Thank you Barack and Michelle Obama

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Dear Barack and Michelle Obama,

I wonder if you realise how far the influence of your Presidency extends? I know the President of the United States is often dubbed the “Leader of the Free World,” but your time in the White House has had a truly global reach. In my little part of England, I have been moved to tears more than once by the example that you both have set for me, for my family, for the students I teach, and for future generations.

I want to thank you. Over the past eight years, you have shown the world what it is like to behave with dignity, compassion, and humanity in public office. The first black President and First Lady in the White House, you have completed your tenure without personal scandal or revelation, with your integrity intact. This shouldn’t be a rarity, but public figures with such qualities are few and far between.

I want to thank you for your leadership. You have shown what it is to lead with vision and values, a set of principles that you articulated clearly and which ran through every aspect of your Presidency. I am sure that you will feel frustrated at not having achieved all that you wished to, obstructed by partisan division and political machination. I am sure you will be frustrated as you watch some of what you have achieved rolled back and undone by your successor. But you have borne those setbacks with equanimity and tolerance, and they seem to have strengthened your resolve, not weakened it.

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I want to thank you for the example you have set as a family. I admire the care you have taken to protect your children and ensure that their upbringing was insulated from the extraordinary circumstances of your role. The fact that Sasha did not attend her father’s farewell address because she had an important exam the next day tells us everything about your priorities as parents, and the value that you place on education.

It was fitting that the First Lady’s final public engagement was at a celebration of school counsellors, and you took the opportunity to re-emphasise your commitment to the importance of education to the success of our society. You have yourselves shown what the power of good schooling can do, as it was your own education which allowed you to overcome all of the barriers and obstacles between you and the highest political office, and to speak with such authority, knowledge and wisdom on so many occasions and on so many topics.

 

I want to thank you for your feminism and all you have done to overcome stereotyped masculine and feminine roles in the workplace, in authority, and in relationships. In your farewell address, and on so many occasions throughout your two terms in the Oval Office, you have shown that your marriage is a partnership of equals, modelling those values that so many still struggle to live by. You took time to reply to a letter from a young girl suffering bullying because her parents were a gay couple, saying:

In America, no two families look the same. We celebrate this diversity. And we recognize that whether you have two dads or one mom what matters above all is the love we show one another. You are very fortunate to have two parents who care deeply for you. They are lucky to have such an exceptional daughter in you.

Our differences unite us.

I want to thank you for your humour. From Carpool Karaoke to the Correspondents’ Dinner, from your Thanksgiving dad-jokes to your Saturday Night Live appearances, you have set a new standard in political comedy – although I admit your competition is scarce. You have balanced this with the dignity you have mustered in times of unbearable tragedy and commemoration. You have shown that laughter and tears do not diminish your leadership, but enhance it.

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I want to thank you for all the barriers you have broken down. You have shown people what is possible with a good education, a set of deeply held principles and values by which you chart your course, and the unconditional love and support for one another as a couple and as a family – not just in America, but the world over. You talked about the audacity of hope. But in your time as President you have shown what can be achieved by daring to hope, by daring to try, and by believing in what is possible. You have been inspiring. And no matter what follows, that will always remain.

Thank you, Barack and Michelle Obama. Thank you.

 

 

Why I’m backing #ASCLBarton

In a previous post on my history of union membership, I waxed lyrical over my ASCL membership. Here’s what I wrote:

Now that I’m in ASCL I feel like I belong to a union that does speak with my voice. When I read Brian Lightman’s responses to the GCSE fiasco, to the EBac proposal, to the proposals for performance-related pay, they seem rational, reasoned and responsible. They represent the profession as a profession, and when I hear the national officers speak at conferences, they seem committed to constructive negotiation on our behalf with the Secretary of State and the Department for Education. This model of the representative voice constructively negotiating with the senior leadership on behalf of teachers is precisely that which works so well in school, scaled up to the national level.

I stand by those comments. I do think that the Association of School and College Leaders represents the profession well. I am proud of my membership and I feel like ASCL represents me, as a Headteacher, in the way I would like to be represented. Their Blueprint for a Self-Improving System is a document I return to, alongside the Headteachers’ Roundtable Five Principles and Alternative Green Paper, as a common-sense but ambitious vision for how education could work in this country.

Now, ASCL members are faced with a choice. Two candidates have been placed before the membership of the association for election to the post of General Secretary. The ASCL selection committee have nominated Chris Kirk, who has spent fourteen years at PwC as an education leader as well as stints at the National College, as a director of education services for GEMS, and at the Department for Education as a civil servant. Before that, he spent a year in the classroom. Around 300 ASCL members, myself included, nominated his opponent, Geoff Barton, who started teaching in 1985 and hasn’t stopped since. Geoff has been a Headteacher since 2002.

Both candidates are qualified to lead ASCL, but for me the choice is clear. Who do I want representing school and college leaders at a national level, influencing policy, engaging in debate, challenging the evidence base behind decision making, and holding the Secretary of State and the Department to account? I want the candidate who has been where I am now, as a serving Headteacher, facing the challenges of the current system and climate, and really understanding them. Not in theory, but in practice. The candidate who has spent over thirty years in schools, in classrooms, teaching and leading.  The candidate who has been endorsed by Stephen Tierney, John Tomsett, Kev Bartle, Rob Campbell, Ros McMullen, Caroline Spalding, Ross McGill and countless other teachers and leaders I admire and respect from across the country.

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Click the image to tweet your support for #ASCLBarton

In his manifesto, Geoff outlines the challenges currently facing our “perilously fragmented system”:

  • funding
  • teacher and leadership recruitment
  • the proposal to resurrect educational selection
  • an apparent marginalisation of vocational education and the arts
  • the fallout from over-hasty qualification reform
  • an inspection regime which for too many leaders continues to feel punitive

These are all critical issues facing our profession today. The top three – funding, recruitment, and the return of selection – all loom large in the top left “urgent/important” quadrant of my Covey Matrix. That they have pushed the other three towards the top right hand corner indicate the unprecedented level of crisis across education. We need an eloquent, level-headed and experienced leader to articulate the genuine concerns that every Headteacher I speak to is feeling.

But what Geoff also brings to the table is optimism. In amongst the dark clouds and portents of doom, the horses eating one another in the stable and the spilled salt, Geoff brightens my Twitter timeline with silly humour, tales of the unexpected and dry reflections on obscure words in the English language. Geoff is already a high-profile figure. A published author, a well-known writer, and an engaging public speaker, his over 35,000 twitter followers show that he has the capacity to reach not only school leaders and teachers, but a wider audience too. His voice will be a powerful one not only to ensure that this issues are clear – he articulated the funding crisis in just this way in the Guardian in November – but also that the many positives in teaching continue to be communicated far and wide. He promises to battle hard to defend, champion and celebrate the profession he has devoted his life’s work to. I will be supporting him all the way.

So what now? If you are an ASCL member – or if you know an ASCL member – it’s vital that you engage with the election for General Secretary. Whoever is elected will be our voice. Read the information on the ASCL website and, when your ballot paper arrives in January, vote. As 2016 has shown us, anything can happen when democracy is unleashed. So read. Fill in your ballot. And vote.

My thoughts on the grammar schools policy

Many people have written about this much more eloquently and persuasively than I can – such as Sam Freedman, Greg Ashman, Rebecca Allen, Chris Cook to name but a few – and Laura McInerney has just overtaken Matthew Tate as my educational hero of the week for her patient, persistent use of evidence in a post-facts policy-making pandemonium.

Just for my own peace of mind, however, here are my thoughts on the grammar schools policy. 

It’s not about parental choice

On the Today programme on Radio 4, Education Secretary Justine Greening kept returning to the argument that expanding existing grammar schools and allowing the creation of new ones improved parental choice. This is incorrect. In a selective education system, parents don’t choose the best school for their children; schools choose the “best” children for themselves. And children have no choice whatsoever. 

The evidence is against it

Performance of pupils in selective vs non-selective counties by deprivation index (click for source)


This seems a pointless argument. Policy makers aren’t interested in evidence or facts or experts any more. But selective education disadvantages the disadvantaged, whilst giving advantages or making little-to-no difference to those who already have a head start. It doesn’t improve social mobility. The best comprehensives are doing better for all pupils – improving standards in comprehensives would make more difference. Teach First’s statement on this sums it up best: 

It has an impact on every school

I wish I could believe that all Headteachers would take a principled stance and remain firmly comprehensive, but since we know that Progress 8 (and definitely the Basics, EBacc and Attainment 8 measures) favour schools with higher prior attainment on intake, I very much doubt that this will be the case. And once one school in an area decides to change its comprehensive intake to a selective one, it affects every single school in that area. Every school will have to review its admissions stance. If we remain comprehensive, will we lose the high achievers from our intake to the selective school down the road and become a secondary modern by default? 

It allows gaming the accountability measures on a systemic level

Theresa May’s proposals included encouragement for grammars to move students between schools at 14 and 16 (note that schools would do this: where’s the parental choice?). So, if your grammar-controlled secondary modern has done really well for you and you’re flourishing academically, you get hived off into the grammar parent school at 14. And if you managed to pass at 11 but you don’t make the grade at 14, you’re unceremoniously kicked out. And then, hey presto, the accountability measures at 16 for the grammar school look incredible, whilst the secondary modern flounders despite its best efforts, and the DfE presents its evidence that their policy has been a rip-roaring success in raising standards. 

The Key Stage 2 tests suddenly look even more sinister

I was amongst many who flung up my hands in dismay at the notion that students at the end of Year 6 would be labelled as having met, or not met, the expected standard, then sent up into Year 7 with the whiff of “success” or “failure” already hanging over them. I’m still awaiting the horror-show of making those Year 7s who have not made the expected standard re-sit the tests after a few months of secondary. But now, is it just me who thinks that the Year 6 tests look a little bit like an 11+? 

There’s money to put behind grammar expansion, but not for comprehensives with a track record of success

Theresa May also announced £50m to support the expansion of existing grammars. I know that, in the scheme of things, this isn’t a massive sum nationally. But honestly every school leader or business manager I know who would bite your hand off for an additional £500 in the budget right now. It is galling to see this money flung at selective schools to expand whilst outstanding comprehensives, doing great work for all children, struggle. 

It’s a sleight-of-hand policy which distracts from everything else

Watch your card, just your card…


Also this week we learned that teacher training courses are half empty with the profession facing a recruitment crisis. Schools budgets are in meltdown. New accountability measures are due to be published this month as schools continue to implement a new curriculum and testing regime in Early Years, Key Stage 1, Key Stage 2, Key Stage 3, Key Stage 4 and Post-16 at the same time. Academies that are part of MATs haven’t been audited due to loopholes. There are concerns that people are siphoning public money out of the system into their own bank accounts through academy freedoms. Rooves are leaking. SEND reforms are almost unworkable. But look: a return to selection! Over here! Look! Watch this! 

We can’t possibly fight on all fronts. But a return to selection? We must. 

The benefit of experience

This week I’ve been reading through my List in Pocket (the single most useful app I have installed) of all the blogs, articles, links and clips I’d seen during the last term but not had the time to consume and digest. In my trawl through I found this excellent paper from the states: 


In a nutshell, the answer is “yes.” Or, as Mark McCourt (the wonderful @EMathsUK on Twitter) put it: 

Yes, in the summary of the research Kini and Podolsky clarify the following: 

  • Teaching experience is positively associated with student achievement gains throughout a teacher’s career.
  • Teachers’ effectiveness increases at a greater rate when they teach in a supportive and collegial working environment.
  • More experienced teachers support greater student learning for their colleagues and the school as a whole, as well as for their own students.
  • On average, the most effective 20-year teachers are significantly more effective than the most effective first-year teachers 

Or, in summary: 

Our research does not indicate that the passage of time will make all teachers better or incompetent teachers effective. However, it does indicate that, for most teachers, experience increases effectiveness. (Kini and Podolsky, 2016)

This isn’t news, surely? Yet my tweet about this study attracted a number of replies discussing examples of schools undervaluing experienced staff and the “cult of youth” which sees some schools placing too much emphasis on new career entrants with “fresh ideas” and “energy.” I know that schools benefit massively from trainees, NQTs and RQTs, with all those fresh ideas and energy – that isn’t what this blog is about. What it’s about instead is the value that experienced staff bring to a school and why we should value them, listen to them, and above all retain them in the profession. 

I can remember being an NQT and looking in awe at those with ten, fifteen or twenty years experience. Their command of the room, their command of their material, and their command of their craft was inspiring. I’m no fool: I watched and learned, hungry for the secrets of success that, in my first faltering forays into the classroom, I sadly lacked. And, although I am now entering the 20th year of my teaching career myself, I’ve never stopped. 

I was only in my sixth year of teaching when I became a Head of Department. It was too soon. In time, I got better, but I can remember some cringeworthy naïve mistakes that I made in my first year or so. In particular, challenging an experienced member of staff about underperformance. I was well-supported by the Headteacher, carefully briefed, and it needed to be done, but I know I made an unremitting hash of that conversation. I simply didn’t have the experience to carry it off properly, to do it justice, to be fair to that colleague. It was embarrassing. Those conversations are never easy, but with a few more years under my belt I know I would have handled it better. I made a conscious decision to wait for my next promotion until I was experienced enough to be ready – I did eight years as Head of Faculty before applying for SLT positions. 

Throughout that time, I’ve been watching and learning from colleagues more experienced than me. I’ve watched them teach, and picked up as many of the tips and tricks that they’ve learned as I can. As an aspiring Headteacher, I visited and spoke to as many experienced Heads as I could to learn from them. I’ve read everything Tom Sherrington and John Tomsett have ever posted, and read books by John, Vic Goddard and others, for the same reason. But the fact is, you only really get better at doing this job – teaching, or Headteaching – by actually doing it. 


I’ve learned an awful lot in the first seven months of Headship, and had many of my ideas confirmed. One of the latter is the value of experienced staff to the school as a whole. Those teachers who have been at the school for years and seen Heads and Secretaries of State come and go (ideally fewer of the former than the latter), who are teaching the children of the children they taught earlier in their career, who have seen trends and fads rise and fall and carried on regardless. These are the ones you need – who make the school what it is. John Tomsett wrote about this in his interview with his longest serving teacher back in 2013. It is these staff who provide the skeleton of the school: the backbone, rib cage and skull that hold it all together and keep it safe. And I had this personally confirmed to me at the end of term when Chris George retired. 

Chris has taught at Churchill for 22 years, the majority of those as Head of Sixth Form. When I first started, I spent a fascinating hour with him getting under the skin of the school over that time. Before he retired, we spent another hour where he generously told me exactly what he thought I needed to hear after my first seven months. Both conversations were invaluable. And his leaving speech, delivered in the sunshine on the last day of term after the staff barbecue, was one for the ages. He talked about what experience had taught him over his career, and passed it on to all of us. Most importantly, his speech was based around the advice he was given as an NQT himself, by his experienced mentor. Advice that had stayed with him throughout his career. “Treat people like people” was one of those nuggets – and I’ve made that a motto for my own Headship. “Chris Hildrew, coming in here with his new-fangled ideas!” said Chris – a dig I definitely enjoyed! He also advised us to look after our mental health, to seek help if we needed it, and not to try and pretend that everything was okay if it isn’t. This is advice that needs to be heard in staff rooms up and down the country. He also advised teachers to always carry a piece of paper with them when walking around the site, because it made it look like you were doing something important and stopped people bothering you. 

He finished with the words of Norman Stanley Fletcher


 It is vital to our profession that we create those supportive and collegial environments, cherish the teachers who have the experience, and listen – really listen – to them. We have much to learn. Because we’ve recruited fantastic teachers to replace our leavers this year. But it’ll take 22 years before they’re as good as Chris George. And there are no short cuts.

The Future

What will our school room philosophy be?


Last night I had the pleasure of addressing our Year 13 leavers at our annual Sixth Form Ball.I’ve only been their Headteacher for six months, so it was an honour to be asked to speak to them. Here is what I said.

It’s a pleasure to see you all tonight at the end of your time as students of Churchill Academy. My biggest regret is that I don’t know you all better but you’ve been busy, I’ve been busy, and now here we are and it’s all too late…

I had a lovely light-hearted speech planned, but then things happened in the world and suddenly it feels like we’re living through a real life Game of Thrones episode. David Cameron is off the Iron Throne, Boris Johnson Targaryen was riding in on a dragon before being stabbed in the back by Tyrion Lannister Gove and the Labour party is doing a decent impression of the Red Wedding. Nobody seems to have a plan. The white ravens have flown, and winter has come. Perhaps if you’re a Harry Potter fan, Dumbledore’s words sum up where we are: “Dark and difficult times lie ahead.”

Think about how we are currently perceived around the world. Football hooliganism. Xenophobia. Intolerance. Racist abuse in supermarkets and on the street. A collapsing currency. Extremism on the rise. The constant threat of terror. Losing to Iceland. “Dark and difficult times” indeed; looking ahead, the future feels like a pretty scary prospect. 

Right now, I’m ashamed and embarrassed by the way people of my generation and, if I can be so generous, those of the generation older than me, are conducting themselves and their affairs on the global stage. They appear to have forgotten that, if we are to succeed, we all have to work together, and that the human race is not one that can be won by just one group. This isn’t about leave or remain, it’s about decency. Liberty. Mutual respect for, and tolerance of, those with different faiths and beliefs, and for those without faith. It’s about honesty, fairness, and justice – and it’s easy to be disheartened when those who are supposed to lead us aren’t modelling the kind of behaviour we want, expect and need. 

But I work in schools for a reason, and that reason is that every day I am surrounded by possibility. By what you could become. By hope. And when I look out at you, the Year 13 leavers of 2016, embarrassment and shame are far from my mind. I feel proud of the young adults you have become, and hopeful for the room full of yet-to-be-realised possibilities that you embody. 

Dumbledore’s quotation ends: “Dark and difficult times lie ahead. Soon we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.” Looking at you now, I am filled with the hope that you will choose what is right over what is easy. It is those choices which will define your generation. I know you can do better than your predecessors. And you have to – it’s never mattered more.

So with that, Year 13, I hope you will raise your glasses to the future. Because you understand, I hope, that leadership is not about the next election – it’s about the next generation. Your generation. To the class of 2016: to the future! 

 

#HeForShe Education Pledge: No Haters


A year ago I published my post #HeForShe, or I am a feminist to affirm my commitment to gender equality publicly. Since that time I have kept to the movement’s four core commitments, to:

  1. Express zero tolerance for discrimination and violence against women and girls
  2. Believe in equal access to social, political and economic opportunities
  3. Understand that taking a stand for women and girls is taking a stand for humanity
  4. Speak up when you see physical, emotional or sexual harassment


I’ve also been inspired over the past year by the growth of WomenEd and other movements such as the Leading Women’s Alliance, Token Man, This Girl Can, and others. It was a catch up on the WomenEd Yammer and StaffRm threads that led me back to the #HeForShe Education page and their suggestions for action that I can take to help further gender equality in my field. 

#HeForShe makes three suggestions under their Be The Change banner: 

  1. That’s not okay: What does it mean to act “like a girl” or “like a man”? Call out gender-biased language from students and teachers alike. Ask the speaker to think about how these comments reinforce gender stereotypes.
  2. No Haters: Online bullies want your silence. Enlist your friends and followers to send messages of support to victims of social media trolling. You’ll help turn the internet into a safe space for everyone.
  3. Teach a teacher: Empower educators to create equality in the classroom. Get the UNESCO Guide for Gender Equality in Teacher Education Policy and Practices, a step-by-step guide for including gender equality issues in teacher training.


These are all great commitments, and I am happy to enact them all. However, I was particularly struck by the No Haters commitment as a really positive step that I can do more to affirm. I see a lot of negative behaviour on Twitter and in other online spaces. There seems to be an increasing proportion of educators who spend their time scanning their timelines for ideas they can attack, criticise, take down, or belittle. They are always ready to say “that won’t work” or “you shouldn’t do that” or “you are wrong.” And these people fall on both sides of the traditional/progressive divide. If you teach at Michaela and share your practice online, it’s time to batten down the hatches for the “you’re damaging children” onslaught – when they quite clearly care very, very deeply about the children they teach. Similarly, if you dare to suggest that an open ended creative project might be a good idea, or that children should enjoy their learning, there are those who are only too ready to tell you that you’re wasting your time. I don’t get involved in these threads too often, as I swear by “don’t feed the trolls” in the online sphere, but I always feel that I’m not really honoring my “no bystanders” commitment to speak up when I see harassment occurring. 


What I do know, however, that it stops people from sharing their practice online. I know it, because it’s stopped me. I am a straight white cisgendered male Headteacher, educated at an all-boys independent school and Oxford, which pretty much fills my privilege and entitlement bingo card. Yet I know that there are tweets I’ve written and deleted, articles I’ve read and saved, but not shared, and blog posts I’ve thought about and shelved, because I was nervous about the reaction. Because I didn’t want the hassle. Because it affects me personally when people are horrible to me – online or IRL. If that is my experience, with my full house of privilege and entitlement, how stifling could the gladiatorial atmosphere of edu-Twitter be to others?

For me, Twitter and blogging should be about sharing practice and discussing ideas, without fear. In that way, it should be like my classroom. Everyone in my classroom should have the confidence to venture their tentative, half-formed idea, to think it through with the help of their supportive classmates who will add to, build on and develop that tiny seed, to see if it could grow into something stronger and more robust. The critique and advice my students receive from me and their peers helps them improve. I would not tolerate someone belittling and ridiculing their idea – and to belittle and ridicule the student themselves would be a really serious matter. On Twitter we are dealing with grown adults, professionals even, and I can’t send them out or put them in detention – I’m not the Twitter police. So instead I send messages of support to those I see being attacked. Not necessarily in the public sphere – I’m still not in the business of feeding the trolls, and I don’t want to add fuel to the flame war – but to make the Internet a safer space. To thank them for sharing their ideas. To let them know that there is positivity and humanity online, and to try and build a constructive web. 

Above all, it’s important to remember that nobody got into teaching to try to and damage the children, to make them less smart, to stop them learning. We’re all in this to do our best. So let’s help one another, not tear each other down. 

Moving On

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It’s always been a wrench to leave a school. Maybe I’ve been lucky in the schools I’ve worked in, but I’ve never been desperate to leave any of them. For me, moving on has always been about the next challenge and the next step in my career, moving up to new responsibilities in new contexts.

I know that internal promotions can work really well. I’ve had two in my career, firstly with a responsibility point added in my first school and secondly when TLRs were introduced and leadership in my school at the time was restructured. I remember now the trauma of having to re-apply for my job, up against external candidates, and the relief when I was successful. I really enjoyed the new responsibilities and the challenge as I moved on to the leadership spine, but I found it difficult to “re-make” myself in the new role. It seems silly now, but I remember that as a Head of Department my work clothes were shirt-and-tie-with-smart-trousers, accessorised with a nice line in v-necked jumpers. On my first morning of my new leadership spine role, I wore a suit. It was my attempt at signifying that, although I was the same person in the same school with the same staff and the same children, something was different. Navigating that shift in relationships in an internal promotion can be a tricky business!

moving on

In my experience, I’ve always found it preferable to look for my next steps beyond the school I’m currently working in. Arriving somewhere different allows you to re-establish yourself afresh, each time with the benefit of a few more years’ experience and the benefit of knowledge gained from mistakes and missteps in the current role. It’s also, I think, helpful to work in a variety of contexts, seeing how it’s done in different schools with different cultures and ethos (ethe? ethea? ethoses?) I’ve learned so much from every school I’ve worked in, and each one has added to the repertoire of approaches I can use in any given context.

always done it

Rear Admiral Grace Hopper’s useful quote (source)

There’s a benefit to the school in appointing from outside as well. New faces from other schools bring new approaches and challenge the status quo. Even if this doesn’t lead to change, the process of challenging “the way it’s always been done” has got to be healthy.

Despite all this, it’s still hard to leave. It’s hard to re-establish yourself; every time you start at a new school you remember how much classroom and behaviour management is based on reputation, routine and relationships that you’ve built up over time. A fresh start means starting again. It’s hard to leave the students, from knowing all the names, characters, families and histories to a completely blank slate. And it’s hard to leave the staff, that dedicated group of professionals who pull together for the benefit of young people in the face of sometimes overwhelming challenges. But despite all this, I know that moving on is the right thing to do, the right thing for me – and I’m looking forward to the next step.

My First Lesson

Today I saw the new batch of PGCE students on their first day in our school. It’s always great to see the latest generation of teachers taking their first steps to join our great profession – especially now, when so much of the public narrative is around the challenges and problems we are facing. It gives me hope! It also reminds me of my first steps into teaching, and drove me back to my old PGCE files to recall my first lesson.

This is what I looked like in 1996. There's no excuse, really, is there?

This is what I looked like in 1996. It’s hard to know where to start. The outfit? The hair? The unfocused gaze? There’s no excuse, really, is there?

My secondary English PGCE course began with a compulsory two-week primary experience. I still think this is a brilliant idea; the more we can do to establish cross-phase thinking the better, and where better to start than right at the beginning?

My Primary School Experience Journal

My Primary School Experience Journal

I was sent to a primary school on the outskirts of Nottingham with Vicky, another secondary English student, and attached to a mixed Year 5/6 class. I had all sorts of  tasks to do: observing a pupil, observing a task, investigating equal opportunities and so on, before I got started on some small group work. I remember helping the class teacher hand-crank the Banda machine to get my worksheets off to do some technical accuracy work with a group of six hand-picked students. Here’s my crib sheet…

Hand-cranked worksheet in Banda-purple with red pen annotations

Hand-cranked worksheet in Banda-purple with red pen annotations

And then, in the last days, time to take the whole class. I was going to get them to do some creative writing based on a piece of music. I cranked the Banda machine, I planned my lesson with the class teacher, I psyched myself up. Then, the class teacher stepped out. It was over to me.

Worksheet from my first ever full-class lesson

Worksheet from my first ever full-class lesson

I don’t remember much about the lesson, if I’m honest. What I do remember – what I’ll never forget – was the debrief with the teacher afterwards. “How do you think it went?” she asked, kindly. “It was okay…” I said, hesitantly. “And were you comfortable with the noise level?” she asked. A sure sign of a skilful teacher: giving me the opportunity to learn from failure and improve. Here’s what I wrote in my evaluation:

Evaluation of my first lesson

Evaluation of my first lesson

  • Lesson 1: experienced teachers make it look “deceptively easy.” The children listen, attentively, and do as instructed without question. This does not happen without a lot of ground work!
  • Lesson 2: don’t rush. Establish the ground rules. Explain the task carefully. Take your time!
  • Lesson 3: model the behaviour you want to see. The way you are is reflected back at you in the behaviour of the children. If you’re unsettled and anxious, they will be too.
  • Lesson 4: evaluate your practice. Go back and have another go, working on what didn’t go well the first time. It gets better.

My primary school experience journal ended with a series of reflection tasks. The final question was: “How do you now see yourself as a beginning teacher?” Here’s what I wrote:

The end of my primary experience journal, September 1996

The end of my primary experience journal, September 1996

Ahead of me now I see a lot of hard work; an almost infeasible amount. However, my work with LF has given me a set of goals, and another role model to emulate, and my enjoyment of the experience has proved that no matter how high the mountains of work, the reward of a child proud of his or her success or achievement makes it all worthwhile.

Although I looked ridiculous, I’m still quite proud of the 1996 version of me. He was right.

All I Know Now about advice for teenagers

I remember being a teenager. It was a while ago now, but the maelstrom of growing up is still very immediate. In fact, I don’t think it really stops. It’s a myth that you emerge from your teens as a fully formed mature adult. I’m still learning, changing, developing every day, connecting new experiences and ideas with old ones to update and develop my own personal map of the world – and I stopped being a teenager in 1994. Take my last metaphor, for example – I robbed it from a TED talk I watched yesterday by John Green on Paper Towns and Why Learning Is Awesome, in which he likens learning to a cartographic enterprise. I liked it and I’ve already woven it into my own way of thinking about education.

The same thing happened as I was reading Carrie Hope Fletcher‘s book All I Know Now: Wonderings and Reflections on Growing Up GracefullyCarrie is a polymath: currently starring as Eponine in the West End production of Les Miserablesshe also runs a YouTube channel with over half a million subscribers on which she sings, talks about books, conducts an ongoing “Dear Tom” video conversation with rock star brother Tom from McFly/McBusted, and makes vlogs full of advice and thoughts about life, relationships and her experiences.

One of these videos, Honorary Big Sisterprovoked the All I Know Now blog which became the book I read at the end of the summer term. In it, Fletcher offers her take on growing up from her own perspective – the coverline bills it as “The essential guide to surviving ‘the Teen Age'”. The point that Carrie makes in the video, to her largely teenage audience, is that:

it’s always harder to talk to people who are older than us, who we see as authoritative figures. People who we feel judge us or look down on us for the silly decisions we make as teenagers. Namely, our parents. We see our parents as people who couldn’t possibly understand what we’re going through because it was forever ago that they were teenagers and times have changed since then.

Substitute “teachers” for “parents” and you have the reason that I’m so interested in Carrie’s channel, blog and book. We do, I think, a great job as teachers of providing advice, guidance and structures for the teenagers we teach to help them grow up safely. Most parents, though with some horrifying exceptions, also do the best job they can. But there is always this chasm dividing them and us: we’re grown-ups. We can’t possibly understand what it’s like for them.

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This is where the internet comes in. The online age has created new communities, especially for teenagers. As John Green said:

these places exist, they still exist. They exist in corners of the Internet, where old men fear to tread.

Teens watch YouTube more than television. They connect with vloggers. The teenagers in my classrooms spend hours with Dan and Phil, Zoella, Jack and Dean, Sprinkle of Glitter and the rest, watching their channels and following them across the media. Events like Summer in the City draw massive crowds. They’re turning to the online world for advice and guidance from personalities they see as understanding them, from their world – #relatable, if you like.

There are dangers to this approach. Many vloggers and online celebrities have abused their position and the fans who idolise them. But these bad apples make Carrie Fletcher and her ilk all the more valuable. Carrie takes her position as a role model seriously, and has shouldered the “honorary big sister” yoke willingly and enthusiastically, online and in book form. And reading All I Know Now was a real pleasure. Her advice, simply put and peppered with anecdote and aside, is wise and sensible, taking in friendships, bullying, relationships, ambition and success. Perhaps most powerfully, she devotes a whole section to life online:

Her guide to Internetiquette is absolutely brilliant. It should be required reading before anyone is allowed to sign up for any social media account. I could recommend it to some tweeting teachers in fact. And this is the point – although I’m completely out of the target audience bracket, twenty years beyond my own Teen Age, I found myself nodding along to Carrie’s advice – and taking some of it myself to weave into my map of the world. In particular, her section on “it’s easier said than done” has become a little mantra for me – “nothing worth doing is ever going to be easy.”

My tweet joked about putting Carrie onto the school curriculum, but of course that would kill it stone dead. The minute her advice is endorsed by an old grown-up like a teacher, it would become immediately invalid. Luckily, no young people are likely to read this endorsement. They’re all too busy watching YouTube. But, hopefully, some of them will subscribe to Carrie and read her book. If they’re getting advice like hers from the internet, they’re in safe hands.

The Prospect of Headship

A month ago at Wellington College, Sir Michael Wilshaw was asked about Deputy Heads who did not want to step up to Headship as the pressure was not worth the salary increase. His response: “Have some courage, don’t be so feeble about it, have some guts.”

I am a Deputy stepping up to Headship. In his response, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector acknowledges one thing I agree with: stepping up to Headship needs courage.

At every stage in my career so far, there has been someone above me who holds ultimate responsibility. From January, that person will be me. It will be me the Leadership Team turns to for the final word, me the staff look to for a decision, me the Governors hold to account for the performance of the school. If the school is found to be coasting, I’ll be sacked. The buck will stop with me.

“Don’t be so feeble.”

I remember how I felt when my children were born. I remember holding their fragile bodies in the crook of one forearm, and feeling the incredible weight of responsibility pressing down on me. As a Headteacher, I will be responsible for over a thousand children every day, every single one of whom has parents who felt like I did, and they will be putting their trust in me. The safety and well being of the most important thing in nearly three thousand parents’ lives will be on my watch.

“Have some guts.”

The education of those young minds is my responsibility. The curriculum they study, the way it is delivered, the manner in which it is assessed, the way success is celebrated – in the end, I will set the tone for all of this.

“Have some courage.”

The school’s standing in the community is my responsibility too. The Headteacher of the local secondary school is an important community figure and the success or otherwise of the school has an impact on all around it. Regardless of the wisdom of it, there’s a link on every RightMove property to the local schools’ Ofsted reports – the value of people’s houses depends on my effectiveness. I will be a community leader. One wrong move and the Daily Mail is poised to pounce.

“Don’t be so feeble.”

The careers, well being and development of close to two hundred staff will be my responsibility too. As Vic Goddard was told, “you make the weather.” I will make the weather for all those professionals. There are teachers leaving the profession in droves, crushed under bureaucracy and workload, frustrated by the perverse incentives of performance pay. Will I be able to stem the tide? Can I lead a school where teachers feel like they’re making a difference? Where it’s all worth it?

“Have some guts.”

The next five years will see a real terms budget reduction of 7% in school funding. I will be responsible for delivering the highest quality of education on less money per pupil. I will face the toughest of tough decisions – cut posts or cut resources? Slim the curriculum or expand class sizes? Cut corners or do a proper job? I will have to fundraise, bid for every grant going, recruit, and economise, lobby and pressurise to ensure a fair deal for the young people in my care, and hope that someone will listen.

But I will have courage. I will have guts. I will not be feeble.

Because Headship is a privilege.

Because I will have a team around me to advise and help, a wise and experienced Governing body to help set the direction, and a local and national network of Headteachers to consult and support me. Of course, managing that shrinking budget will be hard, but there is comfort in knowing that I will not be alone.

Because Headship is a privilege.

I will be leading a group of teachers. Teachers – the most committed, good-humoured, and dedicated profession, packed with graduates who decided that they wanted to make a difference, to pass on the love of their subject, to give their time, energy and dedication to help the next generation be better. I will make the weather for those selfless, generous professionals – and I will dedicate myself to making sure they know it’s worth it.

Because Headship is a privilege.

It’s right that the school takes its place at the centre of the local community; I want the community to be proud of the school – no matter what Ofsted say – and I will be proud to lead it. I want the community to talk warmly about the quality of education it provides and it will be my leadership that ensures that this will happen.

Because Headship is a privilege.

I got in to teaching to make a difference too. In my classroom I hope I made a difference to the thirty children I had for that year. As a Head of Department, I made a difference to more children, on a larger scale. As a Headteacher, I have the opportunity to make a difference on the largest scale, to set the tone for thousands of children in every decision I take.

Because Headship is a privilege.

Parents treasure their children, thrill in their successes, worry themselves sick about them. The sleepless nights don’t stop when they’re weaned. Those parents place their trust in teachers every day to care about their children just as much as they do themselves. Can there be any greater honour?

Because Headship is a privilege.

The weight of responsibility is not one I shoulder lightly. I am stepping into the role with my eyes wide open, with guts and courage, yes, but also with determination, with confidence. Because, despite the fear, it is a privilege to be a Headteacher. And I am looking forward to it.

Thank you.

This blog was the text of my presentation delivered at #SLTeachmeet for #BELMAS2015.