Saturday 9 September 2023

One year down as a Deputy Head: teaching is a people business

In retrospect, I’m aware that I stopped blogging probably when I had the most important things to say. 

It was when I started working in an area of deeply entrenched disadvantage. I just couldn’t find the words to talk about people’s lives that were so different from my own. And to not talk about the people who were at the centre of everything we did as a school felt impossible. Dishonest, even.

I was ultimately conscious of telling what was other people’s stories to tell. I have always wanted to advocate but whenever I started to type I couldn’t find the words. At times, it felt like poverty porn.

More practically, I’ve also had every spare minute taken up by being a mum. Which, whilst wonderful, is time and soul-absorbing in ways I couldn’t possibly have imagined when undergoing the fertility treatment that made me one.

It’s why I’ve always kept up the ‘Nurture’ blogs. It doesn’t matter what I say about myself. I don’t care if people think it’s trite or crappy. It’s only about me and what does that matter?

But then A-Quigs read my 23/24 blog and challenged me to share some of what I’ve learned as a new Deputy Head. And since then there’s been a nagging desire to get back to blogging in a way I haven’t felt since pre-Covid and pre-baby (two states intrinsically linked for me).

And so here I am on a Saturday night on the first evening since our second bout of sleep training with time to spare to consider what I might write in response to that challenge and all I can think is: to be a school leader you have to really like people.

My sister is the Director of a company with 10+ employees and she’s spoken of the pressure of realising you’re responsible for other people’s mortgages. Boy, does that now resonate. As Deputy Head leading staffing, I’ve felt keenly aware that I am now responsible for whole families, not just individual teachers. 

Whether it is approving leave to attend an event at a child’s primary or navigating the complexities of long term illness, the decisions I take have the power to reverberate through the walls of family life in homes I may never visit.

And yet, the decisions you take in this role won’t always be easy. You won’t always be able to say ‘yes’ to the things you’d very much like to say ‘yes’ to. You’ll be keenly aware that if budgets don’t balance then there won’t be a school to employ the people that work there. And that if students don’t have a qualified and consistent teacher in front of them then their life chances will be affected more quickly than others might possibly imagine.

Thankfully, I also now know the impact of getting it right. Having open and honest meetings about absence can establish trust and enable support to be put in place that as a school you simply didn’t know was needed. When I first wanted to lead in schools it was to secure the very best outcomes for young people. What I’ve now realised is that this has to start with securing the very best for the incredible adults that work with them day in day out.

To be in a position to directly create change where things need changing can also be dead exciting. Our school now routinely informs women about their ability to use Shared Parental Leave to get paid for school holidays. The next stage is to create a school policy that will be the gold standard for supporting the number one group to leave teaching: women aged 30-39. 

Undoubtedly, the link between school leadership and employment law was one I was naive about before becoming a Deputy Head. I didn’t envisage that I’d need to seek legal advice. I’d had no direct experience with the LADO. The idea of giving a solicitor a quick bell was alien even after having bought a house and navigated the life events that comes with pushing 40. But, if it wasn’t for just that - and a hotline to my Union rep - my first year could, at times, have gone quite differently. 

Despite these challenges, I’ve held firm to the belief that being yourself is the only way to navigate school leadership and stay sane. You have to be prepared to share yourself: swear (when appropriate), say sorry (frequently), and, vent (when it’s needed). I’m keenly aware that being a mum has become intrinsic to who I am - in much the same way being a fan of pro-wrestling has been for a good many years. If I don’t share that then you can’t know me. If you don’t know me then I reckon it’s harder to trust me. So apologies for singing the praises of Dr Ferber and Tony Khan in equal measure.

So, what have I learned after my first year? Teaching is a people business. Luckily, seeing the good in every person isn’t anywhere near as difficult as you might imagine. Learning to see the good in yourself each day, when you’re conscious you’re learning and balancing different identities, now that is somewhat harder.

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