Saturday, 14 October 2017

Women Ed - Part II

Many moons ago, when WomenEd was but a spark being kindled into being by its founders, I wrote a blog post that started with a plea to “the wonderful women involved in Women Ed”:

I'd love to be involved too. But let's get serious. Let's stop talking about wearing heels to work. Let's stop using sassy pop references. Let's talk about the fact that boys are underachieving as well as the appalling lack of female Head teachers. Let's make this a real gender debate.

Fast forward two years and I’ve just spent my Saturday at my second Women Ed event and I can happily report that – despite one Take That reference – it’s a world away from the Union Jack dresses that I feared.

Instead, CEOs, Executive Headteachers, Company Directors, and Doctors are the order of the day with a roster of workshop leaders and keynote speakers that brings together truly inspirational female leaders from all sides of the educational landscape. So, how has my response to Women Ed changed since that first hesitant blog post?

Well I think I am pretty brave, but I know I can still be 10% braver by naming sexism when I see it. In my experience, there’s still a pervasive attitude in schools that sexism is some kind of quirky male eccentricity.

I was once warned by several colleagues about an older male Chair of Governors who ‘doesn’t respond well to women’. On reflection, my retort should have been ‘So why is he still in post?’ rather than steeling myself for the condescending tirades that followed. Similarly, it’s not OK when male members of a senior leadership team refer to ‘the girls’ when they actually mean their fellow senior leaders. Or, when members of a panel interviewing a prospective female Headteacher say they’d ‘rather not work for a woman’. And I think we all need to be less tolerant of female leaders being talked down to in online debates, making more liberal use of block and mute for persistent offenders.

I’ve valued the way Women Ed has foregrounded the intersection of issues related to gender and ethnicity. I’m increasingly aware of my own privilege as a white British woman, but not always, I’m sure, aware of the insidious ways this impacts on my experiences. I am trying to shift my thinking and will try to engage with BAME Ed in whatever ways I can to ensure that diverse leadership in all its guises make strides forwards in the schools in which I work.

In a similar vein, it’s only thanks to Women Ed that I now fully recognise the privileged start in life I had. I was never aware of the financial pinch many have been shaped by but, more than this, my family deeply valued education and nurtured me as a leader throughout my childhood. Comment on the many inspirational women in my family is for another blog post, but when you’re surrounded by graduates and women who have led unorthodox lives you have a life without limits modelled for you every single day. I was never scared to make decisions or take risks growing up as my mum always told me everything was reversible. Buying a house? You can sell it. Taking a promotion? You can quit. Going travelling? You can come home. Even as recently as this weekend, on talking to my Uncle about my goal of being Headteacher in what I thought was a hugely ambitious timescale of 10 years, his reply was ‘Why not in five?’

But then it is Women Ed that has given me the confidence to make that statement to my uncle in the first place. The sessions I’ve been to and the women I have met have taught me that it’s OK to have a strong vision for yourself as well as your school: not just ‘what is your story?’ but ‘what’s your story going to be?’ This confidence has developed from hearing first-hand the leadership stories of women like Dr Jill Berry. Jill once gave me a verbal nod as a leader in a speech at a teaching event. That warm feeling sustained me through many challenging months. On reflection, I now have no doubt that she knew exactly the impact that would have on me and for that I am eternally grateful.

I agree with Hannah Wilsey on the powerful value of such connections between female leaders and that it starts with ‘putting yourself out there’. Finding your crew – or, as my students would term it, your squad - has transformational power for women in all sectors of education. For me, Team English has become so much more than a way of sharing resources. Rebecca Foster, Freya O’Dell, Sarah Barker, Amy Forrester, Becky Wood, Charlie Pearson, Nikki Carlin, Fiona Ritson, Sana Master, Grainne Hallahan, Lyndsey Dyer, Nat Masala, Kate McCabe, and… Chris Curtis: when you have that lot behind you, you are not just 10% braver, but ready for anyone and anything.

I did of course put in that final ellipsis for dramatic effect, but it’s an important point that we must celebrate and seek out men who breathe Women Ed in their values and conduct, like Chris. It’s my opinion that we should also celebrate when well intentioned men ‘get it wrong’ or when the light bulb that has gone off is that women might actually be people after all. Progress is progress, after all.

Dr Kay Fuller closed the event in Nottingham by emphasising Women Ed is not just for us but, perhaps more importantly, for the next generation and she’s so right.  I made the mistake two years ago of thinking Women Ed was about discussion of feminist issues in education but that’s only partly true.

The women involved in the movement are living life as feminist leaders (whether they’d use that label or not). They are loud. They are tall. They don’t suffer fools. They ask outright for fair pay. They are strong. They are individual. They are fun and they are free in ways that women even 50 years could only dream of.

In the words of the awesome Charmaine Roche we must all seek now to ‘live it, embody it’. She and so many others have created powerful footsteps for women to use as a guide as they move forwards on their own leadership journeys. I thank her and all involved with Women Ed for making me even more determined to be the kind of leader that I would want the young women I see in my classroom every single day to one day become.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

On stickability and completing a year as a Senior Leader

This year has been my first as a member of a Senior Leadership Team. I don’t blog much anymore but I’ve managed to signpost it with blogs at the start, in the middle, and now this one at the end.

I’m proud to say the year is ending with a move to a new school as Assistant Headteacher. But it hasn’t all been success and there’s a deep sense of sadness that I’m leaving my school with the oxymoronic Ofsted judgement of a ‘Good’ Sixth Form and ‘Inadequate’ overall.

Looking at my blog written in February there’s a heart-wrenching naivety in the line I wrote in regards to the English Faculty specifically: “For the first time, I feel we’ve entered a point in our development where we can now secure and anchor the changes we’ve put in place.” Special Measures triggers wholesales change in a way you can’t imagine until you’re deep inside it.

However, this isn’t going to be a blog about The Framework and the mismatch between an Inspectorate and a body that supports school improvement. This term I met Justine Greening MP who did at least seem to ‘get’ that our current punitive system must change if we are going to finally warms up those cold spots.

This blog is not about that as I won’t let it be the defining memory of either this year or my time at my school. My school deserves better than that and I deserve better than that. No, this is a blog about stickability.

When I became a teacher there wasn’t a backup plan for me. I’ve never wanted to do something else ‘when I’m older’ and to be honest my only thought when I hear teachers say they would like to do something else is: ‘Do it now. Life is too short!’

I went into the job full force and there still seems something wholly right to me about being in a school and devoting a big fat chunk of my life to learning. Side note: I have never been scared of the word ‘vocation’.

It’s only now I realise how powerfully this relates to being a Senior Leader. If you intend to be in this profession until you retire then you do things differently. Workload truly matters as it’s the only way you create sustainable practices that let people have long, happy and healthy careers in education.

Similarly, if you genuinely believe that teachers get better with experience - alongside continual reflection on improving their practice – then, again, you do things differently. You’re wary of rapid promotion and value the point of view of more experienced colleagues even when they’re different from yours. You recognise you are still learning. You value career progression and opportunities for colleagues at all stages of their career.

If you recognise we are all playing the long game then you believe that - even with a sense of urgency - real change happens over time and in a way that shifts whole school culture. This means you do things differently. You don’t idolise schools that have quick turn arounds but instead seek out schools and school leaders that have sustained outstanding student outcomes for many years. You realise that if it seems too good to be true then it probably is.

Excellent school leadership isn’t pizzazz, it’s hard graft. It’s not about soundbites and plaudits, celebrating your own arrogance or putting others down. It is about communities, working tirelessly to put young people first, and compassion for all. It’s not big words. It’s having one too many coffees, laughing at yourself, and finding spiders in your office. And I love it.

I know one day I’ll return to my current school and I find reassurance that many of the same faces will still be there. Come what may as the Ofsted winds blow there’s commitment and loyalty in our staff body and a gritty determination to serve and learn and improve. Even if they don’t use the word, our teachers know that it is our stickability that our communities and our profession deserve.

Monday, 1 May 2017

Teaching ideas: what has worked for me recently?

I've been pretty rubbish at blogging about practical teaching strategies for a while now. Perhaps it's my new role this year or starting to write for TES, but squeezing blog writing into my schedule has become a bit of an impossible task. Luckily, the seconds it takes to quickly take a photo and write a tweet has meant I haven't stopped documenting much of what works in my classroom.

For a while I've been meaning to pull all of this together so that people can find it without having to try to navigate the search function on Twitter. Finally, thanks to the joys of the bank holiday I've done it. So, here goes: an attempt to sum up what has worked for me recently in my English classroom...

Notes: I've only included things that I think are originally my ideas or were inspired by the work of the brilliant teachers in my Faculty. If you are at all concerned I've not credited or have incorrectly included someone else's idea please do just give me a shout! I've also hyperlinked to the original tweet as in many cases people have gone away and produced something better in their own schools as a result.

Try using the 'literally' (what's actually happening), 'metaphorically' (the deeper meaning, often feelings) and 'symbolically' (what it's teaching us about all people/life) as a way of encouraging students to explore meanings in literary texts.

Aim high and introduce GCSE students to critical theory using my postcards. If you search 'critical postcards' on Twitter you'll see a million adaptations for different texts.

Use circles to scaffold analysis instead of sentence starters. This is the work of Lauren Hucknall (@HucknallL) who's in my Faculty. You should all follow her as she's a ridiculously brilliant teacher who I've nicked heaps from this year.

Students often struggle to explain the effect on the reader or the impact on language beyond happy/sad. Create a word bank at the start of the lesson by getting them to label emojis.

Give your students these terminology flash cards to improve their critical vocabulary.

Try limiting the ways GCSE short story writing can be structured using these three approaches. Free rein is rarely successfully in my experience...

Or, teach them to write from unusual narrative perspectives.


Give students a vocabulary help sheet - not just analytical terms - when approaching a literary text.

Try synonym links as a quick task to build vocabulary. Ask students to consider the impact of each word choice. Note this was nicked from a member of my Faculty who's not on Twitter.

Use 'Would I lie to you?' to introduce new vocabulary. In this examples the words were taken from short story students were about to read.

Use sticky labels to help students organise their revision work

Label your resources by number for ease of reference. Make '0' the SoW and any pre-reading you want teachers to complete.

We write on the cover of books when we do work scrutiny and moderation so students, parents, and senior leaders can see that we have high expectations and are checking.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Sage and student: mid-way through a year as a member of SLT

It’s February half term, that most emblematic of school holidays. It signals to teachers up and down our fair land that the crucial halfway point has been breached. From here on out, days will lengthen, but exam pressure will correlatively increase.

For me, this week marks midway between the start and end of my SLT secondment: the perfect time to update the post I wrote just four weeks in.

As Director of English and Associate Senior Leader, having a foot in both camps hasn’t always been a comfortable straddling. I’ve royally cocked up by stepping on our wonderful HoD’s toes more than once (sorry, Greg) and if I’m brutally honest I’ve also let my gaze drift from my specific area of responsibility, Key Stage 3, more than I should’ve at times. However, being removed even in part from Faculty leadership has allowed me to truly appreciate some of the areas where, I feel, we have got it wholly right.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve watched English teachers new to the profession grow into strong and brilliant professionals. We’ve retained teachers who inspire our students to love our subject every single day when it would’ve been easier in so many ways for them to go elsewhere (I’m looking at you, Fry). We teach exciting - new and impressively old - books and we have a library (@libraryatTHS) that is a shining beacon of good practice.

As an English team, we’ve pursued a curriculum and approach to teaching built on principle and not gaming – arguably sometimes to the detriment of headline figures. We’re a diverse and feisty bunch in so many ways which can lead to the clanging of heads, but I’m ultimately proud when I walk into our superbly messy work room. School improvement is a wiggly line, but all in all our kids get a damn good deal: if you don’t believe me then the 25% rise in core English expected progress at the end of Key Stage 4 tells me we must be doing something right.

For the first time, I feel we’ve entered a point in our development where we can now secure and anchor the changes we’ve put in place. It’s not about wholescale rewriting, but refinement and confidence in our own practices – holding firm on the tiller despite the choppy waters of an upcoming Ofsted - which feels bloody wonderful.

More personally, I’ve also realised that six years in one school can develop a powerful sense of security. I know my context: our community, our students, and our staff. I don’t take for granted that I also feel a sincere love for the peculiarities and unique brilliance of my pad. Come to teach in our school and be warned that if you ask for volunteers to read aloud you’ll get at least 50% of the class enthusiastically waving their hands in the air. Our students have humour, honesty (OK, perhaps too much at times), modesty (or a lack of understanding of their own capabilities), and they soak up vocabulary and ideas like sponges. Our teachers are wry, warm, and defiant despite the external forces that make their job so very challenging.

Side note: in my school I have always felt cared for, valued and invested in. If you don’t feel like that then know that there are places where you can teach and feel like this. This isn’t the same as saying the job hasn’t been impossibly hard and downright maddening. But my tears have always been met with genuine care and empathy, as well as a willingness to find a speedy solution.

Even frustrations I once felt when some teachers work in a different way to me, I’ve realised can be assets when approached in the right way. It was something my Head said that has stuck with me. You don’t have to be all types of leader. You just have to know someone who is what you need and then to find ways to work with and deploy them.

But as this confidence has grown, so has a certain nagging awareness of my own deficiencies. At SLT meetings there have been times I’ve felt searingly aware of having the squealing ignorance of a new born. Attendance protocols and the law surrounding parental fines. Safer Recruitment training and the measures for checking the credentials of interview candidates. The Science curriculum. I am sharply aware of how much there is I still need to know.

I’m in so many ways the student again and the mountain that needs to be climbed at times has felt overwhelming.

What I didn’t expect has been the way that this self-reflection has even permeated back into my classroom practice. It doesn’t matter how many time ‘pace’ has popped up as an area for improvement on my lesson observations, the real lightbulb moment this year came from a Y10 lad called Ben: “Miss, seriously, just SLOW DOWN. Take a breath.” I finally have confronted the fact that in my eagerness to ‘crack on’ I speak far too quickly and in a way that can leave students behind.

In my mind this new found self-awareness is not entirely unrelated from my feelings of ignorance around the SLT table. I’ve learned to be more prepared to accept that I just don’t know and that I need to learn how.

Scrap that: I’ve learned to accept I’ll never know everything. I will always be learning as a teacher and a leader. I will often have to seek out someone who knows more than me and rely on the knowledge and understanding they have and I don’t. In the case of my lessons, this could well be a 15 year old student.

I’m not religious, but I do like yoga and there is something of the yogi in the realisation that I’m going to be both perpetually at the start of the path and also well on my way.

So where does this path lead? What is the next step? As I near the end of at least this part of my journey, I’ll be asking whether I’ve done what I set out to: improve outcomes for the students in our care and maintain the relentless focus required for school improvement, even when the headwinds have been strong and the gales have blown from the north. It’s only by doing this I’ll know what I’ve really achieved. For self-realisation and ‘stuff done’ is not the same as impact.