I: Head

tree-brain

The Big Bang

I doubt there are many Heads who don’t consider themselves to be top of the tree. That’s why we took on the job, right? We had the belief that we were the best person to oversee the running of an entire school. I bet most of us got that inkling when we first walked around the building before we even applied for the job; we just knew that something was right here and that this school was a perfect fit. Sure, others might be able to do a perfectly reasonable job, but, when we received the call from the Chair of Governors saying we’d got the headship, we knew that it was because they had seen what we knew: no one was going to do the job better than us.

Few of us (I hope) have the ego that makes us believe we would be the best in any school. No way! But I bet most of us believe that we were the only choice for our school. I know I did. I felt an immediate affinity with my school, as if somehow, I knew it better than anyone else. I could see through it and I understood what was holding it back. I could see its potential. I believed that only I could unlock its strengths. I knew we belonged together.

I know one day I won’t feel that. One day it’ll dawn on me that I can no longer see the school for what it is. I will be blind. I may care more about preserving its name and covering up its secrets rather than constantly exposing its faults to make it stronger. When that day comes, the school will need someone else at the helm. I will require replacing. I will need to look for a new school that needs me.

Superhead

So, you’re the Head of the school. You have all the plans and all the ideas. You have the capacity to inspire, uniting your community in striving to achieve the ambitions you have for the school. You are respected and people warm to your leadership.

That’s great. But that will only get you so far.

I thought my leadership was pretty darn great in my first year. A friend of mine regularly reminds me that I once judged my leadership to be a solid nine out of ten. This causes him no end of amusement especially when I am in the middle of some crisis. However, I stand by the fact that in my first year I was great! I think it’s easier to be good in your first year of headship at a new school. Your role, in that first year, is simpler. Have a plan, convince everyone that you know what you’re doing and end the year with most people on your side. Yes, you are building teams but you’re building your teams. You work tirelessly, often independently, but hopefully not in isolation.  I worked with some fantastic people in my first year and they helped me no end but for most of the time it was ‘my show’.

The point of your first year however is to end it with it no longer being just ‘your show’. And then of course, being a Head becomes much harder.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts

Since my first year I don’t think I’ve reached the dizzying heights of a ‘nine out of ten’ ever again. The job is so much harder. Headship, post year one, is not a job that can be done alone. Partly because the more you do it the more you become aware of the role’s complexities; partly because situations arise that really test you; partly because the job itself evolves. What becomes clearer though, the more you do it, is how much you need strong people around you. I am lucky that I have a very close senior leadership team. Between us, we know what the rest of us are like. We know our strengths, weaknesses and our characters. For me, them knowing what I am like, is invaluable.

I know what I’m like. Therefore, I know what I will shy away from; what I will find uncomfortable; what I would rather not do. Sometimes this helps. I don’t, for example, like confrontation. Therefore, I try to minimise the need for confrontation through my leadership style. This works, most of the time. When it doesn’t, I am blessed to have a leadership team who will challenge me to go out of my comfort zone. They will recognise the signs that I am avoiding something and push me to get it sorted. Occasionally they misunderstand my perceived avoidance; they cannot see that it is a masterful strategic action that is several steps ahead of the game that they are, as yet, unaware of…sometimes they are bang on the money.

I am eternally grateful for this challenge and the way in which the people around me challenge me to see things from different perspectives. I trust them because I value their integrity and their motives: they want to work in the best school possible. They are able to challenge me because they know I want that too.

There are still times when I excel as a leader. There are plenty of other times when those in my orbit outshine me. Often, when I lead well, it is because I know that it is expected of me, or, because other leaders have prompted me to do so. Either way, who cares, so long as it enables the school to move forward?

I doubt there are many Heads who don’t consider themselves to be top of the tree. But I bet most of them will acknowledge that one of the perks of being in that tree is knowing that they are in good company.

Paper planes

paper-plane

I don’t know a lot about the increasingly popular ‘no excuses’ rhetoric that is pervading the edu-landscape at the moment. I am sure it doesn’t mean that we just expect children to behave impeccably – no matter what – just because they happen to be on our side of the school gates. I’m sure it doesn’t mean that, should a child behave poorly, they are immediately disciplined with the underlying message being that they should simply understand how to behave better especially now they’ve just been caught out. I’m also sure it doesn’t mean that the longer a teacher has their high expectations in place, the less they feel they must work at ensuring their pupils reach that standard.

I’m sure a ‘no excuses’ culture does not mean any of that, when it’s done properly. I can’t help feeling though, that some people think that’s what it means. I can’t help feeling that there may be some teachers who perceive themselves to be great teachers simply because they have high standards of behaviour. As if having high standards is a silver bullet that shoots out perfectly formed and well behaved children without the teacher having to do anything.

In my experience this has always been the folly of student teachers or NQTs. They get very agitated talking about the children that ‘just won’t’ behave. I’m sure we’ve all had that awkward conversation with students or inexperienced teachers where we’ve had to remind them that they’re the teacher and getting children to behave is, kind of, their job.

I personally have very high standards of behaviour. I did when I was a teacher too. It was exhausting! Sometimes I used to wish that my expectations were lower just so I wouldn’t have to work so hard. I was always slightly envious of those colleagues (and I’ve only met a few) who would moan about the behaviour in their class but who never seemed concerned enough to do anything about it. They must have had it so easy! Instead, there I was, anticipating when, in my next lesson, certain children would find a way to misbehave and trying to work out how I could make sure they didn’t.

As a Head, I have never used the expression ‘no excuses’ to describe an approach to behaviour management. It sounds too ripe for accountability avoidance for my liking. I like high standards. I’m happy to support, and back up, staff when a child has misbehaved. But I must fundamentally believe that they did everything they could to prevent the misbehaviour from happening to do so. I am very sceptical of teachers bringing me a child who has misbehaved ‘repeatedly’ during a lesson or who has completed ‘next to no work at all. I want to ask them: ‘At what point did you step in and try to change it?’ I don’t want to find out that the teacher’s solution to the poor behaviour is simply telling the child to buck up their ideas. I want to hear about how the teacher put something in place to help the child improve?

I want to hear about paper planes.

Paper planes are things I expect every teacher to put in place every day. They should underpin every activity, lesson, visit, event that occurs in the classroom. It’s very simple:

  • Plan
  • Anticipate
  • Provide
  • Evaluate
  • Repeat

In summary, whatever it is you have planned, anticipate who, in your class, you would put money on struggling with it (behaviour wise) and put in place something that will enable them to get through it without falling foul of a telling off. Afterwards, decide if you could realistically put that in place next time and if you think that you could, do so.

This isn’t about lowering your standards for key pupils. This approach isn’t about mollycoddling naughty kids. It allows them to meet your expectations. And, when you think about it, that’s the whole point of the teacher. We think nothing of differentiating work before a lesson, so, why shouldn’t we differentiate for behaviour. I always think about how I used to take my class swimming. I knew which children to sit next to on the coach, who to send into the changing rooms first, which children needed to get out the pool five minutes before everyone else, and of course, the golden rule to ensure we never missed the coach home: no talking until your socks are on. With all this in place, every child – even the boy who got banned from the swimming pool the year previously – could go swimming every week without earning a detention in the process.

Planning Little Actions Normalize Expectations.

A good teacher builds these paper planes to make sure children behave. A lesser teacher sits back and allows children to fall below the required standard, believing themselves to have been carrying out their job description just through having an expectation that they wanted to be met. An effective teacher builds equity into their behaviour management and has, in storage, different paper planes for different situations. Less effective teachers believe that if a child can behave during quiet reading, they will automatically be able to behave during DT. They are outraged that glue guns, saws and screwdrivers often prompts behaviour that requires a little more effort on their part to keep things moving along without incident, fuss or conflict. A decent teacher understands that behaviour management is a part of the job that never stops. A poorer teacher believes that children should just know how to behave, all of the time, and if they don’t it’s their fault rather than their own.

I don’t know about ‘no excuses’. All I know is that, in my experiences, the best teachers develop a 360° awareness of their class’s needs and are therefore able to manage them effectively. Over time, fewer paper planes are needed because the children, not only know what is expected of them, but also know what these expectations feel like. In the end, there is no need for excuses. Not because your pupils are perfect but because teachers and children are both working hard to make the expectations a reality.

Sometimes the paper planes crash and the child misbehaves. When that happens, deal with the fallout and, remembering that you’re the teacher, build another one.

Nurture 16/17

2017Leadership 2016

I am a very driven person. I want to be successful and by that, I mean, I want to be good at my job. I admire people who are good at what they do. I am motivated through substance. I have little time for people who seem to do nothing more than repeatedly vocalise their virtues. I want my success to have substance. More importantly I want to be a substantive success. I know that obsessing about a singular drive won’t get me that. High results can be a hollow victory. Happy staff can hide a lazy leader. An obsession with Ofsted can tear a school apart. To be a truly successful Head is a near-impossible goal. But, in 2016, I had a taste. Granted, it was during an Ofsted inspection, but when the lead inspector told me that he had never received such a positive response from the staff survey concerning the school’s leadership, I felt pretty good. Reading in the report that the ‘innovative and inspirational leadership of the headteacher has established a professional learning community…staff overwhelmingly support school leaders’ I must admit, I allowed myself to think ‘that’ll do pig, that’ll do’.

Leadership 2017

Where next for the most inspirational Head of the century? Well, it won’t surprise you to learn that about two days after that report was written I had forgotten all about it because, you guessed it: I have a school to run (Yay!) and that’s a full-time job (Yay!) and it’s really hard (Yay!) and it takes over your life (Yay!) and I’m really tired (Yay!) when will it end (when you’re able to retire at 92-Yay!)  No, my hopes for a book deal and @theprimaryhead stadium tour quickly dissolved into a distant dream. Ah well. Still, it’s not all school, school, school. I’ve said that I’d say something at #PrimaryRocksLive in 2017 so that should be, interesting? And I’ll be helping put on the biggest education conference the South West has ever seen! Save the date you edu-keeners because on July 1st #InspireSouthWest launches and it’s going to be EPIC! So, there’s that and rescuing the school from budget annihilation. (Yay!)

Governors 2016

Despite being a marvellous leader (I’ll stop soon, honest) governance has never been my strong suit. I have, in the past, tended to find it a time draining distraction. The boundaries can so easily be blurred so that too much time is spent sweating the operational stuff which, in my opinion, is my business. I blame everyone! But if I genuinely think this ship is ‘mine’ then the bulk of the fault must lie with me. Near the end of the year I reflected on my performance in relation to governance. I found myself to be too quick to frustration and this, I know, led to governors perceiving me to be difficult. That ain’t classy. I can blame stress. I can blame personality. But the next step of blaming is doing something about it otherwise you’re just a schmuck. So, it’s time to have a change in mind-set.

Governors 2017

I feel born again! OK, that’s going a little too far but I do think I’m ready to believe in the power of governance! Seriously. I feel that there is now some clearer understanding between me and the governors regarding what we’re going to be getting up to this year. My performance management, earlier on this year, helped with some of the granularity on this. There was recognition, on both sides, that maintained schools have some pretty huge challenges coming their way so we should probably focus on them rather than the school at an operational level. In short, they trust me to run the school. Likewise, I need their help with the bigger stuff! As for me personally? I need to relax and not take every discussion at governors so personally. I may be the Head but, during those meetings, I am but one governor in a room full of governors.

Behaviour 2016

So, as you know, we had Ofsted this year. I know I’ve already mentioned it, but, did I tell you that we got an outstanding judgement for ‘personal development, behaviour and welfare’? Our children are polite and respectful and they know that teachers care for them. All staff are relentless in their efforts to meet the needs of all pupils Everyone thinks that behaviour in, and around, school is excellent and pupils are very respectful about all aspects of their learning. You can imagine how proud we felt as we read these words. Creating a school capable of garnering such plaudits is not easy. It takes time, effort and a clarity of ethos that everyone needs to adhere to. Nothing that we put in place was designed so that it would reflect well in an Ofsted report. We did it because we wanted to create a lovely school. I choose the word lovely on purpose. Yes, I wanted an inspiring, super-effective, dynamic school with high standards. But I also wanted it to be lovely. I’m very pleased that we got it all.

So, behaviour was sorted.

Then September arrived.

Behaviour 2017

I’m cheating a little here because most of what I’m about to say happened post September. But anyway…about three weeks into the new academic year and the school was in crisis. For a variety of reasons, there was now a small group of children who were presenting extreme and challenging behaviours in school. To challenge us further, due to the city’s financial cuts, we also found that we were completely on our own in trying to support children who were, if I’m honest, dangerously close to being permanently excluded.

After a few more weeks of trying to manage children, who had incredibly complex needs but who were also demonstrating angry and violent behaviour, I decided to do something radical.

Admit that we were totally out of our depth.

This was the turning point. Admitting this, and being totally honest about these challenges freed us up to think differently. Having no money or outside help forced us to think creatively. We talked openly to the staff about the situation and about our plans. We re-designed a couple of rooms in the school. We wrote a scheme of work that the Deputy and I delivered every morning to a key group of pupils – complete with songs, puppets and dancing. We spent time building relationships with the children, the families and with the staff who were working so hard, every day, with these children. What’s more, it started to work.

It’s early days and we have much further to go in 2017. When I come to reflect on my successes, this time next year, how I managed this behaviour crisis is going to weigh heavily in my judgement. I’m confident I’ll be able to say that I better understand these children. I will support my staff so they do too. I’m also determined that we will do all this whilst  maintaining our high standards. Finally, I promise you this: my school will still be lovely.

Edu-Twitter 2016

I have thoroughly enjoyed myself on Twitter this year. I’ve read some marvellous blogs and I follow some great people. The little DM groups that emerged during SATs week were a particular highlight. As were all of @jpembroke’s support with the new RaiseOnline data. The sense of goodwill and camaraderie that you get on Twitter is often unparalleled. I would like to thank everyone I’ve engaged with and I look forward to seeing you all again next year.

Edu-Twitter 2017

2016 also had its fair share of negative Twitter. The arguments. The hyperbole. As far as I’m concerned…I love it. Yes, at times it is infuriating and I empathise with those who have felt bullied. I haven’t experienced that but it can’t be nice. But will 2017 be any different? No, of course it won’t. I may be different though. I may join in a bit more. I’m getting to the point where I think I’ve reached a limit in how much I can ignore nonsense that I fundamentally disagree with. The only thing that puts me off is the time it would take to disagree. Twitter hasn’t really grasped how to do arguments properly. They go on and on and on and on! I think, for 2017, I will invent a special code, or symbol, that indicates the number of tweets you can be bothered to use up on any particular topic. That way, the next time you’re fifty tweets in, justifying the tone of a word you once used in a tweet back in 2014, you simply unleash ‘the grape’ (or whatever I decide the symbol is) and everyone knows that you’re stopping this madness in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 tweet’s time.

This time it’s personal 2016

Still standing, 2016, still standing!

This time it’s personal 2017

I’ve become a runner! Can you believe it? And like an over enthusiastic puppy I’ve even signed up for the Bristol half marathon in September. Get ready 2017, here I run!