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…

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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.