Physical and Mental Health: Work-life balance after the pandemic

Finding a work-life balance after the pandemic

 

Ok, so the pandemic isn’t over but during the various lockdowns and stages of it, there was time for me to reflect and reset some ways in which I work as a school leader. What do I value most in my life and how can I get the balance of work and home right?

 

I have always been a keen gardener, but the mini heatwave of April and May 2020 meant I spent even more time in the garden because I wasn’t in school until 6pm each day (and yes, I was in school during lockdown like most teachers because schools were not shut, we had key worker and vulnerable children in!). I have always found the outdoors a great distraction from other issues that might be going on around me and massively helps my wellbeing. With gardening, you focus on the job in hand be it sowing seeds or mowing the lawn. But that first lockdown meant there was hardly anything you could do as we were instructed to stay home and I was extremely grateful to have a garden. I honestly do not know what I would have done without one.The garden is my sanctuary to get away from it all. So now that there is some return to normality what now? Well I still try and get home whilst it is light in the months that allow it in order to spend even just half an hour in the garden pottering about. I do not take any physical work home with me as I learnt long ago that when I did this I just couldn’t be bothered or was too tired so what was the point? Family and health come first. Always. School should not be your entire world and I won’t let my school life define the other aspects of my life. One thing that helps is having no other friends or family members who works in education! I don’t talk shop outside of school as no one else really gets my job, just like I don’t really get theirs. This actually helps me a lot to switch off and concentrate on other things and not always be thinking about school. If I want to engage in this conversation then I go to Twitter but this comes with a warning. I often have my wife telling me to get off of it as I can get into a scrolling frenzy and spend ages on their just reading educational threads, some of which are interesting and useful, but some are not conducive to good wellbeing. It is easy to be gas lighted or incensed with a chain of tweets. It is important to keep reminding myself that Twitter is not real life and loads of teachers are not on Twitter. It can be too polarised at timeswith quite a bit of SLT bashing. So a Twitter break is often the way forward. The block and mute functions are also essential!

 

Alongside all of this, I moved schools in September 2020 having secured a Head of School role in February 2020, right before the pandemic struck with an almighty bang! This was tough in itself to change schools at such an uncertain time. Itdid have some benefits. I was able to take more time to get to know school policies and staff whilst al lot of the hustle and bustle of school life and strategic thinking was put on hold as we stuck to our bubbles. But it was hard. You can’t do a lot of things you would want to do in the early stages of a new leadership job. Things like face-to-face assemblies to make your mark and having parents in school or events to build those relationships. These all led to times of imposter syndrome or frustration but I am fairly patient which helped. I also moved to a school closer (much closer!) to home. This of course means it is now even easier to get home in time for a spot of gardening! Moving forwards, I want to make more of some weekday evenings, perhaps going out for a meal or the cinema to help break up the week. I truly believe the school I help lead and all other schools need leaders who are refreshed and on an even-keel with their wellbeing. Otherwise the whole school will suffer due to poor decision making or inconsistent moods that help know one. 

Leading through a pandemic has been exhausting. Emotionally more than anything else. It is the weight of being responsible for the whole school community who look to you for answers and direction in what was and still is (at the time of writing) an uncertain time. For many of us in education, this has taken its toll. So now I just hope the wider powers that be can shift towards making staff wellbeing, and especially that of school leaders, even more of a priority. This is still severely lacking with leaders often having to fend for themselves with no one looking out for them on a regular basis alongside what I view as a toxic level of accountability coupled with cuts to other sectors that now make schools a one-stop-shop for community support. Until things change, I shall keep on gardening and keep on leading but family and health come first. Always.

 

Alex Baptie

Head of School

East Sussex


Physical and Mental Wellbeing: I even tried hypnosis to cope with stress

When asked about my job, I sometimes describe being a headteacher as similar to being in an emotionally abusive relationship. I read a definition once, which described it as ‘a consistent pattern of abusive words and bullying behaviour that wear down a person’s self-esteem and undermine their mental health.’ And without diminishing the terrible experiences of people who have been in emotionally abusive relationships, I can’t help but find a correlation between the cycle of emotional abuse and the cycle of experiences I have working in education.

Some days I feel like I can handle it, and on others I feel completely crushed. No one in teaching needs me to tell them that being a headteacher isn’t easy. The past two years have added another dimension of difficulty to an already tricky job. The chances I used to have to refill my resilience-cup have dwindled and so, all it takes at the moment to make me spill over in despair is one more complaint from *that* parent, one snide comment from someone about how little teachers work, or one more child or family remaining un-helped by Social Services, CAMHS or one of the other over-burdened support systems out there.  

There are delightful bits, of course there are, my passion for pedagogy and bearing witness to a child’s development are the bright spots in my working day. I enjoy assemblies, hearing children sing, chatting to the children in class and on the playground, reading stories and just having the chance to love the little people for who they are. Sadly, this is being buried in the putrid swamp of outside pressure and lack of funding. New curriculum, over-testing, new inspection frameworks, less funding, less support, less resourcing. At times it feels overwhelming.

I never would have described myself as a political animal, but the current situation has certainly forced me to be more aware and to speak up against the injustices being done to school staff, school budgets and the families and communities we serve. But, it is hard to stand against the continued media barrage against teachers, the head of Ofsted criticising us for helping children and families eat when no one else would, and the endless and ridiculous amount of information that is shovelled at us by the DfE.

My job as headteacher is to be a protective umbrella over my school, taking care of the bigger picture so my teachers can teach, my teaching assistants can assist, my children can learn and my families can flourish. In my 12 years as a head, I have faced tough times, deficit budgets, bonkers parents and challenging children. I have had death threats levelled at me and I have had a mentally ill parent actively try to strangle me (I was saved by a wonderful teaching assistant who held a door shut with her bodyweight so I could escape and call the police). I have had parents formally complain to the Local Authority about me for ridiculous reasons. I have had so many Ofsted inspections (including one from an inspector who brought a pink silk corset with honest-to-god nipple tassels on it into my school in her briefcase!) from which I have learned nothing about my duty to school, although I did learn a great deal about my capacity to cope with stress and keep a straight face!

I coped with all these things. I cried sometimes, I comfort ate my way through barrel-loads of junk food sometimes, I ran miles and miles, I composed and deleted my resignation letter, I even tried hypnosis to cope with the stresses. The thing is, these tough times would pass and I would have a chance to recognise the joy in my job, find my equilibrium and come back stronger and more positive.

Lately, however, it feels like there is no let up between the punches- I’m not able to fight back, I have no recovery time between blows… I feel like I’m being bludgeoned into a paste. I have put on weight, I hardly sleep, when I do sleep I grind my teeth so badly that I shattered a molar, I don’t exercise, I cry in my car on the way home but I can’t seem to explain exactly what it is that has tipped me over the edge. I feel like I shouldn’t feel like this. I have a job, a home, a family. I have so much to be grateful for, and so much that brings me joy. My staff are wonderful. They are amazingly supportive, genuinely good people. They try so hard and do their work magnificently. My governors are great and do so much to help me. They ask me how I am and how they can help me. They are the spokes in my umbrella, keeping me up and open over my school but my fabric is being torn to shreds.

I would love to do something else- at times I wish I could do anything else- but I am so worn down and burned out that I believe it when I think there is nothing else I know how to do. I’m trapped in this relationship, waiting for the good times that seem to be fewer and further apart.


Physical and Mental Wellbeing: I haven’t got time for lunch

I haven't eaten today. I've got no time for lunch.

 

We are nearing the end of a challenging and taxing half term and we all know the score by now. The dark mornings and afternoons and the feeling that time, instead of being on our side, is actually our enemy. There's just never enough of it. For senior leaders, this pinch point is all too clear, the mental exhaustion comes from balancing everything from the strategic to the seemingly trivial, managing budgets of millions of pounds one minute and then managing the Year 8 lunch queue the next. The toll on our brains and bodies becomes evident at this stage in the year, but it’s this time where our colleagues really look to us to see something completely different. 

 

The only answer for senior leaders seems to be to work harder, for longer. We sacrifice precious moments and time with friends and family, sacrifice break and lunchtimes in a desperate attempt to catch up and to squeeze everything in. Unused gym memberships, broken social engagements with friends and fatigue beyond words becomes the norm. You forget your body’s need to fuel and refuel during the day, because even eating or drinking a glass of water gets added to the bottom of your growing to-do list. 

 

This would be the case if this was an ordinary year, but it isn’t- for so many reasons this year is extraordinary. But even so, there are bigger issues that need to be addressed here in order to ensure that senior workload is manageable and that we are able to serve the teachers and colleagues in our schools to the best of our ability. 

 

Being in leadership is a public affair, you’re on show, performing, walking the walk during every waking working moment. In our cars being the last on the staff carpark, in working through lunchtimes and breaktimes we are sending a message, loud and clear to future generations of senior leaders that in order to retain your position and be proficient in your role, work has to be prioritised ahead of your own health and wellbeing. 

 

We need to shift that narrative, to stop promoting martyrdom as a glamorous pursuit. To stop telling colleagues what time we shut the laptop the night before. 

 

This is easier said than done, particularly if it’s all that our colleagues have ever seen or all that's been promoted by their leaders. As an NQT, I remember feeling the weight of expectation when I and 12 other colleagues were asked to prepare a presentation, summarising our learning for the year. We spent weeks preparing, trying to source the time around planning our lessons and learning how to be teachers. In the end, we decided it would be best to just stay in school until it was done. We camped out in a computer room until around 9:30pm, ordered pizza and planned for our lives. After we had done our presentation to the whole staff the day after, we were praised for our dedication and the additional hours we had spent putting the work together- we were congratulated on the sacrifices we had made. 

 

I don't remember exactly what was in that presentation but I do remember that that experience created an unhealthy work ethic that I still battle against, 12 years later. 

 

I'm more and more aware now of the language I use around my impressionable colleagues, and I'm trying more consciously to ensure they don't perceive me as somebody who can fit a week's worth of work into a day. 

 

The key here is in developing those around us more successfully and modelling the sort of leadership behaviours we would want to see in them. A greater focus on distributing leadership capacity into middle leader posts is crucial in building sustainable change and in ensuring the healthy working habits of future leaders. Developing opportunities to have honest and candid conversations about the challenges of managing your time at senior level is so important. 

 

In 12 years time, I hope that the next Assistant Head says they learnt from somebody who made time for their lunch, drank plenty of water and picked up their child rather than their laptop in the evenings. That's when we will know we've been successful. 


Physical Health and Wellbeing: Women’s Health

Why do senior leaders need to make improvements for women’s health in the workplace?

Not least because pregnancy and menopause are a normal part of women’s lives. As such it can be an equality and safety issue, women could very well need flexibility, reasonable adjustments to work patterns and the workplace environment and support but overall better knowledge and understanding by their line managers and colleagues.

Women’s health can incorporate pregnancy, early motherhood, menopause, fertility treatment, miscarriage, still birth and gynaecological issues. All of these have the possibility of causing physical, emotional and mental health issues for women. Conditions in the workplace can have a detrimental effect and make symptoms worse.

Menopause it is still a taboo topic, one that is rarely spoken about, particularly in the workplace, unless through jokes and banter. The lack of awareness by employers of the impact symptoms may have to our capacity to complete activities at work and which affect our well-being. We need to start speaking up; challenge negative menopausal stereotypes and encourage our friends and colleagues to do the same.

There is a significant lack of understanding and knowledge we all hold around the menopause and its symptoms. The period of time leading up to the menopause is actually called the peri-menopause, being the period of transition leading up to the menopause where women experience a huge variety of symptoms, but few people are aware of the term. Most of us will have heard about hot flushes, heavier periods, frequency changes to periods and starting to get hair where we don’t want it, but how many more symptoms do you know about even if you are currently in the transitional stage of peri-menopause? They can include: difficulty sleeping; low mood or anxiety; skin irritability; palpitations; panic attacks; joint stiffness and problems with memory and concentration.

Did you know this period of hormonal change can last for 4 to 8 years and for some up to 12 years?

All women will all experience some symptoms and for some they can be severe and have a significant impact on the quality of our personal and working life. It is said 1 in 4 women will experience severe symptoms! These symptoms affect working life and we try to manage tiredness, memory changes and poor concentration plus the stress and embarrassment, which may be detrimental to confidence levels.

New and expectant mothers are covered by specific requirements under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. The term ‘new or expectant mothers’ includes pregnant women, mothers who are breastfeeding, mothers who have given birth in the last six months and women who have miscarried after 24 weeks of pregnancy.

However, it is harder to pin down the legislation for women undergoing fertility treatment, miscarriage before 24 weeks, menstrual difficulties and the menopause. The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 requires employers to ensure the health, safety and welfare of all workers. Under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations, employers are required to undertake general risk assessments which should include specific risks to pregnant and menopausal women.

The Equality Act prohibits discrimination against people on the grounds of certain ‘protected characteristics’ including sex, age and disability. Conditions linked to the menopause may meet the definition of an ‘impairment’ under the Equality Act and require reasonable adjustments.

Every workplace needs to be committed to ensuring that women feel confident in discussing pregnancy, menopause and female health symptoms openly, without embarrassment and are able to ask for support and adjustments in order to continue to work safely in the organisation. For this reason, pregnancy, menopause and female health at work is an issue for men as well as women.

Workplaces need a positive attitude towards the menopause, pregnancy and female health treating all individuals with dignity and respect during this time and ensure that the workplace does not make symptoms worse.

Workplaces need to aim towards:

creating an environment where women staff members feel confident enough to raise issues about their symptoms and ask for support and adjustments at work.
ensuring that conditions in the workplace do not make menopausal, pregnancy, fertility treatment or female health symptoms worse and that appropriate adjustments and support are put in place, recognising that pregnancy, fertility treatment and the menopause and perimenopause is an individual experience and therefore there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution.
reducing sickness absence due to menopausal, pregnancy, fertility treatment or female health symptoms and retain valued staff in the workplace.
Educate and inform managers and colleagues to be ware how pregnancy, fertility treatment, menopause and female health can affect working women and about the potential symptoms of female health and how they can support women experiencing them.

Everyone who works has a role to play in ensuring a comfortable working environment for all staff, including women experiencing the menopause or female health difficulties.

These could include simple measures such as:

leaving doors open
ensuring that windows can be safely opened
ensuring that it is possible to regulate the temperature in a classroom or other room by turning down radiators (as long as the temperature does not drop below 18 degrees Celsius, this will be comfortable for all occupants)
provision of fans
fitting blinds to windows
provision of safe spaces and fridges for breastfeeding mums or fertility drugs
establishing a system that allows cover for women who need to access toilet/ washing facilities while they are teaching (to deal with heavy and recurring bleeding during the peri-menopause or administration of medication for fertility treatment)
considering requests for changes to working arrangements, e.g. temporary part-time working
swift permission for absence to attend fertility treatment or menopause-related medical appointments

Not being proactive in this area may lead to the staff member suffering from physical and mental health issues and being on sick leave, which could be long term and potentially resigning or taking early retirement when reasonable adjustments could have retained valuable, experienced staff.

We can also pledge to share important points about the topic to ensure everyone is better informed and the subject does not remain taboo.

Bretta Towned - Jowitt


#HeadsUpBookClub: Permission to Feel

Permission to Feel: unlocking the power of emotions to help our kids, ourselves, and our society Thrive. Marc Brackett, Ph. D Celadon

In our inaugural Book Club session, we were privileged to discuss this book with the author who kindly joined us from Yale University. Marc asked us, 'How many of you would share that you are reading a book with this title?'

Our discussion around the contextual connotation was just one of many fascination aspects of the evening. What sat quietly in the corners of our minds were a range of questions around vulnerability, trauma and our own judgement systems related to emotions, our social upbringing and inhibitions that tell us when it's appropriate to share our emotions.

As leaders and educators, the more pressing matters of how to use this were bubbling in our minds, and how our current climates would benefit from this learning.

Marc’s book explores the social expectations and conventions around the simple question, 'How do you feel?'

 

How often is our response to this a mask?

How often do we ask it without considering what we really want to know?

Do we really hear the answer?

 

One simple question introduces us to the roots of Marc's book and life work, rooted in the theories of emotional intelligence and backed up by extensive research.

Last week's inaugural Heads Up Book 'club began with this book because this question is integral to all we prioritise as an organisation. Recognising our own emotions is also the first in Marc's RULER approach, which is at-the foundation of the work he undertakes at CASEL (Collaboration for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning), Yale. He explains how the integration of Social and Emotional learning is essential , and shared the basis of his research to press home the interdependence of emotional and academic intelligence.

Central to this is the RULER curriculum he developed with his Uncle Marvin, a long timesuccessful educator. Their framework underpins  a systemic approach that is widely used around the world by schools and organisations:

Recognise  the occurrence of an emotion-noticing changes

Understanding the causes of emotions and  how they influence thoughts

Labelling emotions: connecting experience and precise description, increasing self-awareness and communication.

Expressing: know how and when to express

Regulating: monitor, temper and modify emotional reactions. Accept and deal, not ignore.

raises questions around who we trust, who our children trust enough, and are there people we can speak to...

'Who gives us Permission to feel?'

What's pressingly evident is Marc's key message that we all need to develop an awareness of the science of emotions, rather than bringing our judgements to bear on them. This takes us into exploring the aspects of behaviours, and the complexities of responses to behaviour.Marc used his own experiences to highlight key concepts surrounding culture, environment and the impact of emotions on our ability to interact.

We kept coming back to this idea, and how now more than ever, we recognise this to be true.

To some observers, emotional intelligence or emotion skills signify something fuzzy and touchy-feely, like a retreat from reality, This is especially so in the business world. In fact, just the opposite is true. These are mental skills, like any others- they enable us to think smarter, more creatively, and get better results from ourselves and the people around us. (Permission to Feel, p.54)

I was fascinated by the research around educator judgements and mood. Not an easy listen, but crucial to understand that the way feel affects our judgements.

So what do we do?

Developing the emotion skills necessary to survive and thrive is rooted in so much of our work as educators and Marc’s framework offers a clear curriculum approach .

He offers this advice to schools:

The best SEL approaches are systemic, not piecemeal
The best SEL efforts are proactive, not reactive
The most effective approaches integrate SEL into the curriculum and provide skill building across ALL  grade levels to reach ALL children.
The best SEL approaches pay attention to outcomes: Is what you are doing working?

What strikes me if we are considering approaches to wellbeing in isolation for children, staffor families, surely a more cohesive and coherent whole school and community approach would be more effective?

As Marc states,

When we unlock the wisdom of emotions, we can raise healthy kids who will both achieve their dreams and make the world a better place.’ ( Permission to Feel, p.218)

Such a mesmerising and thought provoking session and sincere thanks go to Marc for giving us his time and such a great read.

We rounded off the session with a couple of images from Oliver Jeffers’ book, A Child of Books, Walker Books. This offered a chance to consider ways in, ways we could share and stimulate some discussion around emotions with our staff and children and make some pledges to give ourselves, and our community Permission to Feel.


Celebrating our Community

Last night we had a truly amazing virtual event. I was buzzing from it waaay way into the night, and I really didn’t want it to end.
We were there to celebrate HeadsUp and share what it meant to us. I love the Wednesday evening support sessions; I also enjoy the Saturday morning ones and they have become part of my weekly routine. When there is a Hopes4Ed event I have attended those too.

However, last might was something different. Something special, exploring the very essence and being of HeadsUp as an entity. Not sure what if this is what Kate and James intended, but that is how it felt.

Someone said, ‘it is great just knowing that is it there, going on, existing, even when they are not attending in person’. Someone said, ‘it supported them to change the inner critic to an inner coach.’ Everyone talked about it as a friend, as a group that had supported, saved, rescued, challenged, laughed with and, crucially, as a safe space to be at our most vulnerable authentic self. A place to explore, share and own our narrative, whatever that narrative may be.

‘Being heard by someone is the best feeling in the whole world, being heard is so close to being loved that, for an average person, they are almost indistinguishable’. David Augsburger

When in university in the USA I went along to the on-campus theatre to support a friend who had joined a gospel choir. I’d never heard a gospel choir ‘live’. It was amazing, awe inspiring, powerful and moving. I also got the privilege of attending a Native American (Mohawk nation from Akwesasne) peace circle where drumming, voice work and collaborative dancing was involved. This was also amazing, awe inspiring, powerful and moving.

So, what links a university gospel choir, a Native American peace circle and HeadsUp?

A collection of voices (or drums) in harmony, with each voice and drum in chorus bursting from a unique being with their own emotion, lived experience, thoughts and feelings. Then one voice can be heard as a solo, but backed up by the others, the focus on one, but that one voice knowing that the rest of the choir has their back, it always will be there and will be in congruity. There may be mash ups, there may be support from instruments, but always the choir is heard, is powerful and is loved. The gospel choir I heard was not ‘world renowned’ it WAS made up from diverse humans, in race, age, gender, experience and skill. And to me, that made it even more powerful. (And this is part of what makes HeadsUp so powerful too)
HeadsUp is not a network, it is not a support group, it is so much more, it is a living, breathing, growing, learning, caring, diverse choir and peace circle.

By Jenny Bowers, with much love, respect and appreciation.


Is compliance a disadvantage in leadership?

Is compliance a disadvantage in leadership?

 

After some years of being a teacher I had concluded that compliance was a learning disability. One size does not fit all and yet if we accept without question what we are told to learn, to a standard we are directed to achieve and accept the way we are instructed to learn then we are going to be limited in our achievements. This can become a critical situation if the approach we are subjected to does not suit our learning needs. By being compliant we will be expected to conform,and in many situations, we will be subject to regulation if we don’t.

In June 2016 I had the opportunity to ask Sir Ken Robinson at the Festival of Education if compliance was a learning disability. To which he replied ‘No, but it is certainly a disadvantage’. Sir Ken is known for championing creativity in education and in understanding the need to set learning in a much wider context than just reaching a target or building subject knowledge. Creativity is very much about doing things differently, about solving problems, about making mistakes, and learning from them. Being creative is important, perhaps even critical to learning and therefore to teaching.

Can we be creative if we are compliant, will we ever challenge what we are told, will we ever offer an alternative view or strategy, will we ever change anything if we adopt a compliant approach or will we just give others authority over us?

This is a contentious question but what has it got to do with teaching and leadership, Ofsted, the role of a headteacher? First all teachers are learners, and in my view if we stop being learners then we give up the right to be teachers. Second all teachers are leaders, they lead the learning of their pupils and they lead their classes, and they can lead schools. I would go further and say teachers also have a part to play in leading their wider community for they should understand and reflect the needs of the community through what they do in schools.

Where does the true challenge for leadership in our schools lieand should leaders be less compliant?

In HeadsUp4HT’s #8 James Pope said  ‘We have to seize our profession back, it’s ours’. This is a sentiment many teachers and headteachers feel and reflects a situation where we have given authority for what we do to others. Whether this was due to being too compliant or not is debatable, I certainly think it is. It is certainly due to not being creative enough in how we have responded to the challenges we face as a profession. Within this article I will show you the mechanism you can adopt for seizing back our profession but first the challenges.

I have a theory about those who become teachers, and it may make you think.

We are motivated to find environments in which we feel safe or comfortable, Maslow recognised this as a basic need. Those that are successful in school are often the compliant learners, we can recognise these easily at report time for it is easy to come up with some suitable comment about continuing to work hard and offer praise for the effort they make. Successful learners tend to continue to study higher level qualifications, and many are guided towards university. In seeking out a career we will tend to find our safe environment once again and for some this is back into the education environment as teachers. The outcome of this process is that many compliant learners become compliant teachers. Not all teachers are compliant and not all successful learners are compliant, but I hope you get the idea behind this theory. The theory predicts that leaders in schools are therefore likely to be compliant by nature and so when instructed rather than evaluating the instruction against a need, capacity, or calculating the value they will tend to execute the instruction.

What happens to those who desire autonomy, the freedom to be creative and be a little less compliant? Well, if teacher recruitment and retention is anything to go by they leave the profession.

Compliance works best as a tool to manage or lead people when there are high risk stakes for not complying and any member of a school leadership team will tell you what those stakes are. In school leadership if you want to maintain a career it is better to be risk averse.  Being risk averse often means limiting how creative we are in circumnavigating those things we do not want to do, we weigh one thing up against the other, the risk versus the benefits. The best way to take control of any situation is to be a little less compliant, not obstreperous or belligerent but in a passive and creative manner.

Interestingly mavericks, those that do their own thing are often touted as ideal leaders but the caveat by those in control is so long as they do not step too far out of line. So what can be done about it, how can we take back our profession? The answer is to get creative!

As a design and technology teacher it is not surprising that I see learning as a problem-solving activity and as I also see teachers as both learners and leaders that I view leadership in the same way. A design approach to leadership gives us far more options when it comes to doing the right thing for our pupils, it allows us to get creative.

A simple design model (Figure 1) is not linear and includes several starting or dropping off points making it ideal for monitoring, improving, or changing what we do in schools and for providing evidence, allocating resources and assessing success. Importantly such a model encourages reflection and communication allowing us to learn from both the strategies we adopt and the outcomes we achieve.

 

Figure 1

 

My central tenet as a leader is ‘Do no harm’ and putting this at the heart of what we do informs the primary function of a design model approach to leadership. If what we are being asked builds effective learning relationships then do it, if not then get creative is my advice! In my definition of the learning relationship the pupil and teacher are equally important and happy teachers means happy pupils. You can explore more about learning relationships and pupil teacher responsibility in ‘If you can’t reach them you can’t teach them, Building effective learning relationships’, from which the both the figures 1 & 2 used here are taken.

 

So, in leadership terms what does being creative look like?

Figure 2

Combining the model in figure 2 with a design approach it is easier to actively assess capacity for development or changeas resource analysis is part of the leadership filtering process. Anyone who has been in education for the last 30 years willknow how much change there has been and continues to be and the impact that has on the capacity of their staff to take on anything new. Without the capacity for change, when under stress, we will revert back to learnt and familiar practices as they require less effort to sustain. This makes change difficult if not impossible to embed in an organisation, especially one that is already stressed.

Figure 2 describes my preferred model of a leadership role in schools, placing it between outside influences and the learning relationship providing the ideal opportunities to provide a creative response. This model was developed to show the important role of leadership in schools and confront compliant leadership behaviour in a constructive and creative manner.  After exploring any directed policy or new initiative through a design-based approach one of five leadership actions can be determined in response, effectively filtering out those that will not support or benefit the learning relationship. David Hughes has written an excellent book on school culture and creative capacity and is well worth a read.

I do not underestimate the responsibility of these actions or the risks they impose. I have found that any reasoned response with accompanying evidence is a good basis for taking action and difficult to argue against. It also forms an asset when communicating the ‘why’ to those you lead helping in building trust, a key component of leadership.

I have been prompted to share this approach after listening to HeadsUp4HT’s number 8 as it deals with many of the issues and concerns raised in that episode and provides a framework for responding to the challenge James set at the start, that of seizing back our profession. Remember by being compliant we give others authority over us, by challenging what we are asked to do in schools we are establishing a feedback system that can bring about the changes we want to see by providing evidence. Evidence in the form of better pupil/teacher relationships, a more harmonious school environment, and ultimately what we all desire a better education system fit for purpose.

I’ll leave you with some takeaways from session eight and from other discussions and events I have been involved in recently.

 

Schools are the agents for overcoming inequalities and this requires teachers who focus on learning relationships.
The mission of the leadership of schools is to protect and nurture learning relationships between pupils and teachers above all else.
Compliance is a disadvantage in achieving change
Cooperation results in compromise
Collaboration produces change
Competition leads to castles
Creativity can overcome everything.

 

References and further reading:

Hewitson, K (2021) If you can’t reach them you can’t teach them. Building effective learning relationships.  St Albans: Critical Publishing.

Hughes, D (2019) Future proof your school steering culture, driving school improvement, developing excellence. St Albans: Critical Publishing.

Kell, E (2018) How to Survive in Teaching without Imploding, Exploding or Walking Away. London:Bloomsbury.

 

Kevin Hewitson


What happens to those who unexpectedly come out of their jobs? Is there life beyond Headship?

What happens to those who unexpectedly come out of their jobs? Is there life beyond headship? If so, how to find it? Former headteacher Alex Atherton of Heads Up seeks the answers.

It is an unfortunate fact of life that careers do not always work out as planned. On occasion, this can result in a headteacher moving on from their post. There is a perception that once someone has left a headship in difficult circumstances there is no way back. On the evidence of the many conversations I have had in recent months, the truth is very different. The good news is that in nearly every case there is a positive outcome. This narrative needs to be articulated more often.

Heads Up @HeadsUp4HTs is a free support service set up by former headteacher James Pope. It is led by headteachers for the benefit of their peers. Initially the remit was to support those in crisis, particularly colleagues either in the process of leaving or had recently moved on with no idea of what might come next. Over time this has extended to those who can see the end coming in the near future, are wrestling with their conscience about whether to stay or go or just need someone to listen. After engaging with Heads Up some of those headteachers went on to leave their posts, but usually of their own volition and feeling they had made a positive choice. As one Head who made contact put it, “if you want to leave it will be for a reason; listen to yourself.” Others stayed in post with a clearer sense of what they really wanted and turned a corner.

There is an overwhelming consensus amongst those who have experienced difficult circumstances that it is wise to take some time out if at all possible. For some it was a couple of months, for others a year. Few stuck to their original plan and found their instincts guiding them. Almost all realised that their final months in post had taken more out of them than they thought. During this time one person realised that he had ‘done too much bargaining’ with himself in his previous post and ‘compromised’ on things he shouldn’t have. This was not obvious to him at the time.

Some applied for headship posts too soon and without being in the right frame of mind. It was only at interview, the realisation came that they had not invested enough in their recovery. Others found a hybrid position, where the opportunity arose to work on a part-time or interim basis at an equivalent level to their previous post. ‘Dipping a toe back in’ was a theme and commonly led to a surge in confidence. Sometimes this led to a realisation about what they definitely wanted to do, and sometimes the opposite, but all valued the experience.

For everyone came an opportunity to reassess their lives and their health and see what they really wanted for the years ahead. After years of working with multi-agency teams, plenty found it second nature to organise a team around themselves of family, friends and specialists such as coaches, counsellors and mentors. As another put it ‘bouncing back requires resources’, particularly if what was described by many as a ‘burning sense of injustice’ could still flicker from time to time. One commented that, ‘you aren’t the best person to comment on your own well-being.’ The most difficult moments were often not those anticipated in advance. For some it can ‘take longer to process the nature of the departure more than leaving itself’, particularly ‘when everyone else goes back for the next term and you don’t.’

Some concluded that they wanted to get back into headship, and others opted for a change of tack. For the former group the much feared reputational damage was not the issue they had imagined (people know less about your story than you think), even when a simple internet search showed the details. There are those who found themselves waiting for a job longer than they might have expected and others, to their surprise, got a job they really wanted at their first attempt. The kudos of having once been chosen to run a school, despite other circumstances, outweighed more recent events, particularly, when they could describe their positive impact and ‘own their truth.’ Those who held out against ‘downgrading yourself in terms of your own expectations’, including an inaccurate assumption that they would have to take a step backwards to move forward, reaped the rewards in the end.

For those who wanted to look elsewhere the possibilities turned out to be broader than anticipated. The modern educational landscape offers more in terms of career opportunities than was the case ten years ago. Networks and contacts came through as vital time and again, emphasising the importance of building them on the way up. Some gained permanent work as a result, others a growing range of assignments. Those whose career had all been in one organisation found it could be more difficult to get going, but never impossible in the end. Some found their ‘capacity to work and absorb pressure’ was a significant asset in other settings. A high proportion of their knowledge and skills was also transferable beyond a headteacher’s desk.

Heads Up’s services are now growing to a broader agenda that is now pro-active as well as reactive. They provide nation and local authority intentional support which is vital to those both in and coming out of, and going into headship. It is an established network that enables heads to sustain each other in the job for longer, and where coaching and professional development are on offer. It also encourages heads to be ‘positive disrupters’ in the education system and think beyond how they lead and look beyond a narrow range of accountability measures. Having peers to talk to beyond sector, local authority or MAT boundaries can make all the difference.

Written by Alex Atherton @alexatherton100 a former Headteacher and HeadsUp Advisory Member who has interviewed a number Headteachers for this piece.

James Pope (@popejames) leads Heads Up alongside Kate Smith @MrsKatieSmith. Both are former headteachers. 


‘ I was impressed by how honest and vulnerable people were – that can only come from a place of deep trust.’ Reflections on #Hopes4Ed No. 8

I joined Twitter in December 2019 and the sole purpose of me joining was to see what sort of opportunities and experienceswere available for primary school children – like all schools, we want our children to have the most rounded, interesting education possible and a large part of my leadership role is to make that happen. Safe to say, that isn’t how my Twitter planworked out.

Before I start, please permit me a bit of self-indulgent talk about me so you have some background of where I am coming from.

I did my GTP year at my school, then I did my NQT year at the same school and have since taught in this same school for almost 20 years now. In that time, the school has changed name once, joined a MAT and I’ve personally changed buildings twice. I’ve seen four heads and am about to see in a fifth after Easter. The school has grown from 420 N-o-R to almost 1000. Everything at school changes constantly and it never feels old or stale yet the place offers a strange sense of security and stability. Staff tend to come and stay. Some of us old-timers (partially) joke that we are now too‘institutionalised’ to leave. For all the great things and forward thinking that happens in my school, I am aware that there are some negative effects of staying put in the same school for so long and perhaps the biggest one is my exposure to other settings has been curtailed. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave has sprung to mind on the odd occasion over the years.

I admire people who have ambition and a long-term plan for career development but I am not one of them. I am ambitious for our children but my own sense of life contentment and satisfaction has meant that I don’t tend to have much of a long term plan. That is both a blessing and a curse.

I have never been one to chase formal power or prestige or ‘the next step’. That said, I do enjoy having influence and seem to attract both naturally. I have always felt like I wasmaking a meaningful and purposeful difference so when people talk about their ‘next chapter’, I nod politely but don’t really have any deep understanding of what they mean. The question ‘where do you see your self in 3/ 5/ 10-years time?’ has always left me cold.

The idea of headship never really occurred to me, although for many years different people have said words to the effect of ‘you’d make a great head’. I recognised it on an intellectual and rational level but not an emotional level. There has always seemed to be an imperceptible, impenetrable side to headship, an ‘otherness’ that I couldn’t articulate and that I didn’t recognise in myself – I am not saying it is rational, but it is how I felt and still feel to an extent. I think a large part of that is that, as much as I respected and admired all the heads I have worked under, I didn’t recognise myself in them. The two heads that I have worked for (for a significant period of time) were both consummate diplomats and both seemed to have an ‘inner steel core’ that eluded me. Ergo, I wasn’t head material. Not that that bothered me – I didn’t have aspirationsto be a head any way. Recently, I have become more aware that this is largely all perception and I know that people who don’t know me well tend to find me ‘intimidating and scary’ at first. I have no idea why – it is an aspect of my self-obliviousness that I have never understood. But if others think it about me and I think it about others, perhaps it is all a load of smoke and mirrors.

Another thing that made me (possibly, errantly) think I was not headship material is that I have never been able to get overly excited about data. Due to a personal hobby and using it in school, I am fully conversant in how to interpret data and use it for a variety of purposes but I don’t think weighing theprobverbial pig regularly actually helps to fatten it. If I believed that the people with the highest exam results achieved the most success in life, I would be happy to roll in data. However, whilst being able to read, write and do maths is of the highest importance, I have never been able to convince myself that once a certain functional standard is achieved, it doesn’t serve much purpose other than for people who want it for specific purposes eg a particular career. Maths is actually my favourite subject to teach but, at primary level, I do think a good liberal arts education forms the structure on which to hang academic learning particularly when making connections between different topics and disciplines. I have chosen to work in an inner-city school and I believe once those ‘wider opportunities’ are in place, the rest will come in due course.

It is my belief that Ofsted and SATs, in particular, disadvantage children already suffering from disadvantage even more. The reason for this is that in order to keep Ofsted happy, one’s SATs results must be good. In order to do that, schools are put under enormous pressure to narrow the curriculum for those who would most benefit from the widest curriculum. If Ofsted has to happen, it would be enlighteningto have Ofsted inspections without the inspectors having access to the data at first – this would stop the perceptions of the inspectors being anchored to the data. I realise this can’t happen as school data is currently ubiquitous.

I think one of the things that bothers me most is the notion that disadvantage gaps can be closed solely through good teaching. If that were the case, why do those parents who value education spend so much time talking and reading to their children, taking them to places and paying for music/ sport/ arts/ foreign language tuition? And why do children and young people who are from low socio and economic backgrounds who do get good grades tend not to progress through the ranks of their chosen paths? There is getting your foot in the door and there is staying put and getting ahead.Whilst getting great grades is undoubtedly a good start, it is by no means the whole story when tackling disadvantage.

 

Then there are SATs: with all the research on brain development and gender differences, why does the educationsystem persist in forcing square pegs into round holes by making all children at the age of ten or eleven pass an exam that most adults would struggle with. If it comes across that I am anti-academia, let me make it clear that I am most certainly not. I do, however believe that learning takes place went the student is ready, not when the teacher decides it. I agree with children having high academic standards but I have never been able to understand the rush to get all children past the post at an arbitrary age. The high-stakes nature of SATs isn’t aligned with doing the right thing for children. Schools are disincentivised to do the right thing by their children. The nature of the current education system forces the schools with the most socio-economic issues to resolve to turn to short-term and/ or limiting solutions. Everyone knows the story about if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will never know its true ability. But the system makes schools do it anyway. Stanley Milgram’s infamous electric shock experiments spring to mind.

I have been lucky that my MAT and current head harbour some of these thoughts although they are constrained by the degree to which they can freely express it. My head has also allowed me to devote a large part of my leadership role to ‘evening up the playing field’ as best we can. It doesn’t necessarily translate straight into end of KS2 SATs results but it is our belief that it is the right thing for our children and will gush dividends for them in the long term.

Anyway, since March 2020, things have changed for me in a way I didn’t expect. I suddenly find myself thinking that if I don’t apply for headship, I am not doing only myself a disservice. I have seen the impact of our work during the pandemic and suddenly I have this new and strange feeling that I want more and to do more and to be more. I don’t necessarily want to be a head but I do want to make a difference at a wider, more strategic level and as far as I can see, the vehicle for that is headship. I am also a huge wimp and frankly quite scared to step out of my comfort zone. What am I afraid of? I don’t actually know – I think it is my own mind and my incredible imagination!

 

Since last March, I have found myself lurking in the world of Edutwitter and contributing the odd comment here and there. I’ve also found that I am attending more and more online workshops on areas of interest: social justice, Pupil Premium and the odd leadership course. Most of them are large gatherings or livestreams where one can watch on quietly. Sowhen the HeadsUp4HT #8 edition flashed up on my screen, I thought that I would sign up. I recognised Christalla Jamil’s name and the focus sounded interesting. It’d be my chance to find out what proper heads thought about the future of education and Ofsted without having to be diplomatic and ‘toeing the party line’.

My school uses MS Teams and for some reason, Zoom meetings are blocked on my work laptop so I log onto Zoommeetings on my phone. Like I said earlier, most of the gatherings I go to are either large affairs or there is the option to type your name into the Zoom box so the host can decide whether to let you into the meeting or not. Because of this, I don’t think it is noticeable if my phone falls over or I haven’t put a bra on and consequently, I haven’t even got around to changing my Zoom name from the default, which is the model of my phone.

So you can imagine my surprise when I slipped into the meeting earlier this week and noticed it was a very intimate gathering. Not only that but I (and my Honor Lite phone) were personally acknowledged by the host, Kate. There was nothing more that Kate or her co-host, James, could have done to be more welcoming and included everyone. Through my school, I am associated with @NottinghamCitz and they have a saying, “If you aren’t at the table, you are probably on the menu.” This was one of the few meetings that I have seen that people were genuinely listening to understand.

Another thing: many of the heads thought along the same lines as me. I found my self nodding along for pretty much the entire 90-minute session and was also impressed by how the talk was solution-focussed and psychologically safe. I was impressed by how honest and vulnerable people were – that can only come from a place of deep trust. I found myself thinking that perhaps there is a place in headship for people like me after all. When Kate, in particular, spoke – I felt like she crystallised all my deeply held beliefs. And she is a head, so…….

My partner says that making a stand on one’s own is like giving a finger – it can be snapped off easily. When like-minded people band together, a fist is formed and that is an altogether more powerful agent for change. For legal reasons, I must state that this is not a call for violence but a call for collective action!

Will I be going to another event? You bet! Perhaps, just maybe, there is a place in headship for people like me after all.


A New Normal: Looking to 2030

Ten years ago there was a lot of excitement about a ‘2020 Vision’ and what the education system might look like. In the end this excitement was misplaced and not just because of the pandemic. The possibilities which seemed tangible about the future of schooling had not been fulfilled. The pupil premium gap was as stubborn as ever, off-rolling remained a very live issue and the levels of violence which affected young people were disturbingly high. The recruitment and retention of teachers were both significant challenges as had been the case for some time and arguably finished the decade in a worse position than at the beginning. I am sure there will be many with more positive narratives to tell. It is true that the new Ofsted philosophy and the Early Career Framework, amongst other initiatives, were in their infancy at the time of the first lockdown in March 2020 but it was too soon to judge any impact.

 

While it is tempting at the time of writing (January 2020) to want to return to ‘normal’ we should aim for far better than the normality which existed pre-lockdown in March 2020. Some of this normality from an educational perspective was revealed during the first six months of the pandemic in a very public way. The grading process for GCSE and A level examinations in 2020 was a farce, and betrayed all too obviously the lack of trust from the government towards the profession. This was also on show as Ofsted took far too long to abandon its preferred modus operandi on more than one occasion. It felt that unless high-stakes cliff-edge accountability was in place from the angles of both assessment and inspection then central government was very nervous about the quality of what schools would be offering. The Secretary of State’s emphasis on parents contacting Ofsted if they were unhappy with a school’s remote education offer acted as further evidence.

 

By 2031 the relationship between government and the profession must be in a better place, not least because it is a poor advertisement for those who may join and those in two minds as to whether they should stay. As a profession we must aim to attract as many as possible with the potential to become fantastic teachers, and for a much higher proportion of those in their formative years to remain in the classroom. In order to do this the profession will need to work more effectively as a collective whole with collaboration, not competition, between trusts and schools as the distinguishing feature. Relationships within the profession need to mature in the same as they do between the profession and government. In 2020 there was far too much concern within secondary schools and MATs as to how their Centre Assessed Grades would hold up against the competition, as part of a sense that what really mattered was the achievement of the school and not those of the students. The process of recruiting and retaining the best teachers will partly depend on the moral core of the profession and what they see in the behaviour of their leaders.

 

The working conditions available in other professions will also be a factor. The issues around the lack of flexibility for teachers have only been amplified during the pandemic. Working from home with flexible hours is not going to be on offer for teachers, or at least not in the same way in other jobs, and those who have enjoyed it during the pandemic may not appreciate losing it. The gap between the day to day conditions of teaching and those in other industries will only grow. The truth is that teachers have always worked from home but it has been to carry out tasks which could always be delivered off-site, such as marking and planning in evenings and at weekends. Teaching from home may be possible for some, but not as standard practice. 

Conversely there are people who do not enjoy working from home. This includes those who do not have the space to do so. A family in a three bedroom house is in a far different position to several adults in a two bed flat unable to have a private conversation or work with an unreliable connection. Many enjoy the social side of work, and do not want it to be confined to a two dimensional screen. Does anyone really enjoy a ‘zoom lunchtime’? The benefits of having a workplace to attend and a stronger sense of camaraderie may be a greater benefit than is currently realised.

 

The relative stability of the profession compared to others may offer advantages. Schools will be less affected by Brexit than other workplaces, and the same applies to the automation of work or outsourcing to abroad. A salary with a pension may also look attractive in the likely difficult economic conditions ahead. These are all positives, and are worth making explicit, but they are unlikely to be enough to resolve the issue in the long-term.

 

Professional development opportunities need to be in the right place. Every school should be in a position where their programme has the requisite quality and quantity. Online learning for teachers can deliver the new National Professional Qualification programmes, master’s degrees, subject specialist workshops and access to the best researchers and speakers. Previously attendance in person was the only viable option for the vast majority. Anyone can attend any school’s INSET day if both parties are so inclined, or sign up to any university’s postgraduate programmes. High quality candidates will still be able to have their pick of schools, and the professional development opportunities may be the point of differentiation. 

 

The process of schooling must also move forward, and the professionals with them. One legacy of the pandemic is that those whose eyes always glassed over whenever they listened to a message around the speed of change in the workplace in this day and age, or how many different careers or jobs a student might have in the 21st century, are now paying attention. Every adult and child has learned new skills and competencies over the last year as they adjusted to lockdown life, and that process still has some way to run. If schools can demonstrate such agility in such a short space of time, then there is no doubt that education in 2031 can be very different if we choose it to be the case and if the government allows it. In a rare display of unity, education trade unions showed their collective strength in early January 2020 about the safety of returning to school and the government was forced to change its position. If this acts as a catalyst to increase the levels of dialogue and influence in the long term it will be positive for the profession.

 

Today’s year 1 students will take their GCSE examinations in 2031 and they will not expect an education which is stuck in the past. They are the most advanced group of six year olds in terms of their IT skills which has ever existed. They will not expect to abandon how they have learned during the pandemic going forward, or for their opportunities to be narrowed in the future. If their school’s key stage 4 or 5 option blocks do not allow them to take their subjects of choice they will seek a solution to be found if they are to stay. When there are topics they do not understand in class, they should be able to access a high standard of online resources and possibly a qualified adult to take them through it. In the case of the latter they will not care where the person teaching them on the screen is located, which may provide opportunities to some. Above all they are unlikely to accept that their future should be determined by fifty hours of hand-written examinations at 16 and 18 which do not test the breadth of the subject. The relevance of the system will be in play.

 

This includes the day to day experience of schooling. The model of all students and teachers on site for six to seven hours a day from Monday to Friday is much more subject to question given the quality remote education has reached already. In my view, it will remain a sufficiently inferior experience to be a genuine challenge to the standard model but it will shape it nonetheless. What will happen when a year 13 student asks to learn from home one or two days per week, in the way that has become common in the workplace?

 

The young people of 2031 will need a renewed profession as do those who work within it. It is very possible that the economic circumstances over the next five or even ten years mean that the proportion of students who qualify for free school meals will increase, and the prospects for families to extricate themselves from these circumstances diminish. The students whose future is most at risk require qualified, motivated teachers who are happy to be in a physical workplace, reject the flexibility of other professions, want to stay in the profession and develop their skills over time. For that to happen schools must work together more effectively as a group and central government must be explicit in its trust and confidence of the profession.