Respect – #DailyWritingChallenge

Respect is an interesting term – one that I think is misunderstood. Certainly over my time as a teacher, and now leader, my view on respect has changed. What hasn’t changed is the importance that I place on it. I’ll try to break it down.

Respect has many phrases linked to it. Respect your elders. Respect the rules. Respect the game. I’m not saying that I disagree with these statements, but I do think that they can be dangerous as they are so often misinterpreted.

One of the biggest dangers is blind respect. The giving of respect with no reason or understanding of why it is being given. Some of the statements above could imply this. How can you respect the rules if the rules are grossly unfair? Respect should not be something that is given to people without due cause. It is something that needs to be earned through give and take. For respect to be given to you, you need to give it out too.

This can be something that is so often overlooked and I think a particular risk in leadership. There can be an assumption that everyone should respect the Headteacher for example, but I don’t think this is the case. At every turn, leaders should be respectful of their position, the people they work with and themselves. Only by doing this can they build and earn respect within their organisations. It needs to be done constantly and consistently, built and rebuilt over time and never taken for granted. Every time a new employee begins, there should be a period where leaders earn the respect of their new colleague. It should not be taken for granted, no matter who you are or what others think of you.

So how can you build respect? It comes from everywhere. It comes from noticing the small things with people. It comes from testing the temperature and understanding the community. It comes from listening, talking and acting.

To earn people’s respect, you need to know them and they need to know you. You will gain respect by learning about them and understanding their challenges, fears and strengths, and by supporting them. This feeds into knowing and understanding the needs of everyone around you. You can gain respect by seeing the bigger picture, but even more by seeing how everyone fits into the bigger picture.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you can earn respect through your actions. As a leader, this doesn’t mean to stand around and bark orders demanding people do as you ask. Quite the opposite. It requires you to listen – really listen – to those around you. By doing this, you can earn their respect as they will feel connected. You need to choose your words carefully, as the more you are respected, the more weight they will carry. Go to heavy to soon and you will lose them, be too soft, and respect may be replaced for being liked. How you act will also determine how you are respected. You need to be able to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. I know that when I started at my school as a Headteacher, I felt that I had no respect as a teacher, purely because no one there had ever seen me teach. To earn my respect, I had to practice what I preached. It is also important to show vulnerabilities. After all, we are all human. You will not lose respect by showing that you are vulnerable too, but gain it.

Earlier this year, I attended a conference, where the keynote speaker was Mike Barton, the Police Chief in Durham. He was inspirational (and very funny) and one of his closing lines is one that will stick with me. He said ‘At work, you want to be respected and liked. If you can’t be both, be respected’.

All you need is love

On Saturday, after another poor showing in the staff quiz, my wife and I sat down and watched Yesterday. The film is fairly average (although the soundtrack is awesome) but we sat down, glass of wine in hand with one too many snacks on the table. In moments such as these, you can almost forget the situation we are all in.

I started teaching in April 2005 as a GTP. In September, 3 new staff joined the school and we undertook NQT training together. Over the next 3 months, working and communicating closely with each other, strong relationships started to build – one stronger than the rest.

My wife and I got together and continued working at the school for another 3 and half years together. During that time we had bought a house together and I had summoned up the courage to pop the question and must have caught her in a moment of weakness because she said yes.

For various reasons, including promotion, my wife left the school at the end of the fourth year and a year later, I started a new role in a new school. With both of us now being senior leaders, there were additional work related factors to consider. For both of us, it was hard to work out whether it was a blessing or a curse that we both worked in similar roles. The advantages were that we could talk to each other and offer support and even advice or strategies as we had that knowledge. The disadvantage was that we had a lot of shop to talk about after a day across two schools!

A few years later, a job came up at the school I was in and my wife applied. We were back working together again. A few years after that, I was appointed as a Headteacher and so we were back to separate cars again!

Headship brings its challenges and one of the most difficult is that if can be lonely. Ultimately, after all the talk, you have to make the decision, and people will come to you for answers. I have an amazing team around me who help immensely, but I know that it is my wife who is the one who sorts me out!

She listens when I need to rant, even if she doesn’t choose to say anything. She offers advice if I’m struggling and is able to read me so easily that she almost knows either what I need to hear or what I need to do. She tells me to be quiet or out the laptop away when she sees that things are starting to get to me.

The thing is, that although this is often about school (after all, we spend a lot of time there), the same applies for all things. If we’re are doing some DIY, planning a trip, writing the shopping list. In all of these things, knowing that I have the love from Mrs C gives me the strength I need. She is a constant for me, keeping me balanced and making sure that my work life balance is tipped in the favour of life (most of the time). She is an amazing mum, teacher and wife and I know that things will be alright because she is with me.

Creativity – #DailyWritingChallenge

I am always fascinated by creativity. How do we define it? What does it look like? Is it an innate skill or something that can be learned? Can you teach it or is it just something that be nurtured?

If I had to describe myself, creative would be very low on the list. I’m not artistic or musical (those typically deemed creative subjects) and I don’t find coming up with ideas for displays or themes easy. I am in awe of those who can see something that isn’t there. I’m amazed by those that can seemingly create something from nothing. This is not me.

I hadn’t realised until this opportunity to write prompted me that I had actually been rethinking what creativity might be. Thinking of those ‘creative’ subjects like art and music, does copying a piece of art or playing a piece of music indicate creativity on its own or just a proficiency in a skill such as drawing or playing the piano?

A much used quote from Einstein says ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge’. After reading Dan Willingham where he talks about how without knowledge in the first place it is almost impossible to be imaginative (substitute creative just about), I have changed my opinion a little. The reason those people can see something that isn’t there or create something from nothing is because they have a store of knowledge in the first place and have the skills specific to that area to be creative. Both are key and go hand in hand. To that end, I think I’ve answered some of my questions. Is it an innate skill or something that can be learned? A bit of both but by increasing knowledge and skill you can increase the possibility of being creative. Can you teach it or is it just something that be nurtured? I don’t think you can teach it, but people need opportunities to put skill and knowledge into action, and this may need guidance.

I still wouldn’t call myself ‘creative’ as such. However, occasionally, when faced with a problem, I will come up with a ‘creative’ solution. I won’t draw my way out of it (thank goodness) but I will apply a bit of abstract thought to a problem and find a solution that may not be in the Headteacher playbook (if there were such a thing). On reflection, this comes from knowledge, experience and skills that I have in my locker about certain, specific areas. I still wish I could draw though!

Community – #DailyWritingChallenge

Community is an interesting concept when it comes to schools. A quick look around school websites and you will find it somewhere – whether it be in the values, the information about the school or even, like my own school, in the vision statement. But what does this all even mean. Is it just white noise that is thrown around or is it really part of what schools do?

At the end of the last academic year, when Corona was just a beer, we decided that we didn’t like the Ofsted headings and so changed them. The idea behind it was to make sure that our school plan aligned more with our own beliefs than the ones bestowed upon us from ‘on high’. Two of the areas that we chose were both heavily invested in community.

I strongly believe that a school should be a central part of the community. It brings people together. The school that I am fortunate to lead has long since held the reputation of being a friendly and welcoming place. I knew this when I joined and saw it grow and develop over the last 4 and a half years but nothing could show how strong the community really was until school closed.

In the final week before the announcement, we were already working hard to prepare for the inevitable. We had managed to get packs out the week before, just in case, and were working through various scenarios. On Wednesday, whilst working with the leadership team on scenario X, Y or Z (?) a parent who manages a local Nandos phoned and asked how many staff we had working. He then preceeded to feed us all as a thank you for what we were doing. This coincided with a parent bringing in donuts for the same reason. Little things like this in a community matter.

Since the closure, our priority was focused on holding the community together and remaining the pillar of strength that it needed to be. We started this by ensuring strong communication, but in varied ways – to show an attachment to the community that we serve. This has ranged from email updates, 2 minute assemblies and varied twitter updates. These have also varied in content – possibly the most popular, and arguably most important for the community at this time, are the silly challenges (usually set by my colleagues, parents or children) that I complete every day. This helped bring the community together, if nothing else, to laugh at my expense.

But it hasn’t stopped there. Staff have been working tirelessly behind and in front of the scenes to keep the community together. Many of the activities we have encouraged children to do have been more to do with community than curriculum. For me, and for all of our community at this time, I think this is more important. Perhaps serendipitously, today, some of our staff (at a social distance of course) put up some ‘Palace Wood Bunting’ on our fence. The two pictures below for me show the importance of community.

A sample of the portraits that stretch the length of the fence
A comment from a member of the community with no link to the school.

What about wellbeing #DailyWritingChallenge

Wellbeing must be one of the most frequently used words in education recently, and not just as a result of Coronavirus. It’s hard to know whether it is because it has now appeared in the current Ofsted framework (the irony!) or because teachers have realised that a previous way of working was simply not sustainable. Either way, it has brought this important issue to a prominent place and one which it deserves.

But wellbeing isn’t a policy. It isn’t something that you write down and follow. It is part of the culture of the school. It is part of what happens on a day to day basis. It lives and breathes within and beyond the school walls. But only when it is built into the decision making process.

It frustrates me when I read or hear about schools that have staff meetings on yoga or even meetings to discuss what we can do about wellbeing. It reminds me of Monty Python! If you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth a watch – This is paying lip service to wellbeing without ever actually doing anything to support it.

Policies can help. If they are done in collaboration and communication with all staff then they can have an impact. An obvious example is marking/feedback. I’ve certainly been guilty of expecting detailed in depth marking with next steps and response marking. Thankfully we’ve long moved away from this – ours is now super simple: you choose the best way to feedback to your children.

We do have some things- a wellbeing day for Christmas Shopping (Bluewater can get mighty busy at times), time back for running clubs (which are optional anyway), a report writing day for teachers. We also bought tickets for anyone who wanted to attend a ResearchEd event at the weekend and gave a wellbeing day back as the event was at the weekend. But these are just extras.

Wellbeing for me is about understanding the person. What is it that they need? How can we support that? A lot of this understanding has deepened since becoming a father. It’s not that I didn’t know about the challenges of balancing family life, but since having children, I have definitely reassessed things. Getting home for family dinner, bath time and story time is the best thing for my wellbeing, so I have to make sure that our practices at school enable all staff to be able to do exactly that. I know that I will want to see nativities, sports days and assemblies so my staff need to be able to do that too.

I have seen some Twitter posts recently where teachers have been discussing interview questions, and one I have seen repeated is where candidates are being encouraged to ask schools what they are doing for wellbeing. I don’t think this is a bad thing, but I find answering it interesting. If you start with wellbeing, then your staff will grow as a result. If you consider their needs, and make work as enjoyable as you can, they will give back in spades. If wellbeing is woven in to the fabric of your school, then people will be happy to go with you on your journey. So when I am asked ‘What do you do about wellbeing?’ My answer is usually along the lines on everything … and nothing.

It’s all about Trust

I became a Head in 2015 after 5 years of being a deputy head. I was reasonably young but was fortunate to have worked under an amazing Head who knew how to support and develop people and was relentless in her pursuit for the very best for the children in her school.

The school I inherited was RI and had been for a decade. I approached leadership in the only way I knew at the time – with expectations set for what ‘good teaching’ looked like and fairly regular and relentless monitoring. We ensured that we ran CPD sessions to support things like questioning, lesson structure and assessment and did a lot first hand.

However, with Ofsted still looming, and not knowing any better, accountability was still high. Once they had been and gone (with the school getting the ‘good’ they deserved), I wanted to change as many of the things we were doing to get our result had never sat completely comfortably with me. I wanted to change, so we were going to ‘loosen up’. I wanted the staff to take more control of their own classrooms and do what was best for their children. I thought I had sold this in a really positive way. I had explained my vision going forwards and how I saw the changes being positive. The message was well received, but, down the line, it was hard to identify significant changes. This wasn’t a bad thing, as teaching was good, it was just no better than before. Why was this? Had my message not been clear?

After reflecting, reading and widening my own view, the penny dropped. Despite wanting to ‘loosen up’ and telling the staff to be more autonomous, I hadn’t done enough to address the climate! The missing piece was trust. From even before I started at the school, the teachers had not really been trusted. They had been instructed, monitored, told – managed. They had never really been led. I had talked about trust, and tried to implement it through the building of relationships, but we still were observing lessons, completing book looks away from the staff and feeding back in a non personal way. How could I expect staff to ‘loosen up’ and say that I trusted them with so much of the old accountability in place.

So we embarked on real trust. We got rid of all forms of accountability and replaced them with autonomous structures that the teachers had control over. We allowed the teachers to be teachers. We didn’t disappear, rather stepped back, ready to be called upon when asked. This was the biggest difference. Instead of pushing – always giving feedback, advice, tips – we allowed staff to come to us. Because there was trust, teachers were far more forthcoming than I had anticipated. They were keen to learn, take on responsibilities and develop themselves. Over the year, the trust has continued to build. I recently blogged about the value of a great team. In this blog, I cited three reasons that I was lucky to have a great team:

Number 1. When I’m not there, people pull together to pick up the slack.

When my wife had our second child a month or so ago, I was able to enjoy parenthood without the worries of what was going on at school. The whole staff, lead ably by the leadership team made sure that they dealt with everything that came their way. And we all know what it’s like in schools – never a dull moment.

Number 2. All staff know that they can challenge anyone if it gets the best for the children.

I’m no expert. I make as many mistakes as the next person (probably more!) but I always try to do what I think is right. What I love about my staff is that they are not afraid to ask the question ‘why’. It’s always done in a professional way, and it allows discussions to be opened up and for decisions to be made collaboratively that move the school on. Being challenged makes me think. It prompts me to think about why we do things in a certain way. Sometimes we make changes, sometimes we don’t, but we always work towards creating more clarity.

Number 3. They are not afraid to have a laugh – often at my expense!

At least once in one part of the day or another, I can guarantee that someone will make me laugh and lift my mood. Sometimes it’s a random passing comment and sometimes it’s something bigger.

These things make my job easier, but they only come if there is trust. I had to learn and grow as a leader to see and understand this, but the power of trust is not to be underestimated. Get it right, and watch how the people around you grow in ways you couldn’t imagine.

Growth #DailyWritingChallenge

I thought a lot about this blog before writing it. There are so many ways that you could go with it. I also wanted to keep it in the positive.

In December 2016, I organised a days training on Growth Mindset. It was something I had done some light reading on and wanted to explore. The training didn’t disappoint and we embarked on a journey with Growth Mindset – initially not sharing it with children but embedding its principles. We also spent time rewriting our school values, driven by the children, and then reframed slightly to fit neatly into the acronym GROW.

Over the next few years, Growth Mindset featured heavily on the School Plan from embedding to developing. It is now part of our vernacular, with children using the terminology and, in many instances, apply the principles effectively.

Having spent so many years on this, and also having started reading and researching more since around June last year, I really believe in the principles. I don’t think it can be taught, but I do think it can be supported and nurtured, in children but also in adults. This is what I wanted to talk about.

We have never used data for appraisal but have used a target based approach up until this year. It didn’t not work, but it always felt a little like targets were discussed in appraisal meetings but didn’t go much further and didn’t end in Growth for the member of staff. That was on me for not creating a platform for growth.

This year, we changed it up. Everyone still has an appraiser, but the forms, targets and top down accountability have all gone. In its place, we have embarked upon a research journey, whereby all teachers have chosen an area that they are interested in to look more deeply into. This was launched in our renamed professional learning meetings alongside our rationale for moving this way, some input on how and what research could be done and some frames to work within.

This represented growth for me, as I was branching away from the things that had known and felt comfortable with. But, to use a phrase that have used with staff many times, if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. And I didn’t want the same. I wanted things to be different and for us all to grow as professionals.

These projects represented a way to see the growth in teachers too. What we were asking was whether they could find something out that made them a better teacher tomorrow than the one they are today. I have always struggled with certain comments in regards to this. Fortunately, they weren’t said too much but there were still a few pockets of resistance. With any CPD, especially that which is driven by yourself, we should never be saying:

  • We are doing all of that already
  • I didn’t learn anything new
  • It reminded me of things I’m already doing
  • It was interesting but wouldn’t work for me/here
  • We’ve done all this before – it all comes in cycles

I’m sure there are others, but these are my personal faves! These do not represent growth. More so, almost an admission that things will stay the same. Growth doesn’t have to mean change, but we should at least be open to the prospect of it.

Through the reading I have done in the last 9 months, I have realised that I am not as good a teacher as I thought I was. I would love to have the opportunity to go back and have a class so that I could embed what I have learnt. Growth for me represents this thirst for new knowledge, techniques or strategies to make us better.

I think this is also reflected in schools. The Ofsted judgements have perhaps created problems. We have seen, with the exemption removed, many outstanding schools be moved down a grade. Could this be because they did not grow? I guess we will never know. What I do know is that all schools require improvement (credit Jeremy Hannay for the quote). We should all be looking to grow and improve. The journey of education is never finished. After all, in education, if you are standing still you’re moving backwards.

Loyalty #DailyWritingChallenge

Loyalty Cards, Loyalty schemes, loyalty benefits, loyal customers – the list goes on and on. For every business there is a sound bite that goes alongside it about loyalty. But so what? Is it just white noise or does it really mean anything.

One of my first jobs was working in a sports shop. Like many high street shops, they had a loyalty card. It gave customers money off and a voucher on their birthday. If we could encourage someone to sign up, we got a nice little bonus in our pay. We were selling loyalty and they were buying it if our pitch was good enough.

Even in today’s market, loyalty seems to be a commodity that companies sell and we buy. Every year when I renew my Sky package because the price has gone up, I hear the line ‘I see you’ve been a loyal customer so …’

This loyalty is false. It’s shallow and narrow and, when push comes to shove, means nothing. It pays lip service to loyalty without securing it. The reason? Loyalty requires investment. However, if you want deep loyalty, you need more than financial investment, as this is short lived and fickle. The situation we are in has shown examples of where companies and brands that pride themselves on loyalty have dropped this value when things have got tough.

If we look at where loyalty runs deeper, lasts longer and means more, the investment is emotional. Think family. The blog I never wrote for family was entitled You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family. There is an almost implicit loyalty with your family that goes further than any others. We forgive and forget more with our families, and give each other far more leeway than we would even our closest friends. There is no incentives like the store cards or loyalty schemes – it is just there.

And that got me thinking about how we could move closest to this. Some businesses refer to themselves as or like a family. But as we know, saying it is one thing and doing or being it is something else.

I tried to reflect upon my school. I am loyal to them. I love working there, have a wonderful team and a community that are supportive and challenging. I also know that I have some incredibly loyal staff. They would do anything to support me and the school. The community we serve is also loyal, as we have undergone changes, they have stuck with us. So how did this come about? Was it always like this?

The key for me is trust. Through the years of developing trust, I feel loyalty to the school and to the cause has grown. There is an emotional investment in the journey and so people feel attached to what we are doing. Just like with the businesses, in this situation, teachers across the country will be evaluating how loyal they are to the cause the serve. Deciding to move on doesn’t make someone disloyal, but there needs to be a connection between the person and the cause for loyalty to be built. Similarly, where schools and leaders have shown no loyalty to their staff, they will undoubtedly suffer a similar fate to the companies who have quickly shown where their loyalties lie.

For me, my school and everyone connected to it are like a family. We have our disagreements but we stick together. An email from a parent a week ago really brought it home for me. It ended ‘We hope you can take some form of break from your post, but something tells me that nothing will stop you from supporting your other family.’

Glass half full

I recently wrote a blog here about choosing the right lens. I started by talking about looking at the glass and deciding if it was half full or half empty. In any given situation, you have the opportunity to look at things and try to find the positives, or see the negatives. It isn’t as straight forward as this as this line is a continuum but you tend to fall on one side or the other.

I think it’s fair to say that this situation has caused us all to think. There have been times where we have all felt low and down and seen the negatives that this has brought with it. These can’t be ignored and certainly play their part, but if we spend our time focusing on the negatives we could end up in a negative spiral.

It’s so important to try and find the positives. To try and be optimistic. To see the glass as half full rather than half empty. So what is there to be optimistic about?

  • The school staff. By being apart, I’m optimistic that when we return, we will work even harder and even more closely to improve the education and time in school for our children.
  • The school family. Through not seeing them every day, we have had to think imaginatively and creatively about how we stay in contact with them. I’m optimistic that by showing this side of ourselves we will make future working relationships even more productive.
  • Our own families. Spending more time with my own children has been amazing. I’m optimistic that this time with them is a blessing and we should cherish the moments and I’m optimistic that I will see many more milestones that I may otherwise have missed.

These are all really valid things to be optimistic about. But one that I haven’t put on this list, but I feel for all should be viewed as a positive is that I am optimistic about the landscape for education. For the first time in my career, we have an opportunity to forge a path of our own design.

  • I am optimistic for the opportunity to rebuild and develop my school community.
  • I am optimistic that we might see more schools taking control and doing things because they are right for them and not because someone asks or expects it.
  • I am optimistic that we will be able to place more value on the things that really matter – pupil and staff wellbeing, developing rounded citizens rather than examination robots.
  • I am optimistic that we can build stronger networks of collaboration between schools and finally be rid of the competitive nature driven by league tables.

I am optimistic about these things because if we have learnt anything from this crisis, it is that we are stronger together. We have shown that when we put our collective heads together that we can solve problems, create solutions and support each other. We have shown that, underneath all the banners, websites and mission statements that we have shared moral purpose. And if we can hold on to this and, once the dust settles and the powers that be want to return to ‘business as usual, use it as a springboard to change things for the better, than that is surely something to be optimistic about!

Opportunity knocks

The start of many a well known saying. But like so many sayings, what is the substance behind it. We’ve all no doubt been told at some point to ‘take an opportunity’ to do something, or that we ‘don’t want to miss an opportunity’. How do we go about turning these phrases into something more meaningful and something that genuinely creates opportunity.

Perhaps we need to go back to go forwards. Where do opportunities come from? How do they present themselves? Sometimes we hear stories of where opportunities seemingly come from nowhere. Like a mythical creature, they magically appear in front of us and then we are expected to take them. In other times, they are sold to us like a silver bullet or magic wand – usually therefore presented to us by someone else, maybe because they have something to gain as a result. Think about all of those pointless and frustrating ad campaigns selling us a once in a lifetime opportunity that appears in every commercial break for an entire ITV film!

Both of these scenarios potentially create a binary feeling. Like we’ve either missed or taken the opportunity like it is the golden ticket to a brighter future. I’m not sure this is ever really the case.

As a deputy head, I was given the ‘opportunity’ to be part of an aspiring Headteacher programme that was run by the local authority. It was the first time it had been run, and to be honest, was not the opportunity it had been dressed up to be. There was however one silver lining. Though the course, all of us were given a coach and I was very fortunate to be given an amazing one. Having undertaken training in the past and seen the benefits this was a real positive for the course. We met on various occasions throughout the year and the discussions we had really did help.

There was one thing that came up in one of our sessions that had a profound effect on me and has stuck with me ever since. We were talking about opportunities and I was talking about how I had been lucky to be given opportunities at different times. I remember saying to my coach that I was lucky ‘to be in the right place at the right time’. Perhaps stepping out of the coaching role, he replied ‘right place, right time, right person’.

That’s when I saw this and realised. Opportunities don’t just appear, we make them happen, particularly when we are brave enough to take the proactive first step.

Many have spoken about the opportunity we have now to rethink our education system. If we are ever going to do it, now is the time. But it won’t be talking about it that does it. It will be for school teachers, leaders, parents and the whole community to take action to make the opportunity a reality. We need to, collectively and with a clear voice, beat down the door.

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