think about them: certain students making it against the odds; colleagues I have line managed flourishing and getting well-deserved promotions; being part of a previous SLT who worked so hard to move a school out of RI and on its way to Outstanding. Without doubt, my proudest moment was watching our entire staff body standing together, greeting the students onto site and holding their nerve when the whistle blew and we got over 1000 students into silent lines within a minute. Alongside this, walking into every classroom at the end of the first week back and seeing teachers using the new strategies and routines and watching students respond positively. Despite the usual teenage moans and groans about how strict school was, they also acknowledged they were learning more than before because lessons were calm and teachers were clear about what they were going to achieve. These might not be great moments of triumph in some people’s eyes but when I think back to staff morale and students’ anxiety in May 2018, I can’t help but feel emotional about what can be achieved when staff pull together and do everything they can to get it right for their students.

The trick now is sustaining the change. Of course, there will be plenty of bumps along the road but we’ve thought carefully about how to try hard to reduce workload for staff and maximise opportunities for them to develop their craft. We’ve got rid of all after-school meetings as we recognise if staff are to keep up this level of effort, it is indeed tiring! We’ve timetabled two and a half hours of co-planning time for each department so teachers can work together to plan lessons and not feel like they’re working in a silo. We’ve also decided to personalise every teacher’s professional development offer through weekly coaching, Ark’s teaching and learning courses, the Institute for Teaching’s Transforming Teaching programme and releasing staff to go and visit other schools to see how other departments are working on specific issues with their curriculum.

It is just the start of our journey but for the first time in a long time I feel happy to go to work and feel empowered to develop staff and secure outcomes for our students that they deserve.

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Learning how to lead in challenging times: reflecting on how to get off to a good start in September

3 Aug

In a blink of an eye, I found myself at the end of my second half term as a deputy head working at my new school in Special Measures. The past seven weeks have been nothing short of a complete roller coaster! There have been times when I honestly thought I couldn’t do it and had to give myself a few minutes in the bathroom to shed a few private tears; but there’s also been moments of real joy and a sense of teamwork where I feel like we’re heading in the right direction. In the final week (on Sports Day of all days!) Ofsted returned to inspect us for Safeguarding and that was certainly our biggest test thus far. However, it was the perfect platform for us to all pull together and show what we can do. I was very proud of all my colleagues who supported each other on this stressful day and did all they could to show our school in its best light.

Now is the time to relax and enjoy the six weeks off but, as always, I find it difficult to completely switch off. More than ever, I feel a keen sense of needing to ensure that September gets off to a great start to give staff and students a sense that we’re building on the positive steps we made last term but also to rally the troops for another push forward as we implement some of the new ideas we explored before the break.

Acknowledging where we’ve gone wrong

Blame

 

Last post, I explored Mary Myatt’s chapter ‘On Creating Energy’ from her book High Challenge, Low Threat as I felt the priority then was to keep staff motivated to develop their practice despite the blow of the Ofsted judgement. At this point, we are in a different place; we have spent the past three months planning for September. One of the things that my school has been guilty of in the past is doing lots of busy work with different members of SLT pushing their own agendas but none of these projects joining up and contributing to a cohesive school development plan. Linked to this, all staff members have commented on their desire to do what’s asked of them but the vision and delivery being poorly communicated by SLT so they don’t know whether they’re coming or going. Mary Myatt explores the impact a clearly-defined plan has on staff’s perception of leadership:

In schools which have adopted essentialism principles, their school development plans describe no more than three overarching priorities. Because they know that otherwise colleagues will not be able to keep focus on the main things which need to be done. There is simplicity and power in returning to our main goals. People working in schools where there is clarity report not only greater focus, but a sense of security in knowing that the major item in meetings is strongly linked to the major goal for overall school improvement, and that they are all clear about what their contribution needs to be.

Clearly, this is a significant area for improvement by SLT so I am conscious of the need to 1) communicate the changes clearly and set them in a wider picture of the school’s development plan and 2) create enough capacity and support for teachers and middle leaders to effectively implement these changes.

Building capacity

Members of a community welcoming a new member.

As mentioned in my previous post, I was looking forward to appointing a group of Lead Learners whose role is to support heads of department in driving forward teaching and learning. I strongly believe that this is the best route to implementing long-lasting change rather than going for a top-down approach where SLT do it all. Although I may be responsible for teaching and learning, I do not have subject expertise across the curriculum; if I can work alongside my colleagues to facilitate discussion about evidence-informed practice, which they in turn translate into what that might look like in a Maths classroom or an Art studio, then the changes we make are less likely to feel gimmicky or a one size fits all model. I was delighted to appoint 10 Lead Learners last half term – they are a great bunch! We have the full range of subject specialisms covered and we have teachers who are recently qualified as well as those who have been teaching for at least a decade. Alongside the Lead Learners, I have scrapped traditional middle leader meetings and replaced them with fortnightly training sessions based on our school improvement plan. Giving heads of department and Lead Learners time to work together and discuss the needs of the department has made a real difference already and colleagues have commented that they appreciate this time to talk about curriculum and pedagogy instead of sitting passively as various information from SLT is shared with them, which could have been disseminated via email. I can’t wait for them to experience the professional conversations they are going to have when we start Lesson Study and coaching!

Deciding on our priorities

Priorities in Order

One thing I’ve learnt quickly (which led to the tears in the bathroom scenario) is that working in a school in Special Measures is so tough because sometimes you just don’t know what to tackle first then when you do start to fix something, another thing is uncovered and, before you know it, you’ve identified more problems than you knew you had before you started… Some days it’s hard to feel like you’re making a difference and more like you’re just surviving the week. I know this isn’t the most uplifting of messages but it’s the sad truth. You’ve got to be good at not letting the pressure get to you and keeping perspective. Moreover, you’ve got to tread a fine line between making others understand why things haven’t worked out but also giving people a safe space to vent and feel like they’re being listened to. This extract from Mary Myatt in her chapter ‘Reasons vs Excuses’ rings true:

A reasons culture supports ongoing improvement. It is the kind of narrative which says: ‘This didn’t go as well as it might. What are we going to do differently? How can we support these children to catch up? What have we learnt? How are we going to be better as a result of this?’ This is the polar opposite of an excuses culture, which places responsibility and blame elsewhere and washes its hands. The legitimate reasons use setbacks as a springboard for renewed improvement. The excuses result in complacency and eventually a downward spiral. Because no one is taking responsibility.

What was clear though is that we have two massive areas we needed to do a lot of work on and will need to carry on developing throughout next year. When I arrived at school, it was soon noticeable that very little time had been given over to curriculum planning. Some departments had schemes of work that hadn’t been updated in light of the changes at GCSE and A Level; worse still, some departments didn’t even have schemes of work and were using generic off the shelf packages that didn’t meet the needs of our diverse learners.

Instead of tweaking what we had, we agreed that this was the right time to scrap what we had and spend time thinking about the concept of progression across all three key stages in our subjects. Once heads of department had decided what progression looked like, we created curriculum maps for each subject; these have been included in our student planners for September so students and families have a clear understanding about what they will be learning. Once the curriculum maps were in place, we moved to looking at schemes of work. I didn’t want to impose a rigid scheme of work template; rather, there were areas that needed to be covered as we agreed these were central to helping our students achieve. Our new schemes of work cover: the ‘Big Question’ for the topic and linked learning questions; questions that will stimulate thinking and discussion; key academic vocabulary to teach; stimuli for introducing new knowledge; deliberate practice tasks linked to key concepts taught in the topic. Throughout our curriculum maps and schemes of work, we are building in time to revisit topics and ensuring students practise retrieving information over many months and not just in a six-week topic time frame.

As you can imagine, without having in place curriculum maps or schemes of work, assessment was an after-thought. How can you assess thoroughly if you don’t really know what you’re teaching? To put it bluntly, assessment was in a mess. As a starting point, we used the excellent blog series, Principles of Great Assessment from Phil Stock (@joeybagstock), which can be found at https://joeybagstock.wordpress.com/. I’m currently reading Daisy Christodoulou’s Making Good Progress and I’ve pre-ordered Robert Marzano’s latest book Making Classroom Assessments Reliable and Valid: How to Assess Student Learning to support discussions around improving our use of assessment in the new academic year. So far, we have moved to four common assessment points across years 7-13, which are carried out in formal exam conditions. We trialled this with KS3 and year 10 at the end of June and, although the consensus was that this common assessment week raised the profile of assessment and students took it seriously, it uncovered some serious weaknesses in the quality of assessments we create and how we moderate our judgements. But that is why it was important to trial it so that we can learn these lessons and not make the same mistakes at the end of October (our first common assessment point). Apart from the common assessment points in the calendar, I’ve worked alongside heads of department to design departmental feedback policies where teachers make use of a range of formative assessment approaches that work for their specific subject and heads of department decide how regularly they will use different feedback methods. Teachers are excited to trial their department feedback policy instead of trying to keep up with the previous unrealistic whole school making policy.

I am hopeful that school will feel like a different place come September. We’ve done a lot of work to create a coherent and evidenced-informed approach to curriculum, assessment and pedagogy. I can’t wait to get feedback from the students to see how they respond to these changes. This is just the start of our journey but I believe we’re heading in the right direction. We’re starting to feel like a team, working towards a clear goal. I’m sure there will be more tears along the way but it will be worth it in the end.

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Learning how to lead in challenging times: reflecting on my first half term as DHT

3 Jun

After a restful half term break, enjoying the sunshine and the odd lie-in, I find myself thinking about the final half term of the school year. For many teachers, this is the favourite part of the year – exam classes have gone, the days are warmer and there seems to be more whole school events in the calendar to enjoy. For me, this final half term feels like September as it is the first time I’ll be working full time at my new job. Over the past six weeks, I’ve been doing two jobs: three days a week as AHT and teaching my exam classes at my old school and two days at my new school.

It may only have been 12 days but I’ve learnt more in the last 12 days than I have in the past 12 months. Why? I am stepping up as DHT in a school that, a fortnight after my appointment, went into Special Measures. Imagine: there I am, delighted to have secured my first DHT post, excited to start at a new school and face new challenges when you’re told “This is no longer a ‘Good’ school. We’re now in a category.” Don’t get me wrong; I knew the school would not be able to hang onto its judgement of Good after doing a data analysis task using their Raise Online. I thought ‘Requires Improvement’ would be most likely but it turned out not to be the case…

In all honesty, I didn’t sleep for the next few nights as I worried about what it would mean to work in a school placed into Special Measures. Many people were keen to share their opinion about what they thought I should do – my head was spinning! But I decided to go ahead and stay true to my word. I believe in the school; I believe in the head; I believe that the students have a lot of potential. So I signed the contract.

Remaining true to my values

As anyone who has read my past posts, I hate the idea of Ofsted dictating what a school should or shouldn’t do. When my old school went from a 2 to a 3, I was proud that we didn’t lose our heads and stuck to our moral principles. We tried our best to shield staff from as much Ofsted pressure as possible and diverted funds and time into developing a high quality CPD programme, with Lesson Study and coaching at its core. Linked to this, we scrapped graded lesson observations (a big deal back in 2013) and worked hard to instil enough trust to operate an open-door policy where anyone could drop into each other’s class at any time. Four and a half years later and the school is a happy and purposeful place to work. Creating a strong learning culture was at the heart of everything we did; the by-product was getting a ‘Good’ judgement in 2015 and the school is now on the brink of a well-deserved ‘Outstanding’. I will miss my colleagues and the culture and climate that I’ve left behind.

The question I keep asking myself is ‘Can I stay strong enough to not let Ofsted take centre stage in such tough circumstances?’ To try and help me do this, I’ve told staff that we will not make any changes because of Ofsted; if we make a change, it will be research-informed and part of a long-term plan. No fads or gimmicks thank you very much! I’ve challenged staff to tell me if they think our vision and practice does not align with this message; I think it could be quite easy to fall into the Ofsted trap when you’re being monitored within an inch of your lives every three months. If we don’t all buy into the vision and commit to enacting it, then it will be difficult to see how we can make progress as a school.

High Challenge, Low Threat

In preparation for my job interview, I read Mary Myatt’s High Challenge, Low Threat – an excellent read! In my previous post, I highlighted some of the key messages I took away from the book. Over the next year, I hope to reflect on how far I am able to live up to Mary’s book in such challenging circumstances. One chapter kept coming back to me in the past six weeks.

On creating energy

Talking with colleagues in schools, many say that they are overworked and overwhelmed. When we discuss the difference between feeling overwhelmed and feeling energised, the difference usually relates to whether they see the purpose in what they are doing. When information, data and numbers are collected and nothing appears to happen to them, it can feel pointless. Because it often is. But the energy shifts from negative to positive when colleagues ask why is this needed, what will happen to it, where will this improve practice?’ p.127

How do you create energy in the second half of the year when staff have just found out that their school has gone into Special Measures? Sitting in the staffroom and seeing people’s faces as they read the report was a difficult moment. Shock, despair, anger: it was a highly charged moment. The following week, I was due to launch our new teaching and learning framework. Morale was naturally low but several colleagues came up to me beforehand or sent me an email to tell me that this was an important moment for the school; this launch could set us back on the right track. After sharing it with the rest of the SLT and then refining it alongside the assistant headteacher with responsibility for CPD, I wanted to make sure that the vision was clear, realistic and grounded in research. I wanted to make clear to staff that, while there is lots to do, we can’t do it all at once; we have to prioritise.

We began by departments discussing what they thought were the priorities for improving outcomes.

T&L Launch Pics

This generated fascinating discussion amongst departments – it was difficult to get them to stop talking, which I took to be a good sign! After, I introduced three key texts that we are going to use to move our practice forward: John Hattie’s Visible Learning for Teachers; Robert Marzano’s Classroom Instruction That Works; The Sutton Trust’s report What Makes Great Teaching?.

After a quick break for tea and sandwiches (well it was 4.30 by this time!), I shared some of the illuminating feedback from the student learning forum I run every week. I ask the students three questions:

  1. Which lesson do you look forward and why do you learn well in it?
  2. Which lesson do you worry about going to and why?
  3. If you could make one change to the school to make your learning experiences better, what would you do?

T&L Launch Pic 2

 

This part of the launch proved quite difficult. I questioned myself beforehand about whether to include it but students have been vocal about not having their voice heard so I thought it important that their concerns were shared. I chose statements from students where a pattern has emerged over the past six weeks during the forum.

After giving departments time to digest students’ feedback, I then shared the core principles of the vision – based on our own school context and research-informed practice – and again reiterated that this is something we will be working on as a school for at least three years.

T&L Launch Pic 3

T&L Launch Pic 4

T&L Launch Pic 5

To finish off the session, each teacher was given a laminated A5 keyring fan of our school’s new Teaching Toolbox. The Toolbox is there to provide teachers with research-based strategies about ways of developing a stretch and challenge culture in the classroom (yes, I stole most of this from my book!).  Teachers loved this little freebie at the end of the session and, since the session, many have shared with me that they are excited at the direction we are taking with regards to teaching and learning. My biggest challenge this final half term will be to keep momentum going and encourage staff to keep experimenting with innovative approaches.

One way I am trying to keep momentum going is through our weekly teaching and learning bulletin. Each week, a member of staff is highlighted as a Bright Spot for excellent practice, a suggested teaching tweak is shared, positive feedback from student learning forum is mentioned, suggested reading for the week ahead, and someone to follow on Twitter. Staff look forward to opening their bulletin on Friday afternoon and seeing who is featured in it that week. Finally, the head has given me some money so that I can create Lead Learner posts in each department to support heads of department to push forward these changes to curriculum, assessment and lesson planning. Deadline for applications is 9th June – I’m looking forward to seeing who will be stepping up to help push through the vision.

All in all, it’s been the most full-on time in my professional life. There are myriad challenges ahead and I’m still learning as I go. But as the all-round brilliant leader Jill Berry says: ‘Build the bridge as you walk on it.’

10% braver: authentic leadership #WomenEd

14 Apr

In a few days I’ll be starting my new role as deputy head. Even though I know I should have spent the Easter break relaxing and recharging my batteries, I’ve been busying away preparing for my new job. I am excited!

What does a great leader look like? This is what I’ve been pondering since I got the job in February. Since I got the job and have been sharing my news with colleagues, these are the comments I’ve received:

“Oooh. That’s a tough gig. Are you up for it?”

“That’s a challenging school – why did you apply for that job?”

“You’re a great teacher and leader but this job might be beyond your capabilities.”

I could go on…

When I told people I was applying for this DHT post, many people said “There will be easier jobs coming up. Don’t jump ship too soon.” For every person who shared this sentiment with me, the more I was determined not only to apply for this job but to make a success of it. I can be stubborn and I don’t like people telling me I can’t do something!

In November 2016, I attended a #WomenEd #LeadMeet in London; my friend and colleague, Julie Jerham (@Ms_Jer), was presenting about her experiences of being a research and development lead. Whilst I was there, I heard so many inspiring experiences of women being 10% braver and going for jobs that they weren’t wholly sure they could do well. But they got the job. And they were excelling. So it made me think: why don’t you be 10% braver?

Fast forward three months and there I am on the end of the phone accepting a deputy head job. I am euphoric. But then, a few days later, my thoughts are ‘Oh gosh, what have I let myself in for?’ My confidence has completely deserted me. I feel like a fraud. I’m tempted to not go through with it and stay at my current place and keep doing the same thing I’ve done for the past four and a bit years. But then I remember the rallying call of #WomenEd: ‘How can you be 10% braver?’ and I think to myself, ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ and sign the contract.

With a few days to go until I start my new job and leave behind all the fab colleagues and students who have become my second family, I reflect on the 8 Cs of #WomenEd and how I hope to become an effective deputy head and, eventually, a headteacher. When I tell people I want to be a headteacher:

“Gosh, you’re brave.”

“Really? You don’t have children, do you?”

“Are you planning on having children?”

“Best to stay as a deputy and still enjoy your life.”

Very few people I’ve spoken to in the last 12 months have given me a positive response to my goal of becoming a headteacher. It normally takes less than a minute for them to mention I’m a young woman of child bearing age. And I am so bored of it.

So, with all this in mind, I relish the 8 Cs of the #WomenEd agenda. And I hope to grow as a leader over the next few years so that, when the time comes to apply, I’ll be a confident and capable headteacher in the making!

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Fab illustration from @MendoncaPen

With this in mind, I make my leadership pledge:

CLARITY: Acknowledge the gender imbalance in education leadership

I have so many female friends who I work with that I look at and think ‘You are amazing!’. I am so excited to see them step up to SLT as I move on to a new adventure. My goal in my new school is to identify talent and encourage them to believe in themselves that they can make a difference on a larger scale.

COMMUNICATION: Promote the WomenEd mission

This is such a key goal. I find that male colleagues can get a bit funny when I start banging on about #WomenEd. One of my male SLT friends even sent me a link to the definition of misandry! But, all jokes aside, until women are equally represented in senior leadership positions, we must keep ramming this point home. I am pleased to be joining a school where the headteacher has three deputies – all of whom are female.

CONNECTION: Connect existing and aspiring leaders and those who support them

Networking has always seemed like a thing that the private sector does. But in the last few years, I’ve come to realise the benefits of connecting with leaders across phases and regions. When I found out I had been shortlisted for interview, so many senior leaders and headteachers contacted me to wish me luck, offer advice or share resources with me. This all happened through the power of Twitter. It filled me with hope that I could do this gruelling two day job interview. I hope to be a positive force in the #WomenEd community for other female leaders out there who think they’re ready for the next step but are unsure where to start. Sometimes all you need is friendly encouragement to remind yourself that – YES! – you can do it!

COMMUNITY: Create an inclusive and interactive community

Working in silos is the quickest way to limit yourself. Being part of something larger than yourself makes us feel like it’s worth carrying on – even when things get difficult. I am part of several learning communities and I am keen to share these with my colleagues at my new school. For example, being part of the Teacher Development Trust (TDT) has made a significant difference to the way I plan, deliver and evaluate CPD. Another team I absolutely love is #TeamEnglish on Twitter, which exemplifies the positivity and kindness you can find on Twitter if you look hard enough. Dozens of dedicated English teachers sharing their resources for no other reason except wanting to support the learning of students who are not in their classes.

COLLABORATION: Enhance collaboration and sharing of experience

Collaboration is a word that gets bandied around but, when enacted, is one of the most powerful tools we have to develop our practices. Today I read a great excerpt from Carl Hendrick (@C_Hendrick) about the IKEA fallacy, where we believe that what we have created is more important than it actually is. If we’ve worked hard on something then we become protective of it. At my new school, there is a myriad of things that need to be changed and this will be painful for a range of teachers. One thing I am keen to do is create a team of departmental Lead Learners who are working with me so that, rather than me employ a top-down hierarchical approach, we work together to make these changes and motivate staff to come on board.

CONFIDENCE: Empower ourselves by being braver and by taking risks

I never feel clever. That famous ‘Imposter Syndrome’ is me to a tee. Unless you’re close to me, you might not know this. I talk a good game and, on the surface, I seem to be in control when presenting to or talking with teachers. But the reality is I am undergoing a serious bout of hives and am waiting for someone to turn up and shout ‘Don’t listen to her – she doesn’t know what she’s talking about!’. But I have to silence this irrational voice and keep taking risks and embracing challenges. I want to show other female colleagues that you don’t have to be perfect; all you need is authenticity and a passion for what you are talking about.

CHALLENGE: Highlight systemic barriers to more inclusive and diverse leadership

Why are there so few female headteachers? I work in the borough of Ealing in West London; there are 16 secondary schools and only four of them are headed up by a female headteacher. High school heads meetings are dominated by white males aged 50+. To be honest, it’s kind of depressing. I work with so many talented female leaders who could be headteachers yet very few think it is the job for them. Something is seriously wrong when this kind of talent is being frittered away. We must retain our best leaders – whether they’re male or female – and, if that requires systematic change, so be it.

CHANGE: Collate evidence of impact on developing inclusive/ diverse leadership

Deep down we all know that having a diverse senior leadership team can only be a good thing. Just as the police want to reflect the communities they serve, we too must hold up a mirror to the families we serve in our communities and ask ourselves ‘Do we reflect the community we serve?’ It’s not just about the representation of women; #WomenEd also advocates for BAME leaders and we must all get behind and support this grass-roots movement.

Here’s to being 10% braver!

High Challenge, Low Threat: thoughts on stepping up to deputy head

3 Apr

Last month, I read Mary Myatt’s book High Challenge, Low Threat, in preparation for my role as deputy head in a new school. I wanted to read her book as having met Mary and heard her present at several conferences, I find her to be intelligent, thoughtful and the most human of Ofsted inspectors I’ve ever encountered!

It’s been four and a half years since I started as an assistant head at Elthorne Park High School. If only this book had been about then, I probably wouldn’t have made so many rookie mistakes. What is so brilliant about Mary’s book is how she draws upon her wealth of experience and shares it without the need for a range of eduspeak acronyms. She articulates clearly what leaders can do to create a supportive climate and culture for excellent learning to take place.

Without doubt, my new job is going to be taking me out of my comfort zone. The school has some challenges it needs to face and, being the newbie once again, I am going to have to work hard to prove to everyone in the school community that I can contribute to the school’s journey of improvement. I am excited but also extremely nervous. The stakes are so much higher now and I want to get off to a good start. My remit at my new school is similar to the one I had when I started at Elthorne – to develop the quality of teaching and learning and create an effective CPD model – but I will also be responsible for how these tie into whole school quality assurance procedures and appraisal.

Reading through the book, 10 principles struck me as being important for the job I’m about to undertake.

Radical Candour

Candour

In high functioning settings people want to be held to account for their work. But they don’t want to feel like Muppets. No one want to be made to feel like a Muppet. However, top leaders understand that everyone wants to get better at what they do… But we don’t do this on our own. We need people who are able to analyse what we are doing well so that we can do more of it and talk us through how things might be better.’ P.17

In schools with big challenges to address, it would be all too easy to go down a high-stakes accountability model with paper trails and monitoring everyone within an inch of their lives… but that is not the best way to get teachers to come on board and work together to address the challenges. Holding people to account is about clearly communicating the vision and speaking with colleagues about how they are implementing the vision around school. We also need to be careful not to fall into a deficit model, where senior leaders spend more time highlighting things that are wrong and not enough time highlighting things that are working well. The structure of line management meetings with middle leaders needs careful thought so that teaching and learning remains the core discussion point. Everything needs to be brought back to what impact curriculum, teaching and assessment are having on student outcomes.

Management by wondering around

Noticing

Thoughtful leaders know that behind every piece of data there is a bigger story of information, which comes from a wider context. Top leaders know where there is strong practice in their settings. They know where students are getting a good deal. Particularly those who are disadvantaged. And they affirm this by being around school. They know that their presence is there to reinforce high standards of behaviour, courtesy and respect. That the school’s values and ethos are being lived out on a daily basis. They have established a culture where it is acceptable to walk into any classroom at any time. They have made it clear and colleagues know that they do this primarily to support and celebrate. There is never any intention of catching people out, only moving practice on.’ P.20

When I was interviewed for my new job, I was asked which members of staff have most influenced my thoughts on leadership and teaching. Without hesitation, I named one of my previous deputy heads; he would make it his mission to stalk the corridors every day and would think the day had not been a success unless he’d popped his head into every classroom. As a newly qualified teacher, I welcomed his visits as I felt safe to let him know if the lesson wasn’t going well and I needed some extra support and I looked forward to highlighting students whose learning needed celebrating. Starting at my new school, my priority is to ‘take the temperature’ of the classrooms and get beyond the data spreadsheets. I can only do this by being highly visible, being inquisitive and being a supportive presence to teachers.

Gratitude

Gratitude

The most valuable resource which leaders have are their colleagues. So they express gratitude to them. The say thank you, and often. But the thanks are not cheap, off-the-cuff platitudes. They are deep and heartfelt and they come from noticing. Noticing is one of the most powerful things that thoughtful leaders do. They notice the small stuff, the things that make a person tick, the small triumphs and gains. And they know when it is appropriate to express those thanks in public and when to do it quietly.’ P.27

Feeling valued is so important. I’m sure we’ve all worked in places where we’ve gone the extra mile and not been thanked. Of course, we don’t stop going the extra mile because we want the best for our students but it can touch a nerve when it seems that no one is noticing the extra effort we’re putting in. I believe that creating open, friendly and trusting relationships is the most important thing a leader can do. If you think someone cares about you and has got to know you as a person first, teacher second, then you’re more inclined to want to work with them. One of the things I’ve scheduled in for the first six weeks of my new job is to carry out joint learning walks with the heads of subject. Of course, this will help me diagnose the strengths and areas for improvement of staff but, equally important is the opportunity for heads of subject to tell me the story of their department and flesh out the people behind the staff acronyms.

The Essentials

Essentials

In schools which have adopted essentialism principles, their school development plans describe no more than three overarching priorities. Because they know that otherwise colleagues will not be able to keep focus on the main things which need to be done. There is simplicity and power in returning to our main goals. People working in schools where there is clarity report not only greater focus, but a sense of security in knowing that the major item in meetings is strongly linked to the major goal for overall school improvement, and that they are all clear about what their contribution needs to be.’ P.40

When people ask me what I think is the difference between a good and outstanding school, I always return to the same two points: clarity and cohesion. What can happen all too easily is different members of SLT pushing their own agenda and, before you know it, the vision becomes overcomplicated and overwhelming. I am absolutely committed to making sure all my responsibilities link and there is cohesion between teaching and learning priorities, CPD delivery and appraisal targets. Our priorities are to have a relentless focus on raising the level of challenge in lessons, thus leading to accelerating learning. All T&L decisions will be based upon high quality ‘gold standard’ research rather than fads or gimmicks.

Making a mess

Messy learning

Clever leaders understand that learning is messy. It involves hard work, making mistakes, having another go. It involves scribbling out, reworking and redrafting. It involves debate and discussion. It involves unpacking and deconstructing. And none of this is neat. But the goal is to bring it to a satisfying resolution. Above all, they know that it is underpinned by a discipline and coherent aims. They know that learning does not take place in neat gobbet-sized lessons, that the arc of learning something takes more than an hour, that it needs to be revisited. But all these are held within a structure and a framework which allow for this messy deliberation to take place.’ P.57

I am a firm believer in embedding lesson routines to free up more time for students to learn. Every time a teacher has to explain why certain tasks are happening in their classroom is a moment where students are not focusing 100% on their learning. Once students understand what is expected of them and the bigger picture of learning, learning will accelerate. That is not to say that every lesson will look the same across a school – far from it. Departments are encouraged to take the whole school teaching and learning framework and personalise it for their own departments. At my new school, I have introduced 4 phases of learning: hook and connect; explore and discuss; apply and practise; reflect and review. However, there is significant room within the phases of learning for teachers to experiment with innovative practice.

Evidence to tell a big story

Evidence

Sensible leaders know that they can use selected evidence to tell a big story. This saves them a heap of time and their colleagues too. Why would anyone need, or feel that they need, to keep track of everything? The logic of this is that we would spend half our time doing things and the rest of the time clocking that we had done something, somewhere. Top leaders know that this is bonkers.’ P.78

I am not a fan of paperwork for paperwork’s sake. I have worked with some leaders who have been open in saying that the more folders they had filled up with paper, the more they felt they were achieving something. I’m in the middle of packing up my office and it’s become a bit of a joke how few folders I have gathered over the four and a half years I’ve been there. This doesn’t mean that I haven’t been monitoring and evaluating areas I am responsible for; rather, I prefer to make one template fit for purpose so that it can be used for a range of quality assurance procedures. When I start my new job, one thing I am going to be advocating is the use of Google Drive to capture the evidence as it makes quality assurance transparent as middle and senior leaders can collaborate on the same document and it is ‘live’ as every edit is saved in the cloud. No need for multiple versions of the same document sitting dormant on the network.

The paradox of safety

Coaching

When people feel safe they are prepared to move out of their comfort zones. They know that the world won’t fall apart and that while they will be held to account, they will not be humiliated. If they are put down, they are likely to put others down. The culture of coaching and the culture of contempt flows from the top. The coaching culture creates a safe space which allows for discomfort. But the discomfort isn’t crippling, it is recognised as part of growth. Whereas the culture of contempt shuts down the wider concerns for an organisation and means that people work to protect themselves.’ P.95

Culture is everything. No change to practice can be sustained unless the culture is in place first. There may be some quick wins that can happen with a top-down approach, where staff are compliant rather than curious. But they don’t last. The most effective change happens when colleagues recognise every teacher has a duty to develop their practice and welcome discussion and feedback. A vital part of the CPD model that I have worked on at Elthorne is developing a coaching culture, where everyone is coached – including the head. At my new school, I will remind staff of Dylan Wiliam’s well-known mantra: ‘Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.’

The leadership of inclusion

Responsibility

The balance of providing support and expecting a child to offer something is the line where transformation takes place. It is part of the human psyche to take pride, to feel positive when asked for an opinion, to be asked to contribute…. Top leaders support their children through this. They give them as much responsibility as they are capable of and then they stand back and are prepared to be surprised.’ P.107

You can tell a lot about a school by the way students speak about their school to others. The first school I worked in was a fantastic example of how all the students felt they belonged to something much bigger than them. It was not enough for the students to work hard; they had to make a wider contribution to the school. There were no exceptions made: all students had to commit to the principle that they showed their pride for the school through the actions they undertook. The idea of the school being the hub of the local community was shared with students, time and time again. At my new school, part of raising the bar and level of challenge will start in the classroom but extend beyond it to all aspects of school life so that students take pride in their school and recognise the part they play in making it a great place to come and learn.

On creating energy

Creating energy

Talking with colleagues in schools, many say that they are overworked and overwhelmed. When we discuss the difference between feeling overwhelmed and feeling energised, the difference usually relates to whether they see the purpose in what they are doing. When information, data and numbers are collected and nothing appears to happen to them, it can feel pointless. Because it often is. But the energy shifts from negative to positive when colleagues ask why is this needed, what will happen to it, where will this improve practice?’ p.127

One of the great things about joining a new school is you get to come in with a fresh pair of eyes. You are expected to ask questions, to share different ways of thinking and make changes where they are needed. Yet, is there the space for experience, long-standing members of a school to do this without being labelled as awkward or troublesome? Well, in the best schools that are confident in the direction they are taking, they encourage staff to ask the difficult questions to check that what they are doing is actually worth it. But when schools face tough times, it can seem overwhelming to hear criticism from staff, even if it is constructive feedback. The temptation is to ignore the concerns of the doubters but we do this at our peril. If staff cared enough to make time to share their concerns, then they should be shown enough respect by engaging with them and seeing if changes do need to be made to what is expected of staff.

Reasons vs excuses

Why

A reasons culture supports ongoing improvement. It is the kind of narrative which says: ‘This didn’t go as well as it might. What are we going to do differently? How can we support these children to catch up? What have we learnt? How are we going to be better as a result of this?’ This is the polar opposite of an excuses culture, which places responsibility and blame elsewhere and washes its hands. The legitimate reasons use setbacks as a springboard for renewed improvement. The excuses result in complacency and eventually a downward spiral. Because no one is taking responsibility.’ P.130

As a perfectionist, I absolutely hate it when things go wrong! I know – not very growth mindset of me… but as soon as the initial emotional reaction to things going wrong subsides, my next question is ‘Why?’ And by ‘Why?’, I don’t mean ‘Whose fault is it?’. Rather, I’m interested in what happened that we weren’t prepared for or what didn’t we take into consideration when making decisions. This is completely different to making excuses for things going wrong. In schools, which are under significant pressure, it is easy to play the blame game instead of trying to learn from what happened and striving to do better the next time. However, improvements will happen more quickly if colleagues feel they are working in a trusting, supportive environment where everyone is working towards a common goal. I know I am going to have several tough conversations in the first few weeks of my new job and I will be asking colleagues to search for reasons and solutions and encourage them to put the excuses to the side.

As I leave my school behind and focus my attention on my new school, it is a combination of sadness and excitement I’m feeling. I will miss my school dearly but it’s time for a new challenge. Over the next few months, I’ll be blogging about my experience of being a deputy head in a new school. Thanks to all the deputies and heads who have shared their wisdom with me. I will be drawing upon it in the coming months. Wish me luck!

The Inclusion agenda: how do we get the best for all of our students?

22 Jan

This year, I have taken on a new role line managing Inclusion. Previous to this, I was leading on teaching and learning but after doing this for nearly three years, I kept getting this nagging feeling and asked myself:
Are all students getting the same quality learning experience?
And, if I’m being really honest, the answer was ‘No, not really’. We have made great strides with our teaching and learning, and our results and progress measures have all shown significant improvement. However, from walking around school and going into classrooms every day, I knew that some of our most vulnerable students were not having the same experiences as their peers. Teachers were trying their best but there were still too many blank faces or students disengaging because they couldn’t access the content.
As a result, I asked my head to move me across from teaching and learning to Inclusion. What a shock it has been to the system!!! I thought I knew what was going on in school but until I started having daily contact with the Inclusion department, I had no idea about what was really going on. Before I go any further, I have to state that our SENCO who is on maternity, our acting SENCO, our Pupil Premium coordinator and our team of TAs are doing a fantastic job. From 8am till the caretakers kick them out, these wonderful people are spending their whole day trying to make sure our most vulnerable students have a good experience at school. Sometimes it’s disheartening – it’s easy to get bogged down in all the difficulties and lose hope – especially in the face of ever-dwindling budgets and an increase in the amount of students who need extra support. I’ve had more moments in the last four months than the previous three years where I’ve woken up in the middle of the night worrying about certain students; it’s hard to leave it at the door when you know the full story of what is going on in certain students’ lives. Yet it also produces high-fives-in-the-air fist-pumping whooping when you make a small gain with a student who is at risk of not making it. It really is, excuse the cliché, a rollercoaster of emotions over in the world of Inclusion.
The first thing I had to realise is you can’t fix everything overnight. The world of SEND can be a very slow and arduous process, mired in a mountain of paperwork. It can also take a long time to really get to the bottom of what is going on for a student. Teacher might be exclaiming “This student’s behaviour is outrageous!”, “This student doesn’t care about their work” or “This student doesn’t write anything” but it’s our job to try and diagnose the cause of the students’ behaviour. Can they access the learning? Is it frustration or fear causing that reaction? Are they showing off to save face? Did they have a quiet space to do their work at home? Did they misinterpret the instructions but were too shy to let the teacher know? Are they pretending to follow the textbook when they have a reading age of eight years old? Don’t get me wrong: there are times when the student is just being a typical stroppy teenager and their behaviour has nothing to do with their SEN but there are other times when the student needs our help in sharing with teachers how they’re feeling and support them in overcoming their barriers.
This year, my remit is to consider how pedagogy and curriculum can make a difference to students who need extra support. In September, we are going to open an Alternative Resource Provision specialising in speech and language and we are keen to use this as a springboard to focus on how we can become a more communication-friendly school. We have many students who have speech, language and communication needs who will benefit from a whole school approach to developing our teaching to have a stronger focus on communication in all its forms. Moreover, from my work with disadvantaged students, we have also identified that many of these students struggle to articulate their ideas and find it difficult to express themselves coherently, verbally and on paper. So we feel that training staff on specific speech and language strategies will benefit a wide range of students. The borough and NHS have provided us with some really thought-provoking training and given us specific resources and strategies to trial with our classes. Linked to this, we are starting our third year of Lesson Study and have made speech and language our focus. I have been very fortunate to have had the support of our Research and Development lead in finding a wealth of articles, journals and blogs on different aspects of SLCN. Finally, all departments have pledged their Communication Commitment; each department is focusing on three specific strategies to trial in their area, focusing on vocabulary, sequencing/organising material and memory retention. I think we are at a very exciting stage at school and it is great to see teachers talking about learning with this focus on Inclusion.
As well as refining our teaching, I have also been considering how effective our curriculum offer is for students who need something more than the standard curriculum offer. We have a very good curriculum in the main but we have been slow to recognise that too many students who have SEN, are classified as disadvantaged and are low attainers on entry are slipping through the net. We have extra Literacy and Numeracy classes, which we call Learning Plus but this is very much a sticking plaster for a great big gaping wound. We have a menu of interventions to support students with SEN but it’s still a reactive process; their progress report will pick up if they’re at risk of underachievement and then we can identify which intervention might help them close the learning gap. In an attempt to proactive rather than reactive, we are trying to create more developed and differentiated pathways for these learners where they only have a handful of teachers to improve consistency of approach, and they are taught elements of literacy and numeracy in all their subjects, in every lesson. They do not cover the same breadth of the curriculum because the pace of learning is slower but the focus is on mastery and seeing how literacy and numeracy is relevant in all aspects of their learning. The hope is that these students will use key stage three to close the learning gaps and have greater opportunities to succeed in a range of courses at key stage four.
So this is where I’m at after one term in my new role. I’ve never been so tired in January but I’m really excited to be learning about something so important. If we can really get Inclusion right, live and breathe it and not just pay lip service to it, then I think we can move from being a ‘Good’ school to a great one. If anyone working in Inclusion has any thoughts on our SLCN focus or curriculum pathways, please let me know!

#EducationFest 2015: a feast of pedagogical delights!

22 Jun

 

Education Festival

 

I shouldn’t really have been there.

After all, how could I justify taking two days off school to attend a jolly at Wellington College? For the record, Wellington College is Hogwarts without the wizards.

Luckily, my head decided I was allowed two days out for good behaviour and as a present for the publication of our first book.

Wellington College is an amazing setting for what turned out to be two days of high-quality speakers that left my head reeling with ideas. It was incredibly difficult to choose the sessions to attend as all of them had something to offer. What I appreciated in particular was there didn’t seem to be an ‘agenda’ for the festival; all too often you can attend educational events and realise that everyone presenting has the same educational outlook, which can get a bit much by the end of the day. Here, difference of opinions were not only tolerated by positively embraced! All pedagogical approaches were given airspace which made the festival a real joy to attend.

 

hogwarts

wellington college

 

My highlights of the festival

Normally when I get back from a conference or course, the inevitable write-up of what I’ve learnt and how I will disseminate it takes place; I have to admit that I have found it a bit tiresome at times… This time, however, I couldn’t wait to get back to school and share with colleagues some of the exciting and innovative ideas I heard over the two days.

Things that have stuck with me over the weekend…

Geoff Barton’s passion for literacy. The man seems to live and breathe all things literacy. I came away from his session inspired and determined to implement a more cohesive approach to reading in my school. He also challenged anyone who starts a sentence with ‘Well, Ofsted says…’ to remove an item of clothing as punishment!

Dylan Wiliam has to be one of the cleverest people working in education. Having done my PGCE at King’s when Inside The Black Box was one of the most exciting pieces of research doing the rounds at the time, I have always viewed him as some sort of educational god. I feel no different over a decade later. He had the crowd eating out of his hands and he makes the most difficult of concepts accessible to those such as myself who may struggle with data and graphs. He is awesome.

David Didau has really put his neck on the line with his latest book. He pulls no punches when it comes to telling us we’re all wrong but he does it with such panache that it’s hard to take offense! He got one of the biggest laughs of the day when he said that ‘Good’ had become the new shit. This certainly rang true for a lot of us listening in the hall. He convinced me of my ‘wrongness’ so much that I shelled out 25 quid for his book before I left the festival.

Going to the Pupil Premium funding session, led by Andrew Morrish, Mary Myatt and Apples and Pears Foundation was a real eye-opener. I have to admit I was doing some metaphorical fist pumping when Andrew said that some of the best work we do with disadvantaged students cannot be measured. The panel were full of useful tips for making effective use of Pupil Premium funding and the audience were asked the question: ‘If Pupil Premium funding ended tomorrow, what interventions would you stop doing? Get rid of those anyway as they’re not worth it.’

Meeting up with Carl Hendrick, head of research at Wellington College, who I haven’t seen since we finished our PGCE. He hasn’t changed a bit and I had several pangs of nostalgia listening him speak to the audience about the role of research in schools. He is such a passionate speaker and is doing great, innovative work with Harvard Graduate School of Education to improve the way schools use and participate in research.

Bumping into Phil Stock on day two of the festival; we ended up having a great geeky chat about all things CPD and he made an excellent lunchtime companion – although he shamed me into buying four new books to read over the summer to keep up with his ferocious reading habits!

And then there was Tom Sherrington. I would work for him in a heartbeat (as would Mel). His values are spot-on. He discussed his efforts in implementing a National Baccalaureate and incorporating the principles in Martin Robinson’s Trivium 21st Century. Listening to Tom speak really does make you believe that the educators of the Heads Roundtable can make a difference to our educational environment. It was touching to see Tom get teary eyed as he ended his presentation with a photo of one of his students enjoying an outdoor adventure experience and learning so much from it that a classroom alone couldn’t give that young man. This moment reminded me of Andrew Morrish’s earlier words about some of our most important work not lending itself to measuring impact in terms of hard data.

As I mentioned earlier in the post, I have collated all of my notes from the two days and am ready to share with colleagues. If you’re interested in finding out more about the speakers discussed in this post, then you can check out my Prezi here.

http://prezi.com/kjnzu9muyg7o/?utm_campaign=share&utm_medium=copy&rc=ex0share

 

Thanks to all those involved in making it such a great two days of learning!

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