What is your mission statement?

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I’ve sat in different halls when the newly revised and rewritten version of the school’s mission statement has been revealed. I’ve been on both sides – part of the SLT who is sharing it or a member of staff, being shown version number 473. I’ve heard the cynical sniggers from those who cast it aside immediately as a meaningless document at best or at worst an agenda-laden manifesto of the controlling management team imposing their ideas on the true educators. I’ve read different kinds of mission statements – the extensive, leaving nothing unsaid, detailed essay and the pithy ‘can we say it in ten words’, yes as long as it’s a meaningless educational soundbite. It’s not an easy job trying to write one, but it is easy to be critical of others’ attempts. What has struck me more and more is that it’s often a question that you only have to really tackle when you start showing an interest in promotion, but it’s as important a job from the moment you begin your career until your retirement year (and beyond).

What is a mission statement anyway? Ultimately it a way of communicating your purpose to others. Why are you doing what you are doing? I don’t think anyone properly asked me that until I’d been teaching for about ten years, already well into a Head of Department role. I wanted to really think about my answer and not through it away on something too logistical. To help you come up with your mission statement I’m going to slightly adapt a suggested approach from business via Forbes magazine and ask you three questions to come up with your own statement of intent. As an extra challenge, can you sum up your answer to each question in one sentence?

  • What do you do? The obvious answer is to teach, but what do you actually do so that learning takes place? Have you developed a particular style in the classroom or adopted an approach to learning that influences your planning? Have you got a USP? If you are going for a leadership role or currently in one then what do you enjoy about the responsibility of leadership?
  • How do you do it? What do you bring to your role? Whenever I was responsible for schemes of work I always wanted them to be flexible enough for individual teachers to shape the material with their own personalities. Are you passionate about your subject? What motivates you? Why would it be different to work with you?
  • Why do you do it? For me this is the foundation of your mission statement, in that everything else should be built upon these ideas. What are your values? Some of you will know from my tweets and blogs that I am a big fan of Michael Fullan and his focus on moral purpose. I was introduced to him at the very beginning of my study of educational leadership, but I think it is something that should be considered right at the start. What are the principles that underpin your decisions and choices? Are there deal breakers for you that might cause you to look for another post if a request appears to challenge your values? What does it mean for you to be an authentic teacher and/or leader? Would colleagues be able to say what your values were, do you communicate them to others?

It is not surprising that an understanding of mindfulness and resilience is becoming more significant in teacher development. Rather than be seen as fanciful additions these ideas, along with our core values, construct a teacher who’s well being is integral to their success. As Fullan suggests (referencing Palmer’s Courage to Teach) in chapter 2 of his very readable book, Leading in a Culture of Change,

‘…the best teachers integrate the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual aspects of teaching to create powerful learning communities’

At this challenging time, when teachers are even being politically scolded for not being positive about their profession, it is even more important to know what your mission statement is. For many of us, taking time to ask yourself these questions will prove to be the chart that will help get you through the roughest seas and cope with the highest waves. In fact, your mission statement should be the most positive statement of intent and will also be celebration of everything you have already achieved.

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.

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.

20 things you should do if you are applying for a leadership job in education

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/ad7/56592178/files/2015/01/img_0879.jpgI’ve interviewed a lot of people, hundreds and like many deputies I’ve read through hundreds and hundreds of application forms. By all accounts I’m quite a tough interviewer, but I like to think I’m fair. I’ve also been interviewed a lot over the years. Some have been great interviews, some make me shudder at the memory of them, some awful. I’ve also learnt a great deal from interviewing alongside some impressive leaders. There are always lessons to be learnt from the experience, whether you’re the interviewer or interviewee.

I’m currently researching the recruitment process and learning a lot about what happens to our identity when we go through these experiences. As an interviewer I’ve been amazed at some easy mistakes that some people have made that have hindered their application. Perhaps people think they don’t matter, but they usually do. So as it’s that fun time of year when minds turn to TES jobs pages, so I thought I would gather some of my thoughts together with leadership jobs particularly in mind.

  1. As soon as it start going for leadership jobs it stops being about the best teacher and it becomes about being what the school is looking for. You’ve got to fit in with their set up and because of that…
  2. Do your research about the school, it always amazed me how few candidates could talk knowledgeably about the school, or found some way to connect to the school.
  3. Do what they ask you to do, if they ask you to fill in their form, do it, if they ask for a letter, write it, if they ask for a CV include it, but DON’T your own thing, it won’t impress despite what you think.
  4. Take time over an application. If you can’t be bothered to fill in an application form well what will the rest of your paperwork be like once you’re in the post?
  5. Get your timeline right and don’t leave gaps, if you leave gaps they will ask about the gaps
  6. If you need to write a letter or an accompanying piece really take time over this. It’s so important to get it right and without sounding too Goldilocks about it, it needs to be just the right length, no more than two sides.
  7. If you’ve got to put a CV together, really think about layout, font, don’t stick with the same format you’ve used since school. Think about how it’s going to look in a stack of paperwork, but don’t go for gimmicks either. The chances are you’ll just come across as a bit weird. If you’re not sure you’ve got it right, ask someone you trust. A leadership CV can look very different to your first CV.
  8. Be prepared to answer the obvious questions, but don’t just give stock answers, for example, if you’re going for a head of department, don’t just say you want to raise the profile of the department, say what that means, how you’re going to do it and in what timescale.
  9. Be prepared to answer really tough questions. If you’re going for a headship or a deputy position they aren’t going to go easy on you. Start building up a list of tough questions you or your colleagues have been asked.
  10. With the questions, it’s important to get the balance right of talking about your achievements and then also talking about what you would do in their school. The more you can connect the two the better, people often talk a lot about their own experiences and drift away from the question.
  11. Don’t be critical either of current colleagues, colleagues you’ve worked with in the past or of anything you’ve encountered at the school. Even if you bumped into a late pupil who let a door slam in your face don’t pick that moment to bring it up.
  12. However, despite the last point remember that a massive part of leadership is change management and so think about examples you’ve can talk about of you implementing change and if you can’t think of an example…
  13. Make sure you are already looking out for leadership opportunities or whole-school opportunities in your current role. Internal roles not coming up is an excuse, you don’t just have to take on paid roles. I’ve interviewed a lot of people who say the reason why they haven’t had that experience is their current school’s fault. Look for any opportunities, such as leading working groups, that will take you into different parts of the educational world. If it is really impossible to find something in your school, look outside to examiner work, or subject associations.
  14. Really think about the extras – the in-tray exercise, the lesson, the problem solving, the presentation – do not just prepare these, or for these, last minute, because you can tell when someone does that. Practice bits that you feel are your weakest aspects.
  15. With regard to presentations, use a format that will enhance your presentation. There is nothing wrong with PowerPoint, it’s just that the reality is that most people use the programme really badly with no thought to design, content or delivery.
  16. Remember to look and listen as much as you talk. Firstly because you can pick up a lot from staff and students about the school’s priorities and secondly if you don’t then you’ll probably not be answering questions precisely. Listening allows you to make connections. Looking around gives you opportunities to reference what you have seen in answers. At one interview I was asked if I was Head what would I spend £250k on (after being on a tour).
  17. Remember that anything you say to anyone during the day is likely to be fed back to your interviewers, so watch for odd jokes in reception, the ordeal-by-meal, or during the tour led by the sixth former. They might laugh at the time, but it’s going to be reported back.
  18. Don’t worry about being nervous. Most decent interviewers account for nerves with applicants, just don’t let them overwhelm you. If you feel that happening ask to use the bathroom and just take a few deep breaths, think of the last time you laughed a lot and then head back out.
  19. Do make an effort over how you look, it definitely is worth it, but have your own style, because you need to be as comfortable as is possible.
  20. This might sound remarkably cheesy, but you really do need to be yourself. If there is any sense of pretension in your approach you are ultimately doing yourself no favours. Remember you are applying to be a leader there day in, day out and so if there is any pretence in your manner it will be impossible for you to maintain. It’s not about being the best person for a job, it’s about being the right person for this particular job. If it’s not a good fit no one will be happy.

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The Via Negativa of SLT: what they are not

HeadmasterI’ve read quite a few tweets and blogs that, I think, might make the heart sink of anyone who has ever been part of an SLT. There seems to be quite a lot written about things that SLTs are getting wrong, often written by people observing those roles from outside. In response I wanted to write a description of the work of members of a Senior Leadership Team by describing what they are not.Headmaster-Office-Door-si-007

Being a member of SLT is not:

  • About leaving your humanity behind. It’s all too easy to describe a decision as made by ‘management’ or ‘SLT’ because it dehumanises teachers into a thing, an object, that is making life difficult, rather than talking about people
  • Easier than being a teacher with a full timetable, it is different, a different job with different challenges. Each role is of value and essential to the smooth running of the school
  • A step away from the classroom, it should still be about everything that is going on in the classroom, the reason why we do what we do. Most SLT members will still have some teaching commitments & some have way too much teaching commitment (in my opinion)
  • Irrelevant to Teaching & Learning.  Better leadership means a better school, which can improve the standard of teaching and learning
  • For everyone. It is not a natural progression that everyone has to aspire to, but it is something that if you feel you have an interest in you should not hold back, but investigate right away
  • The ‘them’ of an ‘us and them’ scenario, it’s not about finding someone to take the blame for decisions that are often made elsewhere, but should be about colleagues working for the same goal
  • A provider of answers to everything, teaching is difficult and there are many times when it is best to work together to work out what the best solution is for your school
  • A heartless occupation, there is nothing harder and more heartbreaking than having to work with a colleague who is struggling for whatever reason
  • A punching bag, although the are times when it can be helpful to take that role, if you assume opposition from the outset it ends up being a waste of time and energy
  • Someone who should just let teachers get on with it, they are themselves still teachers and they are, in many cases, hanging on to their reasons for going into teaching in the first place
  • About making changes just for the sake of it. As professionals we all want to make progress so that sometimes, but not always involves change
  • Communicating one way. It might seem that many members of SLT are constantly issuing reminders, updates, emails, etc, but by far one of the biggest aspects of the job should be listening to everything that is going on
  • About living in your office and this is sometimes really hard to avoid. Listening to others often involves lots of meeting with colleagues & this inevitably ends up happening in offices, but it’s not about hiding thereheadmaster-2
  • About trying to thwart the professional development of their colleagues. They are not trying to waste precious budget on useless INSET days to irritate overworked teachers
  • Being beyond criticism yourself. Members of SLT should have extensive appraisals carried out, where all kinds of members of the school community can have their say
  • About being in it for yourself, in fact a personal vision of education & a shared vision for the school should be providing the motivations for decisions made
  • An emotionless experience. Sadly, being promoted to an SLT doesn’t automatically make you immune to feeling hurt when unfair comments are made, but you just have to deal with it
  • About being better than anyone else, as it is with the classroom, so it should be with the school and that is above all else people should be treated fairly
  • About being infallible. You do not automatically have Pope-like status and therefore can still make mistakes, but you need to have the humility and integrity to recognise your failings, we’re all human

Now this is not to say that there aren’t failing leadership teams of failing individual members of those teams and if you’re faced with injustice you have a decision to make. Either move on to a school more akin to your values or challenge the way things are.