New teacher-parent blues

The end of the Easter holidays signifies the start of my first full term after returning from maternity leave (I did 3 weeks before the start of the holidays). 

As expected I struggled in my first weeks back. I found creating a balance between being a good teacher and spending quality time with my little man challenging and much more emotionally painful than I had anticipated. 

Don’t get me wrong, I have been supported by both my department and SLT but there’s only so much they can do. Based on my own experiences the following have been the biggest problems and, if they are nationwide, must be leaving a large amount of exhausted and emotional new mothers struggling and feeling like there is no real solution. 

Isolation

Firstly, I’m still feeding Oliver and it’s important to me that he has a bottle of expressed milk along with his formula bottles whilst I’m at work. And this means I have to express at work. My school was great at giving me options of which room I wanted to use, but it’s much more complicated than that. To keep my body in a routine and prevent mastitis I need to express at a regular time and, as you know, the only regular time teachers have is lunchtime. I’m happy to do this and want to do this for Oliver, but it’s quite isolating. I miss out on the social time with the department. This just makes the other issues seem worse. 

In addition to this, I’ve had a weird experience of feeling like a new member of a department I’ve worked in for 3 years. There are people I don’t know and references I’m unfamiliar with. In my weaker moments these can leave me feeling a little left out. 

Workload 

As expected workload has become a problem. Three weeks in and I’m already behind. It’s so depressing to look at my marking pile up and not see any way of catching up. PPA does not give anyone enough time to get everything done and I’m now choosing to come in later and leave earlier than I used to. Both of these factors mean I’m behind already and can’t see how to catch back up. To make matters worse, I have picked up 6 exam classes so nearly all my marking is equally important and urgent. 

Teacher-guilt

I’ve always felt this in one way or another, but now on top of my standard teacher-guilt is the guilt that comes from knowing that last year I would have put more time in. Or I would have agreed to revision sessions without a second thought. 

I’m no longer the teacher I used to be. And that’s fine because now I’m a mummy and that makes me so happy. But I’ve got to find a way to get closer to the teacher I used to be while still being the mummy I want to be. Problem is, that takes time and, as always, I don’t have enough of that. 

Moaning

I’m finding myself resorting to a default “I’m fine” or avoiding answering if people ask how I’m doing / coping as I don’t want to come across as moaning. This feeling is made worse by the knowledge that everyone is busy and stressed and falling behind in our usual run up to exams chaos. 

Self doubt 

I’ve often had moments where I’ve expected someone to walk into my room and ‘out’ me as a fraud; to be honest I was beginning to learn to ignore them. But having not taught since July (timetable-less in September) this feeling came back with a vengeance. I felt rusty and uncertain about finishing unfamiliar units with unfamiliar classes. But, again, I’m working through that. But it’s the self doubt about being a mother which is most crippling. Especially when I’m also worried about whether I can be a good teacher and a good mother. 
I honestly don’t know if others have felt like this on returning to work or the best ways to solve these problems. But, I know what would have helped ease my return to work:

  • A return to work meeting. I have really appreciated all the offers of help, but with everyone being busy and me working in my room the majority of the time, it can feel hard to ask for help or to have time to off load. A scheduled meeting with a LM or SLT member would have made it easier to voice my worries, even if there was nothing that could really be done. 
  • A phased return to my timetable. Due to staff absence, I wasn’t able to properly find out where my classes were in the unit or what they were like. It would have been really helpful to have shadowed some of my classes first. Not only would this have allowed me to better get to grips with what I was inheriting, but it would have also given me more planning time. 

    I love teaching and I’ve really enjoyed being back in front of my students. And most have been really understanding and patient with me while I’ve tried to find my feet with texts I don’t know and delivering lessons they’ve already been taught. But I still left for Easter exhausted and wondering if teaching was the job that would allow me to be the mummy I want to be. 

    In all truth, I do know it’ll end up being ok: I’ll find my new way of working and create a new work / life balance. And the upcoming gained time will help that. I just wish there was a way that I could do that without beating myself up as both a mother and a teacher. 

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      Developing a reading culture

      At the end of last year, I took advantage of my gained time and having a trainee teaching one of my classes to finally  tackle the culture around reading in KS3.

      We’ve been using AR for 2 years now and that’s had some impact, but not enough on our really reluctant readers. We’ve also been doing a daily Stop, Drop and Read but that begins to cause more problems than it’s worth!

      Problems:

      1. Staff are using SDR time to do admin tasks instead of reading.
      2. Students who do read are not given the opportunity to enter in to a reading discourse.
      3. Some students see SDR and library lessons as painful, pointless and boring.
      4. Students only think of English teachers as readers.

      Solutions:

      1. Clearer guidelines need to be issued to staff and those who join mid-year need to be properly informed about SDR.
        We also need to highlight to staff the benefits to students’ reading ages that the daily SDR offers and the importance of that in their day to day teaching and some students’ ability to fully access their exams.
        There is a wider school issue about workload (which is way above my pay grade to tackle!) We are offering staff 20mins of quiet reading time; a time to just stop and breathe during a, potentially, busy day. However, they see this as an opportunity to make a tiny dent in the never ending to do list.
      2. I made mini-review cards for students to fill in. This is a voluntary activity and they are rewarded with house points. In the first month, without any real pushing by staff, both myself and the librarian were pleasantly surprised by, not only, the amount of reviews we were getting but also by who was writing them. We found students who we assumed were reluctant readers asking to fill in review cards and share books they enjoyed with others. These will be displayed next year both in the library and the English corridor and, if I have my way, other places around school too – still desperately trying to prove that reading is not just an English lesson thing!
        The next step is to introduce longer review options, which we will store in a review folder or on FROG (depending on how effectively the FROG champions work this year!).
      3. We have students who keep rereading the same book for as long as possible as they can’t be bothered to go to the library to change it. Or those who deliberately wait until SDR to ask to change their book so they can spend as much of the 20 minutes as possible not reading. Although staff are not supposed to let students do anything other than read during SDR time, there are still those who regularly manage to go for a wander. To combat this, we have added reading books to the list of essential equipment that Y7 & 8 tutors need to be checking for and the library is now available for them to use during tutor time to exchange books and quiz.
        I’ve also revamped the library lessons. Our fortnightly sessions used to be split between library and literacy, but with packing, unpacking and moving the class very little of either was achieved. We decided to embed a weekly literacy focus into our lessons and spend the whole lesson on reading and reading / book related activities.
        I am building a bank of reading related tasks for students to choose from which allow them to engage with their book in a variety of different ways and give the reluctant readers a little gap between books, in the hope that it stops reading from feeling monotonous and never ending for them.
        These will be recorded and displayed if appropriate with the students permission and although house points can be awarded, these will not be marked. Their purpose is to allow students to engage with what they’re reading and to promote a reading discourse around the school.
      4. A little over a month before the end of the school year, I sent out an email requesting staff who would be willing to volunteer for a Student Recommended Summer Read. I was hoping for a small group of staff from different departments. I was surprised to see my inbox light up continuously for the first 15 minutes after the email was sent. However, I was a little disappointed that all responses were all from female teachers; I was concerned that this would not encourage some of our reluctant male readers. But I quickly learnt that the women in our school respond much quicker to emails than their male counterparts, as slowly  more male names added to my list. By the deadline, I had 44 staff who wanted a book and from a range of departments, including the admin team. With 24 recruits from all ability ranges in Y7 & 8 we met during tutor times to select books. They had the following instructions:
        – Choose a book you’ve read and would like to share.
        – Consider who you’re choosing for.
        – Don’t stitch any member of staff up!
        The books and a mini-review card were distributed and they’re starting to come in. So far  the reviews have been positive (3 or more stars) and a lot of staff have been surprised by their enjoyment of a genre they wouldn’t have necessarily chosen. What I’ve really been pleased by is the amount of staff who want to know who picked their book so that they can thank them and discuss the book.
        We plan to run this again for the Christmas holiday.

       

      Our next steps are to bring in an author to work with our reluctant readers and to development parental engagement of the reluctant and weaker readers. However, with the start of my maternity leave looming I’ve left my maternity cover to embed and strengthen the new strategies started last year and the next steps will begin on my return.

      Why change can be good.

      Being an English teacher at the moment, means that I am in the middle of a LOT of change and it is feeling overwhelming at the moment, regardless of whether or not I like some of the changes. However, there is something that is making me smile and filling me with hope for 2016 / 17: the KS3 curriculum…

      Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of changes here but if you’re lucky enough to be in the right school with the right people around you it is such a golden opportunity.  During the January INSET we started working on mapping out our KS3 curriculum for next year and, being honest, I was a little worried about whether or not the department would like the vision that I thought would work best for us and our students. Luckily, they jumped on it.

      We’re planning to break away from the rigid constraints of each unit being bookended by a holiday, so if there’s an INSET, bank holiday, snow day etc then you have to start looking at what lesson can be ditched. Or you end up rushing through the text (or worse still, not finishing it) and turning our students off reading or associating oncoming holidays with rushed assessments and stressed teachers who suck the fun out of the lessons. We’ve decided on 3 units a year but each unit is going to mimic the project style learning that primaries use. Each unit will have a title that is deliberately vague; each unit will have 2 set assessments; but the rest is down to the class teacher to decide. Each unit will have the opportunity to explore factual and fictional texts / extracts, as well as offering students the chance to practise a range of writing skills, but delivered with a variety that a unit titled ‘Writing to inform, explain & describe’ would often be lacking.

      The head of department and myself wanted the team to be able to have opportunities to explore what they’re passionate about in English, as well as what catches the interest of their classes. As well as having time to focus on the skills that their classes need to work on. But we didn’t want them to be constantly counting how many lessons they had left before they would start to feel the pressure of falling behind.

      It was heart warming during our INSET meeting to watch the teachers round the table become excited about where the random unit titles that were being thrown out could take them and their future classes. However, I think the excitement may have come from something else, something deeper and, perhaps, subconscious: their professional judgement was being trusted. Myself and the head of department were, essentially, saying to them all that we trust them to know their students, know their subject and to teach to a high standard without being given a prescriptive scheme of work (which, let’s be honest, often gets ignored completely or adapted). We’re not leaving the department high and dry; we are going to create a resource bank that will grow during the curriculum’s life. (I shall share what we’re doing after our next meeting and it moves from draft to confirmed plan.)

      I’m not naive, I know that a curriculum map like this could create lazy lesson planning done in a rush the morning before and it could increase the work load to start with, but wouldn’t that happen no matter what we did? I also know that this will need careful monitoring by me to ensure that all students are getting full access to the full spectrum of English, but I’m happy to do that if it means the staff and students are enjoying what they’re doing in their lessons a bit more.

      In addition to that, I’m lucky enough to have been invited to join the assessment working group at my school. We’re working together to create our version of levels and the new assessment policy. This is so exciting to me, not just because I’m a teacher geek, but also because everyone who is sat round the table has similar ideas about education: enjoyment, progress and character building are all important and none is more important that the other and we cannot lose focus on that in the new curriculum. These meetings have been some of the best meetings I’ve been in as I feel like we are all working towards a common goal and that our professional judgement and opinions are trusted. As well as seeing the passion in teachers of different ages, subjects and positions genuinely makes me happy. (I know, I’m such a saddo!)

      So maybe, in our world of constant change and feeling under valued and undermined by those who are running education, we can and should see KS3 as a light in the dark. A chance for us to trust our colleague’s professional judgements and experiences and create something that we can be really passionate about which will truly benefit those who are lucky enough to enter our classrooms.

      How I stopped drowning.

      A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post on the worst week of my life which was the most personal blog post I’ve every written, but the events in my personal life have impacted on my professional life in such a huge way. Since then I’ve been thinking a lot about ‘teacher guilt’ and the impact our personal lives have on our professional lives and vice versa and why we often feel we have to suffer in silence.

      Back in September I had to take a week off of work, unplanned and badgered into it by a nurse, my husband and my head of department. I wanted to go in on Monday and Tuesday, but was forced not to. And although they were right and I was definitely much better at home, the reason I wanted to spend two days at work was that I wanted to hide behind ‘Miss’. I wanted to avoid being at home and facing the reality of my life at that time; to use my professional life to escape my personal life.

      Once I got over the initial panic of returning and having to talk to people and deal with sympathy (don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t ungrateful for people’s care and consideration, but at that time I wasn’t ready to say the word ‘miscarriage’ let alone acknowledge that I had experienced one), I quickly fell back into the day to day routine and my role as ‘Miss’ and worked hard to try to catch up on everything I had fallen behind on.

      Sadly, the reality of what had happened quickly caught up with me and I found myself suffering from depression: I struggled to get out of bed in the mornings; avoided going home in the evenings; crept straight into bed once I did get home; spent most weekends in bed; avoided people. Needless to say I rapidly fell behind at work.

      It is impossible to do all your PPA in your PPA time; we have to work outside of those hours just to keep our heads above water. As I wasn’t in a position to work outside of school I was sinking. I got by for a while just planning lessons and nothing more, but then more things started to collapse and I realised I was drowning. I think that was the darkest moment: feeling like I had failed personally and was now failing professionally.

      It took a little while after that realisation to feel strong enough to want to face the challenge of fixing the mess I was in. However, doing it alone proved impossible. More work kept piling up and I kept trying to hide my struggles from myself and those around me. Needless to say that didn’t help and I came to face the reality that I couldn’t come out of this alone. I needed to admit the mess I was in and ask for support.

      It’s a horrible feeling when you know you’re in a mess and realise that you have to tell people just how much of a mess you’re in. Speaking to both my head of department and head I was greeted with understanding and compassion. I’ve been offered help and been allowed the time, without any pressure, to get myself back on my feet. I felt instantly better after speaking to both of them and from there felt strong enough to look at the largest To Do pile I’d ever encountered and work my way through it.

      During my years in teaching, I’ve found that we can often be too silent when it comes to our own struggles and need for help. Which, to me, seems bizarre as we are in a job where we are caring and compassionate every day and often go out of our way to support or get support for struggling students. It felt very liberating talking to my head  and head of department; dropping the façade of coping took a massive weight off my shoulders allowing me to start finding a way back to myself.

      Teaching is fast paced and because of that, it’s so easy to fall behind and the further you fall the harder it is to get back to where we need to be. Throw in the guilt of failing our students and colleagues then it begins to feel like an impossible task. But these past few weeks I’ve learnt that it’s not.

      The most important thing I’ve learnt from this and would share with anyone else who feels like they’re falling behind and sinking slowly or rapidly is talk.
      Talk to the people who need to know your struggles.
      Talk to the people who will listen and support you as a friend.
      The key thing is to get it out of your head and into the world. Get it out there and it suddenly seems less scary and less threatening. Speak it out loud and it becomes clearer about how to start finding a solution.

      The reality is that the only way to get out of a mess in teaching is often to work your way out, but trying to do that whilst still keeping up with each new day’s work is hard. But it is doable: I’m doing it now. I gave up a day of my holiday to go to school and work undistracted to catch up. I’ve worked smarter: only marked ‘actual’ work; planned lessons with peer and self assessment to stop adding more and more to my to do list; built time into my lessons to give myself time to mark / plan / do admin; said no to additional tasks that I cannot take on properly at the moment.

      And even though I’m pushing myself hard at the moment, I feel happier. I feel like I’m on my way to winning.

      My take away from the Takeover

      Lots of people have written good blogs reflecting on the events of the 17th & the sessions they attended. But, like last year, I’d like to reflect on the messages I’ve taken away from TLT15.

      As always I was excited in the run up to TLT, as well as feeling exhausted.

      Stephen Lockyer (@mrlockyer) opened the day with a poignant message that too few of us are on Twitter. It can sometimes seem like there are large hordes of teachers roaming the cyber-corridors of Twitter because everyone is so generous, supportive and passionate about teaching, but it’s important that we remember how few of us there are. We were set a challenge in the opening moments of TLT15:

      DSC_0021

      On my first day back at school, I’ve completed the first three. (I am feeling a little proud of myself, I must say!)

      It’s silly but so few of us really share what we find on Twitter and at events with our colleagues and it’s probably for a wealth of reasons. Personally, I was worried about exposing myself as a Teacher Geek and annoying people. As well as having petty moments of getting annoyed at the one way sharing of ideas & resources (both found & ones I’ve created). But I am going to take this challenge away and I am going to keep it going all year; although I may ration out what I find and only send it when the unit is upcoming!

      Perfectly bookending the day, the closing session was delivered by Chris Waugh (@eductronic_net). As much as Stephen made us laugh with his story telling prowess, Chris made us understand something deeper about why we teach and why we attend events like this: we are there because of love. It’s true. We love our students, as they quickly become our kids; we love our subjects; we love teaching. But I think it goes even deeper than that: we love each other.

      I have to admit that I love people watching and the main thing I saw on Saturday was the bonds between everyone. These could have been virtual bonds made real (Receiving a hug from Jill Berry still feels the equivalent of getting a hug from a Hollywood A lister!) or bumping into an old friend / colleague or meeting people for the first time. During a few quiet moments, I took the time to look around me and saw people chatting and laughing and making friends. This is such an important part of Twitter and events such as these. At times like this, when teachers are struggling and leaving our profession or feeling isolated or like they’re failing TLT (and similar events) create beacons of hope and solidarity that lifts our spirits. This year the comradery felt so strong that it was in the air; it permeated the whole event.

      As always, I learnt a lot from the 4 sessions I attended and am already looking for ways I can improve my practice as a result. But, with a larger amount of stalls at lunch time and a bustling genius bar I took away so much from the event. But also felt humbled by how many people had spent their time creating stalls & resources to share their work with all of us for no recompense except a thank you and a possible Twitter follower.

      As mush as I have retweeted and emailed blog posts from #TLT15 and would encourage everyone to seek out everything that comes from that wonderful event. My biggest take away from the Takeover is the spirit, generosity and love from the teachers. And it is that which I will continue to share with my department, school and students because from that only good things will come from it.

      My Leadership Lesson Plenary

      I have one more day left as acting Head of Curriculum Area and then my boss comes back and I return to my role as second in department. It’s been a very busy 5 months and although I’ve lost sleep; gained a few pounds from stress eating and have found a few more grey hairs I have really enjoyed this time and have definitely learnt a lot.

      My most valuable lesson:

      Ask for help when you need it. There have been a few moments as HoCA when I didn’t immediately know the right answer or even where to start looking for the right answer. But the advice from other HoCAs and SLT was given so willingly and often helped me sort the wood from the trees. I’ve always known I could ask for help in every job I’ve had, but my normal way of working is to try to find the answer myself first, however when running the department there isn’t always time to work my own way to the solution.

      My ‘eureka’ moment:

      Organising the media exam for over 200 students. If anyone knows the OCR media exam, you’ll understand the potential nightmare of this situation. For those who don’t: the exam features a 30 minute DVD clip, so 200 students need access to a clear projected image and quality sound system. This is not possible in our gym due to the skylight and we cannot fit 200+ students in our hall. This meant we had to run two sittings. This meant keeping 100+ students and some scribes / readers in isolation for an hour after they sat the exam early.
      This (potential) logistical nightmare showed me that I am more organised than I thought. As well as showing me that something I often see as a character flaw is actually a side to myself I need to embrace and make better use of. Naturally, I go to the worst case scenario and think of every possible problem then work my way to the ideal scenario by solving every problem on the way. Normally, I hide this side as it can involve lots of questions and often unnecessary conversations and I worry that I’m bugging people and coming across as a worry-wart. But this time it meant that the whole day ran smoothly, there wasn’t a single problem and everyone who was involved (students; the English team; SLT; the exams officer; other members of the school) knew what they were doing and when and it went perfectly!
      Since then I’ve been more confident to be myself. I think, if I’m honest, this is the most valuable lesson I’ve learnt. I can’t expect the best from my team and ask them to trust me if I don’t trust myself to follow my gut and handle potentially difficult situations in the way I feel confident in.

      What will stay with me:

      Watching the media coordinator find her voice as a leader. This was her first leadership position and she was finding the transition from team member to leader hard at times, often feeling like the rest of the department weren’t listening to her or respecting her deadlines. I have enjoyed coaching her and helping guide her through the first year of whole cohort entry.
      But I have learnt a lot from working with her:

      • spend time supporting & coaching, but there’s nothing wrong with saying, “I can’t meet with you now, use this time to draft the [whatever] and we’ll meet [whenever] and I’ll have a look at it.” After all, I’m busy and have deadlines too.
      • there’s nothing wrong with admitting my faults & struggles. Don’t try to look perfect and that you find this all easy when supporting someone. They need to know that it’s OK to struggle and how you found the solution.
      • show them you trust them. But not just to do their job; if they’re part of your leadership team (she was my acting second in department) trust them with information (only if appropriate) and sound them out on ideas before you take them to the rest of the department. Not only does that mean they publically support you but people always give their best when they feel trusted and appreciated.
      • tell them when they’ve done a good job. This one sounds easy, but doing it right takes thought. Should it be written or spoken? Private or in front of the team or SLT?

      What would I  have done differently?

      I would trust myself from the beginning. Taking on an ‘acting’ role is a tough one to manage: you want to hand the department back as you found it but you also don’t want to be disturbing someone’s maternity leave double checking decisions every 5 minutes. It’s often hard to ignore the nagging voice in my head which insists I’m always making mistakes and this time I wish I’d listened to my head teacher’s voice when she told me that she had faith I would do a good job in this role from the beginning.

      Listening to my own doubts and second guessing every decision I made meant that I gave myself many unnecessary sleepless nights and teary evenings for the first few months. Yet looking back now, I can see that the department didn’t collapse; children kept learning and nobody handed in their notice! I really do need to stop being so hard on myself.

      Next steps…

      I need to keep pushing my KS3 agenda. I am going to consider this key stage and it’s teachers as a separate department / team that I am the leader of. I know that I can make good decisions about the best way to deliver English to my KS3 students and I need to be as assertive with my HoCA about my intentions as I have been with my line manager when I was running the whole department.
      I will let my ‘Teacher Geek’ out more. The department have always willingly shared resources, but only when asked. I introduced some time to share good practice at department meetings and I want that to keep growing. I will insist on time in department meetings at the end of KS3 units to share resources & ideas which worked well, although I’ll probably keep them at a TeachMeet style 2 minute time limit.
      I will put myself out there more and seek out CPD opportunities within the school which will help me grow as a teacher and as a leader and that starts tomorrow with an email to the head asking if I can shadow the organisation of the big October INSET day so that I can grow and experience the other area of leadership which excites me: whole school teaching and learning. Wish me luck…

      The problem with invisible teaching*

      *To steal a phrase from David Didau

      This past week has been the busiest week of the year: A Level marks & moderation to send off; A Level data to go to head of sixth form; GCSE sample to send off; observation with the head & head of PE; meetings; illnesses (my migraine & 2 of my team); the AS Lit exam. I’m tired again just writing it all out and I didn’t include my day job of teaching and running the department!

      But, somehow through all this, I still had to teach all my classes, including 4 exam classes, to my usual standard. This week really made me understand how much of our teaching is invisible. My students, my trainee and my observers only see the end product of a lot of thought, work and, at times, stress.

      If I’m being completely honest, there was the odd lesson that was planned in my head as I was driving in to work that morning and I’m lucky that I have enough experience to draw on to do that occasionally. However, it’s not always possible to do this.

      To teach a lesson where learning takes place for each student, you need to have planned your lesson knowing where all the starting points are for all your students and where their end goal is (and if they’re likely to achieve it without a bit of extra help / differentiation) as well as resource it.

      And this is the invisible part of our teaching. Our students are often totally unaware of everything we have done to prepare for that hour of their lives. Their lack of understanding can sometimes come across as ingratitude which never goes down well with a tired and stressed teacher.

      Perhaps the worse problem is that even though our SLT have been through it before, but the longer they’re at the top the longer it is since they’ve been on a full time table and the world of education is changing so fast now. This often makes teachers feel aggrieved by the demands of SLT, feeling that they are just unreasonable requests from leaders who don’t truly understand.

      I’ve seen teachers kill themselves frantically marking books because the book scrutiny doesn’t fit in with their making schedule and they don’t want their knuckles rapped. But then they moan about the mark load and marking policy imposed by SLT; the same SLT who think you’re coping because of the book scrutiny you “passed”. This is why I stopped doing this and didn’t get my knuckles rapped when I explained I marked books fortnightly and Y10 had just handed theirs in ready for marking.

      I think the problem of invisible teaching goes beyond SLT though. This problem stretches out to parents and politicians too. So few of the parents know what we really do and can assume we only work 8-3 term times only so offer little sympathy when we don’t reply to them straight away. But worse than that the people in charge don’t really know what we do. Nicky Morgan can visit as many schools as she wants, but unless she shadows a teacher, from the primary and secondary sector, for at least a week, she’ll never really understand. This means she can never truly understand the results of the work load survey and if that’s the case, how can she fix it?

      Ideally, we should only complete our planning, preparation and assessment in our PPA time and show that it’s not possible. But how could we do that and not let our students’ education suffer? This dilemma will always be an issue and prevent us from taking successful action to do something to ease the workload and create teachers who have the time and energy to plan, prepare and deliver high quality lessons to every class every day.

      Sadly, I think, at least for now, teaching will always be invisible. It really shouldn’t be; a good teacher works bloody hard and this should be recognised by everyone involved in education to prevent it from driving out passionate and highly skilled teachers from our profession.

      Reflections on being in charge.

      Last half term I took over my department while my HoCA took maternity leave to have a gorgeous baby girl.

      So after a month as Head of Curriculum Area, what exactly have I learnt?

      Have a strong leadership team.

      When I stepped up to HoCA the media coordinator stepped up to second in department. This was a big ask as she was only a few months into her first leadership role and still finding her way round the minefield of middle management.

      I have really enjoyed mentoring her these past few months and watching her grow as a middle manager, but she had been a fantastic support to me too. She has supported me and we’ve discussed ideas and begun collaborating on moving the department forward in the fledgling media GCSE and how we can make KS3 as strong as KS4 next year.

      Don’t take things personally.

      I’ve always been able to brush off criticisms and expletives from my students, but it’s a different feeling when it comes from people who only a few weeks before were complaining with you not at you!

      When running a department, I’ve noticed, you take on the qualities of a phone line for my department. I am now a direct line to SLT, heads of houses, heads of year, parents etc. I’ve noticed that people complain to me and expect me to fix it or pass it up. And although I know that’s how it should be, it does take a toll. During the beginning of a stressful week a lot of aggro was heading in my direction and it really brought me down but after a couple of days I realised I was just the receiver for the stress and unhappiness and not the cause. Once I had this crystallising moment I found it a lot easier to deal with.

      Don’t be afraid to let people know if they’ve made a mistake.

      It’s not a nice part of being in charge, but if people make mistakes, you need to talk to them about it. Dedicated teachers don’t make mistakes on purpose, they are the result of a lack of understanding or a lack of time & increase in stress. But you need to talk to them to find out the root of the error as whatever the reason it needs to be fixed and a good leader should not leave a team member struggling if they need help.

      However, the way in which you handle this conversation is key. I’ve worked with middle managers who don’t appear to realise there may be a good reason a teacher had made a mistake and have escalated to SLT far too quickly or have used a tone far too harsh for a teacher who is struggling to cope with a demanding work load. These poor decisions by middle managers mean that I have also comforted many angry and upset colleagues who feel unsupported and told off unfairly. I’ve learnt from this and tried to make sure I have a face to face conversation rather than an emailed one as it’s allowed me to ask if my team member is OK and, at the few times it’s been necessary, offer support.

      But having this difficult conversation had meant that mistakes are not repeated and people have thanked me for taking the time to speak to them and thank me for my consideration.

      Ask for help when you need it.

      It can sometimes be hard to ask for help, but when you’re in charge, especially if it’s your first time, it is perhaps the most important thing you can do for your team and your students.

      So far, I have asked for help from the head of sixth form, my LM, an assistant head, my team and ex-colleagues. This assistance has been about how to deal with a difficult parent who’s also a staff member; a class ganging up on a teacher; delegation of Y11 revision day etc. Each time I’ve asked for help I’ve felt myself getting stronger as a leader.

      Say thank you.

      I’ve always believed that “Thank you” was very powerful, but it’s even more so when it comes from someone in management. Teaching can, at times, be thankless: parents, students and SLT can often get the balance between criticism and compliment / gratitude wrong and it can wear people down.

      I’ve made sure I’ve thanked everyone for giving me help when I asked for it and for those moments when they went above and beyond. But I’ve also made sure I thanked my team just for doing their job: teaching, especially in exam season, is brutal and you can see the lift saying “thank you” gives someone.

      Take time for yourself.

      There’s nothing wrong with doing nothing one evening a week or one day of the weekend. There is always another item in the to do list, but if you don’t listen to your body and rest when you need it you’re no good to your team or your students.

      Prioritising is important, but so is being honest with people if you think the deadline is impossible. There is always work to be done, but is it more important than my husband, my family or my friends?

      I feel like I managed a successful work / life balance during the easter holidays. I took the bank holiday weekend off and then went into school Tuesday to Friday to work. Once I left on Friday, no work was to be done in my holiday week. Yes, I didn’t get everything done, but because I ended the term by prioritising my to do list the world didn’t end because I didn’t reach the end of my to do list! And it meant I started the busiest term of the year refreshed, re-energised and ready to hit the ground running. And it worked: we had a strong start to this term.

      Overall, I’ve really enjoyed my first few months in charge: they’ve not been easy, but I’ve really enjoyed them and learnt a lot.

      To HoD or not to HoD? It’s no longer a question

      When I started teaching, I soon realised that I wanted a leadership role as I wanted to have a bigger impact on the lives of our students; I wanted to be able to make a bigger difference to their experience of English at secondary. I worked hard to gain experiences and promotions, but always had my sights set on a head of department role.

      But in February 2013 I was given a new leadership role at a local academy and saw a truth to the head of department job I’d never seen before. Wellington Academy was very quickly thrown in to turmoil in the summer of 2013, although on our arrival we’d noticed that the English department should have already been feeling that turmoil. I was lucky enough to work closely with, and develop a friendship with, our amazing Head of Faculty. Anyone who follows her Twitter account, @fod3, will know that she is hardworking, dedicated and a teacher to the very core of her being but through our car sharing I saw the toll this job placed on her. I listened, counselled and consoled whenever I was needed and all the while learning so many things from watching this Wonder Woman of a teacher work tirelessly for the school and department she had fallen so deeply in love with.

      Sadly, during my time at The Welly I began to question whether I still wanted to run a department of my own. Did I want to give up so much of my own life to what is, in reality, just a job? I had to keep reminding myself that these were exceptional circumstances; this was a school fighting a legacy of poor leadership and multiple mistakes. But I couldn’t help wonder if I could work so selflessly and so relentlessly all day, every day.

      But, as ever, life came along and changed my plans without warning. A little over a year after arriving, I found myself at the wrong end of restructuring and started looking for jobs elsewhere. I was lucky enough to be appointed as second in department at a fantastic school and I relished another new challenge. But more significantly, I was looking forward to watching another head of department and seeing if this was still a path I wanted to travel down when the school wasn’t fighting for a grade 3 from Ofsted.

      Again, things didn’t quite go to plan!

      3 days after starting my new Head of Curriculum Area took me to one side to let me know that she was pregnant and would be going on maternity leave half way through the year. I was then asked if I wanted to take on the role of Acting HoCA in her absence. To be honest, I feel it was a risk to ask me. I was still unknown in the department and had barely started my current role: it was a gamble to ask me to look after the department which she had nurtured and grown to it’s current strengths over years. To her and the head’s credit no pressure was put on me and I was allowed to think it over in my own time and ask all the sensible (and stupid) questions I needed to. As I’ve blogged about before, I still felt exhausted and bruised from my time at The Welly and was really looking forward to this new job being the revitalising breath of fresh air that I so desperately needed.

      After speaking to friends, family and colleagues, I decided to take on this challenge. Once I’d agreed to this, temporary, job change, I took every opportunity I could to learn the ins and outs of this challenging role. With the unending support and guidance of my HoCA, I felt my desire to run a department return. But more than that, I felt my passion, energy and creativity return. Without wishing to sound cliché, I felt myself come back to myself. I don’t know if it’s taking on the HoCA role, or if it’s having a new challenge to focus on which has refreshed me, but I’m so glad it has. I’m not naïve, I know this new role will be hard and I know it will be exhausting and involve some long hours but I am honestly excited about it (and a little scared!)

      So, come 23rd February I will be running the English department and dipping my toes into the future career I had initially envisioned for myself. I have been preparing for this moment for the past few months through attendance at meetings, asking questions about EVERYTHING and building a strong support network for myself. I still feel an element of trepidation, but it feels the same as it has for every new job I’ve taken on. Although this will be a temporary position and I will hand the department back in September, I am determined to do a good job for the team and the students. But most importantly, I am determined to do well for my HoCA. She had faith in me when my faith in myself had been damaged; she put her trust in me when she knew how bruised I felt from past experiences; she saw potential in me when I was struggling to see it in myself.

      And as I sit here reflecting on how I’ve arrived at this moment, I realise I have everything possible to be successful: I have trust and faith in myself again and I have trust and faith in my team. I do genuinely feel that I am ready for this.

      Why events like #TLT14 are so important.

      Last Saturday I happily spent the day with a gaggle of teachers (not sure what our collective noun is? Perhaps a marking of teachers? 😀) at the University of Southampton discussing education and how we can deliver a better quality of it for our students.

      Since leaving #TLT14 many blogged about their day and the different sessions they participated in; I started to do this, but was struggling to find something original to say. Instead I started thinking about the event itself.

      Why did so many of us give up our Saturday?
      Why did so many people put themselves out with car, train and plane travel to spend a Saturday with a load of teachers?

      It’s easy to say that we did it because we love teaching or because we want to be better teachers. But I don’t think that’s the real, deep down truth. I think if we’re honest with ourselves we went on Saturday, and to similar events, for selfish reasons.
      We went because we’re exhausted.
      We went because we’re fed up.
      We went because we needed it.

      Let me explain…

      We’re nearly at the end of a long half term and most teachers I know are dead on our feet. With dark nights drawing in and temperatures dropping it can be hard to find the spark we need to get through the day. That’s where #TLT14 came in: they offered the flint needed to get the fire burning again. I noticed the same thing at Ed Fest in the summer: we were crawling towards the end of the summer term & after one day at an education event people were buoyant and ready to go again.

      In addition to this, we’re fed up. So many teachers are questioning the profession and their place in it, I have to admit I’ve wondered if I was in the right profession at points this year. This has a knock on your confidence as a teacher and that can spiral. There is no where to hide when standing in front of 30 teenagers and teachers can be incredibly hard on themselves. When your confidence runs away from you in teaching you feel vulnerable, naked, exposed. You’re definite someone will come to expose you as a failure and the single reason why all your classes will fail in their lives’ ambitions. And surely the naming as a witch and burning on a pyre is only moments away from this accusation? The only life line I’ve found at moments like this is the reassurance and guidance from fellow teachers.

      Teaching is like a TV show: if it’s been well scripted and all props have been prepared it appears effortless. And much like the unappreciated script writers and props teams in TV world the work we do behind the scenes is just that: hidden; unseen; unnoticed. We’re used to this being unnoticed by students & parents but, for many, it’s beginning to feel like this is also being unnoticed by senior teams as well as by politicians and the general public. Recently it’s felt like more and more hoops are being lined up for us to jump through and they always seem to be getting higher. And worse still, if you do manage to jump through them you’re sometimes told you jumped through it incorrectly or not in the accepted way so it didn’t count. It’s completely understandable why so many are feeling fed up at the moment. For many years I’ve come to accept that I will never reach the end of my To Do list, but in the past year it’s felt like I’m failing more than I’m succeeding. It’s this feeling that makes education events such as #TLT14 so vital to all of us, attendees or otherwise. There’s strength in solidarity: I felt so much better to hear other people voice the same concerns. I felt relieved by being comforted by more senior and experienced teachers who were experiencing the same struggle. But more importantly I found the strength to keep going and to keep looking for ways to improve.

      This positivity is infectious. We all took it back to our departments and our schools on Monday. We fired up our colleagues which will help them get through this last week. Some may even come with us next time.

      Teaching takes over your life: it eats into your free time; it dominates your conversations; it invades your dreams! All this is draining yet so few people can fully grasp this. I’ve had numerous arguments with my husband, he has a physical job, about exhaustion. It took months to get him to understand that it’s a different type of exhaustion. Mental exhaustion is just as incapacitating as a physical one, although there’s less muscle aches. When your brain isn’t functioning properly the simplest of tasks get harder and harder until eventually you’re passed out on the sofa at 7:30 and sleep for the whole 12 hours. This plays a massive part in why teachers flit in and out of the social scene, sometimes we mean to go out but we sit down before heading out and soon we’re snoring (and if we’re really exhausted there may even be that little bit of drool… You know the one I mean!)

      Education events force us to stir from our beds or drag ourselves from the unending marking pile because we’ve paid for a ticket or we’ve offered someone else a lift. But once we’re out we wake up to the world. It’s common to find local pubs & restaurants invaded by educators desperate to embrace a hibernating social life.

      TeachMeets, Ed Fest, #TLT14 and all the others offer amazing and inspiring workshops and talks which teach us, inspire us and motivate us to be better. And I love every one I’ve been to, but their true beauty lies in a much simpler premise. They offer us comfort and reassurance that we’re not alone:
      We’re not the only teachers who love our job this much.
      We’re not the only ones feeling the pressure.

      We are not alone.

      I love teaching. But I love the ed events more because without them I wouldn’t survive in teaching.