Things You Need to Hear

Everyone is exhausted. Everyone. It’s been an absolutely manic half term. For some it’s over today, for many of us there is still a week to go. If you’ve made it…well done.

I think we all thought this half term might be different. A return to some kind of normal. And to an extent is has been. Classes have probably been more settled, routines are probably a bit more like normal, but it still feels…off. We’re back to working at 120mph when we all promised we wouldn’t during lockdown. We’ve got all sorts of pressures, challenges and anxieties and then on top of that we’ve got managing covid, absence, remote learning and keeping on top of all that as well. Relentless is absolutely the word for it. Endlessly relentless.

If you are anything like me, you’re wrecked. Maybe you’re feeling low. Down, demotivated, dejected. Maybe it is just sheer exhaustion, the thought of how you manage any more wake ups.

But that’s not the whole story.

There is more to this half term. This half term can be full of pride. There are things we all need to hear and they are things we don’t get told enough, not nearly enough.

You’re Better Than You Think

Be Proud of Yourself

You are Appreciated

Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It’s Back to School We Go

This week brings the return to school for lots of us. I’m sure, like me, most people are experiencing the the mix of positivity about getting, lamentation for the end of the holiday and nerves over Covid and what the future will bring. There are people who want to get back to normal, people who don’t feel it’s safe to do so, and then there are people caught in the middle who maybe don’t know what to think.

All of those emotions are absolutely fine. We’ve been through a lot in the last 18 months with many people saying it has been the hardest time of their careers. We’ve been cut adrift by government at times, hung out to dry, left to our own devices and often been publicly shamed for our role in Covid by people who don’t understand the extent of the work we’ve done.

But despite all of that, we have risen. We have adapted, fought back and done what we always do, our best for the children. This coming year will be no different. We’ve learnt a lot about what we can handle as teachers over the last 18 months, a lot about what might work and what might not. A lot about how we can adapt, change and exceed expectations of what is demanded of us. But that way if working was unsustainable.

It will be easy to fall into the trap of trying to get everything done. There is still the spectre of having to teach things that may not yet have been covered. Tutoring and closing gaps may still loom large. With the back to normal direction from the guidance, the back to normal pattern of school life may resume, but even more. There may be the temptation to try to work even more, even longer to deliver on what you haven’t been able to do over the last two years.

Resist it.

This is a time for perspective. That perspective is that you can’t be everything to everyone. You need to pace it this year. We don’t know what’s going to happen, we don’t know how people will be affected. What we do know is that people need to be able to be the best they can be. We need to help the children to be the best they can be and that can only be done when we can be our best selves. Our ability to do that may be governed by the school we work in, but it is vital you use the leeway you have in your systems to give yourself as much slack as possible and make time for yourself and recharging your batteries. There is only so much we can do at any given time. There are always busy times, but prioritise during these moments and look after yourself.

Find some perspective in someone else. Talk to people outside of school and get some objective help. Rant and offload to people. Do want you need to do to not just stay afloat, but swim strongly through this year.

Above all though, be confident. Be confident in everything you achieved last year and the year before. You will not have forgotten how to teach. Everything that made you effective is still there. You know what you’re doing and how to get the best out of the children. Don’t overthink the first week, it’s like muscle memory, it’ll come flooding back. Get yourself set and in a good place for the children’s return. As much as we like a perfect looking classroom, I can guarantee the kids don’t really care if your desk is labelled yet, or that display isn’t quite finished.

Those children will be thrilled to see you. They will have been looking forward to this, despite what they might say. They will want to make a good impression the same way that you do. They want to get to know you, to find out what makes you tick and how they can please you. Give them time to do this, reveal the bits of your myself that make you real to them and someone they can engage with.

A new year is a new adventure. Very few adventures are finished within a few weeks. They take time, perseverance and an acceptance there will be good and bad times. The year ahead will be no different. The ups and downs are normal, they happen all the time, don’t get too carried away by either extreme. Adventures are tough, but worth it. There is great fun to be had along the way, and every school year is exactly the same.

Start this year with the a perspective you can manage all year. What you do is important, what you give to your school and class is amazing, but don’t give so much there is nothing left for later in the year. You’re too important to others, and to yourself for that.

An Apology to School Staff

I am sorry to have to interrupt your school holidays, but thought it important I write to you. 

I am sure you have seen and read the recent IfG, University of Cambridge and University of London research and reports. They were damning of the Department pointing out numerous failures and areas where we could, and should have done better. Many of you will have formed strong opinions based on reading these documents and I agree with you.

I must point out, there were successes. I remain proud of our laptop delivery and the fact we were able to keep children in school who would enable essential personnel to be able to continue to go to work. However, in the vast pool of issues, problems and politics these are scant consolation. There have been many areas where we need to fundamentally assess our views and see how we can improve further. This must be done swiftly and rigorously. We owe it to the children and school staff.

The amount of u-turns were unacceptable and only caused more stress, worry and work for an already exhausted workforce. Beginning with guidance, we should have been clearer, we should have been more transparent on delays and timings and the reasons behind them. We should have ensured information was completely accurate before releasing it to schools for them to act on. We should have explained why things were been done the way they were and given evidence to support it. Our intentions were to give you the tools to keep your schools, pupils and workforce safe. At a time when clarity and ease of use was essential, we let you down. The redrafts and updates, were admittedly, poorly handled and communicated badly. We should have made it easier for you to find changes to guidance or released key changes as a separate document. We should have told you things before we told the media giving you time to plan properly before hearing it and being questioned on it from another source rather than directly from us. 

Whilst preparing for a second set of school closures was something that nobody wanted to do, it was something we should have done. We directed schools to make plans for further closures, but did not do it ourselves. This is something that must be, and will be, rectified going forward taking advice and inout from school leaders across the whole strata of school demographics. Exams are just another example where flawed thinking and lack of foresight has hampered the people we are all interested in helping the most – the children. To not have a written and thought out plan for what would happen with exams and assessment in the event of further school closures, was inexcusable. However, one of my largest regrets was suggesting parents should complain to Ofsted if they were unhappy. The deluge of praise that Ofsted received proved how I misjudged this situation and the mood of the nation. Secondly, the Department should never have threaten legal action against schools who were merely trying to keep their children safe.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but I will not rely on this to form any excuse. We should have done better. While, during the first period of school closures, there can be some mitigation for short notice and hastily arranged guidance and procedures, this mitigation can only be minimal. As a department it is our job to support schools and help them to functions as easily and efficiently as possible and our failure to have contingency or even initial plans in place to combat wide-scale school closures significantly affected our ability to do that. 

Our job is to lead on education, to support a profession that gives it’s all to the children in their care. That we were unable to do this initially is a regret, and that we were unable to do so effectively subsequently makes the success that schools achieved throughout the pandemic even more remarkable. Over the last 18 months we have been unable to do so effectively and for that I am truly sorry.

I am sorry for the extra work we caused, for the extra concern, worry and sleepless nights. I am sorry we could not support you better and plan better for you to help you when you needed it most. It is not underestimated how much the work of schools has done to mitigate the failures of areas of government during this time. For this I thank you unreservedly. 

I accept there are many bridges to be rebuilt and much trust to earn back. I ask, and am hopeful, that this apology will go someway towards beginning this process. I sincerely hope you enjoy the rest of your summer break and return to school refreshed and rested for another year of doing what make us at the Department so proud of you all – positively affecting all children across the country. 

You did good

The summer can often be a time for reflection. This might not be a year to want to reflect on. It’s been very, very hard. It seems to have rolled on from the last academic year without much of a break, certainly mentally, anyway.

I think it is really important that we do reflect though, but not on Covid. There will be a time for that. I think we need to reflect on what each and every person has managed to achieve this year. The empty praise and thanks from the DFE mean nothing, the people at the top of that organisation have no idea what life has been like in schools and what it has taken to get through this year. To be honest, recognition from there is meaningless – we need to recognise what each of us has achieved personally and as a collective profession. It’s easy to look back over this year and feel down. Like maybe we didn’t accomplish everything we should have done. But that is just rubbish. I would argue we have achieved far more than in a normal year.

Think back to September. There were reopening plans everywhere, and no one really knew what to expect. Think about what you managed in just that first month though:

  • You brought a community back together
  • You made children want to be in school again.
  • You reassured those who were feeling anxious.
  • You assessed to work out what was needed going forward.
  • You made them laugh and smile again.
  • You have gave them the confidence they weren’t a lost generation.
  • You kept them safe.
  • You taught them how to be together as a group again.

You did all of those things, in just one month. How incredible is that? Even if we stopped there, that is enough to be proud of for a whole year. But we didn’t stop there. We nursed them through another school closure. And do you know what? We did it better than we did it the first time too. I bet almost every school upped their game with regards to online learning between last year and this one. Again though, it doesn’t stop there. You managed to do those things with significantly more children in school this time. It meant find a new way of working all over again, but you did it.

Then, when we came back, you did everything that you did in September all over again. Relentlessly working to help the children you work with and care for to minimise their disruption. Don’t listen to the media, the government or anyone else who tells you otherwise. Don’t listen to the voice inside you screaming that you haven’t achieved much this year.

Progress this year was different. So what if you didn’t improve your plenaries? So what if you didn’t achieve everything on a development plan? So what if you didn’t meet that appraisal target that all children had to pass a phonics test. Those things were arbitrary this year, they were meaningless once the year panned out as it did. Don’t even begin to think that because you didn’t tick everything off on someone else’s list you did achieve anything. You achieved more this year than in any year that has gone before.

So when you reflect, don’t undersell yourself. Don’t trap yourself into thinking you didn’t do enough. You gave the children exactly what they needed to get them through another incredibly tough year. If that doesn’t match what you think of as success in a normal year, then it doesn’t matter, because this wasn’t a normal year.

This summer is a time for pride, it’s a time for confidence, it’s a time to reflect on the wonderful things you did for your school community.

A lot of those things aren’t measurable or tangible.

A lot of the time the most important things aren’t.

You did just fine. Now rest.

A Guide to Securing a Job

So, while many people may have secured a job for next year, I am well aware there are people still looking and getting worried about finding a post for next year. Here is my short guide to maximising your chances at suceeding in getting a post, from the start to the end of the process.

Finding a Post

Be clear about what you are looking for in your next post. Are you happy to move to similar sized school and year group? Do you want to go somewhere bigger? Somewhere smaller? Are you looking for promotion? Do you have something specific in mind? Do you have a distance limit in mind for your commute? Try to narrow down your search as much as possible to save you applying for jobs you aren’t really interested in – that costs time and effort, and can ultimately add to the filling of disappointment if you don’t get them – even if you didn’t really want it in the first place! As time goes by you can widen the search and your parameters if needed.

Before you Apply

Do your homework. As I have already said, applying takes time and effort. Each academy might have a different application form, things need tweaking and even copying and pasting details from one form to another is a faff. Do your research, check their website, read some policies and see if you can see yourself there. Does their ethos seem to fit with yours? Does the words on their website match up with the information you can see and gather from other sources? Finding a school is as much about finding the right fit for you as it is about finding the right fit for them. Getting caught in the wrong place can make for difficult times, so do what you can to avoid it. If you’re happy with what you see, and you think you can see yourself there – get you request for a form in.

The pre-visit

Be polite, be friendly and try to drop in a few things about yourself. It is your first impression and as you leave the person showing you round will either be hoping you apply or possibly be not too bothered. You want them to be thinking the former! This is a chance to show off your research and give the impression you are bothered and know about this particular school. It is the first chance to show you can click with a member of staff, but be yourself, you can’t keep up an act indefinitely. Use this chance to ask a few questions of your own, so have some up your sleeve. Extra-curricular clubs? Opportunities for staff development? It shows you care about these things and are interested in developing them rather than just being there to have a nose around. Be interested, ask questions about displays, or add little bits like ‘oh, I saw that on your website’. This can be a really important stage, don’t underestimate the impression you can make!

The Application Form

If you have to request this separately, do so politely to the school office and maybe drop in some of the details you have gathered from the website or your research. When it comes to filling in the form, attention to detail is paramount. While the receiving school probably knows you are looking at other roles, there isn’t much more that will put me off then seeing the wring school name at the top, or the wrong job reference number. It gives the message that you don’t care enough about the particular role to pay enough attention to the form. Typo’s give the same message, as does lack of capitialisation or poor alignment (a pet peeve of mine!).

Give the details they have asked for an fill in every section. If there is something that is ambiguous, make a effort to explain it rather than leaving it to come up at interview. For example, you need a full employment history with no gaps of longer than a month – if you have then, put on the form what they are and why. Give your CPD record as fully as possible, these are all extra strings to your bow, likewise your academic history. When giving references choose your most recent employer. If you are not giving your previous headteacher, explain why. Perhaps it was a large school and they weren’t your line manager? Perhaps they are new to post and haven’t worked with you for long? A simple explanation of this will give the shortlisting panel a reason, rather than having to guess what the issue might be (whih will usually be worse than the reality!)

This form can sell a lot about your attention to detail and desire for the job, take the time to get it right.

The Personal Statement

The most difficult bit. I would say to aim for a page of A4 for a teaching role, certainly no more than two. I would always do mine as a separate document as well, so I can format it the way I want rather than being forced into an expanding box on a form.

The point here is to sell yourself and set yourself apart from the crowd. What do you bring that no-one else does? What can you offer the school? The shortlisting panel here will be looking that you fit in with their ethos as well, so use your research to good effect. Personalise it to the school and the job spec giving specific and evidenced examples of things you have done to meet it, or that prove the impact you’ve had in yuor job role previosuly.

While it is nice to read how much you love teaching, and want to make a difference to children (still put this in, by the way), that is really the minimum I would expect from a teacher, so maybe don’t go overboard on the length of this section. Talk about how you build relationships, particular projects you’ve led that have been successful, where you have learned from experiences Show them they are getting an asset in you that they will be glad they have employed. Specific examples are ecellent here – just give the brief details, they can be explored further and added to at interview, but give a flavour of what you are capabale of.

Sending it in

Send a short cover note saying how much you enjoyed your visit to the school and are delighted to apply for the post of xyz. This does not need to be lengthy, but make sure you attach all the correct documents, with your name in the file name for easy reference for the panel.

Being Shortlisted

When you get a response from a school inviting you to interview, respond promptly to confirm your attendance, and ask if there is anything you need to bring (documentation, etc). The school may well have asked you to teach or give a presentation as part of the interview. Make sure you have all the information you need for this.

If you’ve been asked to teach, try and narrow it down. Ask what support will be available, what tech will be available, a break down of the class, the SEN needs, any particular children to be aware of. If you know what your lesson is, ask what prior knowledge they have of the subject. You can even ask for a seating plan to help you out. Don’t be conscious about asking for all of these things – you are showing that you know what you are doing. These are all questions you would know the answers to in your own class, so give yourself the best shot by trying to find them out before you teach your lesson.

If it’s a presentation, again find out what you can.

Teaching the Lesson

Chances are you’ve only got a short time here. Use it wisely. The panel won’t be looking for amazing progress for the children, more about your interactions with them and how coherently you’ve managed to plan a lesson. Of course the difficultly pitch might be off, you don’t know the kids.

I always used to take everything they needed with me and put it in a plastic wallet for them all – pencil, photocopied sheets, whiteboard and pen anything. This showed by organisation, meant I wasn’t relying on the other schools resources and meant I knew it wouldn’t go wrong. I always put a sticky label in and made them write their name on it to stick on their jumper so I could start using names as quickly as possible. Have lessons plans for all the panel and a printed copy of resources and slides with notes. They might not look at them in the lesson, but they will have them to hand when making their decision – it will prompt their memory.

Think about what might go wrong. Where are your slides saved (if using them)? I used to take two memory sticks in case there was a problem and email them to myself. I even took my own laptop just in case, sometimes. Do you have a plan B? Have you though how you’ll adapt in the lesson is too easy or hard? Don’t be afraid to alter your lesson plan on the fly, I’d rather see that then someone bat on with something that clearly isn’t working. Be confident and show them the really you, not an unsustainable version of you. That’s no good for anybody.

Afterwards debrief and reflect honestly, this also tells a lot about a teacher and their understanding of what makes good teaching.

The Interview

Take your time, be clear, be you and back it up with examples. This is a time to sell yourself with what you are an expert in – your time in the classroom. You are the knowledgable one about you, so prove it. The hardest interviews are ones where I have felt like I am dragging every piece of information out of a candidate, so have things your proud of that you want to get in, and try and work them in. Think about things that might come up before hand and give real concrete examples that are based in your classroom. Use your research from before applying to show how you will apply your practice to the school your interviewing for. Also, take your time to answer. A slight pause before starting just gives you time to clear your head and clarify your thoughts before you start. If you wander off track, ask what the question was again and get back to it. Nerves are to be expected, so no panel will think worse of you for it.

Have questions prepared at the end. You need to make sure the school is a good fit for you too. Don’t be scared of asking about workload and wellbeing. If the panel are threatened by such questions, I’m going to hazard a guess you don’t want to be working there anyway.

Be confident in yourself, be friendly, be knowledgeable and see what happens. If it turns into a chat rather than a Q and A, I reckon you’re onto a winner.

Finally, at the end if you haven’t got something in you wanted to, use the question time to try and squeeze it in!

Afterwards

After that, you’ll hear one way or another. If you’re successful, accept the job in a formal email. If not, you’re entitled to feedback. This can sometimes be helpful, sometimes not. Sometimes it genuinely does come down to fit in a school, and strong candidates across the board. I’ve had to turn down people I would have happily employed – there was nothing wrong with any part of their application, just someone else was a little better. That’s hard to hear though. Be specific when you ask for feedback – was it my interview? Was it the lesson? Was it a specific area?

Well, that’s exhausted my tips for getting a job, happy hunting and I hope it comes in useful – they right job is out there!

Cracking the Tech Workflow

I’ve been thinking about writing this one for a while now, as I finally feel I’ve got to a place with my tech use where it is becoming helpful in most areas rather than a complication or hindrance. This is something I’ve been chasing for a good length of time, and I’ve tried various different apps and solutions to keeping files, notes and my time accessible, shareable and productive. Some of the apps are paid and Apple-specific, but I feel I’m getting my monies worth in terms of my productivity. Still, there are definitely free options out there. So here it goes:

The Setup

I run a MacBook Pro for all of my work; it’s my link between home and school. I use my Office365 One Drive account for moving files between this machine and the school network, where necessary.

At school, I have an external monitor, and I use the MacBook as a second screen. I never used to do this, but the extra screen space is so valuable for working on multiple documents at a time. I’d seriously recommend a second screen, even if you’re already working at a desktop (I haven’t tried it, but mounting it portrait is supposed to be a winner too). 

I then have an iPhone, which helps a lot being in the Apple ecosystem. Things such as the universal clipboard (copying text on the phone and being able to paste it on the computer) make a big difference as does the file sharing and iCloud features that help keep the two devices absolutely synced and in line. 

Time and Task Management

A calendar app is the place to start. For a long time, I kept time and task management as two separate things, using the stock Apple calendar and reminders app. After listening to some podcasts and rooting around I ended up plumping for Fantastical (https://flexibits.com/fantastical). This is one of the pricier apps I use (there is a free trial available as well). What drew me to this was the fact it combined task management and calendar in one place as it will keep track of both at the same time. My day starts with populating my to-do list for the day, and I set them as all-day events, meaning they pop up at the top of my calendar ticker, so they are always on display, all of the time as a constant reminder of things I need to work through. They display as simple tick boxes so easy to mark off, and they are retained in a log as well. 

I have been much more deliberate about my time management recently. I used to only put meetings and places to be in my calendar so that I wouldn’t forget, but for the last month or so, I’ve been deliberately blocking time for specific jobs during the day rather than leaving it clear in the calendar. For example – assigning an hour to work on a data task or 90 minutes to prep the next week’s staff meeting. Obviously, these blocks are moveable should something come up, but dedicating focussed time to tasks where I don’t do anything else has made me more time-efficient and more productive. It means the to-do list items that are bigger and seem to linger get done as I’ve set aside set time to do it. It seems really obvious now, but I didn’t think it would make as big a difference as it has.

A couple of other things I like about Fantastical in particular:

  • It runs multiple calendars, as you would expect
  • When adding events/task, you use natural language e.g. ‘Meet Joe at 12pm tomorrow for 20minutes’, and it will take that and add it into a calendar event giving you the option to add an invitee as well. Same with tasks, just type ‘task’ before you start typing
  • The menu bar icon gives you a ‘time until…’ your next event. 
  • When sending a calendar invite, you can propose multiple times for the recipient to choose the one that suits them best/the ones they can do. If it goes to multiple recipients, when they all chose a mutual date, it confirms it and adds it as an entry in the calendar. In the meantime, it grey’s out all options in your calendar, so you don’t potentially double book. 
  • iOS app is available as well. 

I did try a few other apps, in particular, Things 3, which I stuck with for a while. This is great if you just want a to-do list.

Email

Again, I had been hunting around for alternatives to the Apple stock app. I started with Airmail, but I’ve now settled on Spark (https://sparkmailapp.com, free). This gives me the capability to schedule emails (which Apple wouldn’t let me do), has a nicer user interface and also lets you create a link to a specific email. This has been useful because when I have been writing notes about tasks I have done, I can use this link to go to the specific email that is relevant, and it displays as a webpage rather than an email in a separate app. You can also share that link with others, meaning they can see just that email rather than a whole trail or have to go fishing through their inbox to find it when needed. 

Project Management

For bigger projects with more steps, I’ve only just started using Trello (https://trello.com/en-GB). It is a free app and browser tool available across all platforms. This lets you create boards of tasks and lists of jobs to do that you can share with others. This has been really helpful for breaking down big projects, so my general day to day to-do list doesn’t;t become overwhelming. I have used this to write separate boards for prepping for governor meetings, checking off the data analysis for each year group as we pass through the data deadline and a few other things. The next step is sharing the board, as anyone can move the list cards around once they have it shared with them, so it becomes collaborative.

Notes

This is the one area I’ve moved around a lot. I’ve finally settled in Obsidian (https://obsidian.md, free Windows and macOS). This lets me create really quick and short notes about a whole range of things and keep them all in one place. It syncs with my One Drive, so I have access to the notes on multiple devices at once as well. I have been using this to keep a daily note page of everything I have done during the day – conversations I’ve had, things I’ve asked people to do, messages I’ve sent. This record alone has made me feel much more productive. 

But, what I really like about this is the linking you can do. In a document, you can add something called a backlink, but putting someone’s name in brackets. This creates their own page in your list of notes. When you click on their name, it takes you to their page. It’s a bit like a wiki, but the links work two ways, and that is the clever bit. It’s a bit tricky to get your head around at first, but here’s an example: 

‘Spoke to [[Jane]] and asked her to update the Year R teacher on the plans for assessment.’

Now, when I click on the link for Jane, it takes me to her page. I could populate this with info as well, such as email address, or if it is a consultant, who there work for, where I met them first, how I got the contact etc. The clever bit is that when I link to Jane’s page, I can see all the times I have referenced her name. Clicking on one of those references takes me immediately back to that note/part of the text where I wrote her name, meaning I can see all the times I have noted a conversation with her, the task’s we’ve done and find them all easily as well. 

I use it to keep notes from training sessions as well and then I can link to other people or documents that are relevant too. You can add email links (using the Spark linking I mentioned earlier) so when you look back over a note, and you want to go directly to the email it was about, click on the link and hey presto, you are there. It also supports # for tagging important words. 

Obsidian has been a game-changer for me in terms of keeping tabs on what I’ve done when I’ve done it and what I’ve asked people to do as well. It’s also turned into a ‘done’ list, so I feel more productive too. 

Some other honourable mentions are Drafts (https://getdrafts.com), a really simple note-taking app that lets you perform actions on your note, e.g. send it to Google Drive, send to email, send to Twitter etc. 

Craft (https://www.craft.do) is another one I have tried as well, which is like Drafts but allows more multimedia to be added. 

One of the other advantages of these apps is that they are clean places to write. There is little to no text editing facility, so it is all about the text. Whenever I write a letter, newsletter or longer document, I start in one of these as it is clean, and I am able to focus on what I am writing rather than getting distracted by other things I can do with the document. Again, this is more time-efficient and has improved my productivity. 

So, I know some of this is a bit geeky, but I really feel, for the first time, like all of these things are working together for me to keep track of my tasks, my time and my responsibilities in a way that makes it all much more manageable therefore saving me time and making me less likely to forget something important. As always, more than happy to chat about any of this or answer any more questions you might have! 

A little Maths I learned…

I spent a good chunk of my time teaching maths at primary level, and although, admittedly, mainly at Key Stage 2 level, I like to think I was reasonably successful at it. I love teaching Maths, and I think it can be beautiful in its simplicity, and the patterns that can be found and the comparisons that can be made can sometimes blow your mind. The links to music and nature can astound, and finding ratios and threads that run through many different aspects of life can be eye-opening.

I found it is the same with the children – it is possible to blow their mind with Maths and in an excellent way. So many children have a negative view of maths or fear it. The reasons for this can be plentiful. Typically, they have had a bad experience with the subject or have found themselves confused by it. It may be there have been given a negative view of maths by someone near to them. We’ve all had the parent who says ‘I wasn’t good at Maths, so they won’t be’. It frustrates and infuriates me – there is no reason for it to follow like that, and very much like the language we have seen around Covid and catch up, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

I loved blowing the children’s minds with maths stories I’d seen in the news. There were some great ones. The mathematicians who found a new prime number and the ones who found a new tessellating pentagon were two that always stuck in my mind. We looked these up as a class, we read the stories, and it opened up so much language and discussion; it was amazing! We all learned something! We often read a child a text or a piece of writing and tell them how brilliant it is, or find they get lost in it, enthralled and rapt in it, but we can do the same with Maths. It’s like they are being let into a bit of secret that no-one else knows, and they love it. 

But what makes for good teaching of maths? Here is what I’ve picked up over the years.

Don’t tell them they can’t do it.

I know this might cause a bit of disagreement, but forewarning them, it might be hard or that lots of people find it tricky can be the kiss of death before children have even started. I’ve seen teachers tell classes that fractions are coming and that lots of people struggle at first and not to worry if you don’t understand it. 

Now, I get the thinking behind that – they shouldn’t be demoralised if they don’t understand on the first pass through. But straight away, some will decide they can take it as the easy option or switch off. I also agree that sometimes you can over exaggerate. ‘Now this Maths will be tough, but I know you guess will ace it!’. A lot comes down to knowing your class and your children. I feel very strongly that there is enough negativity around maths for some children, and being told they’re going to struggle with it before they have even started is dangerous. Do we do this with other subjects? I think we sometimes see that Maths can confuse and try to protect the children from struggling, but is this the best way to do this? A better way to ensure they understand is to work harder at clear explanations and simple language to make it as accessible as possible, surely?

Must Get the Basics

I’ve also come across several children who have been building on quicksand when they have got towards the end of Key Stage 2. They haven’t got the basics of the subject down or got them as known facts. Some things make things easier. Take times tables, for example. If you can get secure knowledge of these by, let’s say, Y4, then the upper Key Stage 2 curriculum becomes more accessible. It bleeds into so many areas:

Written multiplication, short and long division, simplifying fractions, adding fractions, decimals, percentages, ratio, probability, proportion, converting units of length, and there are probably more. If you know your time tables, instantly these areas become easier to deal with as you are only having to deal with the new information and methods, not worrying about the times tables. 

Place value is another one – it has to be secure because it feeds into so much. The time spent on these aspects is worth it because you cannot build the following steps. If you need to condense some other topics, then so be it because these basics of number bonds, quick calculations, place value, timetables, and certain conversions make everything so much easier at the primary level by the time you reach the top of the school. EYFS and Key Stage 1 teachers have such an essential job building the blocks that everything else comes from. 

Understanding, not tricks

Following that is the idea that you can’t just give a trick to do something (the classic, adding a zero!). Maths shouldn’t be taught as a subject of tricks to loophole your way around actually doing what is needed. It is a surefire way to build misconceptions and devalue the real understanding needed for future concepts where such tricks may not exist. I was always at pains to explain to the children I taught where they could come unstuck using such shortcuts if they didn’t understand why they were doing it. When I was sure they had grasped it, I would explain why they did work and why they didn’t give the complete picture.

As Maths works in the abstract, sometimes you have to work with what you do know about something to work out what you don’t know, and if you haven’t got the steps to fall back on, then it can be hard to unpick what has gone wrong. This is key to children becoming independent and transferring their skills from one area of the subject to another. 

Use the correct language.

If you’re teaching them something, tell them the right things. It means they are exposed to it straight away, removing some of the fear that can go with it. If, in Year 2, they are doing 6+?=8, then tell them they are doing algebra. If they are working with 3D shapes, call them vertices right from the word go. We want our scientists to use the correct language, and we should expect the same from our mathematicians. We expect precise work in other areas; let’s expect it from the language we use too. Have high expectations of them. Use numerator and denominator as soon as fractions are introduced. Of course, explain what they mean clearly and use a simplified version to support their understanding and give them the actual terms. They will encounter them as they move through school, and that drip, drip of the language will stand them in good stead. 

Give proper support.

Manipulative and concrete resources are so important. Maths is abstract, and without being able to visualise the numbers, some will find it tricky. Use them at every opportunity. No child is too old to use them or should feel embarrassed to do so. We give word mats and vocal lists in English; these are the maths equivalents. Let them play, let them build, let them experiment and see what they can do. How many nets of a cube can they make using polydron? It will give a much better idea of how a net folds up if they have done it with concrete resources and better equip them to build on it. Looking at volume? Build the shape out of multilink to show precisely how the middle of that shape is filled up and why the volume is what it is. 

Resourcing is also about our teaching. Keep it simple. Use the correct language, as I’ve already said, but break it into simple steps where each part is explained thoroughly as to why it is being done and why it works. Give them step by step examples to look through, keep good quality models on the board wherever you can. If you’re modelling and are supposed to write the method in books with squared paper, model it on squared paper. Let them see exactly what they need to do. Talk it through, verbalise your thinking talk it through. Model and tell them how you add 15 and 17 in your head. If they haven’t got all the basics as known facts and are starting something new, then give them the support. If they are making equivalent fractions and tables are a struggle, give them a times tables and division square. Why make it harder for them than it needs to be? Let them focus on the new things and not have to worry about something that might stand in their way until they are secure in their understanding of the new method. 

Get those basic steps right before moving them on. Maths is so sequential that by skipping them forward, you are doing them no favours at all. 

Expose them to higher-level concepts when you can

I am really in favour of dripping in higher bits of knowledge where you can. I was covering a Year 2 class, and we were playing with numbers as a starter – they had to tell me all the facts they could think of about the number 4. One of them said to me that it was 2 x 2. ‘Brilliant!’ I replied. I then asked them if they knew what numbers were called when you multiplied the number by itself? They looked at but sheepish, but they had done work on arrays previous and learned a bit about tables. We talked about square numbers linked to the arrays they’d been working on and saw the patterns. Are square numbers on the Year 2 curriculum? No. Will they all remember it? No. Will a bit of it catch for some of them? Yes! This is the key for me, little drips of language and concepts like pieces of a jigsaw, and when they meet them again, they can build the whole picture that little bit easier. Not to mention, they love finding out things they feel are a bit out of their reach or something they shouldn’t know yet. The example I gave built on their prior knowledge and related to what they did know. I’m not advocating dripping in a bit of trigonometry. This is where teacher subject knowledge is so necessary too – not just knowing your curriculum but also what comes before and after.

Make time for games and fun.

https://secretheadteacher.org/2019/08/26/17-maths-warm-up-games/

There are so many great games, websites, apps and other resources to make maths enjoyable. They don’t need to be number related – problem-solving games are just as much use. They teacher logical and organised thinking, step by step problem solving and encourage good habits – a great example of this is the Traffic Jam game where you have to move the cars around to release the red car out the exit. Games like Countdown are just great for manipulating numbers and playing with them. Give them help – write out the 75 times table for them, for example, but just one number may have several different ways of reaching the solution, so much discussion can come out of it. They also self-correct – they get halfway through their explanation and say, ‘oh, that doesn’t work!’. I wrote another blog with some ideas of games and starters here:

I loved using these games, and they are all adaptable. 

So, teaching maths. It’s brilliant. It’s a whole world and one we need to teach them not to be scared of. We need to show them it isn’t dull, and it isn’t too complicated or incomprehensible. I loved seeing the progress they made and watching them turn from maths haters into maths lovers. That’s the power we have as a teacher, and it feels great when it happens. 

Ignore the Voice That Screams

Ignore the voice that niggles inside your head.

The one that tells you to give it up, the one that tells you you’re fooling no-one. The one that screams ‘imposter’.

We all have one. Because no matter how confident we might seem, it is in all of us. That nagging doubt, that tiny voice that says…’ yes, but you don’t really know what you’re doing, do you?’

I’ve grown accustomed to that voice. It’s a chirping presence constantly there, sucking and pulling at my confidence and my faith in my ability to do my job. It’s easy to drown in it. I look, watch, listen, read all that others are doing and feel lost, inadequate, small, insignificant.

And then, you start to believe it.

And then, you start to withdraw.

And then, you stop doing the things that make you good at what you do.

Self-doubt can be crippling, and no one is immune from it. Mistaking public confidence for others’ inner belief is a dangerous thing; we all put on an act every day. The whole of teaching is an act, a performance, a show for the children.

But…this year has proved one thing. That we can ignore that voice inside, we can ignore the voice that tells us we can’t, because now we know that we can. We know that we can adapt, change, and flex our teaching muscles in ways that we had no idea were possible just 12 months ago. We do not need to feel like an imposter anymore, and we have all proved to ourselves what we are capable of. Just think back over what you have achieved in the last 12 months, and every time that voice starts to rise, shout in its face what you can do. It won’t make it disappear. It will always be there, but ignore the niggles, ignore the nagging and listen to the other voice inside of you – the voice that says you do your job well.

Of course, you don’t do it the same as everyone else. But what you see others do is what they choose to share or what you choose to see. Their voice inside is telling them they are not as good as you. For every teacher that makes you feel like an imposter, you will make someone else feel like one because of how good you are.

Sometimes the quietest voice inside speaks the truth. Listen to it.

Treat the Grown Ups Like Grown Ups

Yesterday I put out a tweet about why people fall out of love with teaching being nothing to do with the actual teaching part of the job. It seems to have struck a nerve in what became a quite disheartening thread about the reasons people have left teaching. It filled with stories of how they were left empty of joy and love for the profession, not because they haven’t been able to deliver lessons of high quality but because they have felt overwhelmed and overburdened by leadership teams’ requirements. Teachers felt they had all potential for creativity squeezed out of them by high micromanagement levels and controlling of the curriculum.

This micromanagement extended down into the smallest things – what PowerPoint template to use, what colours to have on displays and what content should be on every wall are just a few examples of what I have seen. Still, I am sure there are many, many more. It is hard to imagine trying to teach when so constrained by rules, procedures and protocols. The thing that makes teaching so joyful is that it can, and often should be, completely child-led. You can be reactive to a class’s needs, go away from the set plan to explore things that are of interest and will wow and engage. How many of our best moments in a classroom have been when something unexpected has happened?

Taking the potential for this to happen away by giving templates for everything and everything needing to be the same is removing the heart of teaching. I understand the need for consistency, but I trust teachers to do their job and give them freedom in their work. That doesn’t mean it is a free-for-all. We have a set of expectations that we all set together about what good teaching is. We spent hours discussing them to get them right and so that they were manageable, sustainable and effective. Achieving consistency doesn’t mean removing autonomy; it just means people have freedom within an agreed framework. We’ve made that framework as wide as it can realistically be. Teachers have the opportunity to work in a way that means they can be the best they can be. They have the freedom to choose their path, to try something new. If it’s a car crash of a lesson, does it matter? They can happen when you use all the templates and schemes under the sun. The key is what you learn from it and how you proceed with the next steps.

Does making people follow so closely to specific regimes and tasks make them a better teacher? Here is a list of things that I know are required (and I was, as well) that do not make people better teachers:

  • putting planning on a set format
  • putting planning in a particular folder
  • being observed every six weeks
  • using a highlighter
  • having tasks set that means they are required to work a 12 hour day
  • reporting data every six weeks

I can count on one hand the number of times I had my planning formally written before I taught it. I knew what I wanted to do, what the resources were, and I’d made notes, but it changed and grew over the week. Each week I would retrospectively fill out the planning format and put it in the folder – what a waste of my time. If you want to see what I did, have a look in my books, it’s all there.

The view that giving people trust leads to anarchy is simply untrue in the vast majority of cases. As teachers, we are used to working with children. They may need tighter boundaries and expectations to do their work as they are doing it for the first time or are still learning. A teacher is not in this position. They are trained professionals who do not need micromanaging in the same way that children might. Leaders need to recognise that you cannot treat a staff team as a class full of children. I despair when I see staff treated like little children who can’t be trusted to do a good job and need everything given to them. It only breeds an unhappy staff who are disinterested in what they are doing as they have no freedom and no creativity. It breeds a disillusioned staff team who spends so long doing all the other tasks that they have no time to sit down and think about the best way to approach a lesson for the children in their class. It breeds a team of teachers who will leave the profession.

Teaching is brilliant; that time with the children is wonderful. Why are we not putting all of our time and effort into making sure this time is as productive as possible and the time around it is focussed purely on making it better? A school leader’s job is to remove all possible barriers to this happening, not add more. Teachers are happy to do work they see as valuable and worthwhile, so leadership teams need to discuss workload and tasks with staff teams and listen to the responses. If something needs doing, explain the rationale behind it and come to a consensus. Maybe, just maybe, a staff team might be able to improve on leaders’ suggestions?

If we want to salvage a profession that is haemorrhaging teachers by the fifth year of their careers, then we need to treat them as the professionals and adults they are, not as the naughty children in the corner who can’t be trusted.

Teaching is easy, the layman opined…

‘Teaching is easy,’ the layman opined,
with a poorly disguised chuckle and a glint in their eye.

‘I don’t get the fuss, or endless tales filled with woe
or the mess or stress, but I have to confess
that I’d happily give long breaks a go.’

You nod and you smile as you look down and away.

The long time response escapes from your lips
‘There’s more than you think’ and you compile a list.

‘It can’t be that bad, you finish at 3 and colour and play,
it can’t be a bad way to spend a day’ 

The layman smiles and waits for a response. 

You take a deep breath.

And look in the eye.
And explain for what must be the fiftieth time: 

Teaching’s not simple, or easy or anything like what you’ve heard, 
Don’t be sucked in by media words,

Because teaching’s an art, a craft and a skill,
one that takes time, heart and the will

To give more than you knew that you could,
And keeping going and going far more than you should. 

Teachers weave magic every single day,
with every word that they speak and every fact that they teach. 

Because rather than just standing and ‘telling what’s what’
there’s far more than you’ll see and far more to be. 

The storyteller bringing the subjects alive
The encourager giving them purpose and drive,

The planner grappling with how they learn best,
The listener letting them get it off their chest,

The protector making them safe and secure,
Everyday giving them strength to endure.

But you stand there telling me how easy it is
and how it’s straightforward, you know what it’s like ‘cos you were a kid.

A kid who was schooled and remembers it clearly
and remembers the knowledge and the teachers held dearly. 

But what isn’t remembered is what they all gave,
To make it look effortless for your personal gain.

Because nobody saw the tears that they cried,
Or the family dinners left cold on the side 

As just one more book, just one more plan,
just one resource that had to be done. 

The sleepiness nights, the worry and care,
for children who didn’t have a life that was fair.

The layman smiles, they’ve got their response. 
‘But those holidays, hey?’ they still smugly say. 

Your head bows again, you’ll not succeed,
Your eyes meet, you sigh. ‘Indeed.’ you concede.

But inside you know what you do,
and the people that matter, they know it too.

Leadership, A Little Less Distilled

Following this tweet https://twitter.com/secretHT1/status/1352892060798513154 I’ve fleshed out some of my thoughts on the most important aspects of leadership.

1) Put Your Ego to One Side

Yes, we’re in charge of something. Yes, we’ve been given a place of responsibility, but don’t let it get to ours head. There’s still a lot we don’t know about a lot of things no matter how long we’ve done the role. I’m not the best teacher at my school, I am not the most organised, I am not the best at admin. The minute I think I am, I’m in trouble. I do have strengths that others don’t but I’ve certainly got weaknesses they don’t as well. 

Giving it the big ‘I am’ and strutting around acting like I know best doesn’t really help anyone. Ever. 

2) Listen

How are we going to judge the mood and know where people are at if we don’t listen? Get out and about, leave the office, talk to people, talk to everyone. Ask their opinion and ask them to give it honestly. If we are going to act in the best interests of everyone that is involved, we need their point of view. It doesn’t mean we have to do everything we are told, but if people know we’ve listened, and they’ve had the opportunity to give their input then it goes a long way to getting buy in. 

3) Explain and Discuss

Following straight on from this, everything is in the explanation. Talk about the decision-making process and be transparent in what you’ve done. We need to show that we’ve listened in the decision we’ve made. The point of view someone has offered may not be in line with the final decision but proving you have taken it into consideration makes such a big difference. It makes people feel valued, worthwhile and like what they say has been part of our decision-making process. 

Not everything needs to be a fait accompli. We can just as easily offer a suggested solution, take the feedback and then go away and reassess. The more agency and input we give people the better. This is where we lead and not manage. There is power in a collective and there can often be ignorance in an individual. 

4) Be Open to Challenge

So, someone disagrees? Good for them. Sometimes we make bad decisions and need telling so. Sometimes it is far better that we are told than being left to plough ahead with something that is wrong. If we give feedback to a teacher that might be difficult, we can be at pains to stress that the feedback is professional and not personal. It is absolutely no different in reverse. Challenge, when welcomed, taken on board, and considered becomes a much less hostile and threatening thing. It goes back to previous points. The challenge might not change anything, but if people know it will be considered and genuinely be part of the thought process that it becomes remarkably constructive. 

5) Admit When You Are Wrong

If we are open to challenge, we’ve also got to be open to change. Getting it wrong isn’t a mark of weakness, and changing our mind certainly isn’t. It doesn’t make you a pushover it means you’ve reflected and acted, something we encourage all people to do from pupils to parents. How often have we told the children that making mistakes is OK and that is how we learn and improve? Just because we are in a leadership position doesn’t make this less valid. A lot of what we tell children is good advice for ourselves too – sometimes we just to listen to our own advice. 

6) Don’t Ask What You Wouldn’t Do

We’ve all been teachers. We’ve all been incredibly frustrated when we’ve been asked to do something that seems high effort, low impact. I am always thinking, would I have been able to do this when I was teaching as well? If this answer is no, then I have to find a way to change it and make it more manageable. I could ask for all sorts from the teachers at my school and almost everything would add more workload. We have to pick and choose what we ask people to do and be confident that if they turned around and said show me how to do this and teach, we’d be able to make it work. 

7) Be Human

Leadership is all about relationships. Being a leader doesn’t mean being unapproachable or beyond a conversation about nothing in particular beyond what was on telly last night. It doesn’t mean never going into the staff room. It doesn’t mean you can’t be friends with people on your staff team. Those human connections where we take a genuine and mutual interest in the lives of the people we work with are so invaluable. It builds the team, and it helps everyone feel valued. 

8) Trust People to Do Their Best

Trusting people to do their best does not lead to anarchy. It leads to people work with a freedom and sense of worth. By giving people our trust, we earn theirs in return. Nobody wants to be micromanaged. Endless check-ups and requests for data, planning and information give the distinct impression that we don’t feel people will do their job properly unless they are monitored. I know from when I was teaching, the more extraneous paperwork I had to produce that never really got looked at, the worse teacher I became as more of my time was wasted put things on paper than actually working on what was best for my class and the children in it. Being released from being monitored around the clock was a breath of fresh air. Why not give people that every day?

9) Know You’re Not Always the Expert

Already referenced but knowing your strengths and weaknesses is key. A school is full of fabulous resources in every member of staff. Why wouldn’t we use this to make things better for everyone? I am very happy not being the best teacher in my school or not being the person with the most knowledge. Relying on the strengths of others builds trust, builds a team and can even ease my own workload. I don’t need to control everything as a leader. I need to have oversight of it all, but I don’t need to run it all. If I wouldn’t do it the best it could be, why wouldn’t I lean into others for help and advice?

10) Work With, Not Demand Of

A leader is as much as part of the team as anyone. We might be ones who make the ultimate decisions but we are part of that team. Doing everything I’ve mentioned above and then still seeing ourselves as the one above everyone else is completely counterintuitive. We are not there to frag everyone in one direction, but to help push everyone forward. Sometimes the best leaders don’t lead from the front, they lead from the back. Support, holding people up and letting them take the lead and the credit for a job well done. Working with our teams is better for everyone, every day. 

You Do Not Go Unseen

What you do does not go unseen. Even if it feels like it, it doesn’t go unseen and you don’t go unseen.

The prep, the work, the delivery, the videos, the uploading, the feedback, the video calls, the live lessons, the late nights, the early starts. None of it goes unseen. 

The children don’t know how to articulate it, but they see it and they see you. They see you feedback, they see the effort you put in, and their face lights up when they see you on the screen. They see how you care; they see how you work, they see how you help. Even the ones who never say anything in a meeting, who never send any work back – they see it.

The parents see it. Of course they’re frustrated – for many their task is impossible. Their frustration isn’t at you, it’s at the situation. The parents whose best bit of the day is the 15 minutes when their child is on a call with you so they can tick off some jobs – they see it. The parents who are grateful that you are keeping learning going the best you can. They see what you do. The critical worker who doesn’t need to worry about their child while they do their work sees you.

Your household see it. They see the ‘one more thing’ attitude you have. They see the extra mile you go. They see the late nights and early mornings. They see the waking in the night and anxiety. They see the desire to do your best. They support and hold you up. They might not say it, but they see what you do.

Your colleagues see what you do. They empathise and understand. Your leaders see what you do, knowing they never had to teach this way, knowing you’re trying to support children in school and at home using two different methods of delivery and trying to keep yourself safe at the same time.

If you feel anonymous know that people see what you do, respect what you do and will remember what you do. You matter and you are not unseen.

New Year, Old You

As we start a new year we hear so much about resolutions, life changes, altering things about ourselves in the pursuit of better, different, more affirming, more efficient, more effective. Yes, these are all worthwhile goals and, yes, can make huge impacts on your work/life/attitude.

Sometimes though, all of it can be a bit much and we can find ourselves being swept up in the need to do something or change something. As we move into the new year I was reflecting on the old me rather than trying to build a new one. We all have so many things we can be proud of and so much about us that is wonderful (I’m talking both personally and professionally now). Why do we feel the need to try and change so often? Teaching as a profession is hugely guilty of it, searching for that silver bullet that will create miraculous results and make things easier for everyone, but up to now that search has proved futile.

This new year, instead of focusing on what we need to change about ourselves let’s focus on everything that is already good about ourselves. Perhaps this year, more than ever, we just need to give ourselves a break and be consistent in ourselves rather than beating ourselves up over something we don’t manage later on. Our students certainly need consistency, so why can’t we appreciate that we might need it ourselves?

We all want to look forward, but maybe this new year is a time for looking back on everything that marked you as a great teacher and a great person last year and simply resolving to carry on with that? We all achieved something great last year with what we managed to do at short notice, under difficult conditions and a large amount of uncertainty. We all provided for the children and did it in the best way we could. We settled nerves, we caught children up, we rebuild relationships, we retaught boundaries, we made up for lost time, we brought back community, we brought back smiles and laughter to children everywhere.

We need to stand tall and proud in the security of ourselves, our skills, our knowledge and our compassion. – even if we don’t feel those things sometimes. Instead of hunting for some kind of self improvement, perhaps this year doesn’t need a new you, perhaps all it needs is the old one and everything wonderful that it brings.

Dear Mr Williamson, further to my previous letter.

Dear Mr Williamson,

It has been a while since I last wrote to you. In a number of ways many things have changed. We have welcomed back almost all pupils and greeted them with smiles, warm hearts, cheeriness and sensitivity as they have returned to school this term, no doubt anxious about what it would bring.

We have taken that anxiety and turned it into engagement. We have reassured, comforted, rebuilt, laughed, assessed, taught, caught up, rebuilt trust. We have done all of that in the space of 15 weeks. It has not been easy, and we are all tired, but it has been rewarding and inspirational at times to see just how adaptable, resilient and wonderful the young people we teach are. The profession needs to look back on this time with immense pride at what we have achieved in a short space of time. The media and, at times, your own government would have you believe that this would be a generation lost to education. It is an easy narrative to push and it is one that plays on parents’ anxieties. I’m confident they won’t be for two reasons – their own abilities and those of the teachers who care for them.

So, a lot has changed. Schools look a little more normal, the routines have been established and risk assessments are working out. In terms of job satisfaction, as we move into Christmas, I feel it is high. My team have worked wonders and I can evidence we had caught up the missed 15 weeks within 6 weeks of being back, for some children.

However, my pride is tinged with disappointment. Disappointment, that despite how much has changed, there are still fundamental things that remain the same. These things are not deficiencies in schools or staff, but deficiencies at the very top. The DfE is there to support a profession. Yes, to hold it to account, yes to lead the way on policy, but ultimately to be there for us and stand up for us. This is where nothing has changed. I feel unsupported and unvalued by the Department.

Still I step into holidays waiting for the extra workload that more guidance will bring.
Still I work against decisions that smack of trying to people please rather than being thought through.
Still I learn information through the media rather than through the department.
Still I try and reassure a staff team that want certainty but get anything but.
Still I have to bring together an anxious parent body.
Still I have to look inept when parents ask me questions to which I have no answers as no details have ben forthcoming beyond the headlines.

It seems as though we are actively being worked against. I cannot fathom why decisions are made as such late notice. That make no acknowledgement that things are changing because of a previous misjudgement. I could accept that a lot easier than the pretence that it was always this way and I must have interpreted previous information wrongly. You must have received many letters such as this, and been given plenty of feedback to this effect. Why has no action been taken or improvement been visible. Despite the claims you make about your respect and gratitude for the profession and what we have done I see nothing but a Department which holds us in contempt. A Department that takes for granted the good nature of the profession and their willingness to make things work and a department that does not speak for me. Trust is a huge part of leadership and without it, leaders cannot function. It has saddened me to see my trust in you being eroded over the past months. I have long held the view that as a state funded school I should try my best to carry out the wishes of the DfE, but I have become more and more disillusioned with this as time has passed.

So, I feel pride, not in conjunction with the Department on a job well done, but pride in myself, my team and the wider profession for what we have achieved in spite of the Department.

As I said, I am disappointed. I go into Christmas with yet more breaking news stories and unknowns as we move forward. Conflicting messaging and plans that have little or no regard for how schools run. I will be spending this time reflecting positively on what I have achieved in education this term. I would ask that you do the same, and genuinely reflect on whether your Department has done the best it could for not only the children in its care but the thousands of staff it represents?

Christmas is about giving, and I will continue to give my all for the children in my care – not because of anything I feel is done for me by the department and no longer through any sense of loyalty, but because as always, the children come first and we will do our best for them, despite hindrances in our path.

No – It’s Not Just You

This half term has been tough.

The swing of moods from the highs of having the children back to the energy sapping routines. The mental drain of having to overthink everything. Be in no doubt, this has been the hardest half term of my career. My energy levels have been so low and I’ve found myself at time consumed with all things Covid risk assessing things all the time – even when I’m out and about with my family! The act of supporting others often can leave me feeling drained myself and often as head, there isn’t necessarily someone to come in and give you that pick me up you might need. I’ve been on the verge of tears, I’ve been angry, I’ve been short with people, I’ve been fed up, I’ve been irrational, I’ve taken it out on my family, I’ve been distant and I’ve been sad.

But this isn’t a woe is me story.

The point of this blog is to let people know that it is absolutely fine to feel like this. It’s normal to feel like this. It’s OK to feel like this. Of course we will be feeling under pressure – we are under a lot of pressure. As well as the normal teaching we have everything else to think about at the moment – the cleaning, the coughing, the bubbles.

I wrote this blog to let people know that you are not alone in how you feel. There are plenty of other people feeling exactly the same way as you and I are and there are plenty of other people who want someone to talk to about it. When we feel at our most stressed is often when we shut down the most and become insular and stop letting it out. Now is not the time to start doing that. Now is the time to do the exact opposite. Open up to people and let them know how you are feeling because the chances are they are feeling the exact same way as you. Keeping it inside isn’t a show of strength and letting it out isn’t a show of weakness. No one will think less of you if you say you are struggling. Most likely they will say “Do you know what? Me too”. As cliched as it is, a problem shared can be a problem halved. I often feel heaps better after just talking my day through with my wife. Find someone you can do that with. It might be online, it might be in person after school each day (just stay 2m apart, clearly) but it’ll help.

You are not alone in the way you are feeling this term, and you don’t have to get through it alone either. Someone else is struggling with the same emotions and together you can work out a way through it. This isn’t to minimise how we feel – just maybe a way to help us all get through it together.

Last week I wrote a tweet about what we’ve achieved so far this term,.:

Reintegrated children to school
Rebuilt your relationships with them
Rebuilt their relationships with each other
Eased their anxieties
Assessed their learning
Started to rebuild what they’ve missed
Moved them forward
Kept them feeling safe
Reassured them
Comforted them
Reassured their parents
Rebuilt their structures and routine
Laughed with them
Reminded them how great school can be
Engaged them again

And this all true. But we need to make sure we aren’t doing this at any cost. We’ve got to make sure we look after ourselves too. We can achieve huge amounts this year, but we’ve got to look after ourselves first and, for me, the first step of this is telling someone else how we are feeling.

So if you’re feeling like it is getting too much, then talk to someone. Don’t feel like you are on your own – because you’re not. Don’t feel like you have to deal with it by yourself – because you don’t.

Strength is not found in solitude – it’s found in community. It’s found in compassion and empathy and you’ll find it in bucketloads from people – just ask them.

Governance – the best CPD you can get

Governors – the unseen being that hovers over a school setting. The mystical people that come in after hours and make decisions that affect teachers day to day workload. That group that gets the reports and sits and takes everyone to task. Nothing could be further from the truth, in my experience anyway. Meetings are held in the evening out of necessity mostly and their role in strategic, not operational so you porbably won’t find them popping in and out of your classroom every week to find out how you are teaching the children. Governors can make or break a headteacher in many ways. They are there for support, challenge and accountability and the interaction between this group and the headteacher is key and this then trickles down to the rest of the staff and school. The people filling these roles are volunteers, giving time and effort to the school because they want to help, not because they want to hinder. They are dedicated, professional and committed to making the school a better place for the pupils.

But, there is one governor role that is also key. Staff governor. I am convinced, that if you are interested in leadership this is by far the best CPD on offer. It’s free, detailed and gives you an insight into the way schools are managed like nothing else. I became a staff governor in my third year of teaching and have been involved in governing bodies ever since. It was an absolute eye opener to me. So much goes on, that as a class teacher, you have no idea about. So where does it start?

Full Governing Body

These meetings are were everyone comes together and the agenda is very set. Mainly there will be things that are covered at every meeting and are always there. For example strategic management – the report of the headteacher, the SEF and the School development Plan. Just sitting in one of these opened my eyes hugely. It seemed to go past in a blur of topics and questions, each one for the headteacher to elaborate on. Through the headteacher’s report and the questions being asked I started thinking about things I had never considered before with the behind the scenes part of school life. This is the stuff the leadership get on with and no-one knows about. Mostly, teachers don’t need to know about it, but if you are interested in leadership yourself you are going to need knowledge in these areas. While the Full Governing Body meeting is usually just an overview of what has happened in the last term the committee meetings are where the detail happens.

Committees

These are made of a sub-section of all the governors and can vary in number and purpose based on the size of the school. They will look at specific areas of school life – Finance, Health and Safety, Pay, Curriculum, Communications, Resources. There are also commitees that don’t need unless they need to, like pupil and staff discipline and exclusions. These meetings go into much more detail about the finer points of running the school. Let’s take curriculum. Often a data report will be presented with the school’s current position in each year group and progress towards the targets set at the start of the year. If you feel like you haven’t got a great understanding of how assessment and reporting works in a Key Stage different to yours this is a great learning experience. The questionning can be thought provoking too. The governors come at it from a position of not knowing individuals and being a step away from school life. They can have a different view and teachers may not have thought of. Great learning experience.

Some committees you will have had no experience of whats involved as a teacher. If leadership is for you, get yourself on the finance commitee. This is like a whole other world, but key to being a leader within a school. I felt so much more comfortable going into headship with 8 years of finance committee behind me as I knew the systems, knew how the spreadsheets looked and where the money came in and out. Once I was a governor I was also able to shadow the headteacher more and offer to help in school. Budget setting coming up? Do you want a hand with that? As I had some knowledge I could be of help and learn about it at the same time. Health and Safety was the same. So many things I hadn’t thought about – legionella testing and reporting being just one of them.

It also gives you a chance to take on a project you might not normally get chance to. For example, when on a comms committee I was able to head up a new drive for online parental engagement – really great experience and helped the school out as well.

Yes, it takes time.

The evening meetings can be a drag, if that is how your school works. You do need to put the time into it to read the documentation properly. It will eat into your time and give you more work, but the amunt of professional development I got from it was absolutely huge. The value to effort ratio was incredibly high.

As a head having a staff governor alongside me is really helpful too. I get a lot of questions thrown at me every meeting and someone who can chip in and help out when I forget things is brilliant.

As well as lot of personal gain you are also getting to help shape the future of the school. Yes governors make decisions, but they are informed by the head and staff who present them. They will ask questions, they will challenge but it is our job to keep them as well informed as possible and this is another great learning experience. How do you communicate that vision and that idea to people who are not necessarily educationalists?

So, if you are interested in being a school leader and you want to take some first steps into finding out how it all works – governance is the only way to go. You’ll get to meet some great people, having great conversations, impact positively on the school and learn an awful lot along the way. No brainer.

Making the Most of Your Teaching Practice

Soon, trainees everywhere will be making their steps into new schools for new placements. It can be daunting, scary and thrilling all at the same time. All of mine were so different in terms of scope, demographic and age group and they were all excellent learning experiences. These are my top tips for making the most of them:

1. Get your key information

I was told by my uni to the there at 7:15 on the first day. Not a soul in sight. The head arrived about 20minutes later asking what on earth I was doing there! Instead of making a good impression I felt like a wally. Make contact first if possible and set up that relationship with the school straight away. When I’ve had students in I’ve always been more impressed by the ones that ask questions before rather than turning up on the morning with no idea what’s coming up.

2. Watch, watch and then watch some more.

The first few weeks are observation based. Watch the teacher like a hawk. You’ll need to adopt and use the strategies they have in place as far as possible. What cues do they use? What routines do they have? How do they move children from place to place? How do they set up the room ready to go? Most of those things, teachers do without thinking and may not explain them to you so get a sense of it yourself and talk it through with the teacher. They may not have even realised you’re doing it.

3. Ask questions

The teacher you’re working with will be expecting questions. Don’t be scared of asking them, even if they seem silly to you. This is learning experience, and you need to treat it as such. Of course you are anxious to impress and show you can teach, but asking questions will make it all the easier to do that. Your tutor and mentor is there to go through things with you – they are there to help you. Don’t worry about taking up their time, they signed up to work with you so use their experience as much as you can. Go through your plans, sound people out with your ideas, get their opinion over whether they think it will work or not. How might they tweak it?

4. You won’t get it right all the time

Some lessons will be great, some will be terrible. That’s why you’re there. It happens to experienced teacher so it’s bound to happen to you as well. Don’t feel down, you won’t have ruined a child’s education with that one lesson, almost everything is fixable. The whole point of this is that it is a learning experience so use it like that. Talk it though, get opinion on what went wrong and what went right. Take the successes and bank them, but remember the same thing doesn’t work every time. This time is the time to find out what kind of teacher you are so use it for that. No one will be expecting you to be a fully functional class teacher – everyone is there to help you not hinder you.

5. Enjoy it

It’s a brilliant time when out on practice. I still remember the schools and kids from when I went out and they impact they had on me. The development you make as a teacher in the space of 4-8 weeks is huge. You’ll almost certainly be doing a better job then you give yourself credit for, so enjoy being with the kids, enjoy making staff relationships and enjoy learning.

Ah, Secretary of State, it’s time for your appraisal.

PM: Aah, Secretary of State, come on in, come on in, sit down. 

SoS: Thanks, Prime Minister, good to be here.

PM: Let’s get on with it shall we? How do you think this last year has gone?

SoS: Well, I think we made a strong start last September. The children went to school, their teachers taught them, and everything went very smoothly. 

PM: Brilliant, just super, excellent work, Secretary of State. How about after that?

SoS: As you know, these have been unprecedented times. I think all things considered we’ve done a good job keeping things going, you know. 

PM: It was shame we had to close schools wasn’t it. 

SoS: Yes, but you know we just had to do it. I think the three day’s notice we gave everyone that they needed to get remote learning up and running was ample and really gave the profession a good lead in to getting their head around what they would need to do.

PM: Yes, that was good thinking, plenty of time three days. 

SoS: After that we went into guidance mode. I was particularly proud of how we reacted to the ever-changing situation by actively ensuring that we kept our guidance up to date and revising it often to reflect the science of what was happening. We also made sure we hit the publish button as soon as we’d finished it so headteachers could have it as soon as possible, even if that meant sending it out at midnight, or on weekends and bank holidays. I think that was appreciated. 

PM: I’m sure it was, having as much time as possible to plan your way forward is vital. How did you know that the changes were being acted on – did you mark them in some way?

SoS: No, this was the brilliant bit, we didn’t! We made sure they would have to read the whole thing again and find the differences themselves. That means they HAD to read it and would definitely have found the differences, then they could effectively re-write their plans. 

PM: I don’t know how you do it Secretary of State, leadership at its finest. 

SoS: Thank you, Prime Minister.

PM: And how do you think the partial reopening went?

SoS: Well, we made sure we only communicated our hope for all children to return so we couldn’t be accused of not meeting a target. 

PM: Achieved, well done.

SoS: I will admit, I did make one error, I said on radio that it had always been the plan to return on the 1stJune, instead of sticking to the line that it would be decided by science, sorry. 

PM: Not too worry, I’m sure no-one noticed.

SoS: Anyway, when it came to July and we were being pushed to let more children back, we knew the science didn’t really support it, so we decide that we’d let headteachers decide, but then give them some really stringent criteria that would make it almost impossible to achieve. 

PM: Well done, not our fault if it doesn’t happen then? 

SoS: Exactly. 

PM: And after that?

SoS: Well then we turned our focus to September. Instead of wasting time writing separate guidance for different settings, we wrote one for all and left it up to school leaders to make it fit.

PM: Well done on saving department time and money. Efficiency savings are what it’s all about. 

SoS: We’ve not really changed it much after that – apart from the masks bit, but again – we’ve left it up to leaders. That way we can take the credit if it works, but not the blame if it goes wrong.

PM: Now, can we turn our attention to exams?

SoS: Of course, Prime Minister. I am happy to report this has been a record year for results. The impact of our education strategy over the last several years has been incredible. 

PM: Excellent. What about the issue of the CAGs and grading?

SoS: We can only go on what the experts tell us Prime Minister. We have to trust them. As you know, we can’t be expected to have full understanding – just oversight. I trusted the algorithm and those that had put it together – it can’t be my fault if that trust was misplaced. 

PM: Indeed, your integrity should be applauded. We shall move on those responsible to another department. Overall, I think you’ve met all your Key performance Indicators, Secretary of State. Standards? Up. Response to crisis? Swift and decisive, giving plenty of time to stakeholders. Communication? First class, lots of updated information so headteachers have everything at their fingertips. Keep up the good work Secretary of State. I’ll see you next year. 

Dear Mr Williamson

Let me begin by saying that the last 6 months has been an undoubtedly difficult time. What has occurred has not been seen in 100 years and difficult decisions have had to be made – life changing decisions, unenviable decisions and often impossible decisions. I understand that and very few people would want to be in a government position at this time.

However, this isn’t about decisions, on the whole. Closing schools was, in my opinion, the right decision as was reopening them. What this is about is everything that has gone alongside your decision. When I say ‘your’, this is not an individual attack as I am well aware that you alone do not make the Department for Education policy single handed, in much the same way that I don’t decide the content of the lessons that the teachers in my school will deliver on a day to day basis. However – when something goes wrong it is my neck on the line and you, as leader of the department are in the same situation.

The word unprecedented had been correctly, although over, used. However, in unprecedented times you need the most precedented of characteristics – honesty, humility and transparency. This is where my angst lies. These seem to have been missing in abundance over the last few months. A few examples:

Firstly we were told there is no set date for schools to return – then in a radio interview you stated it had always been the plan to reopen on 1st June. Second we were given guidance that social distancing was required in classrooms where possible. Schools followed this to the letter and separated tables. The DFE Twitter account retweeted pictures of classrooms for all ages set out in this way, the Prime Minister visited classrooms set out in this way. The message was very clear this was approved of. Then a blog post says it is unnecessary. Yes, by the letter of the guidance this may have been true but the content of the post was very much in contradiction of what had been publicly endorsed. A gentler approach would have been appreciated rather than ‘You’ve got this wrong, and it’s not our fault, you didn’t read the guidance properly.’. Then we had Free Schools Meals and the issues surrounding the issuing of this, but also the availability of these to the most disadvantaged during the most difficult of times.

Over this time I have seen the profession I love pilloried in the press, time and time again. This has come from many different angles and for a host of different reasons. We have been thanked – in the broadest terms, but we have not been defended. There has been no impassioned and detailed rebuttal from government at some of the spurious lies that have been circulated about teachers and the profession during this time. In my opinion, the unions response, at times, may have seemed obstructive – but this is their job. Keeping members safe is what they do. At a time when Parliament was not meeting, children and teachers were supposed to do so? I believe Jacob Rees-Mogg made a very similar comment. Teachers were not front line workers. Our level of risk was not the same as some. But no other profession received such vitriol for the work they did during the course of lockdown. When a staunch defender was needed – none came.

Then of course, the guidance itself. In parts, this was useful, helpful and gave a structure to work too. I appreciated it. I did not appreciate the number of revisions and updates. This made it unworkable. This was not an unforeseen circumstance. With every update (without changes highlighted, adding to workload) came a review of thousands of words of documents. It became a folly, it added stress, and the timing of these updates was often at short notice and late in the day. A lot of the content of these were things school leaders could see would need addressing a long way off, yet guidance was received late and was open to such interpretation that in places it became useless. It was not helpful for leaders or parents. These parents assumed we had foresight of information released to the press. Many were stunned that we found out information at the same time as them. It could easily make us look uninformed and unprepared through no fault of our own. Again, this is before we get on to leaks of documents and policy days before they become official – causing more stress and worry for parents and school staff.

Up to this point, the majority of these shortcomings affected school staff. We worked through them and did the best we could and the provision we made for the children enabled learning. We welcomed them back where we could and we settled them in to new routines. Then came the exam results. Now isn’t just leaders and teachers being affected – now it’s the children themselves. For all the talk of appeals (which themselves have been the subject of u-turns and climb downs) the level of emotional stress placed on this students has been huge. When I collected my results I underachieved because I didn’t work hard enough. That’s was one me. This time underachievement is on an algorithm and that’s too much to take. There may have been no good way to sort qualifications – and was argued this was the best solution. It is clear it is not. It showed shortsightedness and a lack of trust in teachers. But then we come back to transparency again. All of this comes to light just hours before results are released and then gets reviewed in the light of a public backlash. If there was faith in this system at a Department level then surely decision needs to be stuck with? And if there isn’t then why is an apology not forthcoming? If I get it wrong – I say so. I don’t just make the changes – I front up to it and admit my mistakes and in my opinion this garners a greater level of respect.

So, we come back to leadership. Humility, honesty and transparency. I have seen little of these attributes during this time. Admittedly, this not an affliction solely borne by the Department for Education, it has been widespread. I am adamant that a leader needs trust to work properly and what has happened over the last 6 months has eroded this trust from the profession to nearly zero. I work in a Local Authority school. I understand that I should do what I am told by the DFE because ultimately they set the rules and this is what I will always try to do. However, it’s getting harder and harder to justify, defend and respect given recent events.

It won’t change what happens in my school. We will still give everything for the children, do what’s best for them and put them first. On a national level, there is unrest. On a local level, little will change. On a personal level – I feel unsupported, and have had my faith and trust eroded. As we go into a new school year, full of unknowns and uncertainty I know where I can go for my support, and unfortunately it is not the branch of government designed to do exactly that.

Why Do I Trust?

We see a lot of values in schools now. This will always be high on my personal list. It is so powerful and can be an absolute game-changer in so many ways. I’ve already written a blog on how to build trust as a leader, but this will dig a little deeper into why it is so important. 

When we are young, we trust everything. It’s born in us, it is innate. As a toddler you don’t question whether what you’re being told is true, you accept it. Many times my children have asked me all sorts of complicated questions, and when I’ve given the best answer I can they just give a nod and move on. They don’t try to see the holes in what I’ve said, they accept it. When they are high up in a tree and stuck, they ask for help. When I put my arms out for them to fall into there is absolutely no question in their mind that I am going to catch them – they have definitive blind trust in me.

As an adult, we don’t have this blind sense of trust. Things happen that can chip away at it. These might just be small things, or they might be huge, but each one of them can chip away a little more wearing it down until it is gone and we find it hard to rely on anyone or trust what they say or do. However, sometimes it can be lost in an instant. Brand loyalty can be swept away with one bad press story. A bad meal at a restaurant and you may never return. Something that is so precious and means so much can be lost in an instant. 

That’s why it is so important we do all we can to cultivate an atmosphere of trust within our schools. I am a trusting person. You don;t need to earn my trust – you have it straight away. My first instinct is to give someone my trust and assume they are worthy of it, not to doubt them and have them prove themselves. This is the same for the way we run our school. My first reaction is to assume that a teacher is doing their job properly. I trust them to be working hard for the kids and doing the right thing by them. I trust them to be planning a series of lessons that follow on from each other, I trust they are marking their books. This doesn’t mean there is no accountability though, it doesn’t mean there aren’t high standards, far from it. It just means that I won’t be on someone like a ton of bricks right from day one, checking they are doing everything to the letter of our policies. We set out as staff our own definition of good teaching and what learning might look like. It’s broad, it doesn;t specify a right and wrong way of doing things, it just outlines principles to work to. How teachers fulfil those is up to them – I trust them to do it in the best way they can. It’s the same with our feedback policy. Pick the way that works best for that child, or for that lesson and do it. I trust you’ll make a good choice. 

I monitor, of course, I do, but not from a position of having to check everything at once. I am visible, I walk in and out of lessons and I know what is happening in the school. I have a chat with the children, I’ll have a flick through their books while I’m in (if they’ve got them out). I will assume that everything is going well, and these little five minute visits confirm this. If I see something that causes me concern then I will dig deeper and check that my trust is still well placed. Usually, it is. This level of trust gives teachers the freedom to get on with their job and focus on that rather than having to jump through hoops to try and guess what it is I want to see. They are professionals and I trust their judgement.  This builds a reciprocal trust. I trust them to do their job, they trust me to do mine. We help each other and we support each other with this as a team. I’m not a micro-manager. I’m not going to dictate what colour display’s have to be, or how many stars and wish they might want to use or insist on seeing planning every day or week, or look at books in a formal collection every half term. All of those things scream lack of trust. They just say “I don’t trust you to do these things unless I am checking up on you all the time.”. Trusting people does not lead to apathy, quite the opposite. Trusting people means they do things for the right reasons, rather than through fear of being caught out if they don’t do them. 

It can go further than this though. Assume that people will do a good job. Trust people with responsibility and watch them go. Of course, they may need support, but more often than not, people rise to the challenge rather than shrinking away. Very few people want to do a bad job or deliberately set out to be lazy. If you ask someone to prepare and deliver staff meeting training on their subject – trust them to do it well. Offer to help, offer to review, offer to support but give them the trust. I have been subject to an overbearing leader who asked me to deliver something, but then rewrote every draft I submitted and checked in daily on the content. It wasn’t because the content was bad – just the need of that leader to control. One head I worked for used to re-write everyone’s reports if she didn’t agree with them. As a teacher it made me feel like there was no point in working at it, the leader in question was just going to change it to what they wanted to put anyway. My thought process was ”Why don’t they just do it themselves then?”. It was a fake trust. Have this responsibility, but I don’t actually want to give this over to you. It didn’t lead to productive or enthusiastic use of my time, it just led to frustration. Why would you want frustrated teachers in an environment? I have very rarely been let down by people I have trusted with responsibility in school – in fact, people have shown themselves to do an even better job tan might have been expected. 

How we interact with each other and how we trust each other, just breeds a stronger sense of trust in the school. Once you have that, new people coming in instantly get on board – it becomes thy way things are done. It models trust for the children in our care, and that can be no bad thing. 

We need to hang on to that child like trust just a little bit longer. You don’t have to make people earn your trust – it is yours to give away as you chose. Seeing the good in people rarely brings out the worst in them. Being trusted gives a sense of wellbeing, it makes you feel good, it makes you walk taller and it brings out the best in people. Why wouldn’t you give people that?

Why Do I Rest?

This one is all about why I feel the need to strike the right work life balance. I am no good to anyone if I’m burned out, exhausted and stressed out. I’m ratty, shorter with people and my family end up bearing the brunt of it. This is the one I particularly feel guilty about. The don’t see me all day, and then when I do get home I’m very grumpy and generally not very responsive.

If I don’t get the balance right, then this just gets worse and worse and worse. So I have to make sure that I take the right amount of rest. This is easier at some times of year than the others. Firstly, I have to accept that there will be busier times and times where the amount of work that I have to do, and the amount of time I have to spend in school is out of my control. Fortunately, there is usually a pattern to them, and I can plan and prepare myself for them. I can warn my family too. The other flip side of this is that I can make sure I’ve been sensible in the run up to them.

Over the years I’ve had to develop a sense of leaving things be and working out when I’ve given enough time to something. I make sure I am home to have dinner with my kids every day as much as possible. I try to leave by 1730 each day. I make no excuses for that, and I said it would be happening at my interview. Of course, things come up and it doesn’t always happen, but giving myself that cut off really helps my work life balance. I may carry on after the kids are in bed, but I may not. What it does do though, is show my priorities to my staff. I always say that family comes first, and I have to show that myself as well. Sometimes I don’t achieve it. My wife always tells me that when I don’t come to events like class assemblies for our kids. She says “Would you let of your staff go?”. The answer is yes, I would. She rightly asks me why I don’t afford myself that same right. That balance of rest and work is absolutely vital.

I always work on the things I have to do first. And I mean absolutely have to do. The things that are urgent for the next day. Once I’ve done those, I then look and see what capacity I have for other things. If this is none, then so be it. You have to know when to stop for the day, otherwise you’d be working all hours. There are always things you have to do, more you should do and countless things you could do. Working out what needs doing and making your plans accordingly is vital for your own piece of mind.

Delegating is also key. It’s easy to get into the frame of mind of you want a job doing properly… but that is dangerous. You can’t do everything. That’s why you have a team, to help share the load. No one thinks worse of you for using the team you’ve built. Giving more responsibility to others can only help them grow too – just make sure they’ve got all the tools to do the job properly.

Downtime, for me, is key. The thinking doesn’t always stop, but the screen time and the writing does. It lets ideas mature and find their own way to conclusion a lot of the time, without the pressure of having a blank screen or a form to fill in. I play computer games, I play my guitar and I get away from work. It means I come to things the next day fresh and ready. That’s good for me, and good for the rest of my team as well. Often headteachers are the last three be asked about their well-being and can out everyone else’s before their own. We have to look after ourselves and make sure we are having the time to refresh ourselves – even if this is just overnight. The day yo day is so intense, the decisions, the knocks at the door, the responsibility that you can be drained at the end of the day, so the rest each evening is vital.

Why do I rest? Because if I didn’t, everyone suffers in one way or another.

Why Do I Lead?

So, following on from the first in the series about why I teach, now we move onto why I lead.

My journey into leadership was quick, I was a head at 31. I’m not going to get into the in ands out of whether people should be in headship roles at that age – it has its advantages and disadvantages, and for me in my context, I felt it was the right step to take. I was interested in school leadership right from my second year of teaching. I had just been made Maths leader and it was around the time the new national strategies needed implenting. We also had an Ofsted inspection and the data was in a bit of a state during day one. I’d been playing around with average point scores, which the current head hadn’t really looked at. As a result I spent my PPA time that afternoon working through the Year 6 targets and expected APS with the dep head and then presetning it to the inspector to show we would hit the APS for next year. We secured a satisfactory judgement, and I like to think I had a little part in that. From then on, I was just nosy about how things worked in school. That fuelled my journey to headship – I simply wanted to know what was going on and why. That desire to know meant I asked questions, which meant I found at things I wouldn’t otherwise have. The more I found out the more I wanted to know, and the more I wanted my say on what I was finding out!

So why do I lead? There are a few reasons. Firstly, as with many heads I saw ways of working that I didn’t want to emulate. I have worked in schools where the key word has been relentless. It didn’t make for a great working atmosphere and had a high turnover of staff. Work life balance was non-existent, and I knew that was something I would try not to do if I became a head. Another head made no bones about who she rated and who she didn’t. If she didn’t think you were up to much, she made sure everyone knew. Again, not a great working atmosphere. I think I lead because I want to try and be the head I wish I had when I was a teacher. Calm, but still maintaining high expectations. Making it about professional judgements and trying my best not to blur those into personal ones. Trusting people to do their jobs properly.

The other reason I lead is to make a difference. In the teaching part of this series I mentioned the same thing. Leadership is making a difference in a different way though. Leadership is about making sure that other people have all they need to be able to make a difference too. When I was a class teacher I had a direct impact on the children in my class, as a leader I can have an impact on more children by helping to create an environment where the teachers can make the biggest difference.

This is the crux of leadership for me and why I do it. It would be (relatively) easy for me to get all my files and folders in a line in my office, and make sure I could answer all the questions I might be asked in the right way. However, that would just be me looking after myself and making sure I was OK. That’s not what leadership is about. Leadership isn’t telling people where to go and then walking in front of them directing. Leadership is about working towards a goal together. If I have everything OK in my head, but teachers are struggling, not enjoying their work, or not having them impact they could be then I have to look at myself. Am I doing everything I can to help them do that? Leadership isn’t about putting yourself first, it’s about putting yourself last a lot of the time.

I also like the problem solving part of the job. For all the frustration the guidance arounf re-opening brings part of me likes to get hold of it and work through it seeing what we can and can’t do, ticking off things as we’ve managed to solve that particular problem.

Of course, leadership is frustrating too. You can’t always have the impact you want, but again that is a time for self reflection – why didn’t it go how I wanted? Getting feedback from others is so helpful, that’s why a good deputy, and some other trusted collegues can make all the difference. It can be a lonely job and there is a lot on your shoulders that no-one else can bear sometimes. It’s not always that way though. I have no problem being transparent with staff and parents aout why and how I have made a decision. Getting that input from other people makes all the difference in feeling like you are not on your own.

So, why do I lead? I lead so I can reflect on my own decisions and I lead to make a difference. I lead because I get to help people, hopefully, become better teachers and help them to make more of a difference.

Why Do I Teach?

Why do I teach? I’ve never actually asked myself that question. That’s because teaching had been what I wanted to do since I was 11. I’d never really questioned the why of it because it just seemed to be a natural progression for me, decided in my head early on. It wasn’t due to one particular teacher (although I had some great ones), it wasn’t that it was in the family (my mum started teaching after I’d decided I wanted to do it) and at 11 it wasn’t from a sense of wanting to do good for others. The path I wanted to take changed – initially I wanted to be a secondary Maths teacher. I was merrily going along my way until I got to A Level Maths beyond me completely. By then I’d already decided I wanted to go into primary, so it wasn’t the end of the world. Through my A levels all I wanted was to get the grades I needed into my teacher training course. That was a bit of a theme of my time in secondary education – just doing enough to get through to the next bit. It didn’t serve me overly well, and it continued in some ways into my degree. I always loved the teaching and hated the reading and the paperwork. I’m still very similar now. Anyway, at the grand old age of 21 I qualified and got my first job. As I’ve gone through my career though I’ve been thinking more about why it is that I do what I do and why I love it so much. There’s been far too much negativity about teachers in the press so recently. Very few see it as just a job and maybe give more than they should to it, to the detriment of their own families sometimes.

So why do I teach?

I get to make a difference

The thing I love about primary is that you are there at the start. Everything we teach them are the building blocks of everything they will do from then on. If we don’t do our jobs, then others can’t do theirs. We give them the basic skills they need to take on the world in their later life. If we don’t teach them to add up, to read, to love what they do then they can’t build on it. What an amazing thing to say you’ve had a hand in. We help them with the key knowledge they need, and there aren’t many jobs where you can say you’ve had that kind of impact on someone and we get to do it day in and day out.

You get wow moments everyday

Alongside the bigger picture of what we are teaching then we get to see, every day that moment of realisation, that moment where the penny drops, and they understand. The moment where they conquer their fear of something, they widen their understanding or become better in some way. Again, we see this on a daily basis. The little squeals of delight, the little jumps for joy, the swagger you see a child walk back to their desk with when they’ve done a good job. We see them walking that little bit taller, holding their head a little bit higher and know that we have been part of that.

This is a job that is never boring

I can honestly say that no two days of my working life have been the same. I can teach the same lesson twice and it’ll be different. Each class and each lesson are so varied and has the potential to go in so many different directions. That’s not scary, it’s exciting. The best lessons are often the ones that didn’t go were you planed then to and you end up on a completely different tangent. Every second of the day has the potential to make you laugh, smile, well up or feel frustrated. I’ve never been bored in a classroom. There’s so much to do, so many conversations to be had and so much fun to be had as well.

There’s always an opportunity to learn

I’m not a big reader of education books. I don’t invest too much time in the craft of teaching and try not to over think things. But learning as a teacher can be so simple. A snatches conversation can have a profound impact on what you do in the next session. Watching what someone else does can improve your own teaching hugely. There are so many subtleties to it, that little tweaks can make big differences. There is always the chance to try something new and see how it goes. If it doesn’t work out – fine, you’ve learned something new either way. CPD can be easy for teachers, and relatively little effort. Watch, learn and try it out.

It’s an awful lot of fun

I have countless tales off things that have happened in the classroom. Things that have gone disastrously wrong. Things children have said that have just made me cry laughing. Snatched looks a TAs that have meant one of us have had to leave the room to compose ourselves. That’s just working with the kids. I’ve come across so many amazing people during my career and been fortunate to learn from them. It’s a profession packed full of generosity, support and care. People are happy to give you their time, share their resources and help you out when you need it.

It’s not all plain sailing

It’s not easy though. In fact, it’s downright difficult. There are moments of exhaustion and times where things feel like they are too much. It’s during those times that I remember all of the above. The lows make the highs stand out. Things aren’t always enjoyable if they are easy. We always say it to the children – the learning pit and all that. We push ourselves to do better, as a profession we are modest and hard on ourselves. But when you look back at the bigger picture you see just why you do it.

I do it for every smile.
For every child that has made progress.
For every belly laugh in a class.
For every arm around the shoulder I’ve given and been given.
For every child who looked at me like I was crazy.
For every time I’ve felt proud of each one of them.
For all the children who I hear are excelling in their secondary school.
For me and my dream as an 11-year-old.
To make a difference.

That is why I teach.

Thriving September

For some, September will feel like it is crashing towards them and with it will come a wave of excitement and nerves. Planning for your first class and first term can be a mix of eagerness and dread – you want the day to come, but perhaps are feeling that imposter syndrome creeping on. Maybe you’re doing this for the second time round and it still feels new or you want it to be differnet this time around. Here are some suggestions for surviving that first or second September.

Setting Up

There are lots of pictures doing the rounds at the moment of classrooms ready for September. They look amazing and wonderful spaces. A few things to remember though – they are a small proportion of classrooms. The vast majority don’t look like that. Most of them look like what you would expect a classroom to look like. Mine never looked that good – but the children were still happy, comfortable and learning. In the same way a school isn’t a building, it’s a community reliant on it’s members and the ethos within it, a classroom is the same. It’s the people in it and the values and community they build that is important. If yours isn’t ready yet, don’t worry. Also these classrooms may be the culmination of years experience, of trying things out and collecting bits and pieces to put up and use. By all means, use these as inspiration but don’t feel you have to create someting the same.

You might not have been able to get into your school yet to set up. Thats not unusual either. Hopefully you’ve got some time where you can go in at the end of the holidays. But what does the set up look like? This year things are different – there isn’t the flexibility for table arrangements and the likes, so that is one less thing to consider. The key to it is getting it neat and tidy and having everything the children might need easily accessible. Need rulers? They should be able to get to them without disturbing anyone else, including you. Same for all the resources. It is there space too, and they should be able to use it as such. Clearly label everything so it’s easy for the children to spot and read and have it in a sensible place.

Display’s can be empty in September. You don’t need to populate them with stuff just because it is bare. Talk to your school – they may have things that insist on you having and then ask if they are any templates for these – that might make it easier. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel (more on this later). Get your backing paper up as a minimum and spend the first week creating something to go up. If you’re using working walls, they can be blank and be waiting to be filled.

Planning and Resourcing

As I have said, don’t reinvent the wheel. Find what has been done before and use this as a starting point. There is nothing wrong with schemes, textbooks and online banks as a resource. If they are exactly what you are looking for – use it. If it needs tweaking, tweak it. If you are gong to create everything from scratch then you’ll be doing much more than you need to. Somethings will need this, others won’t. Again use your common sense and focus your energies where it is needed the most. Talk to people in your school, get last years planning and most importantly, ask for help. This won’t be seen as a sign of weakness, much the opposite. No one knows it all at any point and no one expects you to either. The key bit here – use what is there as a starting point and tweak accordingly.

Planning is a tricky one as everyone has their own style. Some schools want full weekly plans, other are happy for you to work from your own notes. Find out and work to it, but more than anything do it in a way that works for you. If you need a full script for every lesson for the first few weeks – fine! If you are happy to plan by using the bones of a lesson and working round it – fine again! The important part is being clear about what you want the children to learn and trying to find the best way of getting that across. Sometimes that’ll be getting up and talking. Sometimes it won’t. Sometimes they’ll lead it, sometimes they won’t. There is no right or wrong way to deliver a lesson – your a professional, use your judgement. If it goes wrong – learn from it for next time.

Day One

Beaming faces eagerly await you on the playground! There is bound to be nerves on both sides. That’s good – it means you care. The most important thing is building relationships. Teachers who can build good relationships will get far better outcomes than those that can’t. Have in your head what their routine will be when they come in and explain this to them beforehand on the playgrond if you can. Be explicit. We’re going to walk in quietly, hang our bags up and then come into the classroom. Find your table and sit down, then have a look at the board – there is a little puzzle for yuo to have a go at while we get settled in. This isn’t strict, this isn’t harsh – it’s setting out your expectations in a calm matter of fact way. As they come in, position yourself in the middle of the line and give a few positive reinforcement comments to those who are doing exactly what has been asked of them.

Forget the don’t smile until Christmas rubbish. You’re human, let them see it. That doesn’t mean you can’t have boundaries and high expectations. Kindess and high standards are not mutually exclusive. Have in your head what you want their behaviour to be like. Are they allowed to whisper to the person next to them? Can they get up and get something without asking? Do they need to put their hand up everytime? Can they approach you or should they wait for you to come to them? Read your school’s behaviour policy and clarify it once again for the children. Let them explain it to you – “I’m new here, I know a bit about this, but can you explain it for me in more detail?”. If it is a rainbow type system discuss what might have you moving through it and hey presto you’ve got you’re class charter of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, all led by the children.Try to keep it simple though – I only had two rules – try you’re best and don’t stop others learning. The most important thing is to be consistent in your expectations. Set your boundaries and what happens if people set outside of those – each school will have their own version of any consequences for behaviour – but always remember to focus on the positives. Consistency is key. You often get back what you give them, so model what you want back from them – kindess, honesty and warmth.

Spend time getting to know them. Set an activity where you can have a chat with them and find out about them – what they like and don’t like. Trust them and rely on them, make it a team environment where you are there to help each other. Ask them to help you out, reveal bits of yourself. What do you like? What are your hobbies? Find some common ground with them.

You don’t need to worry about getting into English and Maths on day one at all – just build those relationships and set those expectations.

At the end of the day, reflect on what you’ve acheived and what you might ned to change on what you’ve planned for tomorrow. Find a collegue and have a cuppa – you’ve earned it.

It Won’t Be Right All The Time

Teaching has its ups and downs. Some lessons are amazing some are awful and most are somewhere in the middle. That’s ok. In the middle lessons are fine and give the children consistent good teaching. If you have one that goes brilliantly – have a reflect on why. If you try the same thing again and it doesn’t go so well, don’t worry about it. There are so many variables on a given day that the same thing won’t work every time. If it did, we’d all do it! Similarly, if you have a nightmare lesson apply the same approach – have a think about what went wrong, but don’t dwell on it. It doesn’t make you a bad teacher. You will get it wrong – things will be pitched wrong, activities won’t take as long as you thought, they just won’t engage like you thought they would. It happens everyday to experienced and new teachers alike. If you get really worried – talk to someone. That’s what your mentor is for. They expect there to be bumps in the road and they are there to help you through them, so use them!

Manage Your Time

There is the inclination to show yourself to be worthy of your role, to work every hour and prove you are a proper teacher now who does everything for the children in your class. This is a sure fire way to burn out by half term and find your self struggling for the second half of the term. Pace yourself, Autumn in particular is a long old term. Prioritise and thing about what has to be done each night. Get those things done first and then see what you have capacity to do after that. You’re no good to anyone if you are tired and grumpy all the time! No one will think badly of you if you aren’t the first one in and the last one out. Focus on the things that make the mists difference for the children – feedback and planning the next lesson. Get those right and other things will follow. Find a groove and a routine. Do you break for a cup of tea at 330 after the kids have gone or do prefer just to crack on. Everyone will work differently, so find what works, and is manageable for you.

Workload will always be a big one – but look after yourself. Sometimes you have to think what is the worst that will happen if I don’t get this done tonight? I’ve been honest with the kids before and said “I’m sorry I didn’t get your books marked last night, I had a meeting after school and then I had something planned in the evening – I’ll have a look at them tonight, I can’t wait to see what you’ve done”. That’s ok. You’re not infallible or invincible and you don’t need to pretend you are.

You have your NQT time – use it. Go and see other teachers, other settings even. This is invaluable as it is easy to get caught up in your little class bubble. After you’ve seen someone else, have a chat with them about it – they wont mind! pick their brain about why and how they did things that way. After that – pick one small thing to try in the next week. If it works, amazing, if it doesn’t don’t get disheartened! Sometimes things take a few tries to get working properly.

Ask for help

As I’ve said – use the expertise around you. If your struggling with a topic, go to the subject leader. If you’re feeling wobbly talk about it with someone. Don’t struggle. It’s better to get help at the beginning before it becomes something massive. No one will think you are weak – they’ll just want to help. No one expects you to know everything at all, don’t feel like you have to. There aren’t stupid questions – just ask away.

When the honeymoon period ends

It will happen. Two or three weeks in, everything will be going well and then the kids start to push back and their behaviour might seem to worsen. It isn’t you. Stick to your values and stick to being consistent in your high expectations and they’ll come back around. It happens every year to every teacher!

Set your pace now

Work in September at a pace and level that will be manageable all year. There will always be busier times and quieter times so work at a pace that means you can deal with those. At busy time set work that needs less marking or feedback doing or work that can be assessed in the lesson. Work smarter not harder as much as possible. As I’ve said find your routine and rhythm of what works for you.

Enjoy it!

It’s amazing. The joy of your own class is like nothing else. You’ll not forget them so enjoy the journey together. Focus on the relationships, work hard for them but not to the detriment t if your own well-being. Accept there will be good and bad times and most importantly – you’re best is enough. You can’t give more than that.

Catch Up, Not Patch Up

So much out there about catch up at the moment, and rightly so. Some children have missed everything, some have missed a lot and some have missed most of what they should have covered over the second half of this year. We’ve been asked to prioritise catch up in Reading and Maths and Phonics and we should. These are key skills that we need to get right. However, it also says in the guidance it should be done through other curriculum activities. It says that the vast majority of pupils should access the full curriculum.

So what to do about it? Well, we are not narrowing our curriculum. We get out positive outcomes by giving children the chance to apply their learning in other subjects, not by teaching more of it. When teaching Year 6 I never did extra Maths and English sessions for SATs and I won’t be telling teachers to do so in their year groups to help kids catch up. My view is, that for the majority of children, there isn’t a huge rush. The older they are at Primary, the less time you have, but Year 3s have four years to make up the lost time before they leave the school, not four weeks when you get back. Give them space to use their knowledge – this is where they really learn. They’ll learn more from this than in a extra technical SPAG lesson in an afternoon, and you’ll be able to feedback the same points to help them improve.

A rush to just pick up where children left off is flawed, in my opinion. Well stay where we always start – the basics in the core subjects – eg place value and four operations. If there’s gaps, we’ll plug it, if they need extra teaching on it we’ll do it. Same in English. We won’t be teaching objectives in the first 6 weeks just because they haven’t covered them. all this will led to is patch up learning, not catch up. Teachers will inevitably race through the old objectives as they know they’ve got this years to fit in as well. In turn we end up with superficial learning where they haven’t really learned it as it’s been raced through. After that, when you come back to build on it with the objectives for this year, you’re building on quicksand.

Our approach will be different. We won’t be catching up in the first month. We’ll be assessing and identifying. Most children will catch up just fine with the classroom offering you are giving them. They’ll take on board new content and get to where they need to by the end of the year. Some won’t. Those fall into two camps – those that need a group boost once a week for a short session just to go over something they haven’t quite got, and those that need more intensive, prolonged support. The last group is where our catch up money goes.

We won’t be racing through objectives. We’ll be waiting until they come round in our normal curriculum, and at that point we’ll teach the extra content. Doing speech punctuation? That’s the time to drop back to the objectives missed from last year and catch them up, and keep the learning together and ordered. You might be able to get through more in a similar time frame – but if you just front load the old stuff to September, you definitely won’t.

The key to this catch up is about embedding the new content – the same as we always do. We just might need to take a few steps back when we start off. We might not. That’s for you’re assessment to figure out. My view is teach it, and teach it well. Make sure they know it, and they’ve truly caught up not just been given a sticking plaster to say you’ve ticked off the objective from last year. This catch up has got to stand up to their learning for the rest of their education – do it once and do it right. There is no need to rush it – take the time to get it right, make sure they’re moving forward and can build on it next year and every year onwards. Proper catch up, not just patched up.

I’ve even given it a name. School.

Teaching Year 6? Congratulations!

For me, Year 6 is the best year to teach in Key Stage 2. I taught for 6 very happy years in Year 6, across 2 schools. I loved every minute of it, and I think it is a unique experience when it comes to teaching at primary. Can you always but your finger on why? No, but there is just something about it that makes it special, exciting and that little bit different. I was recently asked for tips of teaching in Year 6, so here we go. 

Fundamentally, it is no different

Good teaching is good teaching. For the vast majority of the year and for the vast majority of the subjects what you need to do is no different to what you would do in another year group. Find out what they need to know, find out what they do know and plan the best way to help them acquire that knowledge. Assess whether they’ve got it and move them forward accordingly. There is no special Year 6 formula that makes them learn more, or less, or differently. Stick to what you’ve done that has been good classroom practice before and you won’t go far wrong. 

Relationships are still key

Any effective teacher will be able to build relationships with those in their class. I’ve said before, and stand by, that a teacher with perfect practice and no relationships will get poorer outcomes than a weaker teacher who can really get to know those children and make them feel valued in that class. In a setting such as Year 6, of course there can be pressure on outcomes (more on that later) and good relationships will help you out much more as you get closer to the first half of the summer term. They are going through a lot of changes in Year 6, and it can lurch from one anxiety point to another. I work in a selective county and they go from 11+ test, to results, to applying for schools, to finding out schools, to SATs to transition. Chuck in hormones kicking in as well and it can be a really up and down year for an individual. It’s a stressful time for them and they need a teacher who understands that and can help them get through it. For some of them, it’ll all be a breeze, for others it will be much tougher. They need a teacher they can talk to, who they trust and who can be honest with them. 

The relationships are different, slightly. They are that bit older, they can understand some of the sarcasm a little more, they give you a little more of that banter back, but when you set up the right atmosphere in your classroom this can add to the joy of it rather than turning into a problem. Mostly, they get the line of when it’s time to work hard and when they can enjoy a bit of back and forth with you. It’s a lot of fun. Their increasing maturity means they think deeper, they respond in different ways to questions and conversations can take unexpected and deep turns. This is true in a lot of year groups, but I found it more prevalent in Year 6 and was a reason I enjoyed it so much. 

They are still children though

Sometimes we expect way too much from our older children. They are the biggest, the most mature, they take on the roles and responsibilities like prefects and buddies and we trust them with tasks we might not in the younger years. However, the fact that they are still just ten and eleven-year-old children is always driven home to me on two occasions during the year. First, residential. When they unpack and the toughest kids, or the ones that seem mature beyond their years dig out their teddy and give it pride of place on their bed once they’ve made it. Secondly at the end of their leavers show. Often they look at the clock at the end of it and turn and say something like “Wow, its half past eight, it’s so late!”. They are still small, thy are still just kids with kid’s emotions. They aren’t scary and big. They’ll have tantrums, they’ll act strangely. We can’t expect them to act like mini adults just because they are the oldest, because they won’t, they can’t. Accept and embrace the childlike qualities in them – it won’t be long before they are entering a teenage world when they may feel like they can’t act like that anymore. Give them one last chance to be a child. 

You alone aren’t responsible for their outcomes

This is an important wellbeing one. The outcomes of Year 6 are a collective effort, not a solo performance by you. The results are the product of their time at the school, not their time in your class. Fortunately, the days of Year 6 teachers being the stars who can make magnificent progress with them and can take them from WTS to GDS in three months seem to be fading. It’s too much for one person. You can’t move mountains with every child. Yes, it may happen – they often to make good progress in Year 6, but you can only do what you can do. The weight of the school isn’t on your shoulders. If they come to you having had 6 years of poor teaching previously, you aren’t going to be able to turn that around by yourself. Accept that and be OK with it. If you’re in an atmosphere where that is put on you, maybe look to get out. It’s isn’t helpful and can make a stressful time even worse. 

You make the memories they take with them

This is why I love Year 6. When they look back at primary school, they often cite their leaving celebrations and residentials as some of their best times. You get to be part of that, and you get to share in their excitement and fun as well. There are milestones in Year 6 they don’t get in other year groups and you celebrate them with them. Amazing. 

It’s not all about the SATs

In my time teaching Year 6 I never taught an extra Maths or English lesson in a week. We did the daily sessions and that was it. Even in the run up to SATs. They need a varied curriculum. Why should they be denied it because they have exams coming up? They love finding out about foundation topics just as much as any other year group. They still need to be creative and express themselves, don’t take that away from them! I know the pressure can be tough, but there is fine line getting them there and pushing them so hard they go past the point of caring. Some of my favourite lessons have been exploring Science or World War II with Year 6. They are entitled to a full primary experience. Give it to them and reap the rewards. They can practice their skills, transfer their knowledge and learn more about how to learn. This will prepare them much better for the next stage of their education than drilling them for tests. Preparing them to move on is a huge part of what you do in Year 6 – they need to leave feeling confident and prepared. GDS across the board won’t be what does that. Prepare them to be good people, confident in what is special about them, not in their ability to pass a test. 

But we can’t ignore them

I fronted up with my Year 6’s early on. Yes, we’ve got to do them, yes they might be a pain, but together we’re going to make it as painless and stress free as we can. I played the together card strongly – it’s not just them. They’re taking the test, and I expected them to work hard, but it was up to me to get them ready for it. I went through a very specific timeframe to get them ready. I always likened it to the Olympics. An athlete has four years to peak at just the right time. It’s the same for those kids. Go to early and they’ve gone past the point of being ready and they are fed up and resent doing them, go to late and they aren’t quite ready. As I have said, I never taught extra English or Maths sessions, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t do anything. After Feb half term we gave them CGP books and asked them to do a double page a week, to start going over some topics. Nothing huge, it took about 15 minutes a week for them to do it. No pressure, that was all. We carried on teaching lessons as normal up until Easter. Post Easter, we went into revision mode. We’d finished the curriculum and they had normally 3-4 weeks. Still no extra whole class lessons – some TA support in the afternoons for those who needed a push, but nothing more than 20 minutes in one session and no more than twice a week. In the time between Easter and sitting the SATs we revised hard. Each couple of days was based around a topic and we went through things. Some we spent a day on, some longer. We supported it with Testbase packs based around the topic we were doing. They worked collaboratively though them, we played them as competitive games in teams, they spotted errors in completed tasks, and then we changed up topics. They didn’t need huge amounts of revision – the homework and good solid teaching helped them be ready. When we got one week out they had one final call for things they wanted to cover, and we went over those. I always used to give them a KS3 level 4-6 paper too. It was an amazing confidence boost for almost all of them! 

I found this got them ready, they knew what to expect, they’d seen the types of questions that would come up, they knew the process, but we hadn’t been drilling since November as I have seen some schools do. I always found they handled it amazingly well and I think it is because as a school and Year 6 team we didn’t overwork them. We didn’t make it bigger than it needed to be. They don’t need to know the school’s reputation hangs on their SATs results. Why would they? We made it very clear they just had to be able to go in on that morning and try their best. I could never ask any more of them than that. I told them, I’d be proud of their efforts, not their results. 

The last half term is not winding down. But it’s amazing. 

So much to fit in, tiring, but great. Leaver’s plays, leavers assemblies, residentials all the best weeks of the year. It’s a time to relax and enjoy they time they have left. They still need structure and they still need to learn, but I always felt a different dynamic about that period. There is time to get into transition properly to prepare them, to get into their worries and really unpack it with them. There is time to enjoy spending time with them and preparing them to move on. Of course, the last day is sad, they cry, and they say they don’t want to go. But they are ready – and that’s down the work you’ve done over the year. 

If I could teach a year group again I would choose Year 6 every time. Don’t be scared of them, embrace it for the opportunities and good times it offers. It’s a special time for them and to be part of it with them is a privilege. 

Home Learning Survey

Over the last few days I ran a short survey on how home learning had been working out for teachers and what had been provided. Here are the results:

Have you provided work for your students during partial closure? (2895 votes)

Yes – 99% No – 1%

Have you provided ‘live teaching’ during lockdown? (2888 votes)

Yes – 12% No – 88%

If not, why not (main reason)? (2496 votes)

Lack of tech at child’s home – 38%

Safeguarding concerns – 38%

Not suitable for age group – 21%

Lack of tech at teacher home – 3%

What has been your average return rate of work been during lockdown? (2769 votes)

100 – 75% – 10%

75 – 50% – 30%

25 – 50% – 38%

0 – 25% – 22%

What has been the biggest barrier to returning of work? (I realise this may be hard to generalise) (2569 votes)

Lack of tech at home – 19%

Availability of support – 20%

Lack of willingness – 38%

Both parents working from home – 23%

How effective do you think your provision has been? (2764 votes)

Very effective – 18%

Somewhat effective – 71%

Somewhat ineffective – 10%

Very ineffective – 1%

How much feedback have you given? (2658 votes)

Detailed daily – 21%

Generalised daily – 29%

Generalised weekly – 16%

Work acknowledged – 34%

How effective do you think your feedback has been? (2628 votes)

Very effective – 5%

Somewhat effective – 56%

Somewhat ineffective – 28%

Very ineffective – 11%

Do you think what you have offered has been the best you could have given the circumstances? (2772 votes)

Yes – 91%

No – 9%

No idea what any of that means, but it was interesting all the same!

I’m Tired

Maybe it’s Friday talking, but today I’ve had enough.

School opening gone well, kids happy, staff happy and the problem solving aspect of organising everything was, whisper it, an enjoyable logistical challenge. I should be pleased with our team effort, and reflecting that our carefully thought through plans have stood up to the scrutiny of 60 children. And I am, in a way. It’s just hard to focus on that right now.

I was pleased to hear schools weren’t reopening further, it just wasn’t practical in any way with the current guidelines. Until the capacity issue reared it’s head. Instead of clarity we now have vague, blurred lines that will be different for every school. Rather than being giving clarity, we received uncertainty once again. Now I’ve got parents falling over themselves to try and get their child back into school. They aren’t eligible, but they just thought they’d ask. They’re offering to make cleaning committees, rotas, pay for hiring other spaces, put up gazebos anything to get us open. They don’t know the half of it. If only space was the problem. Now we are under pressure to open further. Not just from parents but from well meaning governors too.

Of course I want to see more children in, but I can’t see a way to do it. Then we get onto provision for the other year groups. It’s worse than it was before as the teachers are teaching. That’s not fair on them. Now we’re trying to work how we can improve that teach the other groups at the same time, it’s not a straightforward task. Can we use more tech? Can we audio stream what’s happening in school. Engagement has dropped hugely. What we are offering isn’t working, so we need to find something different. Endless emails and discussions over how to do it. No real ways forward.

Then we start talking about September and what that might look like and start planning for that. And what we might do in a second wave if we lock down again. Will we provide something different to before? We probably should now we know how it all might work. More planning, more meetings, more guidance.

Life as a head is relentless at the best of times, but it’s another level at the moment. It’s coming from every angle, and we aren’t getting support from the organisation there to lead us – the DFE response has been poor – muddled, woolly and generally unhelpful. Tonight I’m just tired of it all.

I’m tired of solving one problem to be faced with another that solving it has created.

I’m tired of having to put my own spin on everything and deciding my own interpretation.

I’m tired of feeling like the blind leading the blind.

I’m tired of thinking about it all.

I’m tired.

But Monday is another day. It’ll come quickly, and it’ll bring more problems. Hopefully it’ll bring some answers too. Until then I’ll wait for the next piece of guidance.

Day One – A Head’s Eye View

So today we welcomed back around 50 of our children to school. Year R, 1 and 6, plus a handful of other key workers from other year groups. Guess what? It was great. Here is a little blow by blow account of the day:

7:30am – onsite to open up. Windows, doors and everything that could be flung open, flung open. Finished putting up the last little bit if signage that I didn’t get done last week.

8:00am – More staff starting to arrive. It was brilliant to see people again. We haven’t had more than three on site at a time for ten weeks to it was lovely to see faces again, albeit from doorways and across halls.

8:15am – First child arrives. A little early, but mum said he was so excited he wouldn’t wait any longer at home. How amazing is that?

8:30am – Staggered start begins. I was anticipating a rush, and quite a long queue, but all very civilised, arriving at well spaced intervals. Smiles from every single person as they came down the path, parents and children. A quick squirt of hand sanitiser and they were in. Parents appreciative, kids happy. Kids skipped into class.

9:00am – Walk round for socially distanced check-in with each class. Everyone settled, already getting on with tasks and taking it all in their stride. Tidied some stuff away to the stores.

10:00am – Stupidly began the DfE form. Nightmare. Found the wording ambigous, and it probably won’t match our attendance register. Ho hum.

10:30 – Caught up with office staff about somethings we need to chase regarding refunds for cancelled trips etc.

11:00am – Lunch arrived, sorted into class groups and delivered. Great buzz around the school. Their working at desks that are separated, sure, but they are happy and their learning.

12:00pm – Started and hour and half of lunch duty. Kids played beautifully and did their best to distance from each other, even down to Year R. Amazing to her them laughing and joking again.

1:30pm – recorded audiobook chapters for those chidlren still not atending.

2:30pm – staggered collection begins and miraculously goes as smoothly as the pick up. Kids exhausted. Not just tired – absolutely knackered.

3:15pm – Staff debrief on day one. All happy, routines and plans had worked. Do it all again tomorrow.

So, all in all, a really successful day. It reminded me why we do what we do. It’s easy to get hung up on planning, paperwork, targets, assessment but today was just about the joy on the faces of those children who returned to school. They were so happy to be back. The messages of support from parents were appreciated, but their smiles made my day. They couldn’t wait to be back. That’s why we do it. That’s why we put up with the crap we do. The road will get bumpier, and there will be things we needed to change. I know the novelty will wear off and the kids will push it, but for now it felt like being a teacher again.

I know we’ve been working throughout, but nothing is like the magic of a classroom and helping kids learn. Home school has got nothing on classrooms. I thought I’d got used to the idea of working at home, and that I might enjoy it and make it part of the new normal. After today’s reminders – not a chance. School is where we belong, it’s where the kids belong and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Leadership in Lockdown

So, the confirmation that the government intend for schools to re-open to more pupils on Monday seemed like an apt time to write this blog. I’ve been reflecting a lot recently about life during lockdown, and how so many of things I have done have been completely alien. The old saying ‘you couldn’t make it up…’ has never been more uttered. Everything about education and what it is supposed to be about has been turned onto its head in the last two weeks, and indeed since lockdown began. But then I started thinking back, to everything we’ve been through and everything we’ve done over the last 3 months, and I’m not sure it has. 

It seems like an absolute age ago that everything started. I remember speaking on the phone to a governor about how we were just two weeks behind Italy. If I’m completely honest, I don’t recall much of early March. It seems to be a bit of blur, but I do remember starting planning what our provision would look like. This reflection is what got me thinking about how, actually, education hadn’t been turned on its head after all. Although crazily busy and hectic the main thing we were considering was how to provide an effective education for the children that attend our school. That’s what we do every day. Sure, it would look different, but the key question was about how we could get the best learning out of the resources we had available to us. That is exactly what we have all been trained to do. That’s why we teach. The circumstances were different, but the priorities were the same. Remembering that helped us set up our provision. Don’t look at what others are doing – do what works for us and our pupils.

It’s amazing how quickly we fall into a routine. Working from home became a new normal, and I have to say I have enjoyed it. Seeing family more often was great. I’ll be honest – there was a lull section in the middle weeks where my workload was not so intense, and my hours were considerably less. I blogged about returning to normal (https://secretheadteacher.org/2020/04/11/we-must-not-go-back-to-normal/) and I think we need to make sure we make time for ourselves during all of this, and when it is finished. Many of us have enjoyed time with family, why should we give that up?

Community was a really important part of what I tried to do as well. People say my school has a great community feel, and they put it down to the fact we are a small village school. First of all, we aren’t that small – we are 170ish. Secondly, our catchment means that we aren’t built into a village where everyone knows everyone else. Community in a school is not where you are – it’s what you make it. It needs building through trusting relationships, through respecting and valuing everyone within your community and being humble enough to admit your faults. You can get a close community feel in a big school and be devoid of one in a tiny one. Community is built around your shared values, not the number of people you have in the space. To build that I have done daily videos for the children, read them audiobooks every day and kept achievement assembly going with our usual Mathletics and TTRS certificates. We’ve had challenges, games to play, looked at values played around with teddies. It’s been great. More than that, though, it’s kept us together. The teachers have been checking in with kids. It would be so easy to feel lost and cut off from a school at this time, it was important to us that we kept our community together. We’ll carry all that on when we re-open too. It will be so easy for the school to split in two now. We have to make sure that doesn’t happen. 

Communication has also been key. I’ve noticed a real shift in my communications with parents. The purpose of them has shifted. Usually we are imparting information or decisions and the letters we send can be a little soulless, or just factual. The necessity of the situation has meant that as well as pastorally supporting the children, our parents have needed it more than ever as well. We made the decision early one that we wouldn’t be chasing for work to be completed. All of my early letters were reassuring parent’s that they were doing a good job, that whatever they could do would help their child – and they need not feel guilty. To be honest, I felt strange giving out this advice. I don’t know their situations, and goodness knows I needed to follow my own advice when it came to home-school. Imposter syndrome was a big one for me there. My parents are largely professionals, high powered execs and the like, who was I to be giving them advice? This was an opportunity to be alongside them more than ever though, and this in turn built the sense of community. Admitting I was struggling too, telling them they weren’t letting their children down, encouraging them to keep their kids safe first before thinking about schoolwork. Despite having a good relationship with the parents at my school, these letters have taken on a much more personal aspect to them, revealing parts of my own personality to them that I otherwise wouldn’t have. That’s a positive shift. Kindness isn’t weakness – it’s strength and showing more of it is no bad thing. 

Re-opening has been by far the most stressful time of the whole experience, and the most time-consuming. The guidance has been hit and miss. Some of it was very useful, some of it poorly timed, some contradictory and some just useless. The updates have caused stress to many. I’m fortunate my initial plan has remained largely unchanged. The weight of making potentially life-saving decisions looms large though. We nearly all set up and my levels of exhaustion are probably higher than they have been at any point during the process, unfortunately at exactly the time we need to kick on and welcome pupils back. We have been put in that position by the muddled messages we have been receiving rom various outlets. Do I feel let down? Yes. Do it once and do it right. I wrote an alternative piece of DfE guidance (https://secretheadteacher.org/2020/05/25/guidance-on-schools-opening-on-1st-june/) and who wouldn’t have wanted to receive such an acknowledgement from the DfE? In the same way I have shown more of myself to the parents via communications, could the DfE have not done something similar? It would have made such a difference. 

I’ve written this before, but we won’t know whether the decisions we have made have been the right ones until all of this is done and dusted. All we can do is make them with the best interests of our community at heart. I said at the beginning that actually, what we have been doing over the last 10 weeks isn’t that different from what we do every day. We have been trying to give them the best education we can, with the resources we have, and we have been trying to keep them safe. Those two things have not changed, and they won’t whether they are at home, ore at school. Whatever you, or your school, has decided has been done for the right reasons, and with those two things in mind. Schools and leaders have been placed in impossible positions and been forced to make impossible decisions, ones they weren’t trained for and ones they didn’t sign up for. However, people have been brave and made them. They’ve wrestled with them, lost sleep over them, changed them, regretted them but ultimately done what they thought was right and no-one can ask any more than that, and no-one should. 

Leadership during lockdown? It’s been tough. I wouldn’t want to go through it again. Despite the difficulties though, it has reaffirmed everything I thought. When people are put at the heart of leadership, when community is central when we accept we don’t know everything and lean into others for help and support – that’s when we are at our best. Partial school closures, lockdown and reopening has not beaten us, it has made us come together and when we boil it down – we haven’t done much different from the usual – we’ve looked out for the people in our care. Every member of a school community wants to put that first – and we’ve done it brilliantly. We’ve now got communities to rebuild. Now we move on to Leadership after lockdown, but I don’t think that needs to look much different – put people at its heart and you can’t go far wrong. 

Guidance On Schools Opening on 1st June

Last updated 25 May 2020

Information for Schools

We are asking schools to re-open their doors and welcome back children in nursery, Year R, 1 and 6 from the 1st June 2020.

Before moving onto practicalities, let us first thank each and everyone of you for all you have done so far. By making provision available for those critical to the COVID-19 response you have eased the burden on parents who have countless other worries at this time. This has been invaluable to the countries efforts to fight this pandemic and here at the DfE and in the wider government we will ensure that moving forwards the profession is valued for the important role it does. This has been highlighted by the countless messages we have received at the DfE praising the dedication and professionalism of staff across the country and in all types of setting. We are sure you have received such messages and suggest you treasure and value them as evidence of the excellent job you have done in this time.

We thank you for your efforts as an educational body as you re-wrote what provision should look like in these unprecedented times and have ensured that, despite ongoing and persistent difficulties with ordering systems, the neediest families in our communities have continued to receive support and provision for school meals. The efforts many of you have gone to achieve this are nothing short of miraculous.

Where guidance can often be based solely on technical aspects we, here at the DfE, wish to commend you on the level of importance you have attached to children’s well-being at this time, with many of you going above and beyond your normal working practices to ensure that children’s safety and mental health is being ensured.

We are fully aware of the level of extra work that new guidance has placed upon you, at every level of school life. The extra work, responsibility and decisions you are having to make are unusual and alien to your job role. You focus on improving children’s and families education and lives – not on how best to save them. Throughout this time we recognise that the guidance has been overlong, changed too often and therefore not helped the planning process you have had to undertake. We realise this has been more of a hinderance than a help and apologise for this. We respect those of you who have taken decisions in the best interest of your school community and will support any decision you have taken to protect the children in your care.

This bank holiday, we would encourage you to take time for yourself. We realise you are still planning for re-opening, but your mental health is important too. You have given everything for this profession and your children over the last three months and we realise that a burned out teacher is not a functional one. We can confirm that no new guidance will be forthcoming for the duration of this half term* and commend you on everything you have done so far to prepare for opening. Take this time to rest and refresh. Your plans will be meticulous already and you will have considered everything you can to keep your staff and pupils safe. Now keep yourself safe and rest. See your families, go outdoors and leave your work alone. We are well aware that things will get busier again once pupils return and plans are made for introducing more pupils. Rest now, so you have energy for later.

This final section of guidance is statutory and must be applied today.

Information for Parents and Carers

Your schools have been incredible during this time. Please heed the following guidance:

Support your school and it’s staff. Show them you value them and encourage and praise them.

If you have an issue with the group your child has been placed in, do not raise this with school unless you are concerned for their safety. The groups have been carefully considered, taking into account a number of factors. They have been done to the benefit of as many children as possible.

Your child school will be doing their best. They will have written comprehensive risk assessments and plans for all eventualities. Some incidents may occur which could not have been foreseen. Appreciate this when bringing them to your schools attention.

Despite all prepared plans, schools are still working with children. If your child did not wash their hands effectively at every juncture during the day, the teacher cannot be held solely responsible for this.

Respect the decision your school makes if they send your child home. They are not doing it to reduce numbers, they are doing it to safeguard everyone in their care.

By following this guidance we hope you can ensure a safe and smooth return to school for everyone involved.

*wish I could guarantee this.

Leading From the Back

Lead by example! Show the way! Be the figurehead!

All very plausible and worthwhile I’m sure but is it always the best way forward? There are times when, as a leader, you need to be front and centre and be making the critical decisions but equally, and maybe more often, front and centre is precisely the place you don’t need to be.

What is the purpose of a leader? It’s not telling people what to do and when, it’s not endlessly scrutinising and making people feel inadequate and untrusted, it’s about enabling. A good leader doesn’t drag people along on their mission; they set the direction and then use the best tools they have available to make their way to where they want to go.


But how do you make that happen? I rarely tell the staff we are going to do something and enforce it. We talk, discuss, engage and consult with each other. Why wouldn’t we? Who is going to be driving it forward? To an extent, it’s me, but to a far greater extent, it’s them. I’m not necessarily the one who is having to walk into a classroom and make it happen. I’m not the one who may have to spend the extra time working on it. I could be that figurehead, set the way with clear, precise protocols and action plans but if people aren’t going to go along with it, then it’ll fall flat on its face, every single time. Instead, if as an SLT we want to start something new we talk about it. For example, I’ll start by explaining what I think it needs to change; then I’ll explain why I think it needs to change, then I’ll present a few models I’ve looked at and give a direction I think might be worth exploring further. After that, the floor is open. We are transparent and honest. If someone says it isn’t going to work, we explore why and find an alternative that will. Now, we have a team of people who have been involved in making the decision and it shaping the way it’s going to look for them. Instantly invested in it and prepared to give it a go because we have planned it together. It’s be done with them rather than to them.

Trusting people with responsibility brings out the best in them, most of the time. I don’t need to be the one running the show every time. At one of my previous schools, the headteacher would run every information evening. The new starters evening? A one hour talk from the HT and 5 seconds from the EYFS staff. Writing evening? English lead sat down for the vast majority. Why? Who has the expertise in his situation? Sure, the head may know, but why appoint people to these roles if you aren’t going to trust them to do the job properly? Instead, I say very little on these evenings apart from ‘hello’ and ‘thanks for coming’. Why would I need to say more? I trust my staff, we’ve been through the content they will be amazing.

I don’t need to be the one at the front of everything. When things go well, and people write in with praise, my first response is that it had very little to do with me. I wasn’t the one that delivered it. I helped us work out the process and put it down in writing, but it wasn’t me in the classroom, working with the children and making it happen. Every leader should recognise this. I hate the term superhead; they would be nowhere without their staff team. It makes it seem like one person can go in and turn everything around by enforcing their will. Rubbish, absolute rubbish.

Change and moving forward isn’t built on one person telling everyone what to do; change is built on working together with everyone involved and invested in what is happening. When this happens, improvement is so much more sustainable. The head that I took over from kept everything in her head and micromanaged every aspect. This meant people just depended on her to do everything for them and took no responsibility for what they were doing – they just waited to be told what to do. We’ve changed that culture – we work together and everyone takes responsibility for what is going on. Now, if I leave my school, it is in a much better place for sustaining the work we have done as a team as people have been enabled to be part of that change. They know and have developed the steps that have been taken to get there and understand how and why we took them.

The best way to lead from the front? Lead from the back. Empower, enable, trust and work with people. Encourage people to step forward and take responsibility and let them take the lead. The job of every leader is to help people be the best they can be and do their job as well as they can. Much more effective to do that from behind people than blindly walking in front of them.

A Guide to School Finance

We always hear about how schools are underfunded and that cuts have to be made. Twitter abounds with the tales of experienced, upper pay scale teachers finding themselves unemployable due to the fact they simply cost too much. Adverts have started to appear asking for applicants that are just M1 – 3. Decisions may be made about contracts and appointments based on salaries rather than teaching skills. Headteachers and business managers across the land are telling staff they can’t buy anything as there isn’t any money. Sometimes I have teachers who roll their eyes when I say it comes down to budget, or that we can’t have this or that, or they tell me I only ever talk about the budget (not true by the way!). It is a major part of a headteacher’s job at the moment, and while day to day it may not impact on actions taken during a given day, it is never far away from waking, and sleeping thoughts. With that in mind, here is my guide to what finance in schools is really like and how it works.

A few things to clarify though:

1) This is based on my experience with my local authority and my school. Every school is different.

2) I am not an academy, their finance systems are different, and funding slightly too.

3) I am by no means an expert on this, but I know enough to get the job done!

4) This is primary focussed.

5) I am bound to forget something.

6) I’d be lost without my school business manager

So, here are a few of the headlines and basics:

The Financial Year

The financial year for LA schools runs the same as the tax year, April to April. This can make things difficult when it comes to setting a budget as you don’t know which staff will still be there in September and who you will be able to recruit. It also means that a lot of schools have a ban on ordering from Feb half term onwards as the end of the financial year is coming. This can cause resource issues!

Income

School income comes from the DfE in the main. This is split up into various pots of money. Their funding formula can be found at https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/728273/National_funding_formula_policy_document_-2019_to_2020-_BRANDED.pdf)

The main part of the budget is made up of AWPU (Age Weighted Pupil Unit). This is why it is so important to have full schools. More pupils, more money. A pupil leaves, so does their funding for the next academic year (and possibly even some of it for the current year). This is worth £2,747 per pupil at primary. Other income which pupils may be eligible for includes Pupil Premium (£1320/pupil), low prior attainment (£1,022/pupil), EAL (£515/pupil). There is then also funding based on the deprivation factor of the school. This is banded based on the proportion of children who live in a low income household.

A school also recieves a lump sum of £110,000 per year and a devolved formula capital grant (DFCG) which has to be spent on building work or ICT hardware.

As well as this there are other grants that are given:

  • Sports Premium – £16,000 + £10 per pupil
  • Infant Free School Meals – £2.30 per day, per KS1 pupil
  • Teacher pay and pension – these are top up grants to cover recent rises in pay and pension contributions.
  • SEN Top up – this is extra funding to cover the hours of support detailed on the EHCP. Schools have to fund the first 13 hours themselves and then get funded for the rest.

Most of this is ring-fenced and can only be spent on certain things – for example the Sports Premium funding. Reports have to be published on how this money has been spent. Many of these are based around pupils on census day (the government count done twice a year). If you get an influx of pupils joining you after that, you will only get 7/12s of the money for them.

After this schools can then generate their own income to top up their funding. This will include PTA fundraising, parental contributions, money from lettings, income from taking on student teachers and applying for external grants (eg lottery funding).

All of this gives you your starting point for setting the budget. As a guide, my school has around 165 pupils, low FSM and low deprivation. Our PTA raise a lot of money (around £25k a year). Our total income for 2019/20 was £740,000. I have set a deficit budget for the last year.

Expenditure

This is where it starts to get fun. Trying to afford everything you need in the money you’ve got.

Let’s start with staffing. This is by far the biggest spend a school has. My budget at the moment runs this at about 92% of income, which is too high and the reason for my deficit. I have no option – I have classroom capacity of 24. I could be a school of 30 in each class and have to spend no more money of teachers, and I would get at least an extra £110,000 in my budget (I realise support staff costs may go up). This would solve my budget problems, but I can’t fit any more children in. The thing to remember about staffing is that teacher salaries go up each year, so it needs to planned into the budget for pay scale point rises. Also, the expenditure of a teacher salary is not just the wage. The school also has to pay National Insurance and Pension contributions. Pension contributions by the school for teachers are 23%. It means that employing a teacher at M6 doesn’t just have a salary implication of £35k it is north of £45k. Thanks to @clemcoady for the chart below:

This applies for every teacher, so the budget soon gets used up. Once you add in the on-costs for support staff (TAs, office staff, caretakers, midday supervisors, cleaning staff) as well, it can soon spiral and become a very large part of your budget spent.

This is why upper pay scale teachers become expensive. A starting salary of £40k soon pushes an actual cost of £50k to the school. The quality of the person needs to be balanced against the cost. Swapping a U1 for an NQT is a significant saving for schools and is part of the reason that many schools do it.

All of these people need insuring as well. This can also become very expensive. Insurance to cover sickness is the main one, but also maternity leave and other absences. What you add into this cover changes the price hugely. If you want to add stress as a coverable part of the policy, the price rockets. Maternity leave cover changes significantly based on the age of the people you are covering. We can only afford to cover people who would need a supply if they were off – eg teachers only.

There are other staff related costs too – office staff are entitled to a paid eye test, they may claim transport and other personal expenses (not all do, but it is an entitlement). DBS checks need paying for, as do placing advertisments (£150 per ad in my LA). Each of these are small costs, but soon add up.

Another large area of expenditure is buy back from the local authority. Academies can choose their suppliers, so can shop around, but LA schools are less able to do this. We have to buy back, HR services, finance services, school management system and support (SIMS), employment benefits (eg occupational health), legal support. This can cost per pupil as well. This are essential servies that you are forced into buying from one provider.

Energy is also the same. Gas and electricity take up a large amount of spend. Buildings and maintanance need a chunk of money set aside as well. Grounds maintaince (eg lawn moving and site maintainence) also comes into it. Photocopier’s are usually on lease so there is a monthly cost as well as a per copy cost. Colour copies are can be 4p per sheet. Soon mounts up. School meals needs to be paid for, as do school trips, but these are usually recoverable costs. Everything that we have, has to be paid for. The money very quickly drains away, and notice that we’ve not actually got onto provision for any of the children yet.

Finally we get onto resources. Books, glue sticks, ICT rescources and equipment. These are essentials, but by the time we have budgeted for all the above there is very little money left for them. We give all of our PTA money towards things like this – buying pencils and sharpeners and glue. There was a time this was saved for luxury items. Espresso, Mathletics, the website all come with annual costs picked up by our PTA in reality.

It all means that money is tight everywhere. When something goes wrong there isn’t money in the bank to fix it. One of the screens in a classroom broke this year. Where do I find £1500 to replace it? It’s so hard. Spending on one unexpected thing takes money away from something else. It’s an impossible balance, and one that unfortunately often doesn’t have the children at it’s heart.

My LA come and meet with me because we have a deficit. They agree I’m not overspending, and that I can’t get more pupils. What am I supposed to do? I cant get more money in and can’t spend less? Getting out of deficit becomes very difficult. Part of the problem is that it is imaginary money. It’s isn’t like running your own bank account (although for academies I believe it is more like this).

Accountability

My governors get budget monitoring reports 6 times a year. They review and question how and why decisions have been made. Contracts and spends over a certain amount have to be run by them. They are there to ensure the school is being financially repsonsible and not leaving beyond it’s means without good reason. They need a firm understanding of school finance, and from what I have heard it is very different from commercial systems. They can be amazing though. Different eyes, experiences and points of view become very helpful indeed. Forecasts and reviews have to be submitted to the LA every quarter so they can make sure we aren’t on course to have a nasty surprise at the end of the year.

To sum up…

Budgets are hard. They are numbers on a page and some see them just as that. They don;t think of the stories attached to it. The finance team in my LA are not educationalists – they just see the numbers. I have a fierce fight between what is best for the children and what we can afford weekly. I try to never compromise on the standards the chidlren get in the classoom. If they drop, pupils numbers drop and we have even less money. Best teachers, best support we can get and then cut everything else. I’m reaching the point where I may not be able to this though.

Much like the NHS, schools are underfunded and don;t have enough to do their basic job. I write about why here (https://secretheadteacher.org/2019/07/26/paying-lip-service/). We just don’t have enough to make the difference we know we can at times. It’s hard, it can keep me awake, and I don’t think I have the answers.

How do you define your purpose?

Where do we find our purpose? Why, when we are toddlers, do we dream of working? We didn’t need to work, our lives were filled with problems that working would not solve yet we still had the idea of ‘When I grow up…’. Is it because we need purpose in our lives? Is it built into us and our humanity? The urge to have a job as a toddler is to give ourselves an ultimate purpose, that goal to aim for, even though we could never articulate that. Do toddlers follow the examples they are given – where they see their parents’ purpose lying?

So what happens when that purpose is taken away from us, just like it might have been now? Do we crumble or are we able to find something new? Maybe this comes down to how we define ourselves. If we define ourselves by our job, by money or by our hobbies then when these are gone it can leave a gaping hole. If teaching is how you define your worth in yourself, then if this is ripped away, as it has been now, then it could be a massive struggle. Of course, we have so many more aspects to our lives that give us worth – but we don’t always see them.

Now, after this maybe we redefine how we value ourselves and where we place our worth. Is it now in family and making time? Is it taking up a new hobby? Has our purpose shifted? Should our purpose shift? If it does then perhaps the purpose we thought we had becomes a means to end, serving a new purpose, rather than the be all and end all we were treating it as?

Repurposing our lives has not, and will not be easy. But in doing this and redefining where we place our worth and self identification perhaps we will be ultimately happier and find life more purposeful. It’s always a balance, one we won’t always get right. Maybe though, now is the time to tip the scales one way rather than the other.

We Must Not Go Back to Normal

It seems a common thread amongst the media, friends and online interactions is related to some of the things that we can’t wait to do when we ‘get back to normal’. Going back to normal would be the worst thing we could do. We should not return to the state we were in before this tragic and still unfolding pandemic.

I asked the question, what is the best thing about lockdown? Within twleve hours there had been over 500 replies. The most common responses have fallen overwhemingly into two categories:

Time to do various things – hobbies, think, clean, sort, watch, do

Family – being around them and spending time with them

Whilst there are awful consequences to the global situation we have to look for the postives. The thread from last night (https://twitter.com/secretht1/status/1248664862286372870?s=21) is full of them. There are so many examples of people being able to use their time to do things they have been waiting to do for such a long time. It is littered with people exclaiming they are reconnecting with their children, or seeing their child take their first steps. These are wonderful things.

However, how have we got ourselves to this state? This doesn’t just apply to teachers, it applies to workers everywhere. We are rediscovering what is important to us and what really matters. Of course, at the moment we have more time to spend with families, more than we ever could when we are working at full tilt as we were before lockdown. Reading that parents are being able to reconnect with their young children breaks my heart though. It shouldn’t be this way. This isn’t the parents fault. It is not through lack of willingness, attentiveness or love. It is because of the situation professions have painted themselves into with expectations, the constant quest to be seen to be doing enough and the unrealisitic expectations of others. How, as a society, have we allowed ourselves to reach the point where the one thing we don’t have is time to spend with those that are nearest and dearest to us? I am as guilty of this as anyone at times. This is exactly why we can’t go back to normal.

Normal was not working.

Normal made us neglect.

Normal took away the best part of humanity – togetherness.

Very, very few of the replies to my question mentioned the time to complete work tasks. They aren’t important now. I’m not suggesting that we will never feel the pressure of work again, that’s ludicrous. We will, because that is working life. There will be busy times where we can’t carve time out to do the things we have enjoyed during this time. Maybe though, we need to reflect on how we go about our work when we return. We must change our understanding of normal. It will be so easy to be well intentioned to do this on our return, but we know that within a week it will be far to easy to slip into old habits – habits which made many of us miserable, stressed and unhappy in our work at times.

How do we do this? We need to make positive choices ourselves. We need to resolve to do this and make it happen. Pick three things to initially change. Think about the extra work you do. There will always be thousands of things you can do in your job. Start by just doing the ones you have to do. After that, see if you have any time to work on others. Think about whether it is essential that piece of work gets done this evening. Would you mental health and life, and ultimately your productivity be better served by spending time with your family instead?

Leaders – what are you requiring of your collegues? We have made plenty of brave decisions so far during this time, but perhaps the bravest are yet to come. We have an opportunity to change our working habits for the better. How can you as a leader enable this? It will take self reflection, looking at what is useful and what tasks are bloating peoples workload but, now more than ever, there should be a willingess to do this. Take the opportunity that is given to us out of a terrible situation. It will need systemic change too and this is where we need bravery from policy makers too.

Don’t think you can’t make a difference though. Lead by example. You might not be able to change your whole organisation – but you are in control of what you do to an extent. Resolve not to go back to normal, but to make a new way where all of those things we value now stay at the top of our list of priorities where they belong.

Ask a Headteacher Anything – Part 2

Twitter could ask me anything – and they did! Here are all of the questions I was asked, and my answers.

Who do you turn to when you don’t know what to do?

I’m fortunate, I have a supportive wife, a great deputy, a cluster group and great governors, so I go to them. Perspective away from education helps too, they see the common sense approach. Headship can be lonely – it’s so important to have a support network.

How would you describe the most difficult members of staff to manage?

They can be a challenge, for sure. Frustrating. Generally though, they have a reason for feeling the way and getting to the bottom of it is important. Hard not to get frustrated at times though. Giving them responsibility helps sometimes though!

How many hours do you work on average a night at home?

I try and keep it to a minimum. I’m generally have my phone so respond to emails via that, so I don’t count it. Evening meetings take a lot of time. I’m generally in school 8-6, I think a 50hr week is enough. I make a point of being at home to put kids to bed.

What is your favourite colour?

Red.

Have you ever had a member of staff who you really did not want at your school?

Not personally, but I’ve seen it with a HT I worked for. Horrible situation, but it depends what it comes down to. Is it poor performance or clash of personalities? If it’s the latter, we just need to get over it I think, that’s not a reason for capabilities.

What are you asking your staff to do about reports this year considering we only just had parent evenings before schools ceased to function as normal?

It’s still up in the air for us. Depends if we come back. I’m considering a Maths, English comment and then a longer than usual teacher comment. It’s a legal requirement to give them?

Do you think teachers have it easy?

At the moment, or generally? I’m not sure teaching is ever easy. It’s has peaks and troughs, but on top of the physical energy there is the mental strain which takes its toll. A lot of waking time goes into thinking each day through. It can be all consuming.

How do you decide who’s contract to extend from a fixed term and when would you expect to inform the staff member?

Struggling with this at the moment. It shouldn’t have an impact, but budget often does. If they are really good it’s so much harder. it’s about an honest conversation. I’ll have to tell mine over the next few weeks to give time to find new role if necessary.

Which three things would you change if you were in charge of the asylum? What do you wish you could do more of in school?

Lose testing from 5/7 primary year groups it currently is in. Reform accountability system from Ofsted, don’t know to what. Encourage leaders to trust their staff more. The push towards a wide curriculum is no bad thing. Lots shine in ‘other’ subjects.

What’s the secret to a good Deputy, for both the Head and staff?

Supportive, has your back, but isn’t afraid to challenge and call you out when they think you’ve made the wrong choice. A DHT can be the link from staff to HT, particularly in bigger schools so good comma skills are key.

When do you see schools opening again and how will working practices have changed?

The million dollar question! Half term at best, probably September. Our job is putting the kids back together before we start learning. Those values we put up everywhere will come to the fore above work, and they need to stay there.

What’s the worst mistake you’ve made as a head, what impact did it have, and how did you correct/mitigate it?

Sticking with something I knew wasn’t working through stubbornness. Staff morale bottomed out and people were h happy, not a great environment. I apologised and was honest that I carried on for the wrong reasons. Honestly is magic.

How long would you advise being a vp for before making the the step up to a secondary head?

It’s different for everyone. I only did 2yrs. I wrote a blog about being ready a while ago. You need the right experiences and knowledge to fall back on, but age doesn’t need to be a barrier to those things.

If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing locally, one nationally and one internationally within education what would your the things be and why?

Locally – better support from LA where they get to know schools and be helpful not a detached entity. Nationally – remove high stakes testing from Primary, high stakes accountability for all schools. Make it supportive. Internationally – share practice more.

Do you ever sleep properly? Is the big job worth it and why?

It comes and goes. Some things stick in your head at 3am. As with any jobs there are pressure points and busy times. It’s stressful, tiring but I wouldn’t do anything else. Watching people develop, flourish and make a difference is amazing.

Good morning. When do you feel children will be back in school? This academic year?

Maybe half term, probably September.

What sort of questions do you use when interviewing- not the standard ones – do you have any that spring to mind ?

I like to know whether a teacher will fit our ethos and values. Is trust and honesty important to them? Do they take pride in their own performance rather than doing something because they are told? The best interviews turn into a chat.

What’s the one thing you would want teachers to know about being a HT??

That a lot gets done they don’t know about. That we protect them from lots of things to help them just do their job. That we genuinely make decisions we think are right. That there is a reason when we ask for something – we must communicate that though.

What are your top 3 most valuable pieces of advice you would give someone wanting to become a teacher right now?

Go in with your eyes open, it’s tough but rewarding. Be doing it for the right reasons.Accept you’ll never get to the bottom of your list. Thousands of things you could do – focus on what you have to do then if you capacity work on the rest.

What’s the best thing about being a headteacher ?

It’s hard to put it into words. I love it when children come scuttling in proud of their work. I love going round classrooms and watching them learn. I love that in a small way I can help the teachers get on with making that happen in an easier way.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I try and be honest, kind and trusting. Kindness is not the same as weakness, you can still have high standards but be nice to people. You get back what you give to people. Trust them first, they trust you back.

What’s one thing that impresses you during the interview process?

Honesty. The all singing and all dancing doesn’t impress me too much. I want the sense that if I employ this person, this is what the kids will get day in day out. If they show that will be consistent and what the kids need, that’s enough for me.

Do you think head teachers should be teaching at least one class a week (several lessons)?

Where possible yes. Sometimes, it just isn’t though. It keeps you in touch with the children if nothing else. I teach a day a week and do as much of the cover as I can. Love my Fridays in class.

Would you rather teach a class yourself or have them split up into other classes?

If someone is off? I’d rather teach them myself. Unless it’s Year R, then I’ll do a sap with someone! Splitting them up doesn’t achieve anything really, apart from logistically.

Is it hard to delegate to your team (when you have an outcome/approach in mind)?

Depends on the team. We are a small staff (about 20 in total) so we all know each other and trust each other. My previous head wouldn’t delegate anything, and she was in school until 10pm every night. Giving people opportunity is what helps them develop.

How do you balance staff wellbeing and workload reduction without taking on more as a HT?

We looked at everything we did and asked why we were doing it. If it didn’t have an impact on children it went. It reduced my workload as we changed the way we did monitoring. If everyone knows the expectations then it’s easier to share the load.

What additional SEMH needs support do you think would be most useful in schools when the children return.

So unknown. It’ll be diff for every child as they will all have had a diff lockdown experience. Some will need getting back in routine, someone won’t have interacted with another child for weeks. first weeks back will need to be about identifying these needs.

Mario or Sonic?

I was a Mario and Nintendo kid and always will be.

Do you think Heads & SLT staff should still have some teaching hours in their week – lead by example?

Where possible yes, but a HT is not the best teacher in a school. I’m not the best teacher in my school, but I dont have to be. It is useful for making sure you don’t lose touch with the kids though.

What kind of person makes an effective Head?

One that gets people. So much of it is about managing parents and staff. Building trusting relationships is key.

How do you get teacher buy in for new programs/changes/etc?

Explain it with them, go through the rationale and give them input. They are the ones who’ll have to do it, why shouldn’t they have a say on what will work or won’t work? Involvement brings engagement.

What is the best attribute a TA can have?

They can be the one to unlock a child where a teacher can’t. They got to be perceptive, quick thinking and reactive. Sometimes they have more to with pastoral wellbeing than the teacher. Shouldn’t be afraid to have professional conversations with the teacher.

What’s your advice for a inexperienced but ambitious member of teaching staff?

Get experience. Ask to shadow and get involved. HTs won’t often refuse an offer of help. Being a governor is the best way to find out ‘behind the scenes’ for me. I learnt so much doing this.

With budget constraints, would you/ could you justify recruiting an experienced teacher over a NQT? Thank you!

Ive always tried my hardest to maintain that we’ll employ good people and find the money, we shouldn’t compromise on standards because of budgets. It’s getting harder and harder though.

Do you think the ‘bar’ has been raised enough and that we should now focus on closing the gap exclusively?

We should never stop striving to push children on, whatever level. You can only do you’re best for an individual child. Having a bar can cause problems. I’ve seen support withdrawn from children because ‘they have no hope of getting expected’. That’s just wrong.

Why are you a secret?

I have a parent body who do hunt people down on social media. Sometimes speaking completely freely doesn’t sit as well with parents, and it shouldn’t. They don’t always need to know the ins and outs of school life in minute detail.

Are all the spelling and grammatical mistakes now commonplace on social media shocking, or is it a sign that language is moving on and we should embrace the change? I am interested to know your take!

I should be the last one to comment on spelling and grammar errors. My tweets are strewn with them. Too much haste. Kids need to know the difference between formal and informal communication and what is appropriate for each and when they are appropriate.

What’s the worst interaction you’ve had with a students parent?

One regarding a permanent exclusion.

How many hours do you work on a typical week? When is a HT’s ‘busy season?’ E.g. Like the few weeks before reports are due for teachers.

Probably 55-60 hours a week, with 50 in school. Evening meeting add more one. Gov meeting seasons get busy as preparing paperwork, report reading definitely. Summer 2. Not that much different to teachers!

When appointing new staff, would you automatically choose someone known to you who you knew was ok or the person who had performed better at interview and lesson observation?

Not automatically. It’s about the best person for the job, always. Sometimes knowing someone is not the ideal at interview – you know their flaws too!

Have you had support from educational psychologists? If so, what is your preference of working with them to support children’s needs? E.g. does individual casework work well for you or would you be interested in more training of staff + community engagement (If funding allowed?)

My LA has two I think. I only see them for statutory EHCP assessments. Wish we had more access, but can’t afford private fees.

Have you ever had to ring social services other than at 3.45 on a Friday (safeguarding witching hour!)

Oh yes. But Friday afternoon is a popular time.

When do you think schools will re-open ? [apologies if you’ve already had this!]

Maybe half term, probably September.

How often should a teacher be going into a hub during the pandemic?

As little as possible.

How do you support pupils AND staff who are dyslexic to ensure they all have the opportunity to achieve their full potential?

I’ve not come across it too much, but like anything, that person will know what helps them. Talk to them and come up with a plan together.

Do you ever regret progressing up the ladder to HT and wish you were back in the classroom?

No. I reached a point where I had had enough of marking books and writing reports. I was more interested in strategic stuff though. Never left the classroom because of the kids though.

Do you follow the ‘Support plan means you’re getting fired’ strategy? Why do heads do this, in your opinion?

I’ve never written a support plan. Shouldn’t get there to be honest. There’s a difference between can’t and won’t too. If you can’t do it, I’ll help you. If you won’t it’s a bit different.

How soon into their employment before you can spot a poor teacher?

So many things affect performance. There are fundamentals though – relationship building and working out what the kids need to do next based on what they’ve just done. Struggling with these may indicate a problem.

What is the most dramatic change you have ever seen in a pupil?

For me, it’s been a child’s confidence and ability to say this is me and I’m OK with that. Big thing to take into the next step of your education.

Do you enjoy working with governors? Do you feel that they are suitably supportive AND challenging? How could governors be more effective in their role?

My governors are fabulous. Challenging isn’t a bad thing. They aren’t asking questions to catch me out, they are asking to see if I’ve thought about it. If I haven’t I’ve learned something. All good. Good govs need to know when to back you and when to challenge.

How would you give advice to a member of staff who feels it’s time to move on?

Do it, but make sure it’s for the right reasons. It’s not a personal decision, it’s a professional one. Leaders should be able to separate the two and not take offence.

What qualities do you believe are fundamental to a good/successful leader? Can you give a top 3?

Trust people. Be honest. Communicate well. Admit when you got it wrong. Know you’re stuff, but don’t be afraid to say you don’t know. Ask for help when you need it.

What’s your thoughts on exclusions?

That’s a biggie! I’m always in two minds tbh. I think sometimes there needs to be seen to be a sever consequence, but if they will have no impact on future behaviour then is there a point to it? I’m very conflicted on it.

How much contact do you currently have with staff whilst they aren’t in school?

I try to keep in email contact regularly. We may do a Zoom break time. I’ve told them to focus on keeping themselves and their families safe.

Whats your most favourite and most dreaded part of the job….

Favourite is seeing the kids everyday and watching them develop into amazing young people when they leave us. Dreaded changes from day to day. Parent meetings I know will be tricky, finance meetings, introducing new things.

Do you ever have run ins and conflicts with the Director or CEO of an Academy Trust you are a part of?

I’m still an LA school.

What do you think of extra curricular companies coming into schools and delivering activities or workshops? Needed more or not needed?

With workload issues, if they can help reduce teacher workload fine. Funding it is a problem for some parents. I generally use them to offer things I can’t offer from our staff team.

What advice do you have for a teacher who has been teaching 21 years, had a child 6 years ago and feels stuck and I’m having to start my career again as now haven’t got the right experience to move back up the ladder. Having a child seems to have hampered my ambitions.

Sorry to hear that, it must be frustrating. To me teaching is teaching, the fundamentals don’t change much over the years so you are no less qualified now than you were before your children. Not everyone sees it that way though.

What advice would you give to a DH thinking about moving to headship? What areas should they focus on above and beyond their usual day job?

I’ve written a few blogs about moving to headship at https://secretheadteacher.org Get as much experience of the firefighting stuff that comes up every day, that’s what you’ll spend most of your time dealing with.

With the complexities of legal HRM including Equalities Act 2010 etc, not being fully aware of changes in digital technology ect (video conferencing been around since 2010 no need for excessive late meetings) Do you think HT’s make excellent Human Resources Managers?

There are a lot of things HTs are asked to do that they have no training for. They do the best they can. For example I didn’t train in HR, Finance, Legal, Social Work but j have to fulfil all those roles. The best HTs take advice.

What is the situation you dread most?

Getting it wrong.

Hi, I am a Postgrad student in Primary Education, what would be your advice for getting prepared to have a class of my own (hopefully in a couple of months) despite my third placement being cancelled as a result of the virus outbreak? Anything would be much appreciated!

It’s all about building relationships. Make sure you do that first. A poorer teacher who can make good relationships will get better outcomes than the perfect one who can’t. Don’t worry about setting aside time to do it. Have high expectations and stick to them.

How do you manage change? – and if I can be so bold as to sneak another on in – How do you create a culture where workload is manageable for your staff?

Change – talk it through and get input. Get people involved in the planning and they’ll engage with the output. Workload – same answer. Talk about it, why are we doing this what benefit does it have? If it has none, bin it!

How would you deal with a divide of teaching staff and support staff. I.e. Support staff not feeling valued and treated poorly

I’d meet with both groups and try and get to the bottom of it. Communication and honesty solves a lot of problems. Although, any teacher who doesn’t value their TA needs a word had with them!

I’m starting a headship in September. What should be my priorities in the first day/week?

Congratulations! Listen and watch. Don’t be heavy handed and start building trust. @Carter6D wrote a guide to the first 100 days. I’m sure he’ll point you to it!

Would you judge a potential staff member on their ‘isolation beard’?

A fine beard is a fine thing.

What’s the best way to progress from middle leadership to senior leadership? Are there any courses or in school experience you would recommend?

I didn’t do NPQH, NPQSL or any of the others. I did get involved with my HT, ask questions and offer to do things. Being a staff governor probably gave the most exposure to what I needed to know though.

What has been your lowest moment as a head? How did you dust yourself off and move forward from it?

A Permanent Exclusion that became very legal and long term. Time and an amazing team was a great healer.

What are the first couple of things you look for in a job application?

Personal statement and job history, references. Personal statement tells you so much. You then marry it up to what you see at interview.

1. As budgets continually get tighter, where are the best value savings you’ve found and what school investments have paid off? 2. Did you need to develop your school finance skills to feel more equipped for managing the budget and if so, where did you find the courses?

We have stripped to the bone. Staffing is the most expensive, and that’s what I wont compromise on. It’s so hard. Finance worried me more than anything starting as a HT. a good bursar and knowledgable govs help a lot.

Do you know what’s happening in the classroom when your information is ‘distilled’ through middle leaders?

I am a one form entry primary. I wander the corridors most days so have a handle on it. Even in a big school I’d do the same though, you need to see with yourself own eyes sometimes.

What would you change about the schooling system – if you could – apart from the lack of money?

I’d get rid of primary testing for school accountability, and try and find a system of judging schools that didn’t strike fear and was supportive rather than seemingly judgemental.

What would you want to see in a letter of application/cover letter, particularly from a PGCE student?

What do you stand for, and what’re your views on education. What experience have you had? What are your strengths, but also what do you need to work on? What particular subject areas are you interested in? How do you build relationships with children?

What are your honest opinions about Ofsted? Are their judgements worth valuing?

Any system that terrifies doesn’t work. People shouldn’t be relieved at 2pm when the phone hasn’t rung. Of course, we should be accountable, but a short visit doesn’t do that. We need people who know our schools and can work with us over a longer timeframe.

What would your SLT say about you? What would the cleaning team say?

Hopefully that they feel valued and part of the school community. That I’m fair and consistent and deal with situations in a calm and realistic way. Behind my back, who knows though?!

Do you ever suffer from imposter syndrome?

Every meeting I go to and other HT I meet brings it on. Everyone seems to be doing a better job and have more of a handle on it than me, and think of things I don’t. At the end of the day, the kids are happy, parents and staff are happy so I must be doing OK.

I am in 6th year of teaching, I have a TLR but want to move up into leadership what advice would you give to get my foot on the rung?

Be a governor, ask to do things, show interest, shadow and engage. HTs don’t often turn down an offer of help.

How do you know your staff are happy?

I talk to them. Trust is a two way thing. I trust them, hopefully, they trust me to come and talk. We only have 8 teachers – it’s sometimes easy to spot when someone isn’t happy!

How do I write my letter of application for headship? I’ve tried tailoring to the paperwork and addressing my impact but I’m getting nowhere. When I first tried years ago, I got to interview and fell there instead. I want to progress but think step-back is a barrier now.

Maybe it’s about tailoring to strategic rather than teaching based. I found it hard to see a big picture at first and focussed too narrow. Evidence of how you can do that and implement it is probably a good start. Try to convey your personality too.

What is your greatest flaw as a HT and how do you address it?

I want everyone to be happy so probably focus more on trying to please everyone than I should sometimes. It only takes one negative comment to send me into a bit of a funk, which isn’t helpful. Asking other people would probably give more answers!

Are teachers who challenge you and the decisions you make actually ones you want in school, or would you rather they were all fully on board with your ideas?

I have no problem with being challenged. It means I have to have thought everything through before presenting it. I’d make awful decisions if it was just left to me alone and everyone went along with it.

What’s the biggest challenge you’re facing as a result of the impact of Covid-19? How do you really feel about remote learning and what would you like some support with?

Parent expectations are tough. Some want lots of work, some don’t want any. Some can help their kid, some can’t. The unknown is tough, both time frames and knowing what we come back to. Remote learning is a time filler for me, not useful learning.

With mental health in children increasing, and CAMHS waiting lists too long and thresholds too high. What are/can schools do to support their students with mental health issues?

It probably needs more curriculum time, which is hard because everything is so jammed. Itlll explode when we get back and sorting that out needs to come before learning.

Favourite and least favourite curriculum subject? Favourite and least favourite year group?

I love teaching Maths and English. Science I always found a bit of a chore. Love Y6, Yr R terrifies me, although I can see the appeal for those that love it!

What do you value most in your assistant heads?

Support and challenge. You need to get on too, you’re working closely with them. They have to back you up in public and private but be happy to say, look this is a bad call let’s talk it through. Got to be able to have a laugh with them too.Why do you think so many young teachers leave the profession, and is this something you feel you can do anything about?

Why do you think so many young teachers leave the profession, and is this something you feel you can do anything about?

I think some people don’t fully realise the job. The workload and mental drain can be intense and you have to be prepared. HTs definitely can help with this – talk to staff, why are they leaving? Is it too much work? Have we done everything we can to help?

Do you think the current cohort of trainee teachers will be at a disadvantage and overlooked for September jobs, which wouldn’t have been the case in a non-lockdown world?!

It’s too early to say. Maybe, especially if people don’t move on as they might have done. No movement, no jobs. Schools will have to be practical in recruitment and maybe take more risks.

What’s the most useful thing your teachers could be doing right now to support you?

Setting the work we’ve agreed they will, respond to the children if needed and stay safe so they are fit and well to come back when we open. If they take time to recharge now- fine – it’ll be manic when we’re back.

Why is it so hard for Usborne to get in to schools?

Schools like their traditions.

I need a job (HoD PE, DoS etc) for sept which are far and few in my area right now.. what would you advise me to do / to seek out in order to gain employment when so few jobs are being advertised in the current climate? I want to be proactive but also feel it’s a waiting game

I’m not as clear on secondary, but I’m not sure there is much you can do. Get your application ready, run it by a few people. Do some online CPD if you can. Go to schools and do visits before applying (not poss at the moment!)

How do you explain to the rest of the school what you do all day?

I tell them! We are a small school. They see what I do. Here is a breakdown: https://secretheadteacher.org/2020/02/05/just-what-do-you-do-all-day/

When we work in an industry that’s all about children, and there’s a drive to retain teachers and support work life balance, why aren’t schools promoting part-time working or making it easier for employees to reduce hours or work flexibly?

Outside of the teaching day, as long as my staff are getting the job done, they can do it whenever and wherever they like. Pick up your kids and then work after they’re in bed? Fine. Arrive at 6:30am and leave at 3:30? Fine. Do what works.

Did you always want to be a head? If not… when/why did this change?

Actually, yes. It was something I’d wanted to do. It didn’t stop me loving my time with the children, but I’d always been nosy about how schools work etc. I get it’s not for everyone though.

How do you keep all the “crap” away from those whose main job is to educate children and students?

Communication. We talk about what the crap is and whether it needs doing. I’ll meet parents, make phone calls and do what I can to help them focus on just teaching children. Solving problems early makes everything much easier.

Are “Support Plans” in reality often used as a mechanism to get rid of expensive teaching staff?

I wouldn’t, but I am sure people have. Madness though. If someone’s struggling, help them. Otherwise, just be glad you’ve got a great teacher.

How do you assess how good a teacher is?

Be in lessons with them (not ‘observing’), talk to them, talk to the children, look through books. See what the relationships they build are like. Can’t look at just one thing, and can’t do it on a one-off visit, got to be done over time and through discussion.

What is the first thing you would do a new head teacher in a week and a half?

Watch and listen and start building trust. Don’t be heavy handed. You don’t know the school, the people that are there do. Learn first.

What is the best way to manage mixed ability sets whilst ensuring 1.nobody is left behind and 2. You’re effectively stretching and challenging?

Good planning and knowing your children. Expect them to work independently at every level at times so you can support every group at some point.

Sorry if this has already been asked…What have you learnt from this period of remote/online teaching that you will bring back into school when we return?

Somethings don’t need to be done in school, but nothing can replace face to face teaching.

Would you hire someone UPS for a part time role or would you favour mps?

Ideally it’s the best person for the job. In reality budget comes into it. Lots of adverts I see are MPS only.

How do you manage work life balance?

Is it essential it is done at 8pm tonight? If not, leave it till the next day. Start with what HAS to be done, then do the rest of you have capacity.

Do you value handwriting or is too much emphasis placed on skills from long ago?

I’m not all for the cursive everyone’s writing being the same. But it does need to be legible and efficient. If you don’t get it right at the beginning it’s hard to correct.

Now that children should be self isolating for 15 days if any of their family has a new cough, what should/can heads & SLT do in terms of pressure on attendance figures?

Tell parents not to worry. It’s out of our control.

Does having a new job every 2-5 years as a teacher gets BA/PGCE/MA make them look too flimsy for lead roles?

No, especially if they’ve moved for promotion. It’s gathering experience.

What do you miss about having your own class?

The funny times, the tangents, the banter you can have. Getting to really know them inside out.

Was there one particular thing you learnt from past heads? Good or bad!

Being good at paperwork isn’t enough. Being too relentless doesn’t help anyone. Kindness counts.

What skills do you think make a great head teacher? It’s not a teaching role, and you’ve already implied being a great teacher isn’t necessarily it, which I agree with. So, what makes a teacher right for leadership?

You need to understand how things, systems and people work. You need good people skills – it’s all about managing people. I wrote here: https://secretheadteacher.org/2020/01/12/if-youre-good-enough-youre-old-enough/

When you receive 100 applications for a job, what makes you choose the applications that get through to interview stage?

I wish I got 100 applications! It’s about personal feel as well as teaching one. We are small team, mistake could damage what we’ve build in terms of our team. Experience, skills that fit our team needs. Personal statement a big part – it’s got to match what we see at interview.

In your opinion how much of a school dinner should be eaten by a primary child before they can pur their tray away and go out to lunch?

Ha ha! We can’t, and won’t force them to eat anything. We ask them to go back and eat more, but if they refuse then we can’t do anything. We’ll let the parents know though.

what do you do as a head to promote wellbeing for your staff?

We spent 4 staff meeting sessions looking a different aspects of workload and agreeing how to reduce. People can have PPA at home. As long as they do the job properly, I don’t care what hours on site they keep.

What are the best CPD opportunities you’ve invested in in your school?

Investing is hard at the moment. We’ve moved to 3 mini research projects for appraisal this year. I’ve given at least two staff meetings term to prep and evaluation and the results have generated a lot of discussion. Well worthwhile.

Do you have any traits you don’t like to see in a teacher ?

That’s a hard one. Not putting the kids first puts me off. Not having high standards and expectations. You can have those without working yourself to the bone. I find those who won’t engage with anything we try frustrating too.

Any regrets you have about teaching and is there anything you would do differently ?

I regret when I didn’t work as hard as I should have for a year or two. The kids didn’t get the best of me. I regret not standing up against a few things I knew were wrong. I’d do a lot differently if I knew what I know now, but I probably wouldn’t be the person I am now if I did.

Thank you so much for joining in!

Don’t Stress About the Home Schooling

I’ve seen so many different views on this. Daily work, weekly work, home work packs, must log on, don’t have to log on, remote lessons, live lessons, pre recorded lessons, phone calls home, threatening letters to parents, too high expectations, too low expectations, have to do it, don’t have to do it. I’ve seen it all being right and all being wrong – very rarely have I seen an opinion that is middling. It seems like home schooling work is exactly the same as normal homework – no one will ever get it right and please everyone. Usually we accept this – seemingly in this situation we don’t. Now, some are falling over themselves to provide as much as they can as quickly as they can. Rightly, there is worry about the gaps that might develop between those who can access work and those who can’t, those who will access work and those who won’t.

We have to accept that not all children will do the work. I work in a school where parents are very supportive and really engage with reading at home, place a high value on homework and have high aspirations for their children. However, I have a return rate of about between 50-60% across my school for the first week of work. It’s about what I expected and I fully expect it will drop as time goes on. What it does lead to me to believe though is that there will be so many schools that will have significantly less children engaging in work than this. An all carrot approach won’t work – there is little to no personal contact between school and home to follow it through. Likewise, an all stick approach won’t work either. Threatening emails to parents won’t make chidlren log on – the parents are probably just trying to get through any given day. Threatening emails to children won’t work either. They are children, predominantly interested in instant gratification. The threat of a detention in September will do little do dissuade them from their current actions.

Parent’s don’t have the capacity to work like we do in school. My two kids have had my wife’s undivided attention this week. They haven’t achieved what they would have in school – of course they haven’t. The relationships are different, the rules are different, the expectations are different. Children don’t follow the rules at home the same way they do at school. Those rules and routines take a skilled practitioner weeks to establish in September and now we through everyone a massive curveball and expect them to deal with it and get similar results in terms of output? This is folly.

There is no need to get stressed out about the work you are setting as a teacher, or are not doing as parent. The reality is that everything will need to be retaught when we get back to school. We can’t rely on any of the knowledge or skills that we’ve asked them to work on still being retained when we get back to school. Take my school. At best 50% will have done the work. Half of those will have done it badly as they’ve had no support from a parent, because they are trying to do their own job. A handful will have had support that may have sewn misconceptions because parents aren’t teachers. The ones that do it well will have forgotten all about it when we get back to school. We need a detailed plan for our return more than we need a detailed plan for now. Now we need work that is available for the ones that want to keep their kids ‘ticking over’ to do just that. What we really need to think about is how we get them all caught up in September. Not just some of them, all of them, because they will all need it.

What that looks like, I don’t know. It will be a national problem, not just a local one. For now though, do your best and know that it’s enough. So what if your kid is building Lego, den building and playing outside with their days? There is plenty of evidence that older children should be doing that more anyway, and more than enough examples of the learning that goes on in these activites. It’s our job as teachers to sort it out when we get back, and we will, and we will do it well. Give your families what they need right now – and the chances are that isn’t school work.

When the going gets tough, the tough…feel pretty awful.

This week was a tough week. Nothing major, and people, I’m sure, are dealing with much worse. Just a multitude of little things all piling up at once…governor meetings to prep for, lots of staff absence, few niggles here and there, safeguarding and social care issues, a high level of cover needed from me. Coupled onto that meetings re a particularly challenging child that then led to talk of a formal complaint and a meeting with a SEN advisory service giving my SENCo a going over (unwarranted) it was a hard one. Stress levels were up, sleep disturbed and tiredness became a little overwhelming.

However, out of all that was going on, there was one thing that tipped it over the edge – the threat of a complaint. It’s like a kick in the stomach. Repeatedly, every time you think about it. Should it come, I think we’re on solid ground and we’ve been giving excellent provision, but it hurts. I pride myself on being open and honest, upfront and straight forward about what we can offer, why we do it and how we think it’ll benefit the children. For the most part, it leads to a very happy school, and for that I’m grateful. Unfortunately though, it just takes one comment to undo all of your self esteem about what has been created in the school. One negative comment can outweigh a hundred positive ones, without question. The biggest thing, the thing that sticks the most is that you’ve given everything – literally all of you at times – and to be told that despite that people feel like complaining can often only feel like one thing – an outright rejection of what you stand for and what you are trying to achieve. It affected my whole mood, like living under a cloud for a few days – noticeable to most. I know we shouldn’t take it personally, but I do, and I am sure others do too. Teacher is an intensely personal job. You can’t remove yourself from the relationships you have to build with pupils and parents, and that is why it hurts, frustrates and disappoints when things aren’t working out.

A quick post on Twitter brought a lot of support and concern – edutwitter at its best. I put out there that there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s hard to see that sometimes, but if the time I’ve spent doing this job has taught me one thing – it is there. It might only be the smallest chink of light, but the good thing I find about schools is that as quickly as they can turn the heat up on you and make you feel pretty terrible, they can also do the complete opposite just as quickly. A good comment here, a nice email or an afternoon spent having fun with the the children can put a completely different spin on everything. It makes you realise what you do it for and what is really important and it can give you perspective.

Towards the end of the week, things improved. Was it my mindset or things genuinely getting better? Probably a bit of both. Time, reflection, distraction and changing circumstances can all make that chunk of light a little bit brighter, and once it starts shining a bit brighter it’s much easier to find your way towards it.

However hard it is, look for the positives. Teaching is an up and down job, with such massive highs and lows. However personally you might find a criticism, most of the time try to remember that often it isn’t. Don’t feel bad for being upset – it’s human nature. Besides, if it didn’t hurt, it means you don’t care, and caring is the exact reason we do this job.

Teacher Hacks

Always leave the book you don’t want the HT to see on the top of the pile if they do drop-in book samples. No self respecting headteacher takes the one from the top.

If you are called to the HT’s office, don’t worry. Simply go in and report something worse that someone else is doing and they’ll forget all about your misdemeanour.

Want a perfect looking display? Don’t forget that double mounting and laminating everything increases it’s attractiveness factor by 217%.

A slow moving bin lorry is always the perfect excuse for over sleeping and being late.

If something breaks in your classroom, always blame a child.

Always arrange an emergency phone call to arrive 20 minutes after the beginning of any difficult meeting with a parent.

If you are male and want to avoid funny looks in singing assembly, miming will solve your problem.

To pay for your summer holiday, add £1 to a jar every time a child asks you if they can go on to a new page. By the time July swings round you’ll have saved enough for the dream trip to the Maldives.

If you jam the photocopier, make sure you shout ‘I can’t believe someone has jammed it and walked away!’ loudly enough for a colleague to hear.

When doing playground duty, simply buy two phones, place one on the playground and FaceTime it from the warmth and comfort of your own classroom.

Make parents evening run to time by having a large timer on your desk. Preface every appointment by saying ‘it’s not for you, it’s for me.’.

If you forget to file your weekly planning, don’t worry, no one is checking it anyway.

To make the return to school easier simply think of the fact that’s it’s actually only 30 working days until the next holiday. Brilliant!

Position your desk so it can’t be seen from the door. Work with the lights off and people will assume your room is empty. Uninterrupted time will abound.

Tackle awkward birds and bees questions from pupils by explaining it isn’t in the National Curriculum so they will need to ask their parents. Increase the awkwardness by seeing the parent after school, telling them the question and making sure they ask the child at home.

Brighten a dull assembly by catching another teachers eye and mouthing something. Watch their confusion unfold as they can’t understand you. Compound this by saying it doesn’t matter when they ask you later.

To make INSETs training pass more quickly, play cricket with the speakers umpire like arm movements. Keep track of 4s, 6s, wides, no balls and wickets. A full test match is possible if they are very animated.

If you put two books on top of each other and press hard enough you can mark two at a time.

Reduce your workload by nominating other staff members to take on initiatives in staff meetings. Expound their virtues loudly to make their suitability for the task undeniable.

During a learning walk or lesson ob to your class, tell children to raise their right hand if they know the answer and their left hand if they don’t. Now it looks like they are all engaged all the time with every question.

And finally…

Don’t actually use these. Well, maybe not all of them anyway.

An Open Letter To Teachers Everywhere

Every day you do something amazing.

You might not think it, you might not feel it, but you do. Every day you get up, go in and work your hardest for those kids you are giving them something special, something they might not be getting anywhere else. You give them trust, honesty, challenge, confidence, fun and above all a role model. You give them the chance to be the best version of themselves, to reach achievements they didn’t think were possible, to become people they didn’t think they could be. All of that is done through you. You went into teaching to make a difference and you are – every single day you are having a positive impact on the children in your class.

Some days it’s feels like you can’t do it, like it’s too hard, too overwhelming and some days, it is. But even in those days you are making a difference, you are teaching children new and exciting things. You are still teaching them and moving them forward.

When they are giving you a hard time, when you feel like they’ve got away from you, keep working at it, be consistent and stick to your standards. They need the boundaries, they will grow from them and through them and will be one step further towards being ready for whatever the world throws at them. The ones you think don’t like you? They do. They just don’t know how to express it. They know you’re trying to help them and they appreciate you never giving up on them despite the fact they know they might be making things difficult for you.

Children don’t often realise the importance of their teacher at the time, but when they look back in their education, they will remember you and the difference you made in their life and how your kindness and compassion helped them through. You won’t even know how much you’ve helped some children, the impact you’ve had in their lives. With just a few words you can change the course of their day or the way they feel about themselves. You can make their confidence soar with a smile and reassurance, you can make them feel good about themselves for maybe the first time in days. You build relationships with pupils that might last for years. You inspire, you show, you teach, you learn alongside them and above all you make them better.

Teaching is powerful. You have the futures of these children in our hands and you make sure they get the most out of it. It’s a massive responsibility, but one you wear well, one you realise the importance of and take seriously. Every day you make a difference, every day you make children better and every day you should feel good about yourself because if it. You don’t always get told it enough, you always don’t get thanked enough and you don’t always feel valued enough, but be proud of your profession and the job you do because you’re doing what you set out to do on your very first day of training – making a difference.

What is Great Teaching?

In a world of Ofsted, Learning Walks, Observations, drop-ins (formal or informal), judgement, accountability and everything else teachers have to contend with it is easy to lose what great teaching is. We can fall into the trap of jumping through the hoops and working to what we think people expect to see of great teaching, rather than actually stopping to consider that works best and when. 

Perhaps the best way to start talking about what great teaching is, is to talk about what it’s not. Above all else, it is not formulaic. It can’t be. There are far too many variables in part of lesson, let alone a whole hour for you to be able to stick to the same formula all day every day. Starters, teaching, activity and plenary is a fairly standard way of working through a lesson, but if you did this all day every day it would be to the detriment of some lessons. Some lessons, learning and activities just can’t work this way by their nature. You can’t provide great teaching to the children in your class by jumping through hoops either. If you’re doing something because you’ve been told to, and it has no impact on the children then you won’t do it as effectively. We work our best when we work in ways that suit our strengths, that we are passionate about and when we are confident in it. Blindly following what someone else is telling you do will not make great teaching. This again comes back to variables. Any scheme or plan written by someone else can only ever be a starting point. It was written with another class in mind, with another ability, with another school or is just aimed at the widest group possible. That means the chance of it being right for your class is extremely small. Every plan you download and borrow has to be a starting point, and nothing more. Great teaching isn’t just about great delivery of information, it’s about it being right for your class. 

So, what is great teaching then? 

It Moves Learning Forward

For me, when I’m visiting classrooms, this is what I want to see above all else. Are the children finding out new things? Are they getting the opportunity to build on what they already know? This is key. This is progress. Of course, it doesn’t always have to be new information. It might be children been given the opportunity to apply what they know, to use the skills and knowledge they have learned in a new way. This is just as valuable as the acquiring of new facts. Underpinning moving the learning forward has to be a good system of feedback to the children and assessment of their learning. Does the teacher know why they are doing this next lesson? What was it about the previous lesson that means they have structured this one in the way they have? Learning can’t move forward without using the information from the previous lesson. If I’m in a lesson and the children have moved forward in their learning, then I find it hard to argue that it wasn’t an effective lesson. Surely, the basic requirement of teaching is to help children learn? If you’re lesson does that then it is hard to argue with. 

Brings Out the Best and Engages

As well as that, children have to be interested in what is going on. Now let me be very clear – I do not mean it has to be all singing and all dancing. I have had children just as engaged in my class by me standing up and talking at them, giving them direct information as they have been by practical, pupil led sessions as well. Talking to children to deliver information is not the enemy. Nor is doing it for more than ten minutes, or the age of the child plus 2 or whatever formula is the fashion at the moment. It’s about what is appropriate what is relevant and knowing when to stop. A great teacher will judge that moment. They will know when they have absorbed all they can and have reached that point when they are ready to work independently.

It also lets children achieve. It has to be accessible but challenging. They child should expect to have to work hard in order to be able to complete the work in the lesson. This is what brings out the best in the children. That area where they are challenged enough to have to think, but not challenged so much they can’t get near the task. There are many ways to do this, peer-to-peer support, adult to pupil support, differentiated tasks. Again, context is key – knowing your class, what you want to get out of the activity and how the children in your class can best achieve that. By building on their previous knowledge and drawing them on in their thinking they can start to make those jumps themselves which in turn brings out the best in them. Of course, they can’t always do this independently, they will need support.  This brings us onto…

It is Well Organised and Resourced

We’ve all been there when you couldn’t get things photocopied, or there was a problem in getting everything ready for the lesson. We all know, that it can leave you feeling on the back foot. If you are flapped about a lesson and underprepared, then the children can sense that. I’ve seen it in lessons, and I’ve had it happen to me. It’s not about having a beautifully presented worksheet, or work that is split 5 ways. It is about the thought process and making sure that what you are providing is what the children need. Does it help then get to where they need to get to. Is the support they need available to them? Are there practical resources available? Is the classroom organised as such so they can get up and get resources they feel they might need? If you choose to use slides to help organise the thinking – great. If you don’t, that’s OK, as long as you have given it some thought. Poor outcomes in a session can be because they task hasn’t been thought through in enough detail by the teacher. Again, I’ll hold my hands up, I’ve done it plenty of times. It happens and it doesn’t make you a bad teacher. However, the more confident you are in where you are going with a session and the resources the children are going to use – the more the children will be confident in them as well. 

Is Built on Excellent Teacher Knowledge 

You don’t need to know everything about a topic. No one expects you to. There is no shame in googling a question in front of the children and finding out the answer together. In fact, I applaud it. It models to the children that no-one is expected to know everything and also models how you, as an adult, go about finding out something you don’t know. However, you do need to know the content of your session and beyond it as well. This affects Primary more so than secondary in my view, where we are teaching multiple subjects, multiple topics and not spending a huge amount of time on any of them. Children know if you’re padding and making stuff up, so you don’t need to pretend to them that you know it all. However, they also know if you’re just reading it off the PowerPoint and don’t have much else to add. You are going to need do to your homework on it, and have enough information to fill in some of the gaps for the children. 

Utilises Children’s Knowledge

There are some areas where the children will know more than you. I’m OK with that. But why not use it? If there is a child in your class with clear knowledge they can share – let them. It no reflection on you, it’s a celebration of them. Be clear about your whole class knowledge too. If they all know something, don’t bat on for a whole lesson working through it again. I read something over the summer that resonated (I’m afraid I can’t remember where). It was about seeing lessons as chucks of knowledge rather than chunks of time. If you get through the knowledge and the children are secure within 30 minutes, why not move onto the next lesson, instead of feeling you have to stretch it out for an hour because that is what your timetable says. This becomes possible when you know exactly where your class are at and what their previous knowledge is. What you thought was a lesson may just need to be a refresher, and likewise the complete opposite may be true. Get your understanding of their knowledge right and everything can flow from there. 

Enables Children to Articulate and Discuss Their Learning

If I speak with some pupils and they can tell me what they’ve learned, and how it fits in with what they’ve done before then I can see they’ve made progress. I’m not talking about parroting back information, in fact I’m more worried if they do parrot it back. I’m talking about having a chat. What did you learn? Why do you think it was important? Did you know anything about this before? Does it fit in with other things you know. If they can’t do it off the top of their head, we’ll have a look in their book to jog their memory. It’s not a test on you with how well they can talk about it, of course they might need some reminders. However, if they can talk about it confidently it means they’ve engaged with it, they’ve remembered it and they are happy to share it. They won’t be walking textbooks, but if they’ve had good teaching, they’ll be able to fill me in about it. 

Has a Purpose and Relevance

This is at the centre of our Project Based Learning. If they’ve got a reason for it, they’ll take pride in it. Being able to make it relevant to them and giving it a purpose is going to increase their engagement and help bring out their best. I’m not talking about tenuous and forced links or gimmicks – the kids see through that. If they can see the point of doing it then it’ll help them. We’ve seen kids focus on spelling because an audience will be seeing their work, they neatened their presentation, they been striving to edit it to make it better.  It won’t always be possible, and sometimes it is detrimental to make it seen relevant for the sake of it, but when its right to do, it helps enormously. 

Will you manage all of these all of the time? No. We all know the time pressures of the job and sometimes, you just can’t fit everything in. This isn’t about being perfect all of the time. Great teaching is about giving a consistent level. I purposefully haven’t said a lesson has to have this or has to have that. Tricks, bells, whistles and everything else doesn’t constitute good teaching for me. Giving the children what they need when they need it does. Sometimes this will be getting up and talking to them. Sometimes they’ll have to do a straight exercise and yes, sometimes you will need to sing and dance and show your faux outrage at the local factory being closed down. It’s about what works, it’s about the context of your class, it’s about knowing them and it’s about giving them that consistently. That’s great teaching – giving them what they need, when they need it and knowing when they’re ready to fly. That teacher down the hall might be giving them all the excitement and ‘look at me’ lessons under the sun – but they might not be giving them what they need – a reliable, honest, consistent role model who knows how to get the best out of them. 

Just What Do You Do All Day?

After being posed the question ‘Some headteachers just sit in their office all day, don’t teach and never come out, what do you do all day?’ I thought I’d walk you through my day, just to give a little glimpse of life as headteacher.

Arrived at school at 8am.

Caught up with the teacher I covered yesterday to fill her in on what we’ed managed to do, and what we’d manage to achieve, what she would need to recap and cover again, and what the next steps for her class would need to be.

Morning gate duty.

Met with two parents

Started to work through emails that needed responding to. Probably around 20-30 that had accumulated, or couldn’t wait any longer.

Telephone call from social care. A family is being looked at under Section 47. Information on family needed. Needs to be done immediately. Drop everything and complete.

Child needs a report writing for an appointment on Friday – parent needs it ASAP.

Meet with two TAs, separately about the 1:1 children they are working with to discuss the behaviour of the children they are working.

Popped into Year 5 to see their DT work as I needed a bit of a break.

Completed paperwork for a panel forum to get early help for a family we’ve been trying to get external support for for the last 18 months.

Set up the hall with chairs and tables for lunch.

One hour’s lunch duty outside, longer than usual to cover the absence of a midday supervisor.

Catch up with some more emails.

Catch up with admin assistant about diary dates coming up.

Read through paperwork and risk assessments for 3 upcoming trips.

Filled in after school club about the S47 child.

Spent 10 minutes with some children about the Primary Maths Challenge bonus round they’d just done.

Met with another parent.

Covered Y4 so the teacher could run a parents info session.

Made a whole host of decisions that needed making during the day, all of which will have an impact on other people within the school.

Left at 3:15pm because it’s my daughter’s birthday.

It didn’t even feel like a particuarly busy day, and I am sure there will be many, many people who have had to cram more in to their day. When I went in this morning, about three of those things were on my to-do list. Everything else was new across my desk today and needed dealing with immediately. I would LOVE to spend more time in lessons with children and watch great teaching. Today though, couldn’t fit it in. I didn’t even touch finance, health and safety, personnel, teaching and learning or getting into lessons. We do a lot of things people will never know about, and protect teachers from a lot of work they won’t need to do as a result.

This isn’t a ‘woe is me’ post, but it I thought it might shed a bit of light on a day in the life of a headteacher. Tomorrow, I’ll have today’s to-do list, tomorrow’s and a whole host of new things that need doing.

Still wouldn’t do anything else though.

Building Trust as a Leader

For me this is the most important part of leadership. If you don’t get trust and buy in from your team you aren’t going to achieve much. I’ve written in the past about the fact that people will never be completely satisified with what you can deliver. I know for a fact that I had issues with a number of things that heads I worked for did and I didn’t completely agree with them. You can never please everyone and you shouldn’t assume that you will be able to, but I did trust those headteachers enough to know they were making the decision in the best interests of the school, even if it didn’t suit me perfectly. There was a gap between what I wanted and what was delivered. However, the important thing is what fills that gap. There are two choices here – trust or suspicion. If I fill it with trust then I can accept what is going on and know that the decisions made have come from a good place, if I fill it with suspsicon then the liklihood is that this suspicion will start to permeate other areas of my working life, and then potentially my relationship with that person. I’ve seen it happen between teachers and leaders and I’ve seen it lead to some really toxic environments. The question is, how do you make that people’s default position is to trust you when they disagree rather than doubt you and start to question you decisions in a different way to being professionally challenging? It starts with you putting trust in them rather than the other way round.

This is a tone that you have to set on day one. Trust takes a long time to build and is easy to destroy so a good first impression is key. Of course, you are not there to be all things to all people, you are not a sycophant who is there is appease teachers and give them what they want, but trust isnt about that. Trust is about bringing people along for the ride – them giving you their trust and buying into what it is you want to achieve. The first step of establishing this is giving your trust to the people you are working with. On my very first day as headteacher I spoke to all of my staff. After the usual ideas about an exciting future for the school and lots of new opportunities we got on to more of the nitty gritty. I told them my first thought is to trust them. I will trust them to do a good job. I will trust them to be doing their planning in a way that we have agreed, I will trust they will be marking their books and feedback to children in the ways we have agreed. I won’t be scrutinising everything all of the time, I won’t be checking planning folders each week, I won’t be doing formal learning walks. In short – you are professionals and I will trust you to do the job you have trained and are expert in. This doesn’t make me a pushover, it makes me human. I made it clear that trust can be broken, but that I don’t expect that will happen. We all want to same thing, the best for the children so lets work in our agreed way towards that. Placing trust in teachers doesn’t mean they won’t do the work. It empowers them, ot gives them freedom it always them space to work and breathe giving the potential for better eperiences for the children in the school.

Next I trusted them with my inadequancies. I was honest and up front that there will be things that I do that wll annoy and irritate. There will be decisions made they don’t agree with. There are areas that I am not an expert in (EYFS for a start!). I am not the best teacher in the school, I will not get it right all of the time. By being up front and honest about these areas where I can improve it reassures and again brings in the human aspect of leadership. THe personal connection is so key in schools, primarily between teachers and pupils but the connections between taff are just as key. They are the models the children follow. They pick up on everything so a behind the back comment here and there between adults is soon shared. In a atmoshere of trust and where people rely on and respect each other this is minimalised. By trusting them with my inadequancies I hope they will trust me with theirs – not as a sign of weakness but as a shared experience we can work through together. We can trust each other enough to learn from each other.

The next thing comes down to honesty and transparancy. If we want people to assume trust when there are things we don’t like we have to give them the facts. If you are making a decision, get input. Make staff feel valued and listen to what they say. Don’t guarantee it will all come into affect but show how it has inputted into your final decision. Tell your staff what you considered and what thought went into whatever it is your introducing. Changes to the behaviour policy? Explain what the problem is with the old one. What has led you to this decision? What input do you want from them as staff? If it transpires that the majority of staff feel there is no need to change and it is effective as it is then maybe that needs listening to? There is nothing wrong with changing your mind. Of course, there are timese where this isn’t applicable, but often it is absolutely the right thing to do – otherwise, what was the point in asking them?

What happens when you go into lessons? Is is judgemental? Is it with a critical eye? Does it focus on little things that aren’t that important to the learning of the children, or on the flip side is it so general that nothing can be analysed in depth? In these circumstances lesson visits can become resented and feared, and at worst seen pointless to the staff who have them. By working to build trust between a leader and a team then they can be approached in collaborative and non-threatening way. They know, from your previous actions, that you are doing it for the right reasons and the feedback they receive from it will be rationale and developmental rather than judgemental.

The longer you are in post and the longer you can give consistency in your actions, the more any doubts about what you are doing will be filled with trust rather than suspicion. This is almost certainly better for everyone. You get a better reaction from teachers when they are tasked with something new because they trust in yuor decision making process. It is easier for ou to make decisions as you have more imformation and the capacity of a collective rather than the ignorance of an individual.

Trust takes time to build, but your actions speak louder than your words. Begin by putting your trust in the people in your team, trust their knowledge, their experience and their expertise and you’ll be amazed at what you can achieve together. Leadership is not about dragging people to an endpoint, it’s about enabling people to work together to achieve something amazing. Trust throughout the team is the only way you can get there.

How do you know if you’re ready for leadership?

Is there an age limit on when we are ready for leadership positions? Are there factors that mean we are ready or not ready? Do we need a set number of years experience before we put ourselves forward?

The flight controllers at NASA that put Apollo 11 on the moon had an average age of these people was just 27. They were referred to as the kids. This wasn’t an accident, it was by design. They were seen as fearless, not worried about going into the unknown because they had known no different. They knew the stakes and they knew they had to work hard to get it right. They found that older staff were too cautious, too happy to say that things couldn’t be done, too defeatist. Surely the former is a great attitude to have as a head? The idea that things can be done, the cynicism that sometimes comes with more years in teaching? A fresh approach, no fear of what might happen if? Of course, I don’t mean recklessness but ignorance is bliss sometimes isn’t it? The are plenty of examples of successful young CEOs in industry, running very successful companies. Does that translate to teaching and leadership roles in education though?

I was appointed head at 31, after a decade in teaching. I felt ready. Was I? In some parts yes, on others definitely not. If you’re ‘good’ enough are you old enough though? Does age matter?

Whatever stage of your career you are at, here’s what I think you need to consider before taking the plunge:

You Need to Know Your Stuff

Do you need to be the best teacher in the school? No. Do you need to know everything? No. But you do need to know enough about life in different areas of the school to be able to appreciate what it is like to work in those settings. I taught exclusively in Key Stage 2, but made sure I went to see lessons in KS1 and EYFS when I could, talked to teachers, understood how they assessed in those year groups so I could have professional conversations with those teachers. You don’t need to be an expert in everything, but you will need to be able to have an overview of what is going on and why. I have huge respect for EYFS staff, it’s definitely not for me, but I tried my best to make sure I understood how it worked, so I knew that if they came to me asking for something I would know why they were asking and whether it was reasonable.

I went to training by John West-Burnham many years ago where he explained that trust is made of consistency, credibility and competency. You need to have a confidence in your competency to build the trust of your staff in you. As I have said, you don’t need to know everything, you need to know when to use the expertise around you, but you’ve got to be able to articulate your understanding in a whole host of areas. A new staff will be watching you closely, whether as a head or a new deputy – I remember feeling it hugely. Being able to be confident in my knowledge helped me hugely. Of course, I thought I knew a lot of stuff, turns out there was a lot more to learn!

So, give yourself a self check before you think about leadership – are there any areas you might need to get a bit more experience in or gen up on?

Be Humble Enough to Still Learn

You might think you are ready, but you are not. There is so much to learn, even the most prepared of people will find new things. Be flexible, be ready to adapt, be ready to say that you were wrong. Above all be humble. There are people that know more than you, have been doing things for longer than you and know the school better than you, if your ready for leadership you’ll be ready to listen, even if it means postponing or chaning that flagship policy you have been waiting to implement. The best teachers carry on learning, and the best leaders do the same. We expect the same from the children in our class, so be ready to expect the same from yourself as well.

Build Your Range of Experiences

This applies to all people moving to leadership not just younger people. I was governor and this really opened my eyes to the world of school strategy. You might have a great handle on teaching and learning, behaviour or assessment but what about the other areas? Do you know about school finance, health and safety, personnel and HR? These will come at you think and fast and you’ll need to make decisions based on them. Have you given yourself enough chance to look into and expereince these things? Governance is such a great way to do this, but so is offering to shadow and help other people. Give yourself as much chance to do this as you have capacity to do. Speak to the head and the bursar, be professionally curious about these areas of school life. As much as we would like headship to be about teaching and learning and giving the kids great outcomes (and of course this is huge) you have to make time for the othr stuff as well.

Ask Others What They Think

You might think you are ready, but to be honest, you might be a little bit biased. Conversely, you might lack confidence in yourself but others think you are totally ready to give it a shot. I felt ready, I got to the point where I was more interested in strategic management and felt I wanted to spend time doing that than I did marking books and writing reports. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVED working with the kids and still do, but away from that I wanted to be getting on with trying to help shape the direction of the school. Your line manager should be a good person to have that conversation with, but you need someone who will be honest with you about it, to tell you your strengths and weaknesses honestly, truthfully and in a way that will help you improve. My headteacher when I was a deputy gave me great advice – she told me I was too focussed on small things and needed to step back and see how they fit into the big picture more to have a greater oversight and impact. It hurt a bit at the time, but it was great advice. If you go to an interview and aren’t successful, take the time to engage in meaningful and detailed feedback, use that to help you develop to the point where you feel you have improved your skills. It’s so important to carry that on when you are in post too – listen to your SLT, your collegues. They will see things you don’t.

Think About the Leader You Want to Be

What are your key values and how are you going to apply them? I decided early on – my office door is almost always open (literally) and people can come and talk to me about anything. Consistency was key to me. I worked for a head where you didn’t know whether you were going to be welcomed in or told to go away because she was busy – that made things really hard. Now, if someone comes to see me I drop what I am doing. They’ve come to see me because it is important to them. It might not seem it to me, but it is to them so I’ll give them the time they deserve. I put honesty and transparancy above all else. How can you bring people along with you if they don’t know they can trust you or why you are doing things? So what do you stand for and have you thought about how you are going to model that to the staff around you? How can you communicate it and get the other leaders in the school working from the same principles? Having high standards is not a crime. Being a nice person and having high expecations are not mutually exclusive.

Have Done the Difficult Stuff

Leadership is hard. A great job, but hard. Some stuff you won’t have come across but some you will. Have you give difficult feedback? Do you know what to do when someone breaks down in tears in front of you because it’s all too much? Have you given it consideration? No-one knows how to do it all when they are first in post, but I found this the most challenging part and I think this is where time and experince really helps. The more you do it, the easier it gets and the better you become at it. At the beginning I was too nice trying not to cause offence, trying to be supportive to the point of not being helpful int he long run. Now my staff know theat there is a difference between the personal and the professional. I can give you some feedback and help you improve, or tell you that there are certain things that need to be done differently, but think absolutely nothing less of you as a person. It doesn’t change how I will interact with you in the staffroom or when I pop into your classoom to ask you something or see how you’re getting on. This is where maturity is key. Have you been in that situation yourself? How did you react? What did you want or need?Was it for the best in the long run, even thought it might have been tough? It always hard dealing with people, but at the end of the day the kids have to come first and most teachers will see it from that point of view. All you want is for them to do as well as they can, and be extension you want the teachers to do as well as they can to help this to happen. Dealing with children’s emotions and needs in the classroom is one thing, but the shift to leadership means delaing with adult emotions and needs and this can be a completely different ball game.

Be Prepared for Challenge

People will challenge you on almost anything and often on the things you expected challenge the least. At times you’ll need a think skin. Whilst being flexible and honest is a skill and a strength, so is knowing when you are right and whn to push through with things. This is where a great leadership team is key, where everyone backs each other up. It can take great courage to stick to your guns on something where there is uncertainty. This can be especially true when dealing with parents. Make sure you’ve got a good reason for doing it, and back it up with facts and be prepared to fight for it.

Prepare Yourself to Get it Wrong

No-one likes to be told they’ve made a bad call, or to realise it themselves with hindsight. It will happen and it will feel rubbish. The difference with leadership is that the consequences can feel worse. Its ok to feel bad about it, it means you care, but don’t wallow. It’s like we say to the kids – every mistake is an opportunity to do it better. Saying “We got it wrong, sorry, we’ll do better next time” is so powerful to staff and parents alike. It stops people in their tracks, and as long as you follow through and make the changes then works wonders for building relationships.

So, is it for you?

No-one will ever have a handle on all of this. I certainly haven’t yet, and I doubt I will by the time I retire. However, thinking about where you stand on these might just give you a little bit of insight onto whether your ready. Are you old enough? I’m not sure that matters as much as people think, but have you considered it and reflected on yourself enough? That’s a different matter. Only you’ll know if it’s the right time. If not, reflect and work on it. If you think it is, have confidence in yourself, be brave and go for it, you’ll be great.

10 Things I Wish I’d Known Before I Became A Head

1. You are responsible for more than you could ever imagine.

The list is never-ending. My neck is on the line for things I never even knew existed. I am still surprised by things that come at me that I am responsible for even three years on. It’s a constant whirlwind. Most of them won’t ever be an issue, so don’t need worrying about – until they do! A colleague recently suggested I should write a list of all the things that I am accountable for. This would go on forever and ever just thinking about school performance not even including Health and Safety, HR, DSL, finance. Try not to let it daunt you though, I try not to worry about things I can’t affect. You will be accountable for so many things – fires, injuries, results, behaviour, school reputation but if you dwelt on it all you would be overwhelmed. Build a team of experts around you who can take responsibility for those things. Even if you can’t delegate the accountability, delegating the responsibility can remove a lot of the burden. Focus on what you can change, what you can have an impact on and see those things through.

2. It’s harder than you’d ever imagined…but you a stronger than you ever imagined.

I began my headship with three (hopefully!) ‘once in a career’ issues within my first year. It was tough, really tough. Legal threats, teaching issues, safeguarding issues and a whole lot more. I was tested through that more than I have ever been in my life. There were lots of tears, lots of frustrations and a whole heap of anguish and anxiety. However, although they were difficult at the time, they proved one thing to me – I am strong and things can be dealt with. Obviously, there may come a point where things are more than we can bear, but I found reserves of strength and resilience that I didn’t know I had. It’s not until we are tested that we know how we will react and I am sure a lot of us are far stronger than we give ourselves credit for. We go through trials every day and use those experiences to make us stronger. It’s not just about being thick-skinned, it is about having the confidence and belief that what you are doing is right and is so firmly rooted in your values that there is no other option but to carry on and stick to it. It goes without saying that we have to listen, be flexible and willing to change, but on issues of our values, that is where we have to stay strong.

3. You can’t do it all by yourself.

Don’t fall into the trap of trying to cover every gap by yourself. My previous head did that – she micromanaged the whole school and not only did it burn her out, but it is also meant she was de-skilling other members of staff to the point where they would just hand everything over to her as they knew she would a) do it and b) change what they had done anyway. All of this knowledge was kept in her head. This meant that when she went off sick while I was deputy, people at first didn’t know what to do. They had been so used to deferring that when I was asking them to do things (as I was teaching and acting up) they were flummoxed. However, over the weeks they suddenly came to realise that they were able to do these things, they could have confidence in themselves and they could do things well. They started to take back responsibility. When I became head I told them I would be following in the previous head’s footsteps. I was giving them the professional freedom to take responsibility for their class and everything that went alongside it. I involved them in decision making and rationale, I told them what I get up to on a daily basis. This made them better informed, with a better understanding of the thought processes that go into decision making. I know of headteachers who are so worried about going out of school in case something goes wrong and they aren’t there to deal with it. I don’t have that anxiety. I fully trust my senior staff to make the right decisions and to deal with what comes their way. We have worked through things together, as a team so they know what to do. They know when to contact me and when not to and this all comes from being given the chance to take part and understand the workings of the school.

4. Never plan to do anything vital during a day – something always comes up!

“I know, I’ll do that headteachers report on Tuesday morning”. No, you won’t. Tuesday morning will be the morning two teachers are ill and you have to cover. “It’s OK, I’ll take some time on Wednesday”. No, you won’t because you’ll be investigating a safeguarding incident. Distractions and interruptions are par for the course. The number of decisions you will need to make in a day is mind-boggling and all of these can interrupt the flow of trying to get stuff done.

How have I counteracted this? I have realised that if I have a big project, work I need to get done with no distractions, it is OK to be off-site. I have worked from home on several days this year and been so much more productive. I am still at the end of my phone and email, I am only 15 minutes from the school so can be in if I need to be, but the difference it makes is huge. I allow teachers to take their PPA time at home, why shouldn’t I allow myself the same thing (the same goes for going to see your kids nativity, or being there on the first day at school by the way!)? There is so much going on in a day that sometimes you just won’t be able to concentrate at school. When I first started I wondered how I was going to fill days in my office – how naive! The thing is, that every time someone goes to knock on your door it is because they have something important to ask you. It might not seem important to you, but to them it’s big. They wouldn’t interrupt the headteacher if it wasn’t so you need to give them the time and respect they deserve. Often this means your own work gets pushed back. This can’t happen indefinitely, you’ll be buried under everything to do, so make some time for you to work quietly and without interruption – it could make a huge difference.

5. It’s lonely

Even when surrounding yourself with a great team, no one really understands the pressures that go with it. My deputy says to me that she is more than happy being a deputy because at the end of the day it is you who makes the decision and your neck on the line. She’s a great deputy and really supportive, but this is true. There are decisions only you can make. There will be input from other people, but the decision is still yours. This is where it is lonely and you feel like no one can help.

Having someone away from school to talk to helps. I pester my wife with all sorts of things. She doesn’t fully understand all of the ins and outs all the time, but she does offer an objective opinion of someone looking from the outside in. She can offer a point of view that is removed from worrying about budgets and others things – she can just see what the best decision is overall. Having someone like that has been invaluable to me in tackling this – try and find your own.

6. Imposter syndrome looms large

I suffer from this hugely. in my first couple of years every course, meeting and phone call would leave me feeling out of my depth, inferior and just not good enough. It wasn’t until I spoke to someone who’d been doing it for ten years and said they still feel like they were winging it every day that I came to terms with it. I struggled a lot with imposter syndrome and still do. It’s tough and it’s only now I’m starting to feel more confident in my ability to do the job.

Joining Twitter last year has been wonderful and opened my eyes to a lots of good things, but has always made me think “my school won’t be that good” or “I’ll never be as a good a head as that person”. Imposter syndrome is par for the course in teaching I think. We always feel like we can be doing better and that is a good thing – it means we won’t just settle for mediocre. However, if an bring you down after a while…which brings me on to…

7. Decide how you will judge your own achievements.

I know we can set data targets and performance targets and appraisal targets and all other manner of targets, but when it boils down to it, when you move on from your current post how will you know if you’ve e done a good job? I could pass my appraisal targets but still not be overly happy in myself with how I am doing. I give myself one very simple test – is the school better than when I started? If I can answer yes to this then I’m satisfied. Are the children happier? Is the curriculum better? Are staff more settled and involved?

Having someone who can remind you of this things is important. This is where my deputy is great. She often says “look at how far we’ve come and look at what we’ve achieved.”. When you are in it say to dayit’s hard to step back and look at things from a wider viewpoint. We get caught up in the problems and don’t see the positives. Stepping back and looking to see just what you’ve done and everything you can be proud of makes a huge difference and increase your confidence in the job you are doing.

8. It’s OK to switch off

Yes, it is. It might be hard, and it might take practice but you need know when to say enough is enough and to walk away from it for the day. Worry, doubt and anxiety are par for the course, but we can deal with them (I wrote about it here https://secretheadteacher702390687.wordpress.com/2019/08/17/mind-consuming/ ).

Sometimes we just need to give ourselves space and time and give ourselves the authority to do that. It will be better in the long run if you do. No one can run a school when they are burnt out. Allow yourself time to rest and to enjoy your hobbies. Not everything has to be done all at once with work – what is the worst that could happen if something doesn’t get done tonight? Can you affect change by worrying? If not, then try to let it go. Easier said than done, but made a huge difference to my state of mind.

9. Be confident in yourself, you are doing the right thing.

This comes back to your values and consistently applying them. You know what is right and wrong. You know when to make a stand for what you know is right. Don’t be deterred from that. People will respect you more in the long run than if you back down and compromise yourself. Establish these values before you start, emphasise them to your staff and then model them. Expect others to stick to them and encourage them to filter through. You’ve got to give respect to get it. Show kindness and compassion, fight for justice for children who you feel are being let down. Don’t back down when a parent wants you to change a decision because it doesn’t suit them or their child – you know it is right for the majority. Explain the process, explain why you’ve made the decision, listen to them. Of course, this doesn’t mean we are always right. If you get it wrong, say so. Be up front about it. You set the tone in your school – make sure that tone matches your values.

10. It’s the best job there is.

Despite all the pressures, decisions, sleepiness nights and everything else I wouldn’t do anything else. I enjoy it. I enjoy making a difference,I enjoy watching people grow and take on responsibility, I enjoy seeing children become confident, we’ll mannered young people. At the end of the day I played a part in making that happen. I’m not in class, no, but if I’ve helped to create a culture in a school where young people can flourish then what could be better? It’s a different job to teaching, but no less meaningful, no less fulfilling and you make no less of a difference. We are privileged to lead schools and the teams we work with. Appreciate that, tackle it with enthusiasm and make the most of every day.

Ask a Headteacher Anything

This morning I asked people on Twitter to ask me anything they had every wanted to ask a headteacher. There were some really challenging questions, and I have really reflected on myself and some of the things I do and why. Below are all the questions and my responses in one place, feel free to ask anything else via @secretHT1

What’s the most annoying trait in a (generic) member of staff?

I find needless negativity really difficult to deal with. Doesn’t matter how great and worthwhile a new idea might be, the one person who always starts with ‘that all sounds well and good, but…’ makes my heart sink and seems to easily followed.

Does age matter when looking at leadership roles?

I was SLT at 25, DH at 29 and HT at 31, so it doesn’t have to. Experience matters, but wanting to find out about strategic things, being a governor, offering to do things and shadowing people can gain you that experience quickly. Dealing with people needs practice though.

What is it about “windy days” and kids? Is it like full moons & werewolves?

Definitely. Avoid them like the plague. Absolutely avoid off timetable wet play, windy, full moon days.

Why do you need to be a “secret” Headteacher?

I have a parent body who would, and do hunt down members of staff on social media. Sometimes what we think, say and the harsh realities of life in schools is not always what parents want to read or hear. Much safer this way 🙂

What do you really think of staff who suffer from stress, anxiety and or other mental health issues? Really..

I have a member of staff absent at the moment. I’m concerned for them, I wonder what I can do to help them, I tell them not to worry about school and they need to focus on getting better. Does it cause me problems/expense trying to cover at times? Yes. Does that matter? No.

Am I better to ask about part time leadership (0.6 or 0.8) before applying, at interview or after offer?

I always think honestly is the best policy. Be up front rather than maybe running the risk of them feeling hoodwinked afterwards. If they aren’t open to it initially then it’s not the right role.

Do you actively see the the societal change where young people can’t be reprimanded without bringing the wrath of “parents” upon your head?

Yes. Should that stop us? No. I always tell teachers I will back them up, but they have to be able to evidence their decisions. If they’ve got that, then I’ll try and back them up all the way. It’s about trust and honesty though, build that with the parents and all gets easier.

Do you think your headship is successful and if so how do you measure that success?

I like to hope so.

I judge myself on, is the school a better place than when I started? I genuinely think it is. Academic results have stayed very strong, but curriculum, relationships with parents, attitude of kids, atmosphere and ‘buzz’ have all improved. I’ll take that.

As a primary HT what are your main sources of frustration when dealing with the secondary schools your students move on to?

Ignoring our handover notes and putting them into inappropriate groups.
Distrust of our assessments.
Taking our Year 6’s for up to a week in July and not having consistent dates across the schools.

Why don’t schools follow the business model and start actively listening/asking to hear what matters to their staff?

I try to. I think most heads do. However, not everything can be done at once, and leaders have to prioritise. However, the key is how this is communicated – I realise this is important to you, but I can’t do it right now because… Why keep people in the dark over decisions?

As a fellow HT, I respect the honesty in your responses.

Interesting to compare – what is/are the biggest challenges you see in the next 18mths to schools and school leaders?

Finance, but not just in schools, in every service which leads to frustrations in accessing help for those that need it.
Recruitment and retention, burn out, disillusionment.
inevitable increase in powers to Ofsted, meaning more schools will do things just for them.

How do you think education or leadership of schools has changed in the duration of your headship?

Mental health and lack of access to services has been huge.
A focus on the curriculum is for the best, but doing it through fear is wrong.
Leaders seem to need to be braver to ignore the agenda and actually put kids first. Shouldn’t be that way.

Do you let your staff have their ppa at home- if not, why not?

Yes, they have the choice. And if they want to use it for a lie in, fine. As long as they’re getting the work done and to a good standard, I don’t mind.

@secretHT1 do you get enough time to be with the children? How do you ensure you are present within the school?

I’m timetabled one day a week. I do all the cover in the school as well, so I’m normally teaching at some point during the week. I’m on the gate every day and popping in and out of lessons all the time.

What do heads or SLT do that other staff don’t see or appreciate?

Constant decision making. My staff are constantly surprised at what comes across my desk and how quickly it needs responding too. Not saying that it different from teachers, but some of the decisions have a greater effect on everyone.

What advice do you have for teachers wanting to progress into management?

Get involved, shadow people, be a governor, ask questions, show an interest, offer to help.

What do you really think of governors? Help, hindrance or necessary evil? Would schools improve without their scrutiny?

I love mine. Governors that have your back are worth their weight in gold.

Are there any types of schools you would avoid and why?

Special Ed and alternative provision is not my calling, but massive respect for those who do. With regards to types, I’d give most a go I think, but would want to make sure I fit them as well as they fit me.

How do you keep going?

Some days I honestly don’t know. Good days are great, bad days can be really bad. Knowing you’re making a difference helps.

Who (what roles) make up your trusted, collective sounding board?

As far as possible everyone! Apart from that, my deputy, another senior teacher and my wife!

Why do some HT get the balance right and others allow their egos to run rampant?

Can’t answer that, but don’t see any need for it to happen. Leader doesn’t mean dictator.

What are your views on growth mindset?

Also, if a teacher made a really bad pun during an interview would you still hire them? Asking for a friend.

Do you know, I just might.

I like growth mindset, but really focus on the power of persistence and hard work with the kids. We try and bust the natural talent myth and teach them you can improve anything with hard work.

Do you respect the person who stands up to you if they don’t agree with your decisions more than the person who jumps through every hoop?

Most of the time. It’s about communication, I’ll have more respect if they articulate why, give good reasons and can offer a possible solution then I’ll always listen. Don’t just bring me a problem and tell me you don’t want to do something.

Why don’t Headteachers budget for a school library and librarian when the research shows that they make a difference to academic attainment across the whole school?

I’m primary, so having a librarian would unusual in a school my size. I guess it may be about priorities. I’m sure lots of HTs would like to run a fully stocked and resources library, but just can’t afford it. I spend 92% of my budget on staff. I can’t afford much else.

What’s your opinion of differentiation in the classroom? Currently writing an assignment on it.

I was trained on it and spend a long time of my teaching career on 3 activities. I’m shifting though. Limits on outcomes aren’t great, but work they can’t access is demoralising. Like everything in teaching, it has a time and a place.

Do you think MATs have had a positive impact on education? Do you feel the salaries of the CEOs are justified?

Haven’t had much experience with them to be honest. Not sure there are hard and fast rules you can apply to every school to expect success. If there was we’d have a completely prescribed state system. context is everything and MATs who impose all sorts of things may hinder this.

Whens the best time to take on a middle leader role and how does one go about achieving it?

Show interest, get involved and put some time into it. Talk to, and shadow existing leaders. Do you feel ready? Don’t be worried about starting with a small role and working up. Every subject leader role is a chance to make a difference.

Do you ever miss ‘teaching’?

I miss teaching, but I don’t miss marking, reports, etc. I still teach every week.

Do you think it’s okay to take SLT team out for Christmas Lunch during school hours?

Personally, I wouldn’t. Seems like it could create a them and us scenario which is unnecessary. Why do SLT need a special ‘do’? They aren’t any different as people or teachers.

I start my new role as LP for Inclusion & SEND in Jan. I’ll be part of a whole new SLT, the person I am replacing had no teaching commitments and I will be teaching full time. Nerves are starting to kick in! Any advice?!

Agree your priorities, expectations and standards as an SLT and stick to them. Be honest about your capacity with such a teaching commitment, esp with your HT – don’t try and set a pace you can’t sustain. Finally, be confident in yourself. They gave you the job for a reason.

Has budget ever been a factor in whether a teacher progresses on the pay scale or is it purely down to PM targets being successfully met?

Not in my school, no. But I am sure there are schools where it has been. Budgets aren’t the teachers problem, shouldn’t affect their pay.

Would you ever make every single TA in your (primary) school redundant and then replace them with new staff in order to save money?

Of course not. If the job role has stayed exactly the same hours and job spec, can that even be done?

what is your opinion on differentiating by giving less able children work pitched at say the year 2/3 curriculum when they’re in year 5? (Particularly in maths – do you think this might just widen the gap further?)

I think like everything, there is a time and place. If they can’t access the work in their year group they it might help. Support, practical resources and time might be just as beneficial though. Don’t put a limit on their outcomes though.

Why don’t schools ‘use’ their experienced teachers more ie ask them what worked well in previous schools, or their opinion on new initiatives? I think experienced teachers hold the key to whole school improvement, and would enjoy playing a greater role.

Not just experienced, strongest. I try to do this as much as possible. Just because I’m head doesn’t make me the best teacher in the school or know what will work – why not surround yourself with other talented people and use them?

How do you avoid micromanagement of staff? Where is the line between support and micromanagement?

We set out what we thought great teaching, monitoring, assessment and behaviour was as a staff. After that I leave them to it. I talk to pupils, pop in and out of lessons and look at books. If there are major problems I’ll intervene, otherwise they are professionals.

How can your teachers best support you?

By putting the kids first and doing what they can for them first and foremost. By trusting, challenging, being supporting to parents and behind the scenes with other staff. By being consistent in their expectations in a way that aligns to our school aims. By being honest.

What is your opinion on a school doing a mufti day that asks families for donations to a teacher wellbeing fund?

If you need a wellbeing fund there is a problem. If you don’t prioritise it enough to pay for it out of your own budget there is an even bigger one.

Do you prefer teachers who don’t have families, so they’ll be more committed work? Ive heard someone say that about a head before and it seemed a daft idea

Motto in my school is family first. Doesn’t matter to me if you’ve no kids or ten.

Do you have difficulty keeping powerful, proactive, vocal parents on side without agreeing to all their demands?

Sometimes, but I try to be open and honest and explain why I took the decision I did. That usually works a treat. If I got it wrong I’ll say so and apologise. Building trust rather than suspicion is absolutely key.

Do you ever hate kids just by sight , because I’m pretty sure it’s why teachers hated me.

Being completely honest, some can grate more than others, but I’ve never hated one. They all need help for a host of different reasons. We are there to give that.

How has your classroom practice changed/been affected etc since becoming a head?
2 positives/2 negatives…?

  • seeing more lessons esp in KS1
  • more time to talk to pupils about what works for them
  • don’t get to teach as much as I’d like
  • when I do it feels a bit ad hoc and my mind is half somewhere else.

What’s your thoughts on teachers who love what they do in the classroom but are happy staying at middle leader (ish) grade and don’t wish to progress through leadership/management?

Brilliant, means one of my classes has a great teacher. Not every teacher needs to go into management/leadership. Nothing wrong with being a great teacher and doing what you love.

Last question, what changes would you like to make in the way you work, or in your priorities, in 2020?

We will keep going with our plans to reduce workload, reduce stuff we do that doesn’t benefit children and engage teaching staff in class based research projects for their appraisal rather than data driven nonsense.

Can I have a pay rise?

If it was up to me…

Do you have a vacancy?

Not at the moment!

Can’t Please Everyone? Maybe we can.

I know this is an old hat topic, but I heard something new about it which changed my thinking about it. It came from a non educationalist, but it really resonated and is something I am going to try to build more explicitly with my parents over the coming months.

This was a new leader talking about vision. The point was that people will always want something different in some areas. The idea is easily translatable to education as we know. Some want more homework, some want less. Some want the school stricter, some think it is too strict. Some want it more academic, some want it more pastoral. In some areas, what we provide will be absolutely aligned with parents want. The problem comes when there is a gap between what they want and what we provide. This happens for a variety of reasons but mainly practical or ideological, but the point the speaker was making was this:

What do people fill the gap with?

Too often the gap is filled with suspicion. We must encourage them to fill it with trust instead. We’ve all seen that the default is suspicion. That’s what causes the sniping on the playground. We’ve seen the suspicion when a child has an issue and parents may come in all guns blazing having only heard their child’s side of the story. They are filling their gaps in understanding with suspicion rather than trust. How can we change this though? We all know that we have thought things through, we all know we have good reasons for doing things, but do we communicate this enough? It frustrates me when parents kick back against a decision we’ve made or a path that we’ve chosen, but maybe some of that is my fault. Have I explained it properly? Have I gone through the rationale for it, at a level they will understand? Have I done enough to make them understand it has been thought through?

I have been working on this so far this year. I am finding I am over explaining things. I have a parent body who will question and probe often, they are used to doing it in their jobs etc, so they apply it to us. It will take time, but already I have had less comeback over the changes I am making – heavily reduced marking in books for example. Not one comeback. Often we think we have been clear, we think we have justified it, but actually to a none educationalist it still doesn’t make sense. It needs to be done until the automatic response is to fill the gap between what they want and what they get with trust. I have already explained the idea to prospective parents for next year – the seed has been sown. I’m not saying there is no trust in my school – but it can feel like that sometimes. A shift in parents’ first response will make life easier for everyone.

This works for parents, but also for children and staff. Are teachers explicit enough in why something is changing or why they have done it one way and not another? If teachers can justify the way they have dealt with an incident and explain it clearly, it is no problem to back them up to parents, and the parents, once they have heard the rationale are fine. That’s why we get in first if there has been an incident during the day Make the phone call, or catch them at the end of the day, explain, give the reasons and be clear, build trust and we have the potential to bring a close community even closer. The first response will be to back us up and know it has been thought through and the best practical option has been taken. Win win.

Trust, it’s magic.

English Warm Up Games

Following on from the Maths Warm Up ideas, here are some ideas for English too!

1. Adverb Charades

Child leaves the room and comes back in acting out an adverb. Others have to guess what it is. One who gets it gets to do the next one.

2. Word Association Game

Play with two pupils. Start with one word and the other has to give a related word. Back and forth until someone repeats or hesitates.

3. Dictionary Wizard

Give a dictionary out one between two. Make sure all have the same edition if poss. Call out a word and first to find it shout ‘I’m a dictionary wizard’. They then read the page number to check correct and read the definition.

4. Taboo

Have a list of words/objects eg worm, Eiffel Tower and on each card have words they cannot say to describe them. The class have to guess the word from their description. They must pass if they use a forbidden word.

5. Articulate

30s timer, describe as many words from the cards as they can in the time. Rest of the class guess.

6. Unfortunately, However

A talk for writing one this. Two pupils one starts a sentence with Unfortunately and the other responds by starting theirs with however. Eg Unfortunately my car broke down. However, the repair game quickly etc etc.

7. Countdown Words

Pick 9 consonants and vowels. Children have 30s to make the longest word they can.

8. Anagrams

A list of anagrams to do with your topic, children unscramble.

9. What did you do last night?

One child tells the story of their previous evening in the most outlandish way and with most imagination possible. Other children can question the story. Great for imaginative storytelling.

10. Spelling Bee

Teacher has dictionary. Asks one child for a page number, another to choose the left or right column, final child to pick from 1-20. Count down the list. Child has to spell the word.

11. Super Sentence

Give each part of a sentce a points value eg opener, adjectives, adverbs, punctuation etc. Minus points if they miss punctuation. Chdn in pairs write highest scoring sentence they can. Score. Leads to discussion if being full of everything makes good sentence

12. Punctuation Bingo

6 squares filled with differing punctuation. Teacher gives secription if what the punctuation is used for, children cross of if they have it.

13. Synonym List

Write 3 verbs on the board. Children have 2 min to write as many synonyms as they can. Create class list.

14. If this is the answer…

Put a word on the board, children generate as many questions as they can that could lead to that answer.

15. Table Stories.

One children starts a story, but can only say one sentence. The next child sitting on the table continues it. Keep going round the group until the story comes to an end.

17 Maths Warm Up Games

Some maths warm up games and ideas that I have used over my time teaching maths to get you started for the new year, hope they are of some use!

1) Shoot the Sheriff

Children stand back to back and take five paces. You fire a question, first one to turn and shoot the other with the correct answer wins. Winner stays on, how many in row can they win? Children could ask questions.

2: Splat

Write around 10 numbers on the board. Two players stand in front and you ask a question, first one to find the answer and splat it by covering it up is the winner. Add decimals and negatives for more challenge. Winner stays on.

3. Related number facts

Write one number on the board. Children work in pairs to write all the facts they can think of about the number eg factors, multiples, halves, doubles, addition and subtraction facts, squares, roots.

4. Countdown Numbers

A classic, children work in pairs or solo on whiteboards. 10 points for spot on, 9 for one away, 8 for two a away etc. Tip: get them to write out the 75 times table first. Online version here that are always solvable here: https://t.co/Saz7eyc1qj

5. Countdown Fractions

Same principle, but more challenging! Difficulty can be set by level. https://t.co/jkf3yqRsZR

6. Broken Calculator

Can children make the target numbers using any certain keys on the calculator? Eg just a 5, 3, 2 and a +, x and =. Good starting point here:

mathsisfun.com/games/broken-c…

7. Transum Starter of the Day

Great problem solving starters for Y5/6. All topics covered, one for every day of the year. https://www.transum.org/Software/SW/Starter_of_the_day/

8. Area Challenge

Can the children complete the grid by working out which boxes go where to fill it, given the area of each box? Five different grids to try. https://www.transum.org/Maths/Puzzles/Area_Wall/default.asp

9. Number Bingo

Children choose 6 numbers from a twenty number range. Teacher says a question and children cross out if they have the answer.

10. Traffic Jam

Aids problem solving and forward planning skills. Can they move the red car out if the traffic jam by moving the others around? https://m.coolmathgames.com/0-parking-panic

11. Back to Back

Prepare pre drawn shapes or pictures using shapes. Children sit back to back one has picture and one has whiteboard. Children with pic has to describe it to their partner. When finished look and see how accurate. Encourages language like opposite, diagonal etc.

12. Four a Day

One addition, subtraction, multiplication and division calculation to solve. Can give three sets of questions for different levels of challenge.

13. Kim’s Game

Write ten number facts of the board eg 3 x 8 =24, 7 is the third prime number, a hexagon has 6 sides and give the children 2 minutes to memorise. Take one away and get children to write down which fact disappeared. Remove one every 30 seconds.

14. Multiplication Grid

Children have a grid with numbers 1 – 36 on, two dice and coloured counters. Children roll dice and cover up the answer to the two dice multiplied together. Whoever had most counters at end is winner. Use 9 sided dice and bigger grid for more challenge.

15. Number Slide

Draw pentagon with circles on corners. Draw another circle in middle, connect to all others. Num 1-6 in circles, random order. Chn start at 0, take turn to slide around adding the number they slide to. Can’t go back to prev num. Chd who makes it show 25+ loses.

16. Calculator Countdown

Start displaying 50. Children take it in turns to take off a number from 1-9. Whoever makes it show zero is the winner.

17. Odd One Out

Write three numbers in the board. Children have to find the odd one out and give a reason why.

Mind Consuming?

Of course teaching is time-consuming, but it’s not just that. It mind-consuming too. Yes there is a lot to do during the day, marking, planning, meetings, supporting, helping, guiding, writing, but the one thing that takes up most of my time in the day is thinking. I find this aspect of the job the most difficult. The inability to switch off, the constant thought process about how to be better, how you haven’t done that display, how you haven’t got that bit of paper laminated. The constant thoughts that pop into your head are exhausting. Possibly more so than the actual practical work. It happens in the holidays, the weekends, in pupil progress meetings and at 2am. Any time and usually every time. Teaching must be up there with the most mind-consuming of jobs.

The amount of mental effort that goes into teaching is the reason that teachers are amazing. It shows just how much each and every one of us care about the students that we look after. If it didn’t matter to us, this wouldn’t happen and I take reassurance from the fact that it does happen. The moment it stops is the moment we don’t care any more, and that is probably the moment we should probably think about whether we really want to be teaching.

But how do we deal with this all mind-consuming aspect of the job? The worries that ping into our brain at 2am. Spending an hour laying in bed at night debriefing from that difficult meeting with a parent. I’m not sure there is an answer to all of this, I think it will always happen. What worked for me was trying to get some perspective on it all though. I’m a big advocate of trying not to worry about things I can’t affect. That is an small statement, but one that can that in certain situations impossible to achieve, I understand it is not as simple as shrugging off all of the thoughts in our mind. However, there are definitely things that occupying our mind that with a change in perspective in our thought process, we can change our thinking, our response and improve our own wellbeing.

Here are some examples.

Number 1: A two hour meeting with a parent over a recommendation for a selective school I gave their child. It was unpleasant, it got heated in their behalf, especially when they realised it wouldn’t be changing. Previously, I might have stressed over this meeting for days beforehand and afterwards. But can I change the way they feel? No. Did I make the right call in my judgements? Yes. Were they always going to be upset because it wasn’t what they wanted? Yes. Will stewing over it help them or me? No. I can’t affect any change in that situation so why give precious time that could be spend in much more productive things to it?

Number 2: my budget. It’s a deficit, has been for two years. Does it keep me up at night? No. I can’t change the amount of money we have coming in, or the amount we have to spend. I am in a fortunate position where I don’t have to consider redundancies as it’s been acknowledged I’m not overstaffed. Will me worrying change the situation? Not one jot. Am I likely to find a solution at 2am?

Number 3: Pupil Progress Meetings. I worried about these for days as a teacher. What would I get accused of doing wrong? What else would I be asked to do? What would I be made to feel bad about? The solution to this worry was much simpler than I thought. Had I done everything I could for those students? Had I worked hard and done my best to get them to reach their potential as much as possible? If the answer to that is yes, then I have, or shouldn’t have, anything to worry about. I have to trust in my own expertise and knowledge of my class. If an SLT can’t see that I’ve done all I can, and that’s good enough, then maybe I’m working for the wrong SLT.

I found this ability to let go of things that I couldn’t change absolutely liberating. It wasn’t easy, it took practise and time. I’m not saying I don’t care, I do, deeply and always will. But the sleepless nights have reduced. The anxiety over my work has reduced. I’ve made sure the things I can affect are being done as well as I can. I have faith in my own practice, standards and ability. This has meant that I’ve been able to let go of things I used to worry about that my worry had no impact on, apart from making me tired and grumpy.

I’m convinced that almost all teachers are better then they think they are. I always encourage teachers at my school who are worried about meetings etc to remember that they are the expert. They know what they are talking about, and they have the knowledge to back up their point of view. Once we can get to a point where we are all secure in our own abilities and strengths we can move past these worries. There will always be exceptions to this rule, but there are definitely things it can applied to for our own wellbeing.

Teaching will always be a mind consuming job, but with some perspective maybe we can focus our thoughts and thinking time on the things that are in our control and really matter, rather than worrying over things we have no can have no impact on. Let’s make it so we can give all of our thoughts to the children and their progress rather than external factors.

#edutwoxic?

First of all, this is not a response to #listgate. Enough has been said over that, on both sides of the argument. However, it did inspire me to revisit this blog I’ve been meaning to write.

I joined twitter as a teacher in June. I have actually always tried to avoid education in my life away from work. I can’t stand watching TV programmes about education such as Secret Teacher, Educating wherever or Jamie Oliver’s attempt to run a school, they have always just wound me up. I don’t know what made me make the leap, but I did. Setting up as an anonymous was not something I did because I am embarrassed of anything or because I want to hide. I know that the parents from my school will be trying to track me down, especially as we have just started our own social media platforms. Who knows what gets back to parents via likes and retweets here and there, and before you know it you are in hot water.

I have a long experience with Twitter and have several accounts. My first was for friends and family and has largely stayed as such. It is very placid and doesn’t get much attention or traffic. My other account is a football based account. Wow – eye opener. I understand that football is tribal, and I can be as tribal as anyone when it comes to my beloved Liverpool. However, I was taken aback by the amount of vicious comments that passed back and forth over simply expressing an opinion. Nothing is agreed on, any comment is met with consternation or disgust and generally abuse. It’s a harsh world. It’s also a very funny one at times and part of me understands the context in which it is based. Football and sport can be a competitive and divisive world.

So this background brought me to the world of edutwitter. A slow foray into its world led to some exceptional accounts (I won’t list them!) and left me feeling inspired, just what I needed as I was coming in to the end of a long year. My timeline was soon filled with so many excellent ideas and resources to take back to my staff in September. It is a wonderful resource and has opened my eyes too lots of new ways of working. I am very glad to be part of it.

Then came the summer holidays and a whole new world opened up.

In amongst all the good stuff was a world of backbiting, sniping, criticism over classrooms, displays, even over going into work. Someone made to feel awful just because they asked for help? This surprised me much more than seeing it in the football world. The world of twitter suddenly became a double edged sword. One of my very early tweets was just after a visit to a nearby school where I came away feeling inspired, but just as depressed. My school wasn’t like this, there was so much lovely stuff, why wasn’t I doing it? Imposter syndrome came on strong. Twitter can be just like this. Seeing people’s classrooms over the holiday brought on exactly the same feelings. They are amazing, wonderful, fabulous and would be a joy to learn in, but mine never looked like that at all. I wish they did. Does the make me a worse teacher? No. Does it inspire me? Yes. Does it make me feel like a worse teacher? Partly. Would I say anything about it to anyone online? No. What would we say if we saw behaviour like this in the playground? We would be on it in a flash and trying to modify it. It so easy to get offended on twitter, but it also very easy to offend, often completely unintentionally. There is no tone button, there is just face value.

But, why shouldn’t they share it? It’s not done with any malice, it is done to inspire and because they are proud of what they have done. Who are we to take people to task over that? Why is it our place to tell people what they can and can’t share? It isn’t. We are all adults and can make our own decisions about what we look at. However, I can completely understand how the guilt starts. It’s the summer holiday and we all need a well deserved rest, but seeing people in work could make people feel the opposite of what is intended, but that is their choice. You know what works for you, you know how to set up your classroom, you know what access you’ve got. Work with that and be secure in your own expertise.

Is twitter amazing? Yes. There are so many reasons to love it, so many great accounts and great resources and I have really enjoyed my time so far. I’ve gained an awful lot of ideas and resources to try out in September – what a fabulous hub of inspiration and learning. Is Twitter toxic? Yes, at times it can seem that way. It has the potential for making people feel guilty, offending and making people feel inadequate. In a world of education where we all strive to be better and try to teach children the art of collaboration and learning from others, it seems that, at times, we are unable to do it in the online world.

People not Pupils

Don’t smile until Christmas. I was given this advice by tutors, colleagues and even my mum who was also a teacher. Show them who’s boss and set those firm boundaries. Woe betide anyone who might cross them. So, in my NQT year I gave it everything, I was firm, strong, strict and took no messing. Had I cracked it? Maybe. The kids behaved, they did ok but at the end of the year I overheard the nickname they’d given me. Mr Temper.

I was devastated. I realised it wasn’t my job to be their friend, or to be their favourite, but how on earth could they have enjoyed coming to school when they called their teacher Mr Temper? How could they have learned as well as possible? I needed to change something for the following September. Strict and nasty wasn’t me anyway, but I’d done it for the right reasons and was looking for the right results, it just wasn’t the right way of doing it. Children need to enjoy coming to school, they need to feel appreciated, like they will get a fair crack of the whip and I don’t think my first class will have felt they got that.

I started my second year determined to do something different. I still wanted the boundaries but wanted to apply them in a different way. I decided I would only hold them to two rules: do your best and don’t stop yourself or other people learning. We unpacked those as a class and we had a much better year. But why was that? It wasn’t because I had less rules or different ones, it’s because I took the time to get to know my students. Instead of watching them like hawks, ready to pounce on the smallest indiscretion I found myself having more opportunity to chat with them and get to know them. Consequently, I think I had what is still the best year of my teaching career. Our relationships were so much better. We understood each other, we knew where each other were coming from and what our boundaries were. I was more consistent and they responded to that.

I started thinking about this when reading cards from pupils this year and when I found some old ones in the loft. None of them told me I was great at lesson planning, none of them said I led maths really well nor that the way I catered for all learning styles really helped them. No, they commented on kindness and helping them, humour and being happy. This is is what they remember and this is what puts them in the right frame of mind to learn.

A teacher who can build good relationships, but has poorer practice will get better outcomes than a teacher who has perfect practice but can’t connect with children. We know it as teachers, from the way senior leaders interact with us. Set the boundaries and establish your classroom ethos from a place of relationship, not from domination.

That’s why every first days of the year was spent getting to know children. I always did an art activity with them in the first afternoon and sat down with each table completing my own version of it. I didn’t comment on their technique or try and teach them anything at all. We just chatted while they were kept busy. Did I miss several learning opportunities? Maybe. Did I care? No. I built the opportunity for so many more just by spending time with them as people rather than pupils.

The children reflect everything we do. This came sharply in to focus for me when some of my Year 6s taught my class for a lesson. It was like looking in a mirror, every quirk I had when I taught, they did. My phrasing, my language, my structures. They will reflect exactly the relationship we offer them. We want them to be happy and to respect us, and reach their potential and they can only do this if they feel happy, safe and secure. The best way to reach this point is to really get to know them. Not just superficially, but to laugh with them, get upset with them, get indignant with them and share experiences with them. All of that made for far better learning, for them and for me.

Paying Lip Service

Pay rises, extra money, Nick Gibb saying he’s looking forward to sorting out education spending, a new Secretary of State for Education who actually has a link to teaching, a new optimism in politics. The future is bright, surely?

Except we’ve heard it all before, haven’t we? Every time there is a change in leadership or reshuffle, we get the same old rhetoric. Let’s make our education system the best in the world, let’s raise standards, let’s finish the job this government has already started. Unfortunately, it is a load of old cobblers.

But why? I think the people who have said this down the years have genuinely meant it. They do want our system to be the best, and they do want to fund it, but their hands are completely tied. Not by chancellors or austerity or spending cuts, but by simple necessary prioritisation.

Education will never be life and death, and that is the reason why it will never get the spending it deserves. The NHS is crumbling and struggling to cope under winter demand and the outcome is that people die. Defense spending is cut, our troops die. Crime rates go up and there is less policeman, people can die. Housing is mess, same scenarios. If education is underfunded what is the worst that can happen? That little Johnny doesn’t have a gluestick? We all know it’s much worse than that, but politics is never about the long term. The other public services have serious short-term impacts of underfunding so get the money quickly. The effects of underfunding on education won’t be seen for years and years, by which point it is too late. This is why education is only ever paid lip service too. It will never be important enough in the here and now to warrant a substantial and meaningful cash injection. I’m not saying that other public sector workers don’t have similar feelings – the NHS is testament to that. Workers there will feel the strain just as much, or even more so than teachers, but my point is that when use comes to shove, the NHS will get the funds. Push will never come to shove with education.

This infuriates me. Why should my first concern over a child’s support be whether I can fund it, not whether they need it? The short-term views of politicians and policy makers will never place education high enough up the list to see their ideas through. There are no votes in education, because the effects of underfunding can never be seen vividly enough in the public domain. Standards are rising, funding is better than ever, pay is better than ever, it is fairer than ever, more children have access to a good or outstanding school than ever.

That will always be the argument. But education is life and death. Not literally, but it is the key to everything politicians want for this country. Strong export businesses, strong economies, low unemployment, the actual vote winners. We all have the common sense to see that an education system that doesn’t work will cause more problems further down the line. It’s because of this that teachers make sure it won’t happen. They give everything to give children meaningful, memorable and effective educations that will help them. The politicians know this. They know teachers won’t stop and will keep providing great education, and that’s why they never have to pay more than sound bite lip service to our education system. Let’s hope that this time I’m wrong.

The Dark Night of the Soul

Today marks 8 years since the lowest point of my teaching career. I remember it vividly. However, looking back it was probably simultaneously the worst and best day of my career. 

I was coming to the end of a long year in Year 6, and despite coming off the back of another good set of SATs result I was at my lowest ever ebb. Working for a headteacher who can only be described as relentless I was fed up. Nothing I did seemed good enough and I couldn’t see how it would ever be so. Work sampling filled me with fear. Emails from the head made my blood run cold, as a member of SLT there were plentiful. It wasn’t that she was a bad head, far from it. She was excellent and demanded the best everyday, but I couldn’t see a way to come to terms with and deliver what she wanted. I didn’t want to go to work at all. This was more than the usual end of term exhaustion. I was as unhappy as I had ever been in the job.

The reason I remember the night so clearly is that it was the night of our Year 6 show. I remember sitting on my computer  between the end of the day and the kids coming back for make-up and googling ‘alternative jobs for teachers’. I had pretty much made my mind up to leave the profession. 

It didn’t take long before I realised that this wasn’t really an option. I had wanted to a primary teacher since the age of 14. I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t work hard enough for GCSE and A-levels, and while they were good enough to get my onto my BA Primary Ed course, they should have been so much better (although I do now have a good motivational story to tell Year 6 every year). My degree was in education, all I knew was education. It dawned on me that all I was qualified for was education. As the main earner in my household and my wife pregnant, retraining wasn’t an option, we couldn’t afford the salary cut.

So, in that empty classroom I realised this was me, and this was what I needed to keep doing. I wasn’t qualified for anything else. At that point, after I had made that resolution, I instantly felt better, like a weight had been lifted. 

Over the nest few months I slowly started to come to terms with the fact that I didn’t need to be perfect. We can’t strive for perfection, we will never get there. However, we can strive to be excellent and we need to accept that this is OK. Teachers are a strange breed. They forever look for the negatives and the ones that got away and what they could have done more of for each child that doesn’t quite get what we wanted them do.. We need to stop this. It doesn’t do any good. Celebrate success. Accept you did all you could. Remember you are working with children. They aren’t adults, they are immature and unpredictable no matter how grown up they seem. By shifting my mindset I was able to fall back in love with teaching. I could hand on heart say I was doing all I could, and to be honest, no one can ask any more from me than that. After all, that is all we ask from the children. There are thousands of things we can do, hundreds of things we should do and tens of things we have to do every day. Once I accepted that I cannot do all of the things I could do, or even all of the things I maybe should do I instantly became a better teacher. Being able to say sometimes:

What is the worst that will happen if I don’t get this done? 

It is OK for my students to know that I have a life outside school and that’s why I didn’t WWW and EBI their RE work from yesterday. 

I am not going to be the perfect teacher, but I am going to excellent and make sure that no-one can say I haven’t tried my best.

I gave that child my all, and they still didn’t make their target – that is not my fault.

Accepting this liberated me, and I am so glad it did. This is the job I wanted to do, and love doing again. As a head I try and let my teachers have this attitude. Nothing will every be perfect, but if you have done your best, I will never tell you it isn’t good enough. I will tell you how it can get better and  help you with it. Why should we treat staff and differently to the children when it comes to their professional development?

We are privileged to do the best job in the world. We do it well. We shouldn’t be made to feel like we aren’t doing well enough when we are. If you are thinking of leaving the profession, before you make up your mind, take a look at your mindset and ask yourself if you are being too harsh on yourself. The children deserve our best, yes, but they shouldn’t get all of us. That is what leads to burn out, stress and and an unrealistic view of what an amazing job you will be doing for those children. Allow yourself some slack, appreciate how great you are and accept that your best should be good enough. 

Reports – The Honest Truth?

Urgh. 

I’m sure I’m supposed to say they are a vital part of parent’s feedback and will be treasured and valued. But, actually, are they? 

However much thought goes into them, are they ever more than a sycophantic snapshot, filled with teacher jargon and obscure adjectival changes to shift meaning for those who can read between the lines, and pull the wool over those who can’t? Is it just an arse covering exercise…”well if you read his Year 5 report Mrs Jenkins, it does say that he was developing his understanding, and was beginning to show signs of working at the expected level”.  It’s clear to us teachers, but is it clear to the parents? I’ve seen it reports I’ve read, I’ve seen it in reports I’ve scrutinised for appeals, I’ve seen it my daughters reports, and yes, I’ve written it in reports myself. 

Let’s be honest, unlike we are when we write reports, we don’t want to deal with the hassle from the parents at the end of the year but maybe, more importantly we don’t want to be told it is our fault. Little Johnny who has been a pain all year suddenly becomes a child who ‘has progressed well, despite a tendency to become distracted and lose focus at times’. Sorry? You’ve been in my office complaining about him and how he needs a 1:1 TA all year, and now all he does is become a bit distracted? However, if we tell it like it is, then it won’t be anyone’s fault but our own. Not in the eyes of the parents anyway. It doesn’t matter how many interventions we’ve run, how many booster groups have been delivered and how much extra support has been given, it will still be the school’s fault if there hasn’t been an improvement. It doesn’t matter that he hasn’t done a shred of homework. It doesn’t matter that he’s late every day. It doesn’t matter that he’s spent the last three months trying to write upside down with his wrong hand in italics, bold and starting every other sentence with one of those superman ’S’ shapes. We can’t say that. 

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But why? We should be able to say it. We are the experts, we are the professionals. We spend the most time with the children, we know how to make them improve. We’ve been doing all we can for the last 9 months. Why shouldn’t we tell it like it is?  We should have faith that we have done all of we can. We can prove we have offered everything we said we would, but we haven’t been met halfway. Teachers are a most immodest breed, always thinking of what extra they could have done. Why should  we cover up for a child who has refused to engage despite the best efforts of every member of staff who has come into contact with them?

It’s not blame shifting. It’s not an absolution of responsibilities. It is honesty. It’s realism. It’s helping prepare children for a world when there isn’t always someone there  to gloss over the tricky bits and over emphasise the good.  In an education world that is full of values and personal development, determination, resilience and perseverance are everywhere at the moment. There is another one that is always there as well though – honesty. Maybe it is time teachers started being truly honest with parents and children. We’ll help you, we’ll work with you and give you all the support you need, but if you aren’t pulling your weight we will hold you responsible, and tell your parents just as much. We are the experts, we should have nothing to fear because actually, deep down, we all know it is for best.