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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The secret of my SDP success (part 1)

I wrote this the other day, safe in the assumption that nobody would want to actually read about the joys of school development planning (SDP). Well, you could have knocked me down with a feather when literally ones of people wrote to me saying that they really were interested, and, please could I share my strategic wisdom with them.  Now, I don’t know about you but I like to use the Ofsted criteria for statistical significance, so, when a third person showed interest it was clear that I had to consider a proportional and appropriate response. Hence why this Saturday, as well as attending the school Christmas Fair (where I spent most of the time trying to avoid getting my face painted), I found myself writing this seminal treatise on strategic school development planning.

It was a couple of years ago when I had my SDP epiphany. I was at the Birmingham Inspiring Leadership conference and Alastair Campbell was on stage. He was a late booking because someone more educatey had pulled out. Nevertheless, he was delighted to be here as he had just written a new book called ‘Winners’ and he happened to have a spare hundred copies in his van that he said he’d happily flog us at the end of the show. He also said he’d share a few funny stories about John Prescott as long as we promised not to record them and upload them to YouTube because, in Campbell’s words, Big JP still has a temper and a mean right hook. As it seemed pretty clear we were all going to be winners by the end of this hour we agreed to let him talk. I won’t go into too much detail about his talk because you’d be better off buying his book and reading it yourself.  But there was one detail that really stood out.

The difference between ‘strategy’ and ‘tactics’.

Lots of people, claimed Campbell, do not know the difference between a strategy and a tactic. Those that do, succeed. Those that don’t, often wonder why things aren’t succeeding as well as they thought they would during the planning stage. This was perfect timing for me as I was just about to start writing my new school development plan. After the conference, as I strolled to the Birmingham library to begin writing the SDP before my train arrived, I wondered if I knew the difference.

First though, I had to write my aim. Alastair Campbell said that your objective, or overall aim, should be bold and simple. That suited me just fine. After seven minutes I came up with one of the key aims of my new plan: ‘All teaching is brilliant’. Nobody, I thought, could argue with that. Why wouldn’t you want all teaching to be brilliant? Surely that is an idea that would unite everyone.

Now I had to come up with my strategy.

I began writing a list. Trouble is, I realised that I was just listing tactics:

  • Lesson Observations
  • Work Monitoring
  • Collaborative teaching projects

I tried putting these into long sentences in the hope that they would become more strategic.

  • Termly lesson observations to identify strengths within the teaching profile and areas of teaching that require improvement.

I imagined handing this over to Campbell for approval. I closed my eyes and could see him rolling up my SDP and beating me with it whilst calling me a small-minded unstrategic idiot. Why couldn’t I do it? Why couldn’t I understand what my overarching strategy was going to be?

And then it hit me.

What was my belief that underpinned all my tactics? Why did I think that these tactics would move the school forward so that all teaching would be brilliant? When I thought about how I would introduce all these tactics to my senior leaders, my governors and my teachers I suddenly knew what my strategy was:

Total commitment to all staff’s professional development.

The strategy was a mind-set. It was a lens that brought into focus the true purpose of all the tactics. No longer would this list of tactics be working on a deficit model of school improvement: making sure bare minimum requirements were reached or identifying where teaching needed to improve. The emphasis would not be on the teachers to try and get through these tactical actions unscathed. It would now be up to the senior leaders to make these tactics worthwhile. This is something they could only do if they were genuinely committed to helping everyone become even better.

When I discussed this with the SLT, I made it clear that only by keeping the strategy in the forefront of their minds would these tactics work. If all they were doing was carrying them out to make a judgement on teachers we would fail. If all they focussed on were the systems of teaching we would never achieve brilliant teaching across the whole school. Only if they were committed to finding ways of improving every teacher’s effectiveness would every teacher reach their potential.

When I launched this to the staff, I made it clear that in twelve months they would be better teachers. I didn’t know the specifics as to how. There was no blueprint. It wasn’t going to be because they used a marking policy or mapped out their differentiation in a way that the SENCO preferred. No, they were going to get better because the senior leaders would be working with them, side by side. Together they would explore the quality of their teaching, in the context of their current class, to identify something that might work even better. No teacher would get left behind. No teacher was too good to get better. No teacher would be unsupported. No leader would be unapproachable because we were all committed to them.

Now, I’m not saying that everyone then stood on their tables and called me ‘My Captain’ but there was a genuine sense of excitement as we started that year. Teachers understood the aim, trusted the strategy and no longer feared the tactics.

And it worked. Not that it’s the only measure of success but I got the Ofsted to prove it. More importantly I developed a team of teachers who enjoy being professionally looked after. They expect me, and the senior leaders, to help them get better. We all start the year knowing that by the end of the year we’ll be even better teachers. This year, we’ve taken it further. We have new tactics. But the strategy hasn’t changed.

So there it is. The key to successful school development planning in three simple words:

  • Aim
  • Strategy
  • Tactics

Thanks Alastair. #winners