If the shoe fits: reflections on women in educational leadership

 One of the lovely things about being a deputy head for me was the annual trip to the deputy head conference. Yes, it was a nightmare of organisation and I missed it more than once because of a last minute crisis, but it was so good to meet up with peers and exchange our stories. Of course there were some useful (& not so useful) talks, but it was helpful to hear how others tackled the countless challenges we faced during our jobs. What often surprised me though was how there was rarely anything put on about going for headship. So, imagine my delight when one year there was a panel of Heads – all female, no less, put together to share their wisdom with us on the process of becoming a head. Even now, a few years later I can remember what they said and can sum it up in two main ideas. How do you successfully apply for headship? Firstly, you need a good mentor who nurtures your leadership and makes contact with others on your behalf. Well, I was stuck with that one. No mentor in sight and definitely no one acting on my behalf, perhaps even the contrary. OK, onto the second tip. Their suggestion? Kismet. Luck. Right time and right place. No wonder that, as I looked around, my table full of fellow deputy heads they were all muttering under their breaths. No offence to those Heads that gave up their time, but their chatting to us was genuinely uninspiring. Feeling definitely disheartened by that experience, particularly as it was the end of the conference and the way we going to be sent out into the world, I decided that that couldn’t be it. So I nervously sought out the closest I would have to a mentor, another Headteacher involved in the conference, who had kindly suggested headship to me in the past. Perhaps she would encourage me before I set off back to my daily routine. I can honestly say I was very nervous waiting to talk to her, she had a high profile and was someone I respected in the education world. She did speak to me and I shared my difficulties and worries for my career. She made several suggestions to help me, but I’m sad to say that that was not what I remember most clearly. Now it was the end of the conference and I was all packed up and ready for the drive home. I was not dressed in full working attire clearly, but my education hero brought her advice to a close, looked me up and down, told me to sort myself out and the way I looked. As it went on I felt crushed, but I think the list involved my clothes, hair and losing weight. That was what I needed to do for headship. I thanked her, went straight to the hotel car park and cried in my car. I wonder how many aspiring men are told to do that when they say they want to go for headships. Now don’t get me wrong, I am fully aware of the need to act, think, look and speak as a professional. By this stage in my career I had already worked for ten years in the City in London, so knew that smart clothes were expected and had even got into the habit of regular manicures!  I was also aware of the need to be fit and healthy to cope with the demands of the job. Already my hours were long and I knew that if you didn’t eat properly you would run out of energy all too quickly and of course you wouldn’t fit into a Jaeger suit! I didn’t dispute what she had said, my hair did need cutting! However, what depressed me so much about that was this was how women were encouraging women to be leaders. 

What do I take from this somewhat sorry tale? Well it did make me question whether I would ever be the kind of leader they wanted. Would my face fit, even with a new haircut? If you get a chance, have a look at photographs taken at Headteachers’ conferences. Although this is very silly, it is quite interesting to imagine, if you cut your head out of a photo and stuck it in there would it match the others? It’s nice to think that the odd eccentric and maverick can get through the recruitment process, but the photos can sometimes suggest otherwise. I wasn’t sure I could adopt the headship camouflage.

Did it put me off educational leadership? Absolutely not. I love the process of leading others and I love learning more about educational theory. I have to say that the experience above and plenty of others have even made me more fascinated about the headship recruitment process hence me embarking on a doctorate to study this further. This is because I believe that to say to a room full of deputies that a mentor and luck is what you need is not enough. Even at my current stage of studying I would have a lot more to suggest if I stood in front of them today. However, I do believe that mentoring is something that is lacking in the education profession. Firstly, because too many leaders equate mentoring with teaching, when very different skills are required. Secondly, because we only have to look at the business sector to see that mentoring someone in terms of their career is a much bigger commitment than many are prepared to take on. The irony is that with some of the school associations, when you become a new head you are given a mentor but not before!

What does it tell me about women in leadership? Well I don’t think we are treated equally. There are countless articles telling women what they can bring to leadership with all of their feminine qualities, assuming of course that we are all the same. There are expectations out there for us. How we look, how we act, and what we are interested in. Perhaps somewhat controversially I am also going to suggest that it is also expected that we will be married and have children. Many leadership perks of headship that are offered are aimed at that kind of woman: ‘the family accommodation’ (if residential), ‘the reduction in fees for offspring’ (if fee paying). Someone suggested to me that I should take ‘an aspiration to do a doctorate’ out of my headship application as it would be seen as a distraction from the job, and implied that it was a shame that I couldn’t put down that I had any family. Crazy, because children actually give you more time apparently!

There have been some excellent blogs recently about the need for women to have greater faith in their abilities and apply for more jobs. This is so true and backed up by research data on women in leadership. So why don’t they? I have encountered a diminishing sense of ambition amongst women I’ve interviewed. The most obvious reasons have been relationships and having children, and not, as often suggested, a glass ceiling. One bright, enthusiastic young teacher told me that she used to be quite ambitious but after moving in with her boyfriend she now just really enjoyed getting the dinner ready. And great for her if that’s what she wants to do. Perhaps, dare I say it, you can’t have it all without some sacrifices here and there. Why do we expect that we should? Men don’t have it all. Managing your personal and working life is tricky and is highly likely to result in difficult life choices or at the very least responsibility sharing amongst couples. If you haven’t read ‘Lean In’ by Sheryl Sandberg then I would recommend you to do so at this point.

It always saddens me when I have encountered a kind of anti-feminism amongst the young women I’ve taught. Perhaps it’s because they think it means not getting married, studying Maths and Stem subjects, studying engineering and/or computing at university and having short hair. Is that because that’s all they hear? I’ve always felt that feminism meant equality. Having a fair shot at things. I’m always a bit suspicious of something that is special and exclusive and admittedly sometimes educational leadership can come across a bit like that. I was lucky that someone, incidentally a strong female leader, thought I would enjoy learning about educational leadership. She was right and there should be more women like her encouraging women like me to discover just how fascinating it is; how much there is to learn from others and to keep their ambitions high. I’m delighted that there is now a Women in Education movement on Twitter. I have to admit I’m not keen on the idea of a Ladies Room, but the more we can do to encourage all of those who aspire to leadership – male or female, to discover whether it is the right path for them, the better.

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Life outside the Forest: one year into research

I wonder how many of you have been watching the series of The Island with Bear Grylls, one episode with the men’s group and the other with the women’s. As soon as it began it was hard not to compare the performance of the two groups according to gender.  Would stereotyped behaviour emerge or would our expectations be challenged?  I was certainly shocked how easily half of the women’s group, venturing out to discover a site for a good base, were lost in the wilderness. They spent days without proper food and drink looping in circles through the trees trying to find, firstly their way to the sea, and then to find their way back to camp.  Watching their struggles, Bear informed us that, without the ability to see the sky or any recognisable landmarks, us humans have the tendency to walk in circles. As teachers we can easily relate to the idea of been immersed in the forest, especially with the way our lives our governed by the academic calendar.  We take great strides into the trees in September and emerge in June or July, blinking at the brightness of the sun.  In between we trek well-worn paths and sometimes discover new ones.  We often think we are in a new place, only to realise we have been here many times before.  Our worlds become a life under the canopy.  We listen to the twittering of the birds, but even these can be deceptive.  We think we hear distant sound of those cutting down the forest only to discover that some tweets are mimicking chain saws, causing alarm about supposed new government initiatives, deceptively convincing.

About eighteen months ago I had a difficult choice to make: to make a move to another deputy role, go for some headships, or to carry on with the research I had enjoyed so much as part of my Masters, by starting a doctorate.  I had juggled the Masters work with life as a Deputy, but knew that for me this would not be possible, if I was to keep going with the research.  So I decided to step outside of the forest.  This would allow me to carry on with the research, but also continue some of my favourite aspects of work as a deputy.  I could work with teachers, as they worked through the PGCE process and write material to deliver to teachers through training encounters.  At the end of my first year of research outside the forest, what I have learnt so far about the process?

  1. There is always so much to learn.  I never thought of myself as a great writer, but I didn’t think I was terrible either, but I have learnt so much about the ways I can improve my technique through the superb, critical feedback I have received from my supervisors.  They have challenged every aspect of my thinking process and we don’t get that enough in our working lives.  Teachers are usually such a supportive community that we tend to praise our peers rather than truly critique them.  It’s understandable, given morale at the moment, that the common approach is one of wanting to encourage others.
  2. There’s a lot to learn about the forest whilst being outside of it. Of course I’m not suggesting that it isn’t important for teachers to share good practice with each other. As a deputy I was passionate about learning together as a community, so much good can come from it. However, I’ve been surprised by many colleagues’ quick dismissal of what can be learnt from outside of the forest that can inform and enhance our day to day practice.
  3. Inspiration comes from many places.    I have learnt an awful lot from a host of different sources including the twittering birds of Twitter.  Through my research I have enjoyed the inevitable journal surfing, one journal leads to its references and then that takes you to the next article and so on.  Like many here I’m sure, my Amazon wish list runs into hundreds.  I have also learnt that sometimes we don’t get the chance to encounter some great sources of inspiration.  This can be seen when people share their reading lists, as often the same dozen or so books are there. It’s an argument for access to research, but certainly if there are staff researching in your school it’s a bonus for them to share the good stuff with colleagues.
  4. Life outside the forest isn’t always easy. The regularity of the academic year can make you feel like you are living on a hamster wheel at times, but take that familiar regularity away suddenly and it can really throw you out of kilter.   Teachers often say that the intensely structured life following the timetable of an academic year makes the years fly by. I’ve learnt that’s true, but also that there’s a lot to love about regularity, enjoy the support it gives you and that you always have the freedom to change.
  5. There’s a great view of the forest from here and I actually can see the wood for the trees.  It’s all about a different perspective. Sometimes having the opportunity to step outside can help to see new things about the forest. Just like the women on The Island, with no chance to see the sky or recognisable landmarks, I know there were times when I could not see where I was.  That is why I still see value in the away day INSET, because for that day you step outside of your usual routine. I’ve always felt that the chance to acknowledge the bubble we operate in and to be able reflect upon it is essential.
  6. Some people don’t value my time in the forest.  This really shocked me. I’ve been teaching for over twenty years, but for some my move to senior leadership was enough to push me to cushy forest fringes where I sat in the comfortable visitor’s centre (drinking tea all day apparently).  That was bad enough, but now I’ve basically been asked to leave the forest, because I have no idea of what it’s like to live there. I can, of course relate to there being different experiences of the forest. It’s very different being a lumberjack to say being a botanist. However, I do know what its like. I have learnt a lot from twenty plus years in the woods and I continue to learn from others who share their forest experiences. I have been trained as a teacher, have worked hard as a teacher and I continue to be proud to see myself as a teacher as I continue to teach. Why are some so quick to dismiss that?
  7. There are always new things appearing in the forest. This is one of the most exciting aspects of this life and yet at the same time this can also be a source of frustration. This is why it is important to always remember…
  8. There are many things that do not change. I can recall recently encountering the phrase ‘graphic organisers’ and being excited to discover this new development. I then realised it was essentially structured, i.e. with boxes or trees, etc., handouts. People were raving about their value and it made me laugh given that these have been part of my experience for well over twenty years.
  9. The more questions you ask, the more interesting it gets.   For a number of years I have been fascinated by leadership theory and the impact it has on practical matters.  I am amazed and saddened by those that teach for a living, but are so quick to dismiss any theoretical study of educational leadership.  How does that inspire a love of learning?  The more I study issues of leadership, headship, identity and gender the more I realise these questions definitely still need to be asked.  Another reason why I am a passionate believer in the professional development of teachers.
  10. The forest looks amazing from here. Perhaps it’s because I am not trekking through, looping in circles. In the thick of it, with no break it’s easy to see the forest as some kind of prison, trapping us and sapping our energy. From here, it looks diverse, broad, huge, full of life and energy. New shoots are springing up all over the place ready to be nurtured. I’m hoping those inside don’t build too many fences because being able to go in and out of the forest I think does everyone some good.

Will I return to the forest? I’m not sure. I actually get to spend more time in classrooms now than I did as a deputy, but who knows where this new path goes, for me it’s undiscovered countryside out here.  This weekend I saw three women from The Island on television talking about their experiences of reintegrating back into society, with all its comforts and excesses.  Despite this and despite their lack of food, water, energy as seen on The Island, they were asked which would be their preferred choice – here or there.  For all three it was easy, they wanted to go back there. It’s amazing what perspective can do for us all.