Take another little piece of my heart

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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.

No more sleepless nights

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Being a Head can be the loneliest job in the world.

Yeah, yeah! 

Boo-hoo!

You get paid the big bucks. You volunteered for the job. There’s no point moaning, from the luxury of your leather chair, about the fact that the job’s tricky.  

Quite. Couldn’t agree more.

I don’t mind the loneliness. When you look beyond the cliché and explore why headship sometimes feels lonely, I think I prefer it that way. I wouldn’t want anyone else having the full accountability for some of the stuff that lands at my feet.

I would, for example, never seek to burden teachers with the emotional trauma that often comes from taking part in a child protection case conference. Yes, I’ll share the outcomes, the plans and any pertinent details. But I’ll keep the tears, the abuse, the anger, the embarrassment, the denial and the pain, that often takes up so much time at these meetings, to myself. Walking out of those meetings, after you’ve been hit with another person’s depressing reality, is isolating. Your moral imperative drives your refusal to give up on these children in crisis, but the reality of relentless financial-cost-saving-initiatives forces you to acknowledge how alone you are in trying to protect the vulnerable. At times, it appears hopeless. But how could I share that? So instead, I absorb it. Not because I’m a martyr, but because I need teachers to focus on supporting these families in the present for the sake of their future. Too much information can make you jaded. That’s the last thing that is needed. So, I happily keep it to myself, and so what if I lose a little sleep in the process?

Talking of financial cost saving initiatives…have you checked your school’s budget against the new national funding formula? If you thought 2016 was a depressing year, wait until you count the number of cuts schools will have had to make to their infrastructures in twelve months’ time. I can’t imagine that any school will be safe from some form of ‘managing change’ in their attempt to balance their budget. Having to take a lead in this process is, perhaps, the loneliest element of a Head’s accountability. And quite right too. It’s not pleasant. It is deeply personal for those involved. But it must not be personal for the Head. That is not to say that it does not require sensitivity, transparency and tact; it most definitely does. But don’t confuse being compassionate and showing a little humanity with getting personally involved. Decisions must be made. The Head must make them. It won’t be nice and won’t be comfortable. But it won’t be as uncomfortable or unpleasant for the Head as it will be for those on the other side. So, be tactful and keep your emotions to yourself. So what if all you lose in the process is a little sleep?

Finally, in my little lonely trinity, there is Ofsted. You still can’t escape the fact that, in terms of accountability, Ofsted is about as big as it gets for the Head. When a school enters its ‘inspection window’ there’s not a lot else that goes through the brain. Everything suddenly starts getting viewed through the Head’s O-Vision spectacles. Something good happens: put it on the SEF immediately. Something bad happens: how are we going to explain that to the inspector? It can become an obsession. It can become a distraction. It can, if you’re not careful, prevent you from doing your job. There are still too many anecdotes of Heads who appear to be running their school for Ofsted as opposed to for the community. Shell-shocked staff, anxious about coming to school, shuffle into work in fear of the next Ofsted-orientated initiative that needs to be in place yesterday. The Head, after delivering yet another speech in the staffroom about the new marking criteria, wonders why nobody else seems to care. They can’t see that they have eroded the staff’s professionalism through their obsession with Ofsted. Yes, it matters. Yes, it’s the Head’s name on the report. But even an outstanding Ofsted report can’t fill the hole left by an absence of staff respect and support. Best to keep your Ofsted obsession to yourself. So what if it’s only you losing sleep over it?

It is a lonely job being a Head. But, in the right circumstances, that’s highly appropriate. If you focus on building a positive and professional culture within your school then, although you may still feel lonely at times, you will always know that you are not alone. Carrying out a lonely job is a small price to pay for working in a school where people respect and trust that you carry out your role with integrity. So, the next time you’re having a sleepless night, ask yourself whether anyone else in your school is wide awake thinking about your problem. If you think they might be, probably best to buy them a coffee on the way to work and try leading them a little differently. That way, at least one of you should be able to get a good night’s sleep tomorrow.

The tigers who came to tea

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I’m sure you all know the story about ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’. A family are perfectly happy, going about their day, when a tiger rocks up to the front door and starts behaving in a way that, quite frankly, beggars belief. He wanders around their house as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. The sheer brass of the giant feline causes the family to accept his demands without question. He wants a drink. They make him a cup of tea. But that isn’t good enough for the tiger. He has slightly higher expectations. So, they let him drink the entire contents of the teapot. But even that hasn’t quenched the beast’s thirst. This is only achieved after he has drained all the water from the taps. And the family, who now have no means to hydrate themselves, keep clean or maintain any decent levels of sanitation, don’t question it. They don’t protest. They just let the tiger behave in this way because, well, he’s a tiger, isn’t he? A big, loud, confident tiger. Victims of the tiger’s gall, the family continue to cater for his every whim. He eats their dinner, their food in the fridge and all the tins and packets of food in their kitchen cupboards. And all the time he has a look on his face that suggests this is all quite normal, and, hadn’t the silly family realised what it took to entertain a tiger properly? And then, he leaves. You would think the family would now report this gross invasion into their world to the authorities, or, at least take some preventative measures to safeguard against it happening again the future. But no. They are, apparently, enthralled by the tiger and his incredibly high standards of entertaining. To the extent that they buy in some special tiger food in case he pops around again! It is an unbelievable story and one that never fails to shock me no matter how many times I read it.

I read another book recently. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers’. It tells the story of a group of teaching tigers who have opened a school. The story is written by many of the tigers who teach at the school and they each have much to say about how they teach and run their school. It runs on similar lines to the children’s story mentioned earlier, insofar as these tiger teachers have higher expectations than everyone else. They are the tap drainers to our tea drinkers. If you expect your children to walk quietly into assembly, they expect silence. If you run a residential trip, they run a boot-camp. If you have high expectations of behaviour, they have no excuses. If you have happy children, theirs are happier. It’s like reading a story written by that friend who must always go one better: you know, you’ve got a headache, they’ve got a tumour, that sort of thing.

The way in which their storybook presents their approaches to education is incredible. I found myself drawn to paragraphs where, after whatever it is they’re writing about (homework, marking, kindness, behaviour, lunch), they write about how this makes their school so special. Paragraphs that begin:

‘One of the things that may strike you when visiting Michaela is how happy the children are.’

‘At Michaela, we highly value adult authority and children’s politeness and respect.’

‘Our mantra is ‘work hard, be kind’’.

It was during these passages that I kept thinking back to the ending of the ‘The tiger who came to tea’. The bit where the family buy a tin of tiger food. These guys think they’re feeding their kids tiger food whilst the rest of us are spoon feeding our pupils ‘whiskers’. They seem unable to grasp the notion that – and forgive the expression Team Michaela – there is more than one way to skin a tiger. These tiger teachers really believe that they are special. I mean, I know we all think our schools are special. But these cats really believe that they are more special!

And I’m not sure why, when, so much of what they’re actually doing is pretty unremarkable. I hate to break it to you, tigers, but a lot of the ‘Michaela Way’ is just a normal way to run a school. That’s not to say that, in my opinion, you seem to lack a level of operational subtlety that I personally feel is vital for running such a complex organisation as a school. I also find the ‘top of the pyramid’ drills a little over zealous for my tastes but, hey, I’m not your target reader am I? Who is I wonder? Is this book’s publication part of your recruitment drive? Is it a ‘Michaela Way’ SEF? Or is it a fairy tale that you can read to yourself at bedtime to help you forget about all the anti-Michaela tweets out there?

Whatever the motive, you’ve written a bold and passionate story about your school. And, do you know what? Loving yourself is not a crime. Being excited about where you work is great. Believing you’re doing good, and making a difference to the world, is what helps get us all out of bed in the morning. But guys, seriously, couldn’t you have kept it to yourself for a bit? Saved it all for your newsletter? Uploaded it onto a blog? Did you really need to write a book about it? Don’t get me wrong,  your school may be fabulous. You may be proved completely right. But not yet. What you’ve done is, you’ve written a gospel when it should have been the first part of a case study.

In writing your book you’ve invited yourself around for tea, presuming that we will gladly give up all our food and drink for you, just because you’ve told us that you are tigers. You have declared superiority through your evangelical self-righteousness and you expect us all to listen and take heed. You can’t see that you are, in fact, sucking on an empty tap as we observe you from a distance, drinking our tea, waiting to see if you’ll make it to breakfast.

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