Take another little piece of my heart

erma

I love the song ‘Piece of my heart’, first recorded in 1967 by Erma Franklin.  In fact, I think this song should be the headteacher’s anthem. It captures perfectly the ebb and flow of the strength that is required in school leadership. It beautifully illustrates the juxtaposition of other people’s expectations versus your own capacity and determination. I can think of no other time, in my professional life, where a feeling of being drained manages to, in of itself, provide me with the fight to carry on.

Didn’t I make you feel like you were the only man,

Didn’t I give you everything that a woman possibly can.

But the more of the love I give you, it’s never enough.

Well I’m gonna show you baby, a woman can be tough.

Don’t we all love our schools? Aren’t we all, every day, turning up because we care? I know I am. There isn’t a week gone by where I haven’t tried to improve the state of things for everyone in the school. From the smallest actions to the biggest decisions, I go about my days trying to make things better. I love the school and want the best for everyone in it. I want the school to be special. Thus, I try to give the school everything a headteacher possibly can.

Every decision made doesn’t suit someone. Somebody will disagree. At least one person thinks an alternative would work better for them. Sometimes they assume you haven’t considered their point of view because, how could you have done and still made ‘that’ decision? Sometimes, they expect a volte-face. Sometimes they expect an apology. Sometimes they are happy just to let you know they’re not happy. And why not? Everyone has a right to be heard.

I can’t always predict every objection. Even when I think I’ve covered all bases, it can sometimes feel like nothing would ever be good enough. But my job is to be resilient and respond to, or absorb, any fall-out so the school keeps moving forward.

I won’t lie: this can be harder than it sounds. It’s heartbreakingly, soul-destroyingly depressing to be repeatedly told ‘you’ are not making people happy. Even on your most successful day it will be the lone voice of dissent that ends up whispering in your ear depriving you of sleep. But you can’t be a slave to your detractors. You can’t always presume that unhappy people are right. You can listen, for sure. And there’s nothing wrong with holding up your hand and saying ‘Do you know what? You’re right, sorry. I’ll sort that out straight away.’ That is caring and compassionate leadership. This should come easily to anyone in a position of responsibility. But, sometimes, you have to show your love by being strong and standing firm.

Take it. Take another little piece of my heart now, baby,

You know you got it if it makes you feel good.


I have found that being in a (relatively high profile) position of responsibility can have drawbacks beyond people not always agreeing with your decisions. Drawbacks that nobody really tells you about during your NPQH. At times, it can feel like people think they own you, and every facet of your being, just because of your job description. I have lost count of the number of incredibly personal comments that have been directed at me during my time as headteacher. My private life, is apparently, fair game. All manner of stakeholders, from governors to parents, have, at one time or another, deemed it appropriate to enlighten me on their perceived knowledge about me. At best, I could put this down to curiosity (my homelife, my own education etc.); at worst, it is a bizarre presumption that they have a right to know everything about me (my political allegiance, my sexuality etc.). Not only that, some people feel they have a civic duty to tell everyone else what they think, including me – as if I would somehow be unaware!

Just in case you think I’m being over-sensitive I’ll share with you my favourite: whilst sat in my office a parent informed me that everyone had noticed I had ‘let myself go’. It’s either that or the time I was called a balding Nazi.

Nobody told me that the role of headteacher came with such a strong sense of public ownership. And, since I am often taken completely by surprise when such sentiments are presented to me, I tend not to dignify them with a response. (Although, I would like to stress that I am not a fascist and I am, and always have been, in peak physical condition.) It seems odd though that when I have shared this with my masters, I am expected not to mind (it’s just part of the job) and, due to being in a position of respectful responsibility, am not allowed to ‘robustly’ tell these people to mind their own business. I must be dignified and continue to lead without prejudice. I must allow them to have little pieces of me that they can chew up and spit back at me whenever the feeling takes them.

Break another little bit of my heart now, darling, yeah,

Hey! Have another little piece of my heart now, baby, yeah.


In dealing with – or ignoring – these personal invasions I, like Erma, gain strength from a different side of emotional ownership and one that headteachers are often privy to: when supporting those that require your emotional strength because they have none left themselves. Over the years, I may have run out of patience, once in a while, but I have never, and hope I never will, run out of compassion, empathy and love for members of my school community. Schools are beacons for those in need. And, as @smithsmm wrote in his recent blog, headteachers are now expected to take on supportive roles far beyond their job description and training. I often feel incredibly ill-equipped and isolated as I try to support members of my community in the way that they need; the only thing that hopefully benefits them is that I am guided by my compassion. It is my duty to help them and I will gladly break off as many pieces of my heart as is necessary to support an individual in crisis.

And each time I tell myself that I, well I can’t stand the pain,

But when you hold me in your arms, I’ll sing it once again.

Headship is hard. Strip back all things academic and it’s still a daunting and seemingly impossible job to do. It is not made any easier by the people that inhabit our schools. We all have dark days. We all have times when we lie in bed, after the alarm has gone off, and wonder if we have the strength to go in today. We all should be forgiven for those times when we think that if it wasn’t for the teachers, the kids, the parents, the governors, the government – and anyone else for that matter – our job would be a lot easier.

But, in truth, we need the school as much as the school needs us. Every person, every problem, every success…every smile, tear, hug, laugh…provides me with sustenance. Nothing surprises me and keeps me on my toes as much as leading a school. And that, for me, is what keeps me singing. I know that sometimes life is unfair. I know that in the future I may be subject to a personal attack or feel a victim of undue criticism. But the good will out. I will weather the storms and always come back fighting. I will continue to give the school everything I have, because, that is what we both need.

La La Land

la-la-land

There was a time when the Local Authority ruled supreme. The LA controlled all schools and, as such, all schools were linked. The LA collected all the money from central government and decided how it would be shared across its schools. The LA kept some money back for itself to create services that its schools would – must – use. These ranged from the sort of corporate services (that head teachers hoped they wouldn’t need to use – or understand – such as HR and Legal) to educational services (that head teachers were told they needed to use to improve further, such as school improvement officers and LA-wide data sets). Every school was entitled to LA support and this ensured that no school was left behind.

Except, of course, some were.

There is a truth that should be universally acknowledged: some schools, sometimes, go wrong.

Welcome to LA land.

When this happened, the LA would spring into action. The school would be given more support until it improved. It would have to improve because there was no option for it not to. Sometimes improvements came quickly, sometimes they did not. Schools are complex beasts and they can’t always be fixed by chucking money and resources at it. But, as the LA controlled everything, they had ultimate accountability and there was nowhere for them to hide.

Sometimes, other schools moaned about the LA. What did the LA ever do for them? Forget all the corporate services – who cares about them? – why couldn’t they get more out of the LA? Why was the LA always concerned with the crap schools and not theirs? Why were some of the LA services rubbish? Why couldn’t schools seek out their own services that could be better? Of course, schools that were succeeding could enjoy complete autonomy by creating their own infrastructures; shaping their own curriculum; devising their own approaches to teaching and learning; bringing in their own CPD opportunities; managing their own budgets and working in collaboration with other schools if they wished. Technically, as long as they were delivering the goods, it didn’t really matter. And maybe these schools could be forgiven for wondering what the LA, apart from admissions, safeguarding and SEND arrangements, was actually doing for them.

Then, somebody had a bright idea. Schools could come out from under the LA’s control. They could be standalone schools. Free to do whatever they wanted and, what’s more, they would have more money with which to do it with.

More money?

How?

Because you wouldn’t have to give the LA any money for all their services as you’d be getting them from somewhere else. Up and down the land, schools began to imagine the possibilities. Finally, they could employ their own caterers, HR officers, Lawyers, and accountants. It was as if every educationalist’s dream had come true. Even better than that, you’d be totally on your own. Free from the shackles of the LA who were either leaving you alone to get on with it, or, getting involved because something had gone wrong.

True, some schools couldn’t really see the benefits and decided to carry on as normal.

But those that could see some benefits busied themselves with becoming an academy. Not a school. An academy. An academy where new freedoms meant they could do whatever they wished. Free to spend every penny of the people’s money to get better results, for otherwise, what would have been the point? Academies sought out alternative corporate services and invented ways to generate additional income revenues. Some of them, presumably, found newer ways to deliver teaching and learning that LA schools were not aware of. We heard less about this bit.

Gradually the LA responded by improving its services. Schools, who had never even been aware of the myriad of backroom services provided by the LA, were suddenly invited to meetings to discuss how to improve the quality of the LA’s core offer. Without having to change the name of the school, or having to become a Principal Executive, Heads were becoming more involved in improving the business side of their school. And all at no extra cost.

Then the costs began. Not satisfied with Local Authorities offering their schools more ‘freedoms’ the government decided to further weaken the LA through economic strangulation. Meanwhile, those academies who were (to everyone’s surprise, not least of all theirs) also facing the pinch were resorting to alternative strategies to try and convince their board members that everything was still A-OK; such as flouting admission rules to engineer their pupil intake and using questionable exclusion policies to drive out vulnerable pupils. This heady mix of dubious uses of academy freedoms and local authority neutering only served to make life harder in LA land.

However…

A dim light had been switched on. A cheap neon sign that read ‘join us’ flickered in the dark. Illuminated promises of ‘freedoms’ and ‘cash’ burned the retinas of every LA maintained Head that stared at it for too long. And stood there, flicking the switch as they handed out their glossy ‘sign now, read later’ articles of association, were the regional school commissioners. MATs, they whispered, were the answer. Multi Academy Trusts are the only way you’ll make your school work. The LA is dead. Step over its twitching corpse and join a MAT. Why, we’ll even let you create your own. Imagine that! Create your own MAT [subject to our approval] and the world could be yours!

What could schools do? No matter where they looked they were either facing cuts, a diminishing service from the LA and increasing demands from the communities they served. And all the time the RSCs were whispering matspeak into their ears. Gradually, one by one, they walked towards the light, unable to notice if they were getting burned.

Multi Academy Trusts are the future.

Resistance is futile.

Soon there will be one MAT to rule us all.

Resistance is futile.

There will be a time when the MAT will rule supreme. The MAT will control all schools and, as such, all schools will be linked. The MAT will collect all the money from central government and decide how it will be shared across its schools. The MAT will keep some money back for itself to create services that its schools would – must – use. These will range from the sort of corporate services (that heads of school hope they’ll never need to use or understand, such as HR and Legal) to educational services (that heads of school will be told by the Exec they need to use in order to improve further, such as school improvement officers and MAT-wide data sets). Every school will be entitled to MAT support and this will ensure that no school is left behind.

Except, of course, some will be.

There is a truth that should be universally acknowledged: some schools, sometimes, go wrong.

Welcome to La La land.

The lightness of being

face

As I walked out of my office, for the last time on the final day of my first ever Ofsted inspection as a Head, I made some off the cuff gag to the governors who were waiting. This prompted the Lead Inspector to slap me on the back and say ‘I can’t believe he’s still smiling, he’s had a tough old two days, and he’s still smiling.’

I had. And I was.

Not because I am some super-being. (Although the 360-degree survey I conducted on myself shows that I’m darn close). Not because I didn’t get the gravity of the situation. (We’d just been placed in RI, the lowest outcome for the school in a hundred years, so, yes, I had realised that the week’s newsletter was going to require some careful editing.) Not because I was drunk. (That was to happen 91 minutes later.)

The reason why I was still making cheap gags at such a time was because…why not?

I enjoy being alive. It’s fun. If I can’t smile, what’s the point?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not some irritating buffoon who feels the need to make light of misery. I wouldn’t for example, on hearing the news that…

[Blank space representing all the inappropriate jokes in relation to serious incidents that my editor has deemed it necessary to delete even though I claimed that my readers were intelligent people and could understand the difference between me actually being offensive and me making a point. But, my editor argued, you’ll put it out on twitter and they’re mostly idiots.]

…of course I wouldn’t say that! That would just be highly insensitive and extremely offensive.

But even though I don’t make light of serious issues, I see no problem in tackling serious issues with a lightness of touch. This enables hard messages to be communicated clearly but sensitively. It allows points of view to be heard. It provides freedom of speech without either side feeling battered by an over-bearing and one-sided narrative.

In times of united struggle, being able to end on a light note, doesn’t so much provide others with hope, (that would be an incredibly pretentious claim) but it can help put things in perspective. It can allow others to take a breath and relax before fighting on.

Twitter could do with gaining a lightness of touch. I don’t want this to sound like the hundred other blogs out there that say: Why is everyone so mean? Why can’t we all just get on? I don’t want everyone to get on. I want there to be discourse and conversation. I want passionate teachers to spar with each other on the educational battlefield.

What I don’t want, and what is beginning to be boring, is the joyless and heavy bombardment of over-serious and self-worthy laments. These tedious battles that end up nowhere. I mean, come on people: WAR! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!

I don’t care what side you’re on. I don’t care what your beliefs are. Just remember: this is Twitter! It’s next to meaningless. Nobody cares, that much, what you do in your classroom. What you say might be interesting but then again, it might not be. If you put it out there be prepared for others to ignore it or knock it down. Don’t object. Get over it. If they’re ‘abusing’ you, report them or block them. But don’t tell everyone you’ve blocked them whilst tweeting a ton of screenshots of something they said fifteen years ago before twitter was invented as if we care about your justification: just do it.

If people in the real world have an issue with your beliefs, go and work somewhere else. You’ll be happier. If you can’t and if the real world is being unfair and unjust, tell us about it and we will all rally round and support you. Because that’s why we all signed up to this. We want to make friends, learn something, and support the education community. Oh, and we want to occasionally tweet funny things that happened to us or share the occasional gif of a cat ice skating or whatever.

So, please, Twitter: lighten up!