Archive | April, 2017

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!


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


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


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.



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


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


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


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


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


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 dignity of the thing

Christine Counsell's blog

Stack of Marking

Where the world comes to learn about me and my fabulous teaching.


things I notice in schools

Learning Geek Journey

Joining the quest for finding, sharing and leading learning ideas!

Leading Learner

Headteacher at St. Mary's Catholic College, Blackpool. Fascinated by learning & leading. Love collaborating and seeing new practice. Involved in SSAT Redesigning Schools & Vision 2040 Group.


What inspires - and exasperates - me about education


Most Influential UK Education Blog

Monkey Learns...

Small changes can make a big difference!

tait coles @Totallywired77 - PuNk Learning

“Authority is supposedly grounded in wisdom, but I could see from a very early age that authority was only a system of control and it didn't have any inherent wisdom. I quickly realised that you either became a power or you were crushed” Joe Strummer

Thinking on Learning

Small changes can make a big difference!

Class Teaching

Finding & sharing teaching 'bright spots'

Full On Learning

Because learning is too important to be left to chance

The Confident Teacher

Alex Quigley's blog sharing ideas and resources on literacy and education

The Blog

Small changes can make a big difference!