Saturday, 26 September 2015

Finding my way...

Next week, I will be packing my bags and heading back to England for a few days to attend a conference about women in education leadership. I will also spend some time helping with the professional development of some newly-appointed female leaders in their school.  I am always very excited when my experience of education takes a new turn and the recognition of the need for a community of support for women in the profession is a wonderful thing.  It has, along with many other colleagues, made me think of my own experiences and my own feelings about my career.  The more I read and reflect, the more I keep coming across words like ‘confidence’, ‘balance’, ‘guilt’, ‘opportunity’, ‘support’ and ‘choice’.  Various forums have debated these, offering up personal stories, discussing the nature of being a female leader or that of one who is also a mother, arguing out work/life balance, promoting the right to lead authentically and in one’s own style and much more. 

Increasingly, I find myself listening to women considering their careers, who are filled with doubt and tension about what to do next and the only advice I can ever give is to do what is right for them right now. I too have had the sleepless nights and butterflies in the stomach caused by the fear of bad decisions, the terror of messing it all up and having to compromise at the cost of all that hard work.  When I contemplate it all, there is one word that keeps bobbing about in my mind. ‘Permission’.  More specifically, it is the permission I have slowly learned to give myself to do what I think is best for me.  It has been a lengthy and often frustrating journey, but one that may well resonate with others.

If you asked me what has been the significant shift in my attitude, I would say that it has been that instead of seeking others’ approval, their acceptance, their perception of where my career should go, their sense of my professional worth, I can now finally find the validation and direction from within.  This has not been easy.  While I have never been an ambitious, career-driven seeker of opportunity for the sake of it, I care deeply and passionately about education and being an educator.  If I have ever gone for a post or promotion, it has been because it was the right thing for me and it would make me happy to be able to contribute more through that particular role.  As I have moved through my life, other factors have played a part in my happiness – my family, my home, my sense of wellbeing, my close friends, my thirst for knowledge, my understanding of time.   As this has happened, I have had to learn to give myself permission to do what enables me to feel peaceful and happy about my own life, without worrying so much about what other people think about my decisions.  To be honest, if I hadn’t, I would be a miserable wreck and that is no way to lead your life.

It started before I even met my husband or became a parent or had anything else much to think about in my life.  After a very rapid move through promotions in a couple of schools, I suddenly realised that I had been entered into a race I wasn’t even aware existed and it terrified me.  From nowhere, it became about becoming a Deputy Head in order to reach the heights of Headteacher as quickly as possible.  If I didn’t do it in my mid-thirties then I was no longer one of the frontrunners. It bothered me, made me achingly uncomfortable and I felt like I was in danger of letting myself be convinced of what I wanted rather than following my heart. I remember how, one sunny Sunday morning, I suddenly felt an unforgettable sense of calm when I decided that I wanted to go and work elsewhere in education for a few years. Just because it would give me a great experience of so much in the wider system. So that is what I did. It made me even more passionate about education. It made me want to continue on as a school leader because there was work to be done and some incredible people already doing it. Most of all, I did it because I wanted to and not because it was what was expected of me.

Once family happened, my ability to give myself permission to do what was tolerable to my soul became even more important. I found this out after I had cried for 3 weeks straight dreading telling the Head at my very new school that I was unexpectedly pregnant. She was brilliant, told me some enduring home truths about being a working mother and couldn’t have been more supportive when we then had to move due to my husband’s work. Awkward. I had to let myself absorb the guilt and embarrassment of not having control over my own life and career, but equally to accept that nothing would have been worth our family living apart all week, every week. As I said in my leaving speech, my younger, feminist self would have imploded. My older, wiser feminist self was happy to be able to make the choice and be content with it.

A few years later, I had strong words with myself and said it was absolutely ok to say that I didn’t want to be considered for potential promotion to lead a school because I didn’t know if we would be moving again the following year. I knew I couldn’t live with letting anyone down, least of all myself and my own sense of professionalism.  I gave myself permission to skirt the edges of madness holding together a web of support around me and my son, so that I could give it my all again in that second Deputy Headship, with my husband in another demanding role with unpredictable hours.  I learned to ‘let it go’ when things didn’t go to plan. I stopped looking at how many cars were in the car park when I got to school and at the end of my working day, its length dictated by childcare. The world never once ended, I didn’t feel less respected. I realised that if I worked hard, was a nice person and did what I said I was going to do, then nobody cared what time I entered or left the building. My voice was heard and I was taken seriously because I thought about what I said and made sure I knew what I was talking about, not because I declared how busy I was or how many hours I’d worked over the weekend.

Most recently, I gave myself permission to be happy to take a long sabbatical that potentially jeopardised the next steps in my career, because it meant that my family could move abroad for a few years and have an amazing experience together.  Which we are.  I have started studying again, I am very involved in my son’s school, and I indulge myself in writing, which I have always adored.  Every day, I tell myself it is ok to feel a pang when I see someone I know move on to their first Headship, when I watch posts go by in schools I would have loved to lead, when I read about the latest policy I want to be in school to fight from the trenches, when I can’t participate more because I’m not ‘home’.  I have learned to give myself permission to choose the right path for me, for living in the present, and it has been the most liberating thing I have ever done. 

I am entirely at peace with my life, both personal and professional. I wish I’d known that would be the case as a middle leader in her late twenties with no life, a caffeine addiction, plenty of great ideas and too many late nights working, trying so hard to live up to other people’s expectations.  I wish I hadn’t wasted so many hours since then feeling guilty, confused, inadequate, emotionally exhausted and a disappointment because I just didn’t always want, or could do, what others felt I should aspire to.  I wish I could have told myself what I have learned.

Be true to your own ambition, not that of others. Know that it is both good and right to put your personal self ahead of your school self.  You only gain professional respect by walking the walk and being a consistent, compassionate human being. Life is messy, you will always have days when you feel like it has all gone wrong. It all works out fine in the end if your aim is to be happy.

When I left my school last year, someone asked me if I would find it difficult to give it ‘all’ up.  Without even thinking, I simply said that I didn’t feel I had anything to prove to anyone except myself, and I absolutely meant it.  It felt great.

This post was inspired by the WomenEd network and their first ‘unconference’. You can follow @WomenEd on Twitter and more details about their networks and events can be found on their website

1 comment:

  1. Only just catching up with this, Rosanna - it's been a full few weeks! Really enjoyed reading it. It was great to have the chance to meet you at the #WomenEd conference - so pleased you made it there.

    Hope you keep writing! I enjoy your reflections.