The Case of the Teacher and the Multiple Identities

2014-09-27 13.10.22When I left my last job I thought long and hard about how to say goodbye.  I loved working with the staff there and was sad to go, but how to convey that?  Well something that I did in my leaving speech was to tell them two things that they didn’t know about me and two things that I hoped they knew about me.  The two things that I really hoped that they knew were, firstly, that I thought they were a really amazing staff, that worked really hard.  The second thing was I was really proud of everything they had achieved and that I had learnt a lot from them.  If you want to know what the two things were that they didn’t know, then you’ll have to ask them or me!  I had worked there for a while, but I was pleased that there were things about me that were still unknown. The thing is that I think we need to to be more than the job that we do.  I’m always wary of people who so completely identify themselves with their job, because especially in today’s climate we will all know people who have lost jobs and the devastating effect that can have on an individual’s identity. Instead of it being ‘I am what I do’ we could see that what we do can add important meaning to our identities and helps us to be part of different communities.

Think back to when you were at school, we had a crazy fascination if we ever saw a teacher in the holidays, say, at the seaside, the cinema or in town. What on earth were they doing? How come they are pretending to be like normal people?  In my first job I lived in the same small city as most of the pupils and was frequently followed around town when shopping just because they were so curious as to what I could possibly be buying.  The classic cliche of the teacher going into a box a the end of a day still rumbles on, and with extensive marking and planning, it is easy to feel that are lives are consumed by school, especially during term time. I am a passionate believer in protecting that work/life balance, but that’s not just something relevant for those with dependants, because, well let’s face it, not everyone has dependants. It is ultimately about out our identity that we need to protect and encourage to flourish independently to school persona. The more content we are as a person, the more we are in a position to let our passion for what we do flow in lessons.

Identity is a crucial component of our working lives. Rather than have one identity throughout our careers we take on a succession of different identities, different roles in different schools, a bit like trying on shoes and some fit us better than others. Some we fall in love with, if you’ll permit me to continue with the analogy, and others we can’t wait to kick off at the end of the day. What perhaps we don’t acknowledge enough, whilst we are working in schools, is how tricky those transitions from one identity to another can be. It could be that we really enjoyed being a Year 7 tutor and then suddenly the next September you can assigned to the Year 9s without so much as a warning. There is a sense of loss with, quite often, next to no time to adjust to the change. Herminia Ibarra talks about the ‘reinvention ripples’ that happen when we change identities. In schools it sometimes feels as if there is no time for the the ripples.

Splash created by a drop of water splashing into a calm poolOther transitions can be much harder and trickier to cope with, for example, the move to middle management. When that pile of examination board forms hit your pigeon hole that have to filled in right away, or the out of date text for the website, or the schemes of work that need updating, it seems a million miles away from the days when you could spend that time planning and marking. Bigger still is the move to senior leader.  Again, it is not an augmentation of your current job, it is a completely different job. You are moving from one job to another and more often than not there is no acknowledgement of that. I can remember when I first became a Head of Department heading to a bookshop to find a book called, How to be a Subject Leader, which didn’t exist at the time. I pretty much did the same thing when I became a Deputy Head. Of course, there is a great uncertainty taking on a new role with all of its new responsibilities, but it is more than that. You are also taking on a new identity. For example, being a Senior Leader means getting used to some conversations stopping when you walk into a room, when previously you might have been in the middle of that conversation. That’s fine, because you’re in a different group now. It doesn’t mean that you can’t have a fun working day, or respect your staff with every atom, but you also have to do some not so pleasant jobs sometimes which mean you really need that bit of distance. It is hard and you can be prepared in terms of your experience, prepared even in terms of your knowledge base, but nothing can quite can prepare you for the change in identity.  With all of these changes being a part of our working lives, I think we need to ensure that we are more than what we do. We need to hold something back. We need to keep something for ourselves. That stops us from being completely consumed, in case the distinction between us at home and us at work disappears altogether. Even the most open book amongst us should have a hidden chapter or two.

So what is in your life that is protected just for you. I’m not talking about family or friends, but something about you, your interests, your party trick, a special hidden talent. We can be open books to our colleagues, we can share what is going on in our lives, but keep something just for you. These days teachers’ emotions and reaction are being watched every moment by the ‘Educating Essex/Yorkshire/East End’ Series.Those unmanned cameras zoom in to witness the despair, the joy, the frustration is writ large on our television screens. Even in our technological advances the barriers are being broken down. I am a great fan of social media, not least because it makes even the more famous more accessible and that our communication is made easier. Twitter is genuinely a fantastic media for career development. However, we need to manage it with our work roles. I definitely agree with @TeacherToolkit’s recommendation for at least two Twitter handles, keep one for your professional identity and keep the other one for kittens, memes and fascinating pictures. Don’t give yourself away completely, particularly if your using it with students, protect that part of your identity that school can’t get their hands on.

So what are things that your colleagues perhaps don’t know about you? Are you a secret Heat magazine reader? Do you play bingo? Do you love listening to thrash metal? Think about the Venn diagram below (you’ve got to love a good Venn diagram) how much of an overlap would there be on your version and what is being held back just for you?2014-09-27 12.44.27

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What kind of reception are you?

1st Floor Lobby Welcome DeskStarting a new term can be a daunting prospect. It could be because you are starting a new school or it could be that you are taking on a new responsibility. It could be that you are starting a PGCE in school or are a keen, but mildly terrified NQT. You might have had to move to a new part of the country and be experiencing all kinds of new feelings about your surroundings. It could just be the usual butterflies that come just before a brand new academic year begins. Whether well established or brand new it could be quite normal to ask yourself I wonder what reception I will receive. How you interact with colleagues can make such a difference to your working experience. Staff still genuinely worry about using the wrong mug, or sitting in the wrong chair. At one school I actually had my pile of books, planner and diary moved because I had put it on the ‘wrong desk’. The reception you receive is important.

 

If you’re new to a school then you might be hoping that people will be friendly and warm; that you can get to know others and feel at home very quickly. You might be smiling endlessly as you’re introduced to new person after new person, their names evaporating before your eyes as soon as they’ve been uttered. If you’re well established, you could be wondering about new colleagues, what are they like and will they fit in? Perhaps you’re still pining for colleagues that have just left and find it hard to believe that these ‘new ‘uns’ are ever going to be as fun. For the couple of weeks of term there are a lot of new people to meet, adults and children. How people treat us, and how we treat other people, is very important at the start of this experience. The reception you receive makes a difference.

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When I worked in London I used to go back into the City after a summer away to an ever-changing landscape. It wasn’t just the children who had grown up and changed, but the buildings had too. Many of the big City banks and companies would constantly invest vast sums of money in refurbishing their reception areas. Schools have also picked up on the importance of this, particularly in recent years. Twitter has even had proud head teachers post images of their refurbished receptions ready to welcome hoards of visitors to their school. When I walked around the City, I would nosily look in through the glass walls of these companies to catch a glimpse of what went on inside. A favourite company that I recall had the most spectacular chandelier that mirrored every colour of the rainbow on a sunny day, emphasizing the opulence of the surroundings. From outside it looked very pretty, but if I’d had to walk in there on my first day at work it would be hard not to feel intimidated and a little daunted at having to match the heights of the company I’d have just joined. The reception you receive can change your perceptions.

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Some of the reception halls try to incorporate pieces of art, like the huge, impressive pieces in the entrance to Deutsche Bank. Would seeing a work of art put you at ease; many schools proudly display the best of their students’ art, would that give you something to focus on rather than the reality of your nerves? There are other reception halls that might be vast in scale, but rather sparsely furnished in a minimalist way. If you walked in there on your first day you could try to sit as neatly as possible in their designer chairs being sure not to knock their delicate orchids. If a school reception were furnished in this way you could image the well placed spread of school literature on the table in front of you, tempting you to see just how amazing the schools’ achievements really are. On a school trip to a school in Manhattan I had to wait in the school’s special reception room having just come in from a downpour. I can remember wanting to disappear into a hole as I sat on the most perfect sofa, dripping quietly, opposite the most perfect, glamorous Manhattan couple smiling with their beautiful teeth. Sometimes the designer approach is impressive in terms of its designer status, but might not necessarily be the warmest of welcomes in its clinical minimalism.   You can imagine your voice, echoing around as you announce your arrival at the reception desk. Perhaps they want you to know for certain that they are very, very important and you better be on your best behaviour. Or maybe they are suggesting they are serious about their work and so you should be too. The reception you receive creates an impression.

 

Plasma screens with news stations showing can be a feature of reception halls in businesses and now in schools, showing that not a thing passes them by and they are as up to date as you can possibly be. Although in one entrance hall I went into they had three giant plasma screens, two showing different channels of news – maybe to indicate that they are not biased in any way and are open to different ways of looking at things, but the third one showed a film of a tropical fish tank. Needless to say it was the fish film that mesmerised me. Balanced with the news channels, I wondered whether they were showing me that on the one hand you can be stressed with the news, but on the other the fish would relax me. Or maybe I would think they were serious about current events, but the fish showed their fun and creative side too. Some school receptions have vast trophy cabinets filled with every kind of cup, shield, chunk of glass and block of Perspex. These perhaps want to give future parents and pupils the impression that if you come to this school or work in this school you area winner, you will succeed, you will reach the top. The reception you receive can make you think.

 

Thousands and in some cases millions of pounds are spent on creating the perfect reception. Perhaps this is money well spent when so much can hinge upon those important first impressions. The environment around us can affect the way in which we feel, particularly when we are in a new and unfamiliar situation, but what about us as people what kind of reception do we give others? Have you spent the first week bouncing around catching up on everyone’s news? If you are going into a new school or if you ‘part of the furniture’ what impression do you give? Are you warm and fluffy, the one who tells you where everything is? Are you somewhat reserved, everything looking great, supremely efficient, like the minimalist showpiece, but no warmth and comfort? Do you show your fun and creativity, or is it empty and hollow sounding and lasts for the first few days. Are you the one that invites everyone to the pub that first Friday? As I’ve said before I was known to have a new bag, notebook or pencil case to show and tell, something new or different for the start of term. Do you make others feel at home? Or do you make them feel intimidated? Welcomes can take many forms and some can last for an afternoon, others for years. The reception you give to another can really make a difference.

 

It is a wonderful feeling to be made to feel welcome. I always appreciate the welcome I get every time I arrive at schools. I’ve been lucky enough to work in schools where the reception was one where you were looked after and it often made those early mornings more bearable. I was lucky to be greeted with smiles and kindness. We appreciate that in the places where we work and go to school. This seems to be a great opportunity to apply the Golden Rule: we should treat others, as we would want to be treated. How would you like to be welcomed to your school? There are many different styles of reception hall around busy cities just we as individuals are able to welcome people around us in countless ways. It is not just about welcoming people to a particular building, but also about how we make people feel when we encounter them. To make someone feel welcome or to be made to feel welcome is tremendous.

 

So what kind of reception are you?

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