Monday, 29 August 2016

The five stages of post-results intoxication

Last year, I wrote a post about ‘The five stages of post-results grief’ that I went through in the subsequent days and weeks after results day.

This year, I am pleased to say, that the number crunching wasn’t accompanied by the overwrought sobs of the year before, but I have been surprised to still find myself experiencing the proverbial rollercoaster of emotions which leads me to this post: ‘The five stages of post-results intoxication’.

Feeling good
It is the morning of results day, the headlines are in and, for once, it becomes apparent that it’s good news.

You shout to your husband, text your parents, and tell your (bemused) cats. Together they breathe a collective sigh of relief that they won’t be scraping you up off the floor, this year at least.

In the shower, you allow yourself a wry smile for the students who have fallen on the right side of the grade boundaries for once. You chuckle as you dry yourself knowing that this year when the school’s headline measures are flashed up for all to see in the first school meeting back you won’t be staring at the worn-out carpet. You wonder 'Is a jaunty finger click and wink to the Assistant Head taking it a bit too far…?'

Rifling through your wardrobe, you take out your new shirt despite it really being ‘Parent’s evening best’.

In the car, driving in, you sing loudly to Adele. You hate Adele.

When you finally sit around the computer screen with others and see the forecast impact of your department's results on whole school measures there are actual high fives. Together you glimpse a very different potential outcome of the upcoming Ofsted visit to the one that has been stalking your collective nightmares.

Individual subject results may be a ripple in the pool of school life, but in English and Maths they have the potential to be a crashing wave. Most English Heads of Faculty are all too aware of this and when a set of results impacts positively on colleagues and friends it can feel like you’re finally swimming with the tide rather than thrashing against turbulent waters as it’s often felt in the last few years.

We might all strive to be radiators but a set of half decent results lights a bonfire; there is a re-ignition of the belief that effort can equal outcome. There is justice in the world after all!

Bad decisions/Talking loudly
Thus the excitement felt by you for your colleagues, students, and school leads to the desire to SHARE THE NEWS WITH THE WORLD.

You want parents to know - immediately - see just how awesome this news is. Students need to know how proud they can feel of their school and their achievements. You want other teachers to know that your school isn’t what you’ll find on Data Dashboard when you whack the name into Google. Sod it, if a future Inspector catches an eyeful what harm could it do?!

So, you tweet your results: not the actual statistics, mind you, just the upward swing. You have rash conversations with colleagues and other HoDs via text. You offer advice and write brash declarations about the cause of the department’s success, condensing a year’s worth of strategy and effort into a series of reductive messages. You remember how you felt a year ago, but decide 'I would be pleased for me too'.

Paranoia and depression
But as is always the case, what must goes up must… Celebratory glass of wine in hand, you read Chris Curtis’ brilliant blog post astutely comparing the trumpeting of results to an educational willy measuring contest. You think he’s writing about you.

Chastened, you compare the results of your Faculty with others within your school, within your local authority, within your subject.

Bottle of wine now empty, you look again at your headlines and acknowledge you’re still not where you want to be. Not by a long shot. You dig a bit deeper and realise your most able kids have bombed their usually strongest unit, the Poetry exam. A clutch of As and A*s are M.I.A.

You think about the student in your own class who didn’t make it. The one who came to the revision sessions after school and in the holidays. The one who you knew was at risk of not quite getting there but who on sheer bloody determination alone deserved to succeed. You read back your tweets and feel that your excitement has somehow let him down. You have let him down.

You realise the hard work starts again in a week’s time. You’ve still got that scheme of work to write, lessons to plan, and a new job to settle into.

The Hangover
You crash down to earth with a bump, a dry mouth, and sense of impending doom that even paracetamol won't shift. 

But, unlike last year, it’s a soft landing.

The flicker of potential lit by our positive results will buoy us up against the groundswell of current that has the potential to take us under once more. I’m not complacent. We’re not complacent. We’re not there yet. If any school does in fact ever get ‘there’.

Much like the selfies in your phone the 'morning after the night before', I may cringe at my garish tweets from results day, but in a year's time I'll enjoy seeing them in TimeHop as a record of when much-loved school succeeded when it feels like success is so often in short supply. 

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Identity, Professionalism, and Me

On Tuesday, I get tattooed for the seventh time. Some would say it’s the teenage rebellion I never quite grew out of. But then, at 32 and with a similarly tattooed spouse (and mother who I’m convinced will get her first by the end of the summer) I’ve not really got anyone to rebel from.

So, perhaps it’s a rebellion not from ‘who’ but ‘what’? Like most schools, our policy is for staff and students to have no visible tattoos. Could this be my attempt to distance myself from the seemingly sterile confines of my school identity? Or to mark myself out as some kind of educational radical or firebrand? No, not one bit. I fully support any school policy that puts professionalism at its heart. All of my tattoos will remain happily hidden on my return to work in September.

From the moment I achieved QTS, I have valued professional status: I attend conferences on Saturdays and read books to improve my subject knowledge; I work hard to keep myself up to date and to get a little bit better at what I do every day. For me, donning professional dress is an extension of the pride I feel for my profession. In a political climate that has sought to devalue the professional status of teachers and to denigrate the job I hold so dear, in my opinion, any outward symbol of status and respect is to be embraced rather than quibbled over.

But it would be a lie to deny that the moment the school bell goes at the end of the summer term there isn’t a sense of release. This year, that exhilaration led me to a bottle of purple hair dye. Any of my colleagues who’d have seen me two days after the end of term would’ve been left wondering quite what had happened to me at the hairdressers and whether I wouldn’t be best placed to sue. And this leaves me with a dilemma. For there is clearly not one Caroline, but two.

Perhaps for me these concerns have been exacerbated by a sense that, even from early adolescence, defining my identity – exactly who I am – was never going to be completely straightforward. Having skipped the Primary-age bonding due to a move from the leafy confines of the Wirral to the more cosmopolitan hubbub of Derby aged 11, I was always aware of being different. Be it gender, sexuality, social class or musical taste, identifying with any given social group didn’t feel particularly easy. As a result, I’ve often said that one of my motivating factors for remaining in schools is a desire to help students who see themselves as outsiders feel, well, less outside.

‘Things do get better’, will always be my persistent message. Find one or two good friends and they will see you through. Or as the wonderful Kathleen Hanna puts it: ‘Keep on living’.

As I grew older, I began to realise that there was maybe never going to be a definitive answer to the question of identity, at least not for me. It was apposite that my undergraduate dissertation was sub-titled (somewhat pretentiously) ‘The subject always asks: what am I?’. And I’ve come to realise that the question of identity is one that I will be continually asking, over and over again, as I change and the world around me changes.

It is a question that is yet again at the forefront of my mind this summer as I take my first steps into senior leadership. I am keenly aware that as a school leader authenticity, and the practice of being true to your core values, is key to your effectiveness. And yet, from the outside, it would appear that with my hidden tattoos and purple hair at school the image I present is utterly inauthentic. So, how do I reconcile the un-professional me with my desire to be seen as both authentic and professional at work?

Well, like my core values, professionalism for me is unchanging. The way I present myself, see myself, and am seen by others – my identity – may change. But what I believe, work for, and the way I work, will not.

This stance was tested last week at a local music festival when I bumped into one of my current GCSE students. My violet hair was glowing bright, my tattoos were on display, I was sporting a shirt with the word ‘Poison’ printed all over it, and at least one pint of cider had been consumed. My initial reaction was to hide behind the shirt of my good friend who was laughing loudly at my discomfort at having been ‘caught’. But then I looked again at the wonderful, hardworking, girl I teach and thought ‘Why on earth shouldn’t I show her that I like the same music she does? That I’m a little bit different too?’ If one of my core purposes is to make outsiders feel ‘less outside’ then it doesn’t matter whether we’re in a field or a classroom; to be authentic is to ‘walk the talk’ and say a warm hello. So that’s what I did.

I have no doubt that that the young woman in question will go on to achieve a Grade 8. I can only hope that even though she may not yet have a strong sense of who she is, like me, she will have a strong sense of the professional she can be.