Sunday, 16 October 2016

Lost and Found...

A few days have passed since the second @WomenEd Unconference and I am sitting on a flight back to Naples, unable to just sit back and snooze before real life starts again. I have had a wonderful trip back ‘home’, seeing friends and family, wandering wistfully around places and cities I adore and catching up on everyone’s news.  I never thought that I’d ever say that I found what I thought was my lost mojo in Reading, but I did. Honest.

On an autumnal Friday night, after a packed train journey full of people heading for the excitement of London, I arrived at the hotel and was very quickly greeted by others linked to WomenEd. There was that ‘thing’, which happened over the whole event, where the familiarity gained though communication on social media was suddenly thrown into the reality of not really knowing each other. I described it to a friend as ‘what online dating must feel like when you finally decide to get real’. What happened over the rest of the evening, several large G&Ts (thank you @MissWilsey) and a lot of chat and laughter was what encapsulates the spirit of the network. Egos were not present, everyone was themselves, quiet, loud, tired, hyper, shy, confident…  We were all distant cousins who had come together at the annual family reunion, ready to share our stories, support each other and make plans for future get-togethers. Just without the tension or arguments (or maybe that’s just my family).

The day of the conference felt special from the start. I greeted friends old and new, a minibus full of much-missed colleagues from my last school and was approached by people who had read my writing or engaged with me on Twitter. My session, on authentic leadership pathways, was both a catharsis and a passing on of experience, advice and my thinking after what feels like a pretty long time in the profession. (It felt even longer when one of the participants realised that I had been her French teacher 17 years ago). As I was speaking and facilitating thought and discussion in the room, the most enormous sense of calm came over me. I had hit my groove again, I was enjoying every moment, the words came easily and those who shared their stories made my heart sing at what wonderful, interesting souls do this education thing.

Afterwards, some of those in the session took the time to find me and thank me, giving me the most generous feedback. I met people who I have helped with job applications via e-mail, making me beam with joy at their stories of success or increased confidence. I even had a blog post I’d written about job applications recommended by the wise and exceptionally supportive @jillberry and sat inspired hearing how she and @nataliehscott approached their writing, feeling the fear but doing it anyway.

If I could have bounced back to the train station, I would have done. This is what healthy, wholesome networks do for us as professionals and people (all of us, not only women). We share ourselves without pretension, we listen without judgement and we pass on the best of what we know to light up paths and ideas for others. We welcome, we laugh, we support. We find our identity and if we need to, we re-invent ourselves in the afterglow of empowering inspiration and get a steady push out of the starting blocks towards our next adventure through our lives and careers.

So, this woman, who arrived as a tired, anxious mum who had left her son and husband on distant shores, who was stressed after a fortnight of unintentional KS1 teaching (that is a whole other story), who constantly pines for being amongst wonderful educators and colleagues, who misses their particular sense of humour and collegiality, who worries that she has lost her place in the best profession in the world, this woman found her mojo again. In Reading. 

Sunday, 15 May 2016

With great power...

Last summer, Emma Kell of @thosethatcan asked Twitter to say how being a parent had changed them as a teacher. As you can tell, it has taken me a long while to grapple with this. The more I thought I had a pithy and clever answer to tweet back, the more I challenged myself to properly communicate the multitude of thoughts swarming in my mind, the myriad of feelings swirling in my heart. I have kept coming back to the question as I have watched my son move through Year 1 and found myself shocked by the visceral reaction I have had to moments in his experience.  You see, I think that what has changed most is that I had completely forgotten the potential for the utter heartbreak of watching your child learning to be a learner at school.  After a few weeks of reading so much about what children might experience in their primary years, triggered by the new assessment regime of the SATS, I have come back to that question over and over again. How has this changed me as a teacher and a leader?

Power. I have been reminded of the power we have to make or break a child’s day, week or entire state of being. The unfortunate action, the badly phrased admonition, the labyrinthine behaviour code, forgetting a promise, dampening enthusiasm, not delivering on those said and unsaid agreements that make our relationships in the classroom work. Because of what? Time, resources, external pressures, stress, juggling too many things, our own sense of importance, control. Nothing that the child is responsible for. Nothing that the parent can easily explain. Often beyond the conscious practice of the well-intentioned but pressured teacher.

My son had been so excited about starting Year 1, but within a week he told me one night at bedtime that he was ‘no good at anything’ and ‘not a good boy’. The words shot through my heart. I cried all night. I was shocked by my response and how little control I had over it.  I met with a defensive teacher (new to the school and grappling with a very different environment), who told me that he wasn’t going to change the behaviour chart that all the children were calling ‘the naughty list’.  I wasn’t asking for it to change, I just wanted my son to understand why his being ‘ready to learn’ was suddenly defined as being ‘red’, ‘amber’ or ‘green’ on a bit of card and that excitedly talking to a friend about superheroes while sitting on the carpeted area didn’t make him a useless and naughty six year old. 

When we asked for new readers (farewell Biff and Chip), as he was speedily ploughing through the same stage he had been on in Reception and wanted to not ‘be bored’, we were told that it wasn’t book changeover day, that there weren’t enough books in the next stage to share out, that there needed to be more books ordered in. He couldn’t have more or move on a level because then they would run out of texts to give him.  I was so taken aback by this reasoning that I actually couldn’t contain my tears when I went to see the senior leader responsible for literacy, to ask her what was going on. This was reading. The holy grail of loving to learn.  My child wanted to read more books, and he was told he couldn’t have more from school, but don’t worry, Mummy will get some for you to have at home.  He felt guilty for asking, confused and frustrated. It was the third week of Year 1.  

I had spent years telling him that school was the most exciting place in the world and that learning was the most incredible journey he would ever go on. If he wanted to be a deep-sea/arctic scientist-explorer, ninja artist, rock star and dinosaur bone hunter then school would help him learn everything he needed to do that when he was all grown up. I felt like a massive fraud with the very unfortunate propensity of living out my child’s disappointment in highly dramatic fashion.  With the distance to reflect, I realised that what hurt so much was my own frustration and lack of power to give my son the experience of learning and school that I had spent my career trying to provide for other people’s children.

Had I done that successfully? How many times had I used my position as ‘teacher’ to dismiss the concerns of a child or their parents without properly listening? Had my defence mechanism kicked in at the end of a long day, a bad week or a demanding term and made me give shallow reasons for me or my school not doing its absolute best for someone’s child?  Did I do everything I could to give those I line-managed the opportunity to tell me what they needed to make learning come alive in their classrooms, to argue for the funds on their behalf?  Had I spoken up enough about the rigidity inherent in any ‘behaviour management system’ or could I have done more to make it simple and relevant to the children?  How many times had something gone to the bottom of my busy and ever-expanding list that was of burning urgency to a child or their parents?  How often had my power led to disappointment and chipped away at a love for learning or trust in me or my school?

Those are hard questions to answer, not because they require a huge amount of recall or soul-searching but because, of course, it is impossible to teach or lead in a school and be unimpeachable against any of those counts. 

So. How has being a parent changed me as a teacher? I know that I cannot afford for myself or those in whom I entrust my child’s education to forget what extraordinary power we have. I know that I have to ask myself those questions more frequently, more searchingly and more honestly. I know that I must expect that of myself and foster that heightened sense of responsibility in any learning environment where I have influence. Most of all, I know that we all need to remind ourselves that the only thing that matters when we teach is our ability to explode the boundaries of each child’s own universe through learning. That delicate, difficult, extraordinary task that puts all those mundane ones, all the formalities, stresses and strains into the dark, distant shade.  As a leader, I need to endeavour to make everyone feel that this is their core purpose, every day and protect them from all that noise and distraction that swirls around us in education.

There, then. Not an easy answer. Certainly not one I was ever going to fit neatly into a tweet…

Friday, 5 February 2016

Letters of Note

Next weekend will see the first WomenEd residential 'UnConference' spring to life, focused on making next career steps. While I am sad not to be able to be there in person to share in the fantastic community that has been created, I am really delighted to have been asked to offer a virtual workshop on writing letters of application.

Like many at any level of leadership, I have spent many hours reading letters from prospective candidates.  Sometimes it is heartwarming to see the passion and enthusiasm they transmit. Other times it is depressing to see that an 'insert name of job and school here' approach has been taken. Often, I have been taken aback by how little I know about someone even though they have spent two sides of A4 telling me what they think is notable about their skills and experience.

So, the wonderful Hannah Wilson of WomenEd asked if I might share some tips and here they are...

Read the job specification. While this might seem rather obvious, a letter that doesn't convince me that you really want to do the job I need you to embrace, shape and excel in is not going to make it onto the 'yes' pile for interview.  If you didn't need to know the job details, school or department context and any other information you have been sent, assume that they wouldn't have been given to you. 

Read the 'essential' column of the person specification and don't be put off. These are going to be the non-negotiables and more about qualifications, specific skills or essential experience, the sort of thing you would cover in your application form. If you don't have them, will you by the time you start the post? Are you being proactive in ensuring you will? Do you need to explain this in your letter? Yes, is the answer. It's worth taking a different view of the 'desirable' column. Research has shown us that all too often, women feel that if they can't tick every single box on a person specification then they will be put off applying. Don't be - use your letter to demonstrate what already fits, what you are working on and what else you can offer to the post. Remember that your capacity and potential to fit many aspects of the role will be given a chance to shine through at interview. So, convince them on paper that it is worth finding out!

Be yourself. You have about 8 paragraphs to show me who you are as a professional, what you value as your best achievements and skills and what you are going to bring to the table in my school.  This is different to listing your career stages, telling me about everything successful that you have single-handedly achieved and asking me for the opportunity to do the same in this new role.  Don't be scared to write about your passion and what drives you (although if you read it back and it sounds like power ballad lyrics, tone it down). Think of achievements or successes that relate to the job specification and relate these honestly, whatever your part in them was. Don't say you led if you didn't, there is nothing wrong with having been part of a team that made something work, quite the opposite. Identify any relevant challenges and how you (and your team) overcame them, particularly if this will chime with issues the school is trying to address. 

Use the language of an emotionally intelligent professional. It is absolutely fine to 'feel' and to 'believe'. Equally, go on, be 'passionate' and 'excited'. Have you shown 'concern' or 'support' for a colleague, students or a situation?  Were you 'challenged' or 'inspired' by a problem, person or goal? Did you work 'with' and 'alongside' people? Did you 'lead a supportive team'. You get my point. I have read letters and sat in interviews where candidates have been very eager to make sure that I know that they alone achieved great things, that they simply told other people what to do and then spent no time at all thinking about how these feats of leadership happened. It is, of course, a fine balance between making sure that you take credit for your skills and underselling yourself. If you think about your letter being a reflective, relevant account of yourself rather than a shrieking sales pitch, you will give a much fuller picture of yourself as an individual.

Don't claim anything that you can't back up with evidence face to face. Remember that your goal is to actually be called to interview. Then remember what it feels like to be interviewed. I will just illustrate this one with a real example. The letter said, "I led a department-wide initiative to introduce new classroom-based learning assessment techniques. It led to excellent outcomes."  The interview answer to a question exploring this was, "I made coloured lollipop sticks for a couple of us to trial with our classes in plenary sessions and the kids loved it."  I would have been really impressed if the letter hadn't made bigger-sounding claims in 'clever' words and had just referred to trying out simple techniques with colleagues that had successfully engaged the students. It certainly would have made the moment less awkward.

Jargon isn't clever. Too much, the overuse of current education buzzwords, or heaven help us, 'management speak' that would be great in the City but not in a school - these all just come across as diversion techniques covering up a small amount of substance and not so much of the good stuff. 

Spelling. Spelling. Spelling. Many people will just put your letter on the 'no' pile if you make spelling mistakes.  Oh, and while you're at it, get the name of the school and the person you are writing to completely correct as well. This really helps.

The only other thing I can say is that you have to believe in yourself and know that you really want to do this job you are applying for. However hard you try to disguise it, any shakiness over this being the right move for you, right now, in the right school will climb out of every sentence you write and jump up and down at the person reading it.  Follow your heart and your instincts and you will be well on your way to achieving your goals.  Good luck. We need people like you.

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