Open the Door

Open the door

I have many friends who talk to me about their mental health openly. I also have many staff who talk to me about their mental health openly. I am not a mental health practitioner other than being trained as a mental health first aider, so why do they talk to me?

I believe it is because I have opened the door.

I have made it very clear that I think mental health is as important as physical health and also that for me there is no stigma- mental health belongs to and affects us all.

I was trained as a mental health first aider four years ago and it sparked a realisation for me that mental health should be talked about more openly and honestly. I started to educate myself and my SLT about why discussing mental health was so important and more importantly why we should be supporting both our staff and pupils in improving their understanding as well as teaching strategies to support their own mental health. It became clear to me that if we did not support the mental health of our pupils and staff then it was a barrier to learning and well-being.

Four years later we have a culture where mental health is discussed openly- we talk about it without it defining us and without a stigma being attached. I am proud to say that we have supported many of our staff through signposting, counselling and more often just by listening and I know that it has helped make our staff community closer and to feel more valued.

Our children are taught about mental health from Early Years in an age appropriate manner- they learn to talk about their feelings using a measure my mood system which is modelled by their teachers. Mood monsters are used to support their understanding and to develop the language they need. We have designed an extended curriculum which includes teaching children about all aspects of mental health- in key stage 1 children start to look in more detail about feelings and the link between physical and mental health moving onto issues such as online critical thinking, peer pressure and the stigma of mental health in Year 6.

For years mental health was something we never talked about and people who suffered from depression, anxiety, bipolar or other mental health conditions were made to feel they were inadequate and told to pull themselves together. When you understand mental health you realise it is not a weakness and people who suffer from poor mental health are not choosing to feel that way.

If you are in a leadership position my message is simple- please find out more about mental health and support your staff and pupils to understand it better. Make sure you support those in your organisation who need your help and never be dismissive or judgemental. Make mental health discussions the norm.

Open the door.

This is me!

This is me!

Too often currently I see teachers and leaders comparing themselves to others. There are some amazing personalities in life and on twitter and it can be easy to start feeling inadequate. It can also seem as if there is one ‘right’ way to do things- there isn’t despite conversations to the contrary.

Sometimes it is easy to forget the messages we tell our pupils everyday- there is beauty and strength in being different. We allhave different strengths and some are not as visible as others to the outside world. Having faith in ourselves is perhaps the hardest part of being human when many around you seem to be better, bolder, more organised, more confident, more knowledgeable…… the list is endless.

Take me as a leader- I’ve talked about imposter syndrome before and how it can impact on me but I work hard to overcome those feelings and try to recognise that there is strength in being me.

I like to think I have grown as a leader over the years and my priorities have changed. Nowadays for example the well-being of my staff and pupils is the most important part of my role- more important than attainment if I am honest. Many would disagree, not that well being is important, but that it is the most important part of the role and lead with different values at the heart. I lead the way that I think is right for my school and right for me, right now. That may change. It is not the way others lead. Some might feel it is not the right way to lead but it is MY right way.

If I compare myself constantly to others then I run the risk of questioning my very values and being someone I’m not – to me authenticity is key. You cannot be authentic if you are trying to be someone else.

It’s not that I don’t value others opinions it is just that in some things you need to put your mark in the sand, commit and stand unmoveable. If I constantly compare myself to others I will never be good enough. There is a difference between striving to improve and needing to be the best.

I have always hated the motto- ‘only your best is good enough’ because it is a goal that isn’t achievable 100% of the time. I am my best for most of the time- for the rest of the time I am trying- I am human and to me that is good enough.

Things I know about myself:

  • I get it wrong sometimes despite trying not to
  • I will always stand up for what I believe is right even if that means standing alone
  • I will always challenge injustice
  • I will always put my children, staff and community first
  • I am not perfect
  • I make mistakes
  • I am not the best but I am good enough

I am brave, I am bruised, I am who I’m meant to be- this is me!’

Stopping the silence

Some of you will know that I am currently studying towards a masters in Race Education. I’ve only had a few seminars and lectures so far but already I am starting to see many issues through a different lens. The old adage- you don’t know what you don’t know- is true, but we have a duty as educators to find out.

It is becoming much clearer why we as educators must first educate ourselves and then improve how we educate our children on issues of race and equity.

Certainly I am questioning my own part in racism- not because I have ever been overtly or actively racist in either thought or actions but because my silence in fact contributes to passive racism and is one of the reasons racism exists in our structures, policies and society today.

So what am I going to do about it?

I am no longer staying silent and I am no longer using the fact that I don’t know as an ‘excuse’ or as a reason for me not to have discussions and discourse. Not being racist is not enough – we have to be actively anti- racist.

I have accepted that I have white privilege whether I want it or not and I need to use that privilege to support my school, staff and pupils to be anti-racist and effective allies. I need to challenge where inequity exists and listen and validate the stories and life experiences of those who have suffered.

I also need others to support me- I don’t have all the answers but I want to find out what I can do to bring about change.

Where to start?

I am lucky in that I have a really passionate and supportive SLT who ‘get it’. Some have developed my own education around race and inequality and are taking an active role in developing areas of our curriculum and resources, as well as sharing their own personal stories with others. Others have shown a willingness and a  commitment to learn and engage.

I have to start with educating my staff. They need to understand their role both as educators and  change agents and how they can not only educate our pupils to be anti- racists but can positively impact on society as whole as a result.

One of the most important teaching I can do is to make sure that my pupils understand that they are all important, that they are all amazing humans regardless of colour, race, faith or gender and teach them to be resilient and confident individuals. If we can do this in Primary I feel sure that they will enter secondary school more equipped to challenge inequalities themselves and have the confidence to speak out.

It’s a start and surely that is the most important part, although the hardest part, of any journey- the decision to get going.

I am stopping the silence.

Stick to your guns!

Young confident woman in red cape and mask

Many of us, myself included, made our own promises to change things this year. We had been through an unprecedented time and whilst challenging it also brought about a revelation that we could do things differently.

It’s a bit like when you make a New Year’s resolution- you start the year with a real passion to stick to what you promised yourself and then little by little you find yourself slipping into old ways.

I made my own promises which I wrote about in my earlier blog:

https://thetattooedheadteacher.com/2020/07/07/thats-it-i-quit/

I promised I would stop:

1)writing unnecessary reports

2)having imposter syndrome thoughts

3)being a control freak

4)doing anything that didn’t add value for my staff or pupils.

So how am I doing week 2?

Given I have had no time to do reports- that one’s going really well!

On a serious note I have already had discussions with Governors about reducing the number and style of reports to be a more discussion- based format which will save me hours! I have also started a project for teachers where they do not have to type up any planning which I hope reduces their workload and made my improvement plan much shorter and more user friendly- 3 pages

Imposter syndrome will take time to change but I did a spot check with all my staff this week and 100% said they felt leaders had made school safe for them and done all they could and most felt confident returning to work- that was a start!

Being a control freak is part of my bones but I have tried to reflect much more and not focus on what I cannot control- that has been really useful this week when some of the systems did not go to plan such as parents not following instructions, instances of self- isolation for staff and pupils and lack of support with traffic from the council.

I have focused instead on my ‘circle of control’ concentrating on what I could do such as ensuring lunchtimes and playtimes worked well, weekly COVID meetings with staff representatives to ensure they feel safe and listened to and physically putting barriers out on the road to help with traffic!

The final one has been easy these last couple of weeks because everything I have done has been about staff and pupils. The day to day operations and daily check-ins with classes has meant that I have felt that I have really focused on what matters.

What will be harder to achieve, is this focus in the longer term. I know that once things settle down and we get used to the new norm I will have to make a conscious effort to remain as focused on the people that matter and not allow myself to get bogged down with tasks that add no value. It can be sometimes be hard not to get back into old habits of doing things just to tick a box.

I’ve got this on my desk now which I check before completing a task- I’m hoping a lot may fall in the ‘delete’ section.

There are also some tasks such as phonics testing, daily attendance registers etc, generally the ones led by Government that I can do nothing about. Some things you can change and others you have to accept are decisions that unfortunately many of us cannot change.

However- I am determined that my learnings from lockdown are going to inform my practice moving forward and that all the positives that came from it will not be lost.

Message to self- Don’t lose your resolve!

Leading as a parent?

I found two quotes last week which talked about leadership and motherhood and both were so similar it got me thinking about just how similar these two roles are for me. There are key traits in both roles which I think are similar and the more I think about it, if I relate the principles of either role to the other it gives me the ability to understand how to become better at both!

Independence builders

In both roles our aim surely is to create independence? In my role as a Principal I need to develop my staff to be able to think for themselves, to lead for themselves and to be innovative and creative in finding solutions to problems. In my role as a mother this is the same- I need to teach my children to make their own choices in life having given them the courage and self- worth to be able to do this without fear of reproach.

Compassion

As a mother one of the greatest gifts I can give my children is that of compassion and empathy- if I have taught them to understand difference and to celebrate it then I can sit back on my heels and feel proud. It is the same for my role as a leader in education in relation to both my staff and my pupils. Compassionate leadership requires me to educate my staff and not just expect certain behaviours for example in relation to diversity and equality, to coaching etc in the same way I would not expect my children to know everything just by osmosis.

Not being afraid of saying no!

We all know that as a parent the hardest thing to do is to say no! We’ve all given in at times just for the quiet life but we also know that when we do this we are, as my mother is fond of saying, ‘making a rod for our own back!’. In exactly the same way it is uncomfortable to have difficult conversations at work but these are the conversations which shape individuals the most and as leaders and parents I think this is one of our most important roles.

Patience

…is a virtue and all that- but it really is. I often say I have so much more patience with the pupils in my school than with my own children. I find it hard sometimes to allow them the time to learn to do the right thing rather than just rushing in and showing them. Being patient however allows an individual to grow. In the same way the shift in my leadership style over the years from a more directive style to my current coaching one has been difficult at times but without doubt grows confidence and ability more effectively but also creates an ethos of empowerment and staff perform so much better in this environment. I need to remember that when I am getting frustrated with my children and allow them the luxury of empowerment.

To know when to step in

The opposite of creating independent thinking I guess and just as important at times. The recent crisis has shown me that at times my staff still need me to take the helm and just take charge. As a leader you have to be able to recognise when these moments are and have the courage to stand alone and make decisions. In the same way there will always be that family crisis that just needs a parent to take control of and lead the way through for their children.

Personally I have had two ‘chances’ at being a parent having had my third child when my others were grown and two ‘chances’ at leadership having changed careers from retail to education in my thirties. I know that in both cases I have become better the second time around! Coincidence or part of learning?

I like to think that I have grown in my roles as I have become more reflective and more accepting that I do not have to be perfect. I am not a perfect mother or leader, far from it but I am learning that in order to be effective I don’t need to be!

That’s it- I quit!

So, before anyone gets the wrong end of the stick – I don’t mean my job. Despite the challenges of the last few months I love my role as a head- perhaps even more so now – lockdown has shown me that I can help support my community in many more ways than just through education.

No, when say I quit, I mean I am not going back to the way it was.

Lockdown has taught me many things and I owe it to myself and my staff to hold onto that learning and change the way we work.

So what am I quitting?

  1. Unnecessary reports

One thing I have realised through lockdown is that a lot of my time was wasted writing reports for one reason or another. My SLT and teachers have looked at reports in the past and whittled them down but now is the time for a real culling! Many are written to either justify decisions we have made or for other people who in reality probably don’t need them. Why have I in the past wasted hours writing a report justifying my use of Sport’s Premium, reports justifying interventions for governors etc.? I haven’t done them during lockdown- in many cases a simple conversation was enough. Now is the time to think about what is really needed and what is useful rather than just writing them out of habit.

  • Imposter syndrome thoughts

Lockdown has taught me that I am a good leader who can lead through a crisis really well.  I am proud that the things I value such as wellbeing and positivity have come to the forefront and helped to support my team through their worst days. I am proud that I was flexible, creative and empathetic. I am proud that some of my children are back at school safely and that we have been open throughout.

That was hard to write!

I think this is true of many heads. We often feel we are not good enough for the role or that we could do better. We very rarely accept we have done a good job. Moving forward I am going to try and remember that I have led my school effectively through a dreadful national crisis, one that was previously unheard of, and I have helped my team come out the other side more connected and probably more effective than ever.

  • Being a control freak

Yes- hard to believe I know! I am very organised – I’m one of those people that lives by action lists and I even write things on my list that weren’t on my list just so I can tick them off! To be honest I like being in control and planning has always been a strength. Don’t get me wrong- my leadership style is a collaborative one and we have a culture of coaching but there is still a control and normality in that. Lockdown has shown me that I can cope with uncertainty on a daily basis and being in control is not as important as leading the way. My staff don’t need me to know the answers or have the minute detail of a plan they just need me to know the direction of travel. I like the ambiguity and the creativity it has brought out in both me and my staff. I might even get rid of some plans!

  • Doing things for other people

Now on first read this sounds like I’m going to turn into a really selfish individual but what I actually mean is I am stopping doing things which add no value to my children, staff or community. There are so many tasks we seem to do in schools which have no impact on our children- one prime example was the DfE attendance register. It took many of us hours to navigate until we realised it wasn’t compulsory and it is time to rethink how we spend our time. I am definitely going to spend more of my time in the classroom but to do this I need to prioritise and get rid of the unnecessary. I am determined to do some ruthless ridding of pointless tasks- watch this space!

All change- lockdown leadership

Lockdown Leadership- all change.

Last week I was on an online meeting and a staff member asked the others to do a round of applause for me and the leadership team for our dealing of the lockdown situation thus far.

I was moved beyond words because it was a validation, I perhaps didn’t even know I needed, from my team to let me know I was doing the right thing.

We all want to be a good leader.

We all want to be the leader our staff want us to be.

I thought I knew what that was. The current situation has not only changed my perception of myself as a leader but also, I think, the kind of leader my team need me to be.

I like to think that as a leader I am adaptable to different situations and that I am pretty much prepared for anything- possibly many of us felt that way. The more experience you have as a leader and the more situations you ‘live’ through, the more skills you acquire and you become adept at switching styles, often without even noticing.

What skills do we need to be able to lead during a crisis?

The top five skills needed from a leader in times of crisis as defined by the management training institute are:

  • Communication. This is perhaps the most important skill needed when dealing with crisis management.
  • Adaptability. We all love when things go exactly as planned but what happens when the unthinkable happens and our perfect plan turns into a disaster?
  • Self -Control & organisation. Staff need a leader who doesn’t give in to the chaos of the moment.
  • Relationship Management. Being able to build relationships and manage them at different levels.
  • Creativity. The ability to think outside of the box and going with plan b,c,d

It all sounded a bit text book to me so I asked school leaders on Twitter what they had found out about leadership during this crisis and what they felt was important and the results were perhaps inevitably very similar to the above.

  1. Regular communication with staff- the less formal the better was the feeling, Staff need to know we are there for them and that we value them as people not as staff. I’ve realised that they don’t actually need answers all the time just reassurance we are working on them! A phone call or a text was just as important to my staff as an email or Zoom meeting.
  2. The ability to change plans- I don’t need to say very much about this as without this ability we would all have fallen after the first briefing! Continguency planning had taken on another meaning in the last few weeks and for someone who likes to be in control I have had to step out of my comfort zone in more ways than one and recognise I can only control the current day!
  3. The ability to remain positive- as a leader I feel this is perhaps the hardest and most important role. My staff have needed me to remain positive on their darkest days but surprisingly this has helped me BE more positive. The act of ‘pretending’ to others invariably rubbed off on me and I have been able for the past few weeks to see the positives in situations I would previously have struggled with. My daily positive quotes that I tweet and send to staff are a reminder to myself that I can choose how to deal with the day!
  4. Building and supporting our Community- during these uncertain times our role has been one of keeping everyone together, our families and our staff. Many of us, probably most, have gone over and above during past weeks to support our communities. We have seen schools becoming even more important in their communities giving out food, vouchers, home learning packs and other support. For me as a leader I have never felt as close to my community and I did not realise how much they relied on us as a school. I both treasure this and feel a responsibility now, more so than ever before.
  5. Being human – I previously mentioned being positive and it IS really important for staff to feel the power of that positivity from a leader, however, it is also powerful for them to see you as human with insecurities and emotions. I have shown my emotions many times over the past few weeks and I know it has not been viewed as a weakness. I feel I am closer to my staff than ever before and our relationships have become stronger.

The changes to me as a leader that have happened as a result of this crisis are those I value and that I want to hold on to.

My promise is to keep these changes at the forefront of my leadership moving forward-

  • Positivity as a default
  • Being authentic-showing my human side
  • Accepting and building on my responsibility to my community
  • Accepting I do not need to take control

Help- I can’t even get an interview!

Let’s face it- this is a really stressful time to be looking for a job. If it’s your first job as it is for so many NQTs its even more stressful- believe me I know- I live with someone who is writing her dissertation and then focusing on getting a job (mainly so she can start to pay her mother back to be fair but searching nonetheless).

We have daily conversations now about what she should put in her personal statement and how to stand out in an application form- not that I don’t like talking to my daughter but thought this might help others too!

So short and to the point-

Things not to do- always best to start with the stuff that its best to avoid!

  • Don’t leave another school’s name in your personal statement- bit of a giveaway and whilst we all know you are probably applying for every job advertised we like to feel special!
  • Don’t cheat and write another two pages as a ‘covering letter’ to get round the page limit for your statement- if other heads are like me they will ignore it anyway and it takes away rather than adds.
  • Don’t stay in assignment writing mode and put lots of theory in your personal statement- we like real life examples. Saying that assessment is really important to identify gaps is something I already know! Wastes your word count and tells me nothing about you other than you can read and listen in lectures!
  • Don’t quote the latest OFSTED and use it as a truth- we all know OFSTED comments can be so far off the mark and it can be really irritating! You need to be astute and read it but look and see what progress they have made or what they are currently working on and comment on that instead.
  • Don’t say you prefer a particular year group unless you really wouldn’t work anywhere else as it may limit your opportunities- a year group may be advertised but others may have come up in the meantime and you don’t want not to be considered

So- what to do to stand out?

  • The best advice I can give is to show personality. I always say that I can teach someone how to plan, develop them to be a good teacher etc but I can’t teach someone to have a personality! In the classroom it matters- in an application form it matters too.
  • You need to stand out and the best way to do that for me is to have a more conversational tone to your personal statement. I am sure others would disagree and state that applications should be formal but I want to know something about you, not read lots of clever words.
  • I also think a sense of humour is so necessary in education that you can’t really write an application form without showing you have one- I love reading applications where this shines through- not through twee jokes but just amusing anecdotes.
  • Start with a couple of lines about why you want to work at ‘that school’ and how you would fit in, bring something new, believe in their ethos etc
  • Be really specific and make it obvious you have followed them on twitter or facebook for example and have read their website- pick something out and comment on it- it reads as if you have put thought into which school to apply for and that you have done some research.
  • If there is a job specification use bullet points and give your evidence/ reasons they should employ you for each one IN ORDER. It makes shortlisting so much easier for the interviewer as they can literally tick them off as they read rather than trying to find evidence.
  • Bullet points are a really effective way of getting lots of information and examples into your personal statement and its quicker to read and easier to get a feel for you. Think about having to read 50+ applications- not always great bedtime reading!

And finally- and this is the best bit of advice I can give anyone. Do not see yourself as a failure if you don’t get an interview. Remember that heads are human too and they make mistakes. Even if you follow all the advice above, a written application can very rarely sell you as much as a face to face meet can.

My mum’s advice has seen me through some disappointing interview outcomes-

‘If it’s meant to be love, it will be- it obviously wasn’t right for you’

Annoying as it was – she was always right!

The Invisible Gap

I personally took a major interest in mental health and the impact on learning a few years ago when it became clear that, for the majority of my pupils, learning was the last thing on their mind. More and more pupils were entering school with significant mental health issues and we were not in a position to support them effectively to enable the learning to take place.

We decided to educate both our staff and pupils about how to manage their mental health and over the past three years have done just that, introducing a mental health and wellbeing strand to our curriculum which is taught weekly from Nursery to Year 6, becoming the first school to be a therapeutic school and taking a strategic approach to developing wellbeing. Well being has become as important in our academy as academic learning and we are starting to see an impact in attainment and progress.

Lots of schools and academies have done the same- lots haven’t and have waited for the government to lead in this area. Whilst there is now a requirement for schools to support the mental health of their pupils for some they are a long way off doing this effectively.

These are the schools whose pupils will struggle during lockdown and for many this will only become apparent on their return to school. When people talk about the gap widening for some pupils during lockdown they are invariably talking about attainment gap and the impact on learning in terms of academic ability. I think there is another more pressing gap which will emerge- the gap between those pupils who are emotionally resilient and those who are not. Academic ability has nothing to do with this resilience- good mental health has. Those pupils who have been taught how to support their own mental health and wellbeing will be much better placed to deal with lockdown and the issues that arise. Emotional resilience is not something that can be taught online so whilst the arguments rage on as to whether teachers should be teaching using online lessons the real question ought to be whether children are coping mentally- never mind academically.

Whilst schools serving high % of disadvantaged children are being discussed in terms of how they will help their pupils catch up and the problems they will face on return to school, perhaps if we look at the positives- the fact that many of these schools have had higher levels of mental health support, because they have had to in order to enable children to learn, they will in fact be in a better place than others who perhaps have focused more on academic achievement?

The invisible gap may in fact be a benefit and close the gap of achievement.

Leadership- easier in industry?

Leadership- harder in schools?

So, someone just asked me if being a leader was ‘harder’ in a school than in my previous leadership roles in industry. I guess the easy answer is yes but there are many different strands to the question.

The first issue is defining the term ‘harder’- do they mean more difficult, more challenging, more time consuming? Intellectually harder, or physically or mentally harder?

In retail I had to contend with customers, staff, external agencies, managing budgets and sales targets. In education I have to contend with exactly the same- parents (customers), staff, external agencies, managing budgets and pupil targets. The difference is that there is an emotional aspect to managing all of these in education that just does not exist in some other sectors. Never did I wake up worrying about whether I had made the wrong decision as a leader in industry and it wasn’t because I didn’t care it was simply that a bad decision in retail just meant I had to work harder at meeting my targets whereas a bad decision now can potentially impact on someone’s future.

One of the reasons my role as a school leader is more challenging than my previous role running supermarkets is because there are less constants. Let’s face it, increasing sales of products is infinitely easier than increasing outcomes for pupils! Where retail is market driven and factors such as the weather, inflation and the economy can have an impact, generally once you get a feel for your market and seasonality it is fairly constant for large organisations. Education however is one endless stream of changes and you never get to fully understand your ‘market’ due to its mobility and other factors such as  changes in policy or government.

Leadership in schools is definitely more emotionally challenging for me- this simply stems from the fact that I care and there is so much at stake. I am dealing with and impacting on children’s lives now not just tins of beans and that is sometimes a very sobering thought. Whilst this makes leadership in education more challenging it also makes it more rewarding- I never got the satisfaction from my role in industry that I get now- meeting sales targets and budget forecasts just isn’t the same as seeing a child finally grasp a maths concept or read for the first time!

I know I have just touched the surface of a complex question but for me the answer is yes, leadership in schools is more challenging than my experience of leadership in other sectors but is also more rewarding, more exciting, more interesting and ultimately gives me more job satisfaction.

I can’t think of another role where everyday, regardless of my mood, I am made to laugh out loud by someone under the age of ten!