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‘I am not a leader’ (or Yes you are! Every ONE of us in education is)

Post taken from my Staffrm story in response to the Leadership Artefacts thread. Well worth visiting.

I’m sure I’m not the only person who has read the #ldrartefacts thread on Staffrm with interest, and also someone that’s thought ‘I’m not quite there yet, so I don’t have anything to contribute’. After all, I’m ‘just’ a middle leader, not SLT, so does that count? I had been inspired by some accounts, and also thought ‘hang on, that’s what I do!’ when reading them but kept putting off getting involved in the thread as not feeling competent to. Well that was until someone said to me ‘you’re not a leader’…and that caused a reaction. I wanted to slap him (not for the first time!) and my immediate response was indignation…which is of course what he’d wanted. See although I believe I am good at my job, I don’t like to shout about it or pretend I am anything better than others, so tend to shy away from getting involved in social media / public face leadership discussions as if feeling unqualified.

You’re not a leader‘ kept ringing in my head. Grinding away. How patronising I thought! But then, I don’t have any major evidence of whole school impact or long-term change in my own right I suppose? I mean, I lead a department that is gradually transforming and kids have actually learnt something, found high expectations, feel challenged – so there’s a whole culture change there right? I lead whole school numeracy but that’s only been this year so can I really claim much? At my last school I was HoD for a year following from a bit of a high maintenance bloke who I’d helped transform the dept…but he’d take credit for that of course 😉 So can I really say I’m part of this leadership group?

Answer: definitely yes.

You see I’ve been an education leader for a 7 years. How? I’ve led in my classroom. Or on the astro turf. Or in the corridors. Or on school trips. I’ve taken a claim to my physical space, laid groundwork for the mental and emotional space of that learning environment, and every day fought battles with myself or with others to just be the best I could be and ensure that kids got a good experience and were led to be the best they could be.

Every single one of us from day 1 of PGCE stepping in front of your first class and taking tentative steps is a leader. We lead by example. We lead by our body language, the words we choose to use, whether we give ‘the evil teacher stare’ or give a smile, we lead by holding doors open for students and modelling good manners, we lead by the way we encourage them, how we don’t let them give up, when we motivate or praise them, when it is time to sanction them or hold them to account. Aren’t these the traits that ‘real’ leaders portray, whether in education or business? Does it make any difference whether we are leading a class of infants and teenagers or leading thirty sales assistants? It’s the same principles.

After leaving university I fell into a job in fashion retail almost by accident. It led to me becoming a deputy manager within three months and then successively becoming store manager to two large stores, and setting up a national flagship. The stores I ran were filled with staff of all ages and experiences. Some were keen trainees, others were jaded and resigned with a ‘this is the only job I can get’ mentality. Some felt overlooked by previous managers. Some felt they’d not had their potential realised. Some kicked off and didn’t like change. Some didn’t appreciate being given targets and boundaries and expectations (it’s shocking that I wouldn’t let them swing on the fixtures in the loft and steal from the till really). Does this sound familiar in a school context? My wise sister once said to me ‘children are just like adults, only with shorter trousers’ and it’s true. Leading children and leading adults have massive parallels. It’s always a joke at Inset isn’t it how much like naughty kids the teachers suddenly become? And none of us like being treated like a homogenous group and given the same diet of CPD or being made to feel hard done by or overlooked. Same feelings, similar baggage, similar needs.

Day 1 in my classroom as an NQT I started leading. With 19 classes I was effectively leading 490 ish children on a weekly basis. But even just with my tutor group of 26 from that first day I was a leader. Even before I got into any other roles. Being just a tutor is a profound leadership opportunity. I set up my classroom with a photograph of my dog or favourite places on the tutor board and built relationships with those tutees based on their pets & places and from the first meeting I was leading them. In retail my decisions affected a team of 27 and a turnover of over £2.6million a year. Now my decisions affect the Hums team, our students of about 850, and a budget of just a tiny fraction. But those decisions and the leadership we each give day in day out will affect those students potentially for the rest of their lives. Even if they only learn to be polite to each other! I have been doing performance management and leading teams for 11 years now in retail or in school, and I use those retail skills all the time. Same issues, same leadership traits.

And one day, when I am SLT, it will still be the same principles that make me lead: motivate, cajole, inspire, hold to account, recognise, empathise, humour, train, develop, trust, etc.

So my actual leadership artefacts?

1) A quote on the wall: ‘just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly‘. I refer to this with kids or adults often. Something unattractive or seemingly at its end can become something beautiful and a new beginning.

2) Postcards/cards: to give as thank you notes, messages of support, pick me ups. Do them unexpectedly and sneak them onto someone’s desk (or into a student book to find later) so it doesn’t make a big show of it and allows the recipient to just have a surprise.

3) The open door: mentioned by many others but still true. My door is open whenever I am in there and I’m happy for anyone to come anytime. I encourage an open door policy in the department so we will wander in and out and see each other and speak to students. No need to have secrets: we are all on the same team! And the open door extends to meeting minutes and data tracking too using Google Docs. Everyone can see how well or how poorly my classes (and others) are doing or what we are working on so there is transparency. I think this is important.

At the end of the day, we are not chained to a title and we don’t only have an influence when we plan to and have prepared for it – we lead from the first moment we walk through the door. That is both humbling and worrying! It can be the smallest thing that sticks in someone’s mind, so let’s lead in a way that can change the world 🙂

Leadership is not a title.

Thank you to the lovely Staffrm folks for your response to this story. I hope you don’t mind me copying them here.

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Message to my younger self…or what I wish I’d known

Jo_Darren_youngAnother part of the #28daysofwriting Staffrm challenge.

I’m sure we all have plenty of things we wish we had known when we are younger. And how much of the time do we then try and force (not always helpfully) that information on the students in our care? “You’ll regret this…. when you’re older”, or “when I was your age….”, or “I wish someone had said this to me when I was your age….”, etc. After all, what is the perk of getting older if it means we can’t pass on such wisdom as ‘don’t run with pointy objects’ to the next generation?!

Picture1

The first image was from a family climbing trip when I ‘earned’ my first climbing boots, and the second image from a friends’ teenage trip to Cornwall. Such innocent times. All that mattered was being outdoors, friends and family, pets, and food. So maybe things haven’t changed that much… 😉

So, what would I have told myself in my youth? 

1) Relax. I went to an all girls’ grammar school. I was fortunate and had teachers I (mostly) liked but we were always under pressure to achieve and exceed. It was frowned upon to say that your ambition was to have a family, and you were schooled from day one to be career minded and ambitious. I didn’t really want that, I wanted simple things. We weren’t encouraged to spend time learning useful things like cooking as it was considered ‘sooooo anti-feminist’. You were seen as failing if you dropped a mark at any point, and guilt tripped for letting the team down. I didn’t learn to relax, and didn’t feel I had time to do other pursuits.

2) Learn a musical instrument. I always fancied the clarinet but we couldn’t really afford it and I wasn’t disciplined enough to teach myself. I did learn to play the piano, ish, but struggled with reading music as left it too late really. It’s a shame as I love music, and love singing, and my whole family are so musical.

3) Don’t fall so hard and fast. Don’t marry the first guy that asks 😉 Mum always said ‘more hast, less speed’ and she’s always right grrr.

4) Maintain a foreign language. I loved learning French and Spanish, but they fade so quick. Why is it that random Latin verbs still stick in my head but useful phrases in languages that still exist do not?!

5) Grow a thicker skin sooner. Risks are fun and exciting. You don’t have to laugh and pretend it’s all ok, admitting weaknesses is not itself a sign of weakness. People who admit they need help aren’t necessarily helpless.

One thing I do know. My teenage self would have laughed hysterically to find I’m a teacher. Who’s laughing now eh?! 😉

5 Daily Essentials via staffrm.io

Over on staffrm there’s been a trend developing on ‘5 daily essentials’. The essentials that get us through the working day.

It sounds a bit like something from an advert doesn’t it? Reminded me of the old shampoo adverts and ‘what essentials do you take into the shower’. Anyway the topic made me think about what makes something essential. In normal life my essentials are the living breathing people (and animals 😉 of course) I love and whom I wish were around me more. I’m geographically separated from the most important people in my life and they are my essentials. And chocolate of course. And cake. And mountains and places to explore. Mmmm. I digress.

So what is essential in my classroom / school-bag?

1. Water. I drink a LOT of water in school. I’ve not yet grown up enough to drink tea or coffee, although mocha is making an appearance now. But at school it’s all about the water. Whatever our teaching style we spend a lot of time speaking, projecting, chatting. And we do (I hope) use the old grey matter quite a bit. The job is stressful. It’s busy. There are lots of minute or not so minute decisions to make every day, often with little warning and little time to consider. We may not get outside, have dry stale (and most likely child-germ filled) recycled air pumped round all day and plenty of kids sneezing. I notice immediately if I’m dehydrated. And as soon as I gulp that water down it’s like feeling a sponge in my brain get a shower. Plus I like to think I’m role modelling to students that water is important.

2. iPad. Other brands are available. I have the iPad mini for convenience. In a pink case, oh yeah. I use during meetings to flag up / record / make notes. I like Google Docs for sharing SoWs / booking resources / recording minutes with the team, OneDrive for sharing resources with kids (use Dropbox for staff), and Evernote for making notes – especially CPD. We have ‘ERIC’ (Everyone Reading In Class) time every afternoon and I’ll sit there with my tutor happily reading away (sometimes it’s the only time I get to!) from iBooks then chatting to the kids about their books. Then on the way home I’ve got in the habit of plugging in an Audible audiobook to unwind with. Currently Ludlum’s ‘The Icarus Agenda’.

3. Box of treats. Edible. For rewards or for cheering up the team. Amazing what a few sweets or chocolates can do for morale. This does need replenishing quite often!

4. Remote clicker. Maybe not essential but I do love it. Love the freedom it brings for me or anyone in my room to ‘step away from the desk’. It means I can be anywhere in the room, subtly intervening or helping out, or just sitting upon the lockers on the side referring to something out the window (I like to perch, I’m not an ‘centre stage’ person and don’t like standing out). Plus kids love it when they get to have a go.

5. Something on the wall to remind me why I do the job. Like this:

I could also add in there about shoes which I’m sure many would agree with. The sensible ones amongst you would think about comfort, durability, posture, reducing back stress, etc. I usually prioritise style. But then I’m a girl who used to be a retail manager. And I have a lot of shoes. But it’s actually something of a nice conversation starter with kids. So perhaps I could claim some sort of pedagogical slant….what do you think Rachel Orr? 😉