What brings you joy?

The SENCO at my school, the brilliant @novahypno, has a great display in her office that asks ‘What brings you joy’. When children, and adults, come to visit, they can write something on the board. What started as a bare wall is now covered with a real mix of things. There are the obvious food related ones (the new bakery near school would now feature pretty heavily), the hobby related ones like horse riding and the family related ones.

What it highlights is that joy can be a very personal thing. It is linked to each individual, but more than that, it is linked to the specific time in that individual’s life. What brought you joy previously may not any more – not necessarily because it is no longer important, but probably because something has superseded it. Take the bakery for example – it’s only been open a few months and so couldn’t have brought joy before then, but their cakes really do bring joy!

You could also argue that there are different types of joy. I can think of times I’ve experienced joy as a professional – getting that job, seeing a colleague grow, nailing that Ofsted. But this joy feels very different to the joy experienced personally. Getting married, buying a forever home, finding out and then becoming a parent, fortunately on two occasions. All of these have brought immeasurable joy and so different from the professional joy.

Working full time in a job that is demanding can take time away from family. As much as we try, it’s not the type of job you can leave at the door. However amidst all the turmoil that the Coronavirus situation has brought, it has provided a unique opportunity. I am working from home – and what that means is that I am chasing a toddler and helping a newborn during the day and grabbing every spare minute to stay on top of work. But I am at home.

I am spending more time with my family than I would be able to normally. It has allowed me to see things differently. It has given me a new perspective on what brings me joy. Today, on our daily exercise (4 miles with a buggy and a scooter!) on the last road home, my toddler did his usual. He became a T-Rex. Which meant that I became a T-Rex. We chased each other all the way home. His belly giggle when I caught him, or when he caught me brought me joy. As did the smile of an 11 week old when he looked up and saw me. Sometimes, it’s the little things!

Being a Jedi?

I am a self confessed Star Wars fan. Ever since watching them in school holidays with my dad and brother I have followed them and rewatched them more times than I care to remember. When I saw the focus for the #DailyWritingChallenge was adventure the quote from Yoda immediately jumped to mind.

But surely this is a bad thing. Surely we should crave adventure – pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zones, challenging ourselves to do more than we’ve managed before. I have always been one to approach things this way, seeing new things as an opportunity to start a new adventure, especially professionally.

Personally, being locked down at home has really made me crave an adventure. Thankfully, my youngest (11 weeks) is not as badly affected as most, but my eldest (3 years) has already started asking where we are going today. He is desperate for an adventure, desperate to get out into the world and explore and I’m with him. It’s been a blessing and a curse to be at home with them both. I love being with them every day, but wish I could do all of the things we would normally have planned.

But the juxtaposition of the personal with the professional could not be more different at the moment. I don’t know whether this could be called an adventure – maybe because it is a journey into the unknown – but for the first time in a long while, I want a normal week! No surprises, no challenges, no changes to routine, no thinking outside the box. These are things I usually like in my job. I know they come as part and parcel with being a Headteacher and I have grown to love them. But the current situation is on another level.

I have reflected on lots over the last 3 weeks, and two things I have read really resonated. The first, from Matthew Evans, is about domain specific knowledge. I don’t think anyone in the country had the domain specific knowledge for this situation, and that has made us all have to think on our feet and react. It is very difficult to be proactive when you don’t know what is coming.

The second is from Daniel Willingham and I had never appreciated how astute his comments were. When he talks of memory, he says ‘consider what life would be like if you always strove to think outside the box … the novelty might be fun for a while, but life would soon be exhausting.’ He’s bang on there! The constant thinking is more tiring than we all thought it ever could be.

So adventure? Yes please. Maybe it is the control freak in me, but being able to choose to go on an adventure rather than having one thrust upon us would suit me a little better. So right now, I’m definitely in full Jedi, not craving adventure or excitement, but longing for a normal day in my school.

Supported from all sides

An email comes in, a Twitter notification pings, a WhatsApp message beeps. Sometimes, these things can be overwhelming but they seem to bring a certain comfort at times like these. They show a connection with the outside world – one which none of is really knew how much we would miss.

Each one of these acts as a reminder of the overwhelming support that is available to us. In their different ways, they represent the culture and climate of our environments and the fabric of our character.

I saw this picture and it is what prompted me to write about support. People working with each other for each other is what will get is through this crisis in the best possible way. It is not about being a hero. It is not about being an individual. It is about asking for help, sharing ideas, working together and being there for each other.

The things about it is though, that if you have waited until now to act this way, it may be too late. A culture is built over time and the support for that culture comes from living and breathing it every day. The support you receive may well be a reflection on the support you have given in the past. It may also be worth considering the type of support you receive. Is it offered freely or is it ‘expected’?

It’s important to remember that none of us know what we are doing. We are all wandering through the wilderness making the best decisions we can. This is where support becomes invaluable.

Take Twitter for example. As a HT, seeing and engaging with other HTs across the country has helped me in feeling supported in making decisions. There has also been the huge waves of support when we consider the wealth of resources that have been shared for all to engage with.

Our parent community too have been overwhelmingly supportive. They have been on board with all of our messages, offering kind words to us before the lockdown and continuing since. They have also got involved with the range of activities and challenges we have been sharing with them.

But the support from staff has been the thing that has made the biggest difference for me as a leader. Knowing that everyone in the team is playing their part in whichever way they can brings me some comfort in times where it is difficult to feel anything other than anxious! Whether it be the leadership team taking on additional responsibilities, teaching staff suggesting and running with ideas to engage our families or all staff offering kind words, it is clear to me that support from all sides really makes a difference when your backs are to the wall.

True Colours

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We are in unprecedented times. 3 weeks ago, I was hurriedly running around tidying the house getting ready for family to come round to celebrate my son’s 3rd birthday. Phrases are often over used, but this really does feel like a different life. So much has changed in such a short space of time and the impact on our lives is great. Schools are all but closed, parents are working overtime with their children at home and teachers are juggling their old role with their new one.

Since the increase in concern, the introduction of daily updates and (late) announcements, we have started to see people’s true colours. As the quote suggests, when our backs are against the wall and we are facing crisis point, we show ourselves for who we really are.

You could start with bodies such as Ofsted – too slow to react to the crisis and therefore missing a huge opportunity to buy respect and capital with the teaching community. You will no doubt have already read mock tweets suggesting comments that may appear in future Ofsted reports: “The quality of home learning did not sufficiently support the most disadvantaged pupils”. We all hope that these don’t come true, but how much time will be given before we read the line ‘business as usual’ again. What are their true colours?

I’ve also seen a worrying number of teachers reporting that they have to complete ‘time sheets’ for their work at home. I’ve tried to think of an eloquent way to phrase it but seriously – what is that about? Every circumstance is different. Some will be able to work for long periods, some may not. But that is not the point. The point is that work should not be the focus at the moment. No one has experienced this before. It is not fair or reasonable to put that kind of additional pressure on to teachers at a time where they will undoubtedly be anxious over their health, their family and almost certainly the children in their class that they aren’t seeing every day. Anyone who was on the fence in these schools about whether it was the place for them has surely had their minds made up. I think the true colours are pretty clear here too.

But, as the song says ‘Don’t be discouraged’. As much as this has shown some things at their worst, it has also brought the very best out in people. Anyone in the teaching community will have their thoughts and feelings over pre-prepared resources with subscription fees. Whatever your feelings are, the fact that these were, almost without exception, made free to access will help teachers and parents support their children.

On top of this, the online community has been incredibly supportive. There have been amazing free resources created by teachers (I particularly like http://www.researchify.co.uk by @solomon_teach) as well as resources collated and shared on padlets, drop-box accounts and websites. With additional time at home, many may look to their own CPD and again, the generosity and support has been fantastic. You can find anything from Dual coding and cognitive science on @senecalearn to a series of videos from @teacherhead on Rosenshine’s Principles in Action. And with a menu of activities and no pressure to engage (in the way of weekly meetings for example), it wouldn’t surprise me to see more people take an active part in their own CPD.

We’ve seen on large scales the way that the true colours start to show in these times of crisis. However, these are perhaps even more apparent on the smaller scale – when we look directly at the communities that we serve. The school community of parents and children have been amazing. In the time leading up to schools ‘closing’, we received care package deliveries (Nandos was a particularly highlight) and so many messages of support. These have continued since closing, and show how much schools really are the centre of communities.

When it became clearer that this wasn’t going to pass us by and that we needed to start to prepare, the response at my school (and I’m sure many others) was amazing. Whether it was from supporting each other, to taking on additional jobs voluntarily or even to asking if someone wanted a cuppa, seeing the team unite showed me their true colours. When organising a working rota to support key workers, despite the dangers, staff wanted to volunteer and help out. They continue to look for more and more ways to support their children in the best ways possible. I am privileged to work in such a team.

Perhaps then, it is no coincidence that one of the enduring images in recent weeks has been that of a rainbow. A symbol of hope that many have put in their windows to unite against a common threat.

Let’s try to make our true colours beautiful. In times such as these, it will make all the difference.

Stay safe.

Playing someone else’s game

For all of the time I have been involved in education, the dark cloud that is school inspection has loomed over us. So much at stake – a poor school reputation can lead to falling rolls which can lead to stretched budgets which can lead to restructure which can lead to … you get the picture.

Add to this the ‘support’ that schools are offered to be ‘Ofsted Ready’ or ‘Match Fit’ or any other phrase that might entice someone in to pay the exorbitant amount of money for external support. I must get at least 10 emails a day offering me these sorts of things.

The one thing they all have in common is the distance approach. If you are a good school, you will see Ofsted for 2 days every 1400 or so. Just think about that for a moment. For other methods of support, you tend to get left alone until you are in ‘the window’ and suddenly you are a prime candidate for ‘Mocksted’ or ‘Dive readiness’.

This is not improvement, no matter which way we dress it up. Schools do not work 2 out of 1400 days. Staff work hard, doing the best for the children every day. We need to be reducing the anxiety around Ofsted (all the time they exist) for our staff rather than increasing it through a series of mini inspections. This won’t improve schools just like getting on the scales more often won’t help you lose weight.

That’s why I’m tired of playing someone else’s game. I know Ofsted are there, and I know, in all reality, that the stakes are still high for the school and for my job. I just don’t feel like doing things for Ofsted is the way forward.

Seeing so many inspirational leaders, particularly Jeremy Hannay and Kulvarn Atwal, who don’t do things for Ofsted opened the door to thinking that #thereisanotherway. Reading about their approaches, particularly the way the teachers are empowered and have autonomy, prompted a change in me. I no longer wanted to react to the ‘advice’ from external agencies or follow the interpretations from whichever Ofsted framework is in place.

That doesn’t mean that we aren’t improving – I would say quite the opposite. We have made more strides forward this year in terms of pedagogy and curriculum than in any of my previous ones as head. With the removal of formal monitoring and long book looks, so much more time has been created to look at ways to improve the school offer and to support teachers.

We are aware of Ofsted and what the expectations are. Instead of spending our time with mock deep dives and the like, we are trying to spend our time working with our subject leaders and teachers to make them feel comfortable and confident about their subject and teaching. Teachers, without fear of scrutiny can hopefully try things out, experiment and improve based on the context that they know best, their own classroom.

The game should be changing. The rules should be made by schools with their own contexts taking priority. Courage and bravery needs to be shown by school leaders to stand up and focus on their own needs and not these suggested to us.

So what is ‘our game’? What are the rules and how can we make them work? When writing it down it sounds pretty obvious, but I think in reality it is less commonplace than we think.

1. Do what is right for your children.

Surely this is what everyone does. A google search for non negotiables will tell you otherwise! Teachers know their children and where they are in the curriculum best. They need to be trusted to do the right thing. If it means that classes are running at slightly different paces, that’s ok. If it means doing a long maths session and miss English occasionally, then do it. I know that things will balance out and trust the teachers to make those judgements. People aren’t robots – and children definitely aren’t! Expecting them to all do things at decided times on long term plans is unlikely at best. You can’t tell me in any certainty what the weather will be like in 3 weeks time, so you won’t be able to tell what your children need to learn in 3 weeks time!

2. Do what’s right for you

Marking. Who’s it for? If you can’t answer that and really believe your answer, then don’t do it. We moved to a feedback policy this year and taking inspiration from a policy on @teachertoolkit ours is simple. It is a page long, but in summary it says ‘do what’s right for you and the children – focus on what has the most impact’. The same can be said for work in books, learning objectives, planning and probably many more. A random photo of a group of children carrying out a task but stopping to smile at the camera, printed and replicated for every child in the group. What’s the benefit? If there is one, do it, if not don’t. LOs, LIs, WALTs and all the other acronyms. We need to think about what we want children to learn and think about (as Daniel Willingham tells us) but if you think children writing it down is important, then do it. If not don’t.

3. Do what’s right for us

Schools are amazing places. But they are unique. My setting is different to yours. My staff and my children are different to yours. Lifting something that works in one setting and applying it in exactly the same way is likely to not have the same impact as doing things specifically because they serve your environment. It doesn’t mean that we are too proud to look around for great ideas and practice in other schools. It just means that we look at what and how we can make it work for us.

And that’s about it really. I started writing this blog before the concerns over Coronavirus escalated, but I think it is as relevant now as ever. It’s been brilliant to see how schools and settings have been pulling together. Having a range of ideas to look at is key. Choosing what works for your children, your staff and your school is even more important.

What’s also interesting is that this blog started as ‘don’t do things for Ofsted’. The ‘we’ll carry on as normal’ line and even the ‘favourable deferral’ line shows that there is a disconnect between schools and Ofsted. Now, more than ever, I think it’s important that you play by your rules. If you do, Ofsted, and everything that comes with it, should take care of itself.

The power of a great team

We all know that working in schools is tough. There are battles being had in so many areas – SEND, budget, recruitment, that other one beginning with O – that it can seem like an uphill struggle (probably because it is!).

But the last few weeks has really highlighted to me the importance of having a strong and supportive team, who feel trusted enough not only to make the right choices for their children but also to challenge appropriately when it comes to wider decision making.

I’ll cite just three reasons that make me a lucky headteacher.

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

I am very lucky to be a proud parent. 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. Even when I came back, slightly bleary eyed and powered by coffee, they only updated me on things I needed to know. Things that were in hand were kept that way.

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. Takes this week for example. In my infinite wisdom (and significant sleep deprivation) I decided to cook pancakes in assembly. I was prepping at lunch time and the team having their lunch in the staff room couldn’t help but help out. And by help out, I mean make a joke out of the things I kept doing wrong. The scales not working, the cooker taking a week to heat up or the use by date of the sugar! To sum it all up, a ‘to measure or not to measure’ poll put up on twitter to settle our friendly debate. I can laugh about even more now knowing that I won!

The long and short of it – despite it being a tough job, and despite sometimes feeling low, a great team can always pull you back around. I’m lucky to have a great one who make my job easier and more enjoyable that it might otherwise be. #teampalacewood

Choose the right lens – bringing things into focus.

What do you see when you look at the glass? Is it half full or half empty? It’s an analogy that is as old as time, and one that we have all undoubtedly used in one situation or another. But is it really that simple?

I recently blogged about the three phases of my headship journey. Now proudly in ‘phase 3’, a new set of challenges were put in front of me, and it has provided me with yet more to think about. This phase is exciting, and one I truly believe can work, but I have realised that there are some things that I need to do as well.

One of the things we have done this year is to do away with appraisal in its old form. 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 (huge credit to @teachertoolkit and ‘Just great teaching’ for many of the ideas and resources). Some time was also given to collaboratively discussing their ideas and asking questions.

I thought things had gone well; there was a buzz in the meeting and staff and really got on board with the shift from a ‘done to’ approach to a more autonomous and less high stakes ‘done for/with’ approach. As the first term of the year went by, staff met with their appraiser for a coaching meeting to unpick their projects further. I was happy and I felt things were going very well.

Over the next few months, I would see and hear of staff doing things towards their projects. We had offered to by a book linked to their project and these orders were coming in. There was excitement when these were handed out and it reassured me that we had made the right decision. I met with everyone 1:1 to catch up and see what else they needed. The meetings were positive and the feedback was good.

Then came the bump in road. I received some feedback about the projects in a meeting just before Christmas. What I heard was that some weren’t really getting off the ground. I took it badly as I was so desperate for it to work. As it happened I had a coaching session a few days after, and this dominated the session. Although I was still clearly on edge about it, through the session I was able to come up with a plan of action.

I discussed my thoughts with my leadership team after the break. I apologised for my reaction prior to Christmas and shared my coaching session. Their help here was invaluable and helped me to focus. We decided on a professional learning meeting to refocus the projects and re-emphasise the importance we placed on them in terms of their own professional development.

The staff meeting went better than I could have expected. Engagement was really good and there was excitement and enthusiasm when staff talked about what they were looking into. There had been significantly more going on behind the scenes that I wasn’t (and didn’t need to be) aware of. There was also great feedback on how we could do things even better, and as this was the first time we had done anything like this, the feedback was really welcome – more about this another time!

So what of the glass? I had allowed myself to become preoccupied with things that were not going so well. I asked myself why, I berated myself and I was frustrated. In fact, I had chosen the wrong lens to look through. When I changed the lens, I was able to see the powerful things that were happening and where my team and I needed to support more. By changing my lens, I was able to bring things much more into focus and make better decisions. I was able to see things that I had been unable to before – that things were taking hold and that there was positivity around the changes.

Just a phase

This is my first ever blog post. I’ve seen many and been inspired by them so have taken the plunge. This blog is about learning leadership. I am in the third phase of my headship journey and have made adjustments to my style along the way. Let’s start with some context

I became a headteacher in September 2015 following five years as a deputy head. My headteacher there was an inspiration. She knew how to support and develop people and was relentless in her pursuit for the very best for the children in her school. When I was offered the opportunity to lead a school of my own, I felt comforted knowing that I had such an amazing mentor.

My school was RI. It had been RI or satisfactory for a decade. The children were positive and wanted to learn and the teachers were enthusiastic and wanted the best for the school. The leadership team were relatively new into post, but united in their ambition for the school. Ofsted were due in 18mths to 2 years and we, quite simply, had to be good.

Working with the support of the leadership team, we went about continuing the improvement on teaching and learning that had begun the previous year. We did this in the only way we knew how 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.

We spent time with staff, ensuring they knew why we were doing things and we did make adjustments to our expectations over the first year. The best example of this was massively reviewing our marking policy and getting rid of any ‘deep marking’ or ‘lots of pink and green that needs responding too’. This was a positive step, and seen as such by the staff, but there was still the concern that Ofsted were looking, and so accountability remained high.

Two things happened before Ofsted came which I look back at now as being a blessing. The first was that they didn’t come when we were expecting them. This meant that, once the ‘due date’ has passed, staff were more relaxed. Second was that we had two staff we needed to cover long term. This meant that our focus moved very much into what the children in those two classes needed and away from doing things for Ofsted.

Ofsted came in the penultimate week of the summer term. It was ridiculously hot and the end of a very long term. The teachers were amazing and we got the result we were hoping for, although due to the summer holidays I couldn’t say anything about it until the report was published mid September. That signalled the end to phase 1 of my headship journey.

All of the things we were doing to get our result had never sat completely comfortable with me. I had done them because I thought it was what was needed and had been guided that way through support from outside. However, we now had an opportunity to move forward in a different way. I told the staff this alongside the result. 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?

These formed many of the discussions we had as a leadership team. They were in agreement that what we had said was clear and that it was an improvement on what we had. There were pockets of change, but also pockets where things would only show small steps of change. Try as I might, at the time, I could not see why things had not gone as I had hoped. I knew what I wanted, I had shared it and received feedback to say that the message was delivered clearly. We had made a jump away from the micro managed system and rigid timetable that we had previously, but the impact was not there in the way I had thought.

At the end of the summer term in 2019, I was lucky to see Rob Carpenter speak. He was inspirational and gave me so much to think about. Much of what he said linked to my own values, with the exception that he had seen these done about in his schools whereas I had not found the best way of getting it over the line. I didn’t realise at the time, but this was the end of the second phase of my headship. I had moved towards a model of headship that I felt more comfortable with, but it still wasn’t quite right. But why?

The third phase of my headship journey was sparked, like many I would imagine, from reading about Three Bridges Primary and Jeremy Hannay. I read his blog with interest and found many parallels with what I had learnt from listening to Rob Carpenter. It was then that 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! 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.

At the end of the summer term last year, I told staff that we were moving dramatically away from the high stakes accountability that we had all been used to throughout our careers. Gone were appraisals with focused targets, top down observations and book looks. They were replaced with project based professional development, chosen by the teacher themselves on an area of interest, observations undertaken by the teacher, both in and out of school, and peer to peer reviews of learning in a supportive and non-judgemental way.

At this stage, I knew that I wanted to move away from the previous phases of my leadership. It was not to say that these were bad or wrong – they were simply the best I knew at the time. This have been due to a number (or combination of things); my focus on addressing the present without thinking enough of the future; the experience I had gained and seen; or my lack of wider reading and understanding of leadership. I had the start of an idea. I believed in it and knew that, after four years of headship, I wanted to stop playing by the rules of someone else’s game.

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