Sunday, 27 December 2020

Nurture 20/21

I haven’t written a single blog this year so I’m fighting the gnawing feeling that to publish this one is more than a tad self-indulgent (particularly one that has somehow tipped over the 1500-word mark). But in so many ways it’s never felt quite so necessary to have a historical record of 12 months. So, it’s written and it’s here and I’m hoping that when I look back in a year’s time I’m struck by how significantly life has moved on. 

As always with a Nurture blog, it’s apposite to start by reviewing the blog of 2020. Last year’s first goal was to ‘stop the saw-tooth of results and sustain improvements’. What I couldn’t possibly have predicted was the impact of Covid-19, the cancelling of exams, and the process of CAGs. Or ‘CAGs+’ as it should be called (AKA ‘add a bit on for a few kids’ based on some indecipherable algorithm). I can at least hold my head up that at all levels our school conducted the process with integrity; the grades inputted by us were securely in line with our trend of improvement: -0.55 -0.33, -0.20. 

Of course, these are just numbers. Ones that don’t account for our whole cohort and are now not even externally verified ones. But three years in to leadership of Key Stage 4 to have that steady numerical trend – particularly in these most uncertain of times – roots me further to evidence-informed leadership. I find returning to research, reflection, rationale, and reason when the world is at its most chaotic wholly grounding.

One term in to 2020-21 we’re now sat on our best predictions yet for Year 11 and the energy and determination within the cohort is palpable. Predicting what will happen this summer is a fool’s game and I’ve not quite come to terms with not being in post to lead our community through it, but I have faith we have the right support and challenge in place for pupils, teachers, and leaders alike. And I’m by no means egotistical enough to think that my absence will significantly weaken the collective determination and sense of endeavour.

My second goal for 2020 was to help organise a cracking Team English National Conference. 
Clearly, TENC20 wasn’t the event we’d been expecting. However, the virtual conference it became was arguably bigger (not limited to a sports hall), better (with keynotes by Ofsted’s National Lead for English and Bennie Kara’s powerful keynote speech), and undoubtedly cheaper (at zero cost to teachers) than the one we had planned. Fingers, toes, and other bits crossed that TENC21 will see the English teaching community descend on Derby in a glorious union of nerdiness.

Lockdown did at least support my third goal of ‘growing loads and loads of vegetables’. I even nailed tomato growing thanks to the newly sunny positioning of my greenhouse. I’ve also tentatively started painting. These activities haven’t got quite got the buzz of a music festival or wrestling show, but for the most part I am at peace with the quieter, lighter pursuits we’ve had at our disposal this year.

Last year, I also wrote about the new places I’d been to, from Sintra to Seoul. Well, aside from a quick trip to the Jurassic coast of Dorset, lockdown and Tier 3 have ensured that the only new places we’ve discovered are within a 5-mile radius of our house. But what new places they have been. Over the months of spring and summer, we met the babies of the shaggy haired highland cattle one field over, witnessed blankets of bluebells and daisies, climbed the ruins of a hidden 14th century Norman castle, located a woodland fairy tree, and spied a shy fox in the bowels of a mighty fir tree. On the inside of my wedding ring is inscribed the word ‘Adventure’ and this year has been proof positive that memorable exploits don’t have to involve a 14-hour flight or temperatures in the 40s.

3 positives about 2020

1. Science
As I hit publish on this blog nearly 500k people in the UK have been vaccinated against Covid-19. That as a species we have the ability to identify, formulate, and mass produce biological responses to viruses in just a smattering of months boggles my tiny little mind. Almost as much so as the ability of doctors to make our daughter in a petri dish. 

That the scientists who create these phenomena were once pupils sat in classrooms like the ones we teach in day in day out, learning the building blocks on which their expertise is based, blows my mind. I don’t personally have a faith. This is my God and my magic.

2. Community
I think we all intuitively recognise that teachers are in the people business. Relationships are our bread and butter. What can be less easy to see are the invisible web-like strands that traverse our school buildings connecting them with those beyond our grounds: family homes, mosques, food banks, community centres, Sure Start centres, places of work. This year has thrown a light on these networks in a way that has made them shimmer and sparkle. 

Whether it’s been a smile and ‘Hello’ on a lockdown-sanctioned walk around the block or chatting on doorsteps during a laptop drop-off or the local community radio station taking in our pupils’ completed work packs, never have I felt more connected to the people around my home or our school.

3. Health
My in-laws have endured the nastiness of this virus and I know it’s not something to be taken lightly. But, for now, those that I love most are healthy. 

Being alive and having health enough to enjoy that fact is a fundamental pleasure I wish for all.

3 wishes for 2021

1. That our daughter arrives safe and healthy
As she wriggles away in my belly (no doubt trying to master her first solo Canadian Destroyer) I still find it hard to believe I’m on the final countdown to becoming a mum. 

Edu-Twitter can be a hotbed of hubris no doubt, but there are many brilliant people I’ve met through it. Some of these people have become friends who have seen me through the heartbreak, excitement and hormonal rollercoaster it’s taken to get to this point. Shout out to my DM family, Team Gin (@Xris32 @AviewAskew), and especially to @HeyMrsHallahan’s whose birthday it is and whose maternity jeans I am still wearing.

I’ve got more than a niggling suspicion that our lives are about to change in a million tiny ways that I cannot anticipate so I’m revelling in blissful ignorance and focusing on the celebratory gin after the labour.

2. To be a more vocal advocate for pupils in areas of disadvantage and from disadvantaged groups
I’ve always shied away from writing at length about the context of my school: this has undoubtedly been a significant factor in my blogging drying up. As I’ve said before, I find it hard to locate the words that will do my pupils and our community justice. It’s not my place to speak for other or to try to articulate experiences that are not my own. 

However, I’m increasingly of the belief that in my position of privilege I do have a duty as an advocate and to be effective as one I have to find a way to bring the realities of so many people in Britain to a wider audience. 

So this year, with the space (perhaps) of maternity leave, I’d like to find a way to put pen to paper and share the daily joys and persistent challenges of working in a school like mine.

3. To successfully complete my NPQH
18 months ago, optimistically starting out on the Ambition Institute Future Leaders course the world was undoubtedly a different place. Had I known what I know now would I have even started? 

I’m not going to lie, online residentials haven’t got quite the same appeal as real life ones with an evening in the bar at the end of them. And writing up projects and placements with pelvic girdle pain and a tiny foot kicking your bladder isn’t an entirely straightforward proposition. Add in conducting school placements in Tier 3 and managing projects that a year ago weren’t on the furthest reaches of your school improvement plan (Saturday school, anyone?) and it’s been testing to say the least.

So, would I have started it? I’d like to think so, yes. Ambition’s motto ‘Keep getting better’ still resonates even if the ways I expected to ‘get better’ haven’t been the ones I thought were my areas of greatest need: I’ve learned lessons in my own values, patience and tolerance, and persistent optimism as much as in finance or HR.

With two write-ups and a handful of sessions to go, the final certification would be validation that I’m continuing to inch forward on my journey to one day become a Headteacher. The longer term impact is perhaps yet to be seen and I suspect it’ll be more subtle in effect than direct application of any of the declarative knowledge embedded along the way. If I can keep returning to the two Dixons Academies questions introduced to us in our opening residential then I reckon it’ll have done its job:

What lasting impression do you want to leave on the world? 
Was I better today than yesterday?

Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Nurture 19/20

I like the neat denouement a ‘Nurture’ post provides at the end of a year. I’m still unsure if anyone other than the writer gets much from it, but for me the catharsis warrants the writing and so here I am typing once more.

Looking back to my 2017/18 ‘Nurture’ post*, one of my reflections was that it felt like “time for me to be less brave, to pause and consolidate”. Right now that seems like a wholly na├»ve statement. Life doesn’t stop. You don’t get to hit pause. There’s only ever onwards, upwards, forwards. You don’t get to choose whether you’re going to need to be brave. You can only hope to be able to be when you need to be.

I’m delighted to say that the friend who was seriously ill at the end of 2017 is still here. In fact, we recently spent the day watching Edward Scissorhands and eating pizza. She’s the sort of mate you meet playing violin in an orchestra then quit to learn guitar and form your own punk band. Then travel around 32 states in America with. On a bus. She’s also living proof to me that (in the words of Alabama Worley) ‘sometimes it goes the other way too’. I deeply and sincerely wish her a 2020 that embodies that sentiment.

Still just a few months into my AHT post, at the end of 2017 I hoped to be a really good line manager. While I don’t think I have been a crap one, I do know I still have much to learn. I really like the saying ‘The best way to be trusted is to be trustworthy’ and I have tried my damndest to live up to that.

Since writing that blog I’ve gone from line managing one person to three, including our brilliant Learning Director for Maths and – as an English teacher - I’m now holding on to the premise that you grow subject experts then get the hell out of their way. I have happily appointed myself ‘Chief Road-block Remover’. I’m also trying to provide questions from my position as non-specialist that clarify thinking and shine a light on the blind spots we all have when leading amidst the maelstrom of school life.

My final reflection on that post from way back is that I think I can hold my head up high and say I’ve started to have the positive impact I hoped for. Since I picked up leadership of Key Stage 4, outcomes have improved – which fundamentally means more kids with more choices about what they can do when they leave school. What I didn’t foresee back then was the impact that individual pupils’ achievements would conversely have on me. Kristina, Anpumoli, James, Juraj, Muteeb… our kids make you feel utterly grateful to have met them and to have been even a small part of their journey. I’ve also come to appreciate more than ever before the vital component of pastoral care and I am in awe of those in my school that care for, protect, and – to a degree – parent our pupils.

This year I’m pleased that, when it has come down, to it I’ve put my school and my pupils first. I’ve done less writing for both my blog and for publications, and I’ve turned stuff down when I’ve not had time because I know that ultimately I want to just be really good at my job. This is, of course, partly selfish. Now more than ever I know I want to be a Headteacher which means a) continuing to learn my craft b) continuing to establish my impact and credibility as a school leader. I have zero desire to be a consultant, journalist, or write a book (although a doctorate at some point does appeal). The idea of leading my own school though is bloody exciting.

And so, as a decade closes its doors, it’s time to once again mark what has been and would could still be.

3 positives about 2019
1.    I’ve done things in my career that I am proud of
I spoke in front of 1700 teachers at a PiXL main meeting and to 500 teachers across a MAT in the Midlands. I got to take my husband to a Buckingham Palace garden party to say ta for my work at the DfE.

I’m chuffed to have made it on to Future Leaders and to have made it to the point in my career where I get to do training with ‘Headship’ in the title. I’m proud to sit alongside so many hardworking and dedicated people each time I go to a session.

2.    I walked 26 miles in a day
At the ripe old age of 35, I made a new best mate in Chloe (@AViewAskew). Whether dancing in night clubs in Portugal or pounding the school corridors she’s like a Duracell bunny. She also brings out the best in me – whether it’s casually walking a marathon or saying ‘Yes’ to speaking at conferences on the other side of the country. I’m ridiculously excited that she’s been appointed to a temporary AHT position leading KS3 and can’t wait to start joining the dots more closely between Years 7-11 at our school.

3.    I’ve had loads of fun
This year hasn’t turned out the way I’d planned in some ways but, you know what, it’s been a pretty exciting one. I’ve visited new places (Lisbon, Sintra, Kobe, Yokahama and Seoul). I’ve dyed my hair neon yellow. I’ve drunk too much. I’ve been on road trips and to music festivals and spa days. I’ve booked in another tattoo. I’ve laughed loads and watched my friends and family absolutely thrive.

Life is pretty good when you stop to think about it.

3 wishes for 2020
1.    I want to stop the saw-tooth of results and sustain improvements
I’ve got irons in the fire around raising pupils’ expectations of what they can achieve and what they need to do to get there. I’m excited to see where this leads.

2.    I want to do Rebecca, Fiona, and Becky proud by organising a cracking TENC20
We’ve got an ace team organising the Team English National Conference this year, but the standard these women have set will still be an almighty bar to reach.

3.    I want to grow loads and loads of vegetables
This year, I managed an impressive crop of potatoes, but my veg patch has lain woefully neglected for the most part and my corn ended up being fed to my sister’s weird chickens. Next year, I’d like to build in time to tend the cabbages, listen to the radio, and sit in my deckchair. Am I getting old? Probably. Do I care? Not one jot.

Happy New Year, all.

A big thanks to Becky Wood (@ShadyLady222) for writing her end of the decade reflective blog. It helped me realise that when you zoom out you get much needed perspective on the ups, downs, positives, and negatives of being alive. My last decade was cracking and the rubbish parts just bumps in the road. She helped me see that and to realise that 2019 was, in fact, a pretty successful twelve months after all.

*Last year, I didn’t post a ‘Nurture’ blog. Following an event that, if I’m really honest, I’m still feeling the aftershocks from, I wasn’t in the right space to be putting figurative pen to paper.

Saturday, 14 September 2019

Helping young people to write the story of themselves

I’ll confess. I found the first Future Leaders summer residential really tough. There were some really bloomin’ clever people who I didn’t always agree with and bag-loads of self-reflection (which for an over-thinker like myself has the tendency to make me somewhat morose). Perhaps made more acute because I was knackered at the end of the academic year, I found it a challenge both mentally and emotionally.

It’s taken a good eight weeks to digest and consolidate, and several drafts of this rather rubbish blog, but what has come out of it, more positively, is the crystallisation of what I value in schools and the values I will live when, one day, I become a Head.

It was the second day. We’d been given a bank of the kind of terms you see plastered over school letterheads – Aspiration. Learning. Achievement. Kindness. Fairness. – and asked to highlight our values. The ones we’d hang our hat on. The ones that would be the core drivers in our future schools.

None were quite doing the job. There was a niggling internal voice of disquiet at the genericism being being presented to us. And then I saw it: pride.

I’d discounted it at first. Initially, it spoke of Othello-like hubris. Of arrogance. Of some of the more bullish behaviours demonstrated by one or two participants on the course itself. But then slowly it shifted in my mind into rainbow celebrations. Mining strikes. Pupils clutching GCSE certificates.

What I want for every child, adult, and community I work for is a secure belief in who they are, pride in the many places they have come from, and the amazing possibilities they are heading to. I want to help grow bravery and self-confidence in a world where tone policing is still rife if you are female, BAME or LGBTQ so that individuals and groups can own the achievements they have worked for.

The word reminded me of the brilliant Jaz Ampaw-Farr speaking at the PiXL main meeting this June. She ended by stating with absolute certainty: ‘I am powerful because I know my own value’.

Hers is self-assuredness that hasn’t come from mimicking public school behaviours or being given access to a rowing club. Or even donning a blazer. It’s a deep sense of self-worth that stems from ownership of her own personal story. She is the Delphic maxim ‘Know thyself’ brought to life.

‘Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom’
-       inscribed at Temple of Apollo at Delphi and attributed to Socrates 

So, to begin to feel such pride you have to first fashion together a coherent sense of your own identity and I for one – despite my pretty linear personal history – will never underestimate how difficult this can be.

In ‘The Colossus’, Plath says “I shall never get you put together entirely,/Pieced, glued, and properly jointed.” As a teenager I misread this line, seeing it as Plath musing on her own sense of self rather than her perceptions of her father. Even now, it perfectly sums up to me the confusion that stems from the seemingly simple concept of ‘who you are’. My undergraduate dissertation was rather pompously titled ‘The subject always asks ‘What am I?’ after a line in a Helene Cixous text and I reckon I’m still asking that question at the ripe old age of thirty-five.

But what if your experiences and background aren’t linear? What if your experiences of the world are complex, fractured, multifarious? How then do you make sense of the jumbling pieces of yourself in order to craft something coherent?

I am lucky enough to teach both pupils who grew up on different continents, who have lived in many different contexts, and who speak several languages as well as, conversely, pupils whose roots and experiences are encapsulated by the couple of mile square catchment of our school. As such, many of our pupils are members of groups with values very different from the wider culture they now find themselves part of. It is our duty to show these young people that these rich personal identities have the power to become their greatest asset and strength.

As educators, our school culture, our curriculum and the pastoral support we give has the power to help pupils stitch together what can appear disparate facets of their lives and experiences. We can do this by filling in knowledge gaps related to geography and history. We can do this by shining a light on the structures of power and class they find themselves in. We can physically bring together the home and school as well as taking pupils out into the wider world to let them see it all for themselves. We can do this by telling them stories which will enable them to grow into adults who are able to confidently write and tell the story of themselves.

Later on Twitter, Jaz rightly proposed “We can define our own identity but belonging requires agreement from the group.” Schools are surely one of the most powerful of all groups you can join. As a Head, I want to create a school culture in which every single child, teacher, parent, and community member feels powerfully that they belong. Daniel Pink says that “when people join groups where change seems possible, the potential for that change to occur becomes more real.” And I really do believe that through the schools we create we can positively change lives.

So, with just a couple of weeks to go until the next Future Leaders residential, I am feeling less knackered, more optimistic, and well up for the next challenge. And when I get asked the question about my values again I won’t need to look down at the list of words on the paper in front of me. I’ll be able to answer with my head held high: pride.