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.