Starting at a new school: SLT edition

Let me start by saying: I think I’ve started at enough schools for a lifetime now. Starting at a new job – any job – is mind-bogglingly tough. In my first week, I have basically stumbled around the school, finding myself in cupboards as I have managed to repeatedly get lost in what is probably the simplest layout of any school building I have ever been in. Still, having read Ben Newmark’s excellent and useful blog on starting at a new school, I thought I might add my two pence on beginning at a new school as a member of the leadership team.

It is basically impossible to lead when you’re not sure where the pens are (true story: I did not think to bring a pen on my first day and had to be bailed out by my incredible Head of Department), but nonetheless I set down some of my learning below.

 

  1. Teaching is the first thing

The first time I was a Head of Department, my line manager said: ‘focus on your teaching first. That is always the most important thing.’ Earlier this week, I was in the middle of dealing with an incident ten minutes before teaching, when my Headteacher told me to ‘leave it – teaching is more important.’ Teaching is the heart of every school, and every lesson taught matters. This week I have gone for ‘strict, very strict’ and hope I can ease off a bit as soon as I can trust my classes.

 

  1. Make time for everyone

Despite constantly being lost and running late as a result, I’ve really wanted to try and make time for everyone who has taken the time to stop by for a chat. As a member of a leadership team, you want to work well with every single person at the school. That first conversation sets the tone, so you have to welcome it. I’ve already had so many fascinating conversations, and hope to have many more.

 

  1. Ask the stupid questions

‘How do I leave the building?’

‘Where is room “Hu1”?’

‘What’s my username?’

‘Where do I stand for playground duty?’

Honestly, the list of stupid questions I have asked has no end. But I think you have to ask them, because sooner or later people will look to you, and you need to be doing things right. I’ve tried my best to find a few different people to lean on, so I’m not bombarding one person with all of these.

 

  1. Think about what you would change

As a senior leader, you have a massive opportunity to set the direction of the school, and the start is a great opportunity to seize those ‘fresh eyes’ (that don’t last all that long). As the week went on, I kept a ‘wish list’ of things I would change if I could and added to it every time I thought of something. This will be useful for strategizing when I’ve found my feet a little more, and also ensures thinking is more ‘solutions focused’ in terms of ‘what do I want this to look like?’, which is helpful, and not ‘what doesn’t work?’, which is less helpful.

 

  1. …But don’t push it

You’re not going to change anything if everyone hates you and feels alienated, so I’m in no rush to stomp around changing things. The school already works really well, but we all know there are lots of areas for improvements. Anything I know will be a longer-term structural change will need a lot of planning, starting with building up positive working relationships with all teachers and staff.

 

  1. Escalate like a newbie

I’ve leaned really heavily on the SLT and pastoral leads this week because they have the relationships and credibility with the hardest kids. I haven’t let anything go, but I’ve had to knock on a few doors and ask for help more than a few times. I think that’s ok, but I’d love to know what I could have done differently if people have tips!

 

One quick word about commuting, which I have never done in a serious way. The server in the St Pancras Pret a Manger has given me three free coffees this week (and on Tuesday I think also gave me a free lunch somehow), not to mention a huge smile and friendly chat every day. They are the best part of the commute. Yes, that is a formal endorsement of Pret.

Overall, the week has been hard – trying to learn loads of kids’ names, loads of adults’ names, and loads of rules, but I’ve absolutely loved it. I’m so excited to be at the Ebbsfleet Academy, working with a group of inspirational teachers and leaders from whom I have so much to learn. The very vast majority of the kids have been warm, polite and welcoming; all of the adults have given generously of their time to help me settle in. Being a comprehensive school in Kent’s grammar system brings some challenges I have never faced, and I’ll try and write about it as much as possible! I have such a good feeling about 2018.

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New Year, New School (Part 2)

I can honestly say I did not foresee 2015. For me, 2015 was a year of dramatic changes, both personal and professional. In 2015, I saw things differently, and it was really, really hard.

Could it be a product of turning 30? Could my willingness to move away from what I had always taken to be a given have been signaled by my growing awareness of the brevity of life? Have I, in plain terms, had a mid-life crisis?

It is possible. I’m going to talk about one of the big, controversial choices I made in 2015 and why I made it.

In September, I took on a post as Assistant Principal for Curriculum Design at a large academy. I couldn’t believe it: my dream job in my dream school. It was everything I had wanted: a big promotion, whole-school responsibility, and an opportunity to change the minds and practices of every teacher in a big academy. When I started in September, it was even better than I had hoped. People listened, engaged, argued, and, swiftly, started to get on board. Change was, in many ways, rapid. I realised straight away I was working with some phenomenal people: an understanding line manager who ‘got it’ on every level; a Head of English and Head of Communications who were not only smart but massively fun to hang out with in the office we all shared, and a core group of individuals I ‘clicked’ with. Then there were the children: they were something else. Despite coming in massively far behind, despite every conceivable deprivation and difficulty, they were joyous. Within days, children I didn’t teach were greeting me politely; classes at first a little wild soon accustomed themselves to my preference for silence and made ridiculously good progress, and I was even beginning to enjoy the challenge of teaching, for the first time, out of my specialism. I could see myself building my career here.

So why on earth would I leave such a job?

I met Joe Kirby, Katie Ashford and Bodil Isaksen for the first time in January 2013. Between the three of them, they changed the way I thought about everything in education. They presented a radical departure from the norm to me, and although I held firm for a long time, eventually truth and research won me over. I could argue no more: there was a better way of doing what I did. I had to kill my darlings: group work, student-led activities, student research, and skills-led lessons. In the summer of 2013, when Joe, Katie and Bodil were about to found what would become Michaela Community School, I thought briefly about trying to join them. I dismissed the idea almost immediately. Why would I join something so untested? How did they know these ideas would work in practice? Then there was my own career trajectory – I was about to become Head of English; my next career move would be Assistant Head, not Head of Department again.

Then I visited. I saw what they had created, and I was awestruck. Here the ideas were, in their purest form. The children were amazing; so engaged; their progress more rapid than I could even have imagined. The curriculum was inspirational – the very best texts, the most important ideas, carefully organised for maximum student learning. And I met, for the first time, Katharine Birbalsingh, who in 20 minutes of discussion taught me more than I’d ever learned in such a short time about leadership, and what it meant to be a brave and bold leader.

But I was on the cusp of my next job, the job I’d always wanted; the trajectory I had so desired. Why would I leave that? Again, the job advert had come at the wrong time. Taking a step ‘back’ to be Head of Department again is hard on the ego. It is hard when you think about perceptions, and what others will think. ‘Oh, she couldn’t hack it at a tough school.’ ‘She wasn’t ready to be a senior leader.’ ‘It was too hard for her.’

Let them think that. I could have impact in my school in my context as Assistant Head. But as part of the Michaela team, we have the potential to change the whole education paradigm. If the ideas work, and it is a big if, predicated on massive amounts of work and effort, when the school is to scale, it could be the exemplar that moves leaders in education around the country to change what and how children are taught, and to avoid teacher burnout on a massive scale. I don’t want to stand by and watch as my closest friends change the world. I want to be part of that team.

So I have, after a short term, left my dream job. I have defied my own expectations for what a career progression should look like. I have let down colleagues and children at a school I promised to be a part of for long-term change. All of this is true.

And yet, I am hopeful. I am hopeful that, at Michaela, I can build an English curriculum that will endure for twenty years or more. I am hopeful that, at Michaela, I can learn from some of the best professionals in the country. I am hopeful that, at Michaela, we can destroy all the remaining doubts that ‘children like these’ can achieve at the highest levels in the hardest subjects. I am hopeful that, at Michaela, I can be a part of a school that will change the way children are taught and the way our profession is run.

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