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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.’

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