Kindness is a behavior marked by ethical characteristics, a pleasant disposition, and concern and consideration for others. It is considered a virtue, and is recognized as a value in many cultures and religions.
Our world is in chaos. I feel like we are living in a dystopian novel and anyone who knows me will know that I am not a fan of science fiction literature nor futuristic films. I can remember studying Ted Hughes’ ‘Crow’ poetry anthology for my A Levels and learning the word ‘nihilistic’. It would be very easy to become negative, fearful and to lose hope very quickly right now. More than ever, in the current situation we need to be positive, optimistic, hopeful and kind. Above all we need to be kind.
So how can we spread love and not fear during these uncertain times? What small acts of kindness can we make to help others during this anxious time? How can we look after ourselves and our loved ones, whilst also being kind to those around us?
Science tells us there are health benefits to being kind, so as we worry about our physical health, let’s make sure that we are looking after our mental health too. Being altruistic will help us to hold on to our sense of belonging, feel part of our community and keep our spirits up. But being altruistic does not mean being a martyr and putting others first at our own expense. We need to strike the balance between self-preservation, selflessness and selfishness.
Kindness to others: there has been much reporting about the selfish streak that comes out at times like this, especially when it comes to resources. Stockpiling and the supermarket sweeps have left some people feeling vulnerable and anxious, others have been left but little resources such as toilet paper and dry food goods. Yet, there have also been some heartwarming stories about people putting others first. Let’s be kind and think about everyone, not just ourselves. Let’s take what we need, not hoard at the expense of others. Let’s consider who might be going without.
Kindness to strangers: in a world where we are less physically connected, we can go days without seeing our immediate neighbours, we can go weeks without speaking in person to our loved ones. I have already heard of some brilliant community driven initiatives to ensure that those living by themselves, who may be less mobile are being looked after. There has been a lot of talk online in my educator community about supporting vulnerable families and those who are disadvantaged – we need to ensure that our FSM children who might only get one meal a day in school are looked after as we approach full school closures. Let’s put pressure on the Government and on the bihg super market chains to step up and look after those who are going to struggle the most.
Kindness to the community: I have seen social media light up with a sense of belonging as communities pull together. I have a whatsapp group with my neighbours and my work colleagues and will be checking in on them regularly. For my online community I know lots of my contacts are school leaders dealing with considerable stress and carrying the weight of heavy decisions, I also know a lot of educators who work freelance who will take a financial hit with work drying up over the coming weeks. We need to remember that we will respond differently to what is going on, and that is okay. Let’s reach out to those who we would not normally talk to and be a listening ear.
Kindness to the environment: I read a great post yesterday about Mother Nature being given time to heal as we lock down and stop damaging the world through our human endeavours of driving and flying. However, we also need to be mindful that we do not fall back into our disposable ways of eating processed foods with lots of packaging. Who knows when the recycling collections will stop. Let’s consider the impact that our changing habits will have on the environment over the coming months.
Kindness to self: as always we need to remember to be kind to ourselves. I am genuinely very worried about the mental health and wellbeing of lots of people who suffer from anxiety as social isolation will aggravate this. I have already spoken to family and friends this week who are feeling highly-stressed, this situation is triggering their worse fears and they are worrying not only about the day to day, but what the future might bring. Let’s be kind to everyone, including ourselves. Let’s address the negative self-talk and turn our inner critic down, we are in survival mode, and that is okay, for now.
Kindness to our loved ones: we are sometimes meanest to the people we love the most as our guards come down. Being cooped up with a partner and children, estranged family members is going to put pressure on what might be already strained relationships. Let’s watch what we say and how we say it. Let’s consider what working and studying from home, together, will look and feel like. Let’s talk about what is not working and how to make it better for everyone on the short term.
Random Acts of Kindness:
I have read lots of articles about things people are doing to combat the #CoronaVirus with Kindness. Loving Pret A Manger gifting free hot drinks and 50% off of food to NHS workers.
Here are some ideas – add more in the comments or via a tweet:
Reach out to that person who lives by themselves who may be feeling lonely. A text takes seconds and might just brighten their day to know that someone cares.
Ring a friend, a colleague or a family member, better still skype or face time so they can see you too. A friendly voice or face may be just what they need.
Help a neighbour or an older person in the community with their shopping. You can join the #ViralKindness campaign here. There is a template for a note you can leave on doorsteps for people to reach out.
Share your time with others – there are already lots of pop up events like online coffee meets and catch ups so people can connect and converse. Think about what you have to gift and share with others.
Share activities that people can engage with for free, online – join one of the free online concerts started by Chris Martin and John Legend. Arrange to meet friends online who share your musical preferences.
Go for a walk in a National Trust property – now free access.
Go forth and be kind! Let’s restore our faith in humanity.
Social distancing doesn’t mean we can’t connect & collaborate online. Self-isolation means we could get bored & stuck in a Netflix rut. Remote working means we will gain time on our daily commute & could get restless.
Fancy joining the #DailyWritingChallenge to keep yourself busy and occupied over the coming weeks of uncertainty?
If so… follow the hashtag and join us each day. I will publish a daily theme – in the form of a value – and you can join us by writing 500 words. Publish it wherever you like, then share it with us using the hashtag/ tag me in. There is no pressure to write every day. Just engage, as and when, you want to by writing, reading, commenting on the posts from the growing edu-writing community.
There is also the option of joining the #DailyWritingChallenge DM group – we are currently 40 strong and support new writers in finding and using their voice, plus chat about what we think about each others’ posts.
I started blogging about 5 years ago, on a platform that no longer exists called StaffRm. It is where a lot of the #WomenEd and #BAMEed community found their writing voices. We nurtured and supported one another to share thoughts, ideas and stories about our educational journeys. Lots of people ask how to get started with blogging, well here is your chance.
Also you will get to think and discuss with new people, or find out more about people you already know. It is a great way to connect with like-minded people.
If you are feeling lonely or isolated you can also join the DM group if you want to chat about the posts too. We are a friendly bunch I promise!
Day 1 is today! March 18th 2020. The theme is ‘Kindness’ so look out for the #DailyWritingChallenge posts shared on twitter and get involved, however, you wish.
Updated 4/4/20 – we are Day 14 this Monday. So far we have explored the values of: Kindness, Courage, Honesty, Friendship and Adventure to name a few of them. The lovely Sue Webb has collated them as collections on the VBE website here.
I wrote a blog about why we need our values to help us navigate this crisis here.
I had an opinion piece published in Schools’ Week here.
Thank you to everyone who has contributed a blog or supported by reading in the last 3 weeks. Each post is a written expression of the visual #RainbowsOfHope.
Women Leading with Confidence is one of the DfE funded programmes to develop more women leading in education. This week I was invited along to facilitate one of their twilight training sessions with a group of 16 women who are in leadership, in West Sussex, but who want to hone their skills to progress to their next step in their career.
I love arriving early and observing the space. There was a positive buzz in the room as everyone entered and re-connected, sharing updates on the impact of the programme – one had an interview for Assistant Headteacher the next day, two had been shortlisted for the same Deputy Headship role that week and another had an application in for Headship. I received a warm welcome from the team at the Millais Teaching School Alliance who had invited me along.
I tapped into this energy as I opened the session and asked everyone to introduce themselves by their name and the role they aspired to. I read the room as a few of the group wriggled in their seat, squirmed in their skin and looked increasingly uncomfortable with this invitation. I went around the room one by one, some looked me in the eye and said with a smile what role they wished for, with one even saying to ultimately be a CEO of their own trust! Whilst others fumbled their words and verbally went around in circles, I pressed them for an answer which most could eventually articulate. I then addressed the elephant in the room by asking a series of questions: How did that instruction make you feel? Why were you embarrassed to articulate your career goals? Why were you uncomfortable to show that you are ambitious?Why is it often hard for women to articulate our career goals? We reflected openly on the fear of judgement from others that we feel in expressing our professional desires. I think they all realised 10 minutes into the session that I was not going to let them sit in the shadows during the session, I was going to keep them on their toes and push them out of other comfort zones.
We next considered how we prepare to apply for a promotion, but I framed it around the relationship that we have with our self. We unpacked our ‘self-talk’ and I shared a trick I learned to address our ‘inner-critic’ (you name it and directly address it to diminish it). We reflected on the gender ‘confidence gap’ and discussed the ‘imposter syndrome’ and how it inhibits us. I referenced the ‘glass ceiling’ women experience due to systemic, structural and societal barriers but asked them to think about their own ‘inner glass ceilings’ too. I reflected on the research that shows that women often don’t get promoted because they have self-sabotaged and self-deselected so they are not even in the running. Yes, there are blocks out there for us to learn how to navigate, but we need to not put our own blocks in our path to progression too!
When considering where to apply and which role/context to select, I encouraged them to consider their ‘non-negotiables’ and their ‘core values’. These two checklists should be the success criteria that we use when assessing if an opportunity if the right fit. For example, my core values are Diversity, Equality and Wellbeing – so I would not apply for a role if I knew the team did not reflect the community it served, if male peers promoted over women and if staff were not healthy/ happy. Or I would apply for a role, knowing they were an issue but laying these needs out on the table and offering solutions I could bring to the school to fix such issues. My non-negotiables are how far I am prepared to travel to work, what salary I am prepared to take home, that I am outward-facing and tweet/ blog/ speak at events, that I need my own office and that I want some opportunities for flexible working – if an organisation cannot offer these things, I would not apply for/ accept a role. There is nothing wrong in knowing who you are, what you need, what brings you joy and what enables you to thrive. The more aware we are of these parameters, the more able we are to communicate our needs and have them met. Furthermore, we discussed how to do the due diligence on the prospective employer -yes reviewing the website, social media and latest inspection reports are useful, but the soft data is as important, the word of mouth from friends of friends. I taught them a trick for using LinkedIn to see how long people stay at the school/ in their position.
Moving on to the application itself, we discussed how to use the job advert, application pack, job description and personal specification as resources. As an English teacher, I love a highlighter, and I will not only annotate these documents to structure my application, but I will equally mirror specific language back to the recruiter. They need to hear in my narrative how and where I am aligned to the vision, values, culture, ethos and journey the school has been on. When drafting the application letter I advised the following tips: be concise, be personal, be specific, be confident, use assertive language, use more ‘I’ versus ‘We’ and show your impact throughout supporting evidence and data. Women often undersell themselves in an application letter by diminishing their accomplishments, moreover, a woolly statement will bury great work under waffle. Personal touches like knowing the name of the Headteacher, speaking to the mission statement, engaging with the values and demonstrating alignment make an application stand out. Alongside the application, I encouraged everyone to get into the habit of regularly updating their CVs to capture their skills development and leadership experience. I have done this every year throughout my career to keep it fresh, it also means I do not forget the responsibilities I have had, the CPD I have attended and the impact I have had. This is especially important if you have stayed in a role/ school for a long time.
Furthermore, your CV can be reflected interactively in your social media profiles. I shared anecdotes about how I use LinkedIn to find roles for, to find roles for others and to recruit my own team. Other professions use LinkedIn really well for curating career narratives – you can add in a blurb to capture your current role, but also indicate the role you aspire to, you can add professional skills and be endorsed for them, you can ask for testimonials from former colleagues – these aspects bring your CV to life and make you stand out. Moreover, they enable you to network with like-minded people. When I was looking for Headship out of region, I connected with Headteachers, Directors of Education, Chairs of Governors, CFOs and Directors of HR in the region I wanted to move to. I built my network, so when I secured a role, I already had professional contacts in the area I was relocating to. There is also a handy option to allow recruiters to discretely know you are looking for your next role. If you are leaving a school-based role there are some applications which will draw down your profile and populate an application for you. I have applied for jobs in 5-10 mins before!
My next piece of advice was centred around how you prepare for interview. The pre-visit is an essential component for leadership roles, and vital for Headship. There is research that suggests that more male than female candidates invest in the pre-interview opportunity to visit a school, thus giving them a heads’ up in the recruitment process as they are more visible and are already ahead of the group before the interview proper begins. Schools cannot always accommodate a host of dates/ times, so if they have limited availability negotiate this with your current employer as part of their support in your application. What you wear to the pre-visit is important too, remember to dress for the role you want, not for the role you are in! This opportunity to meet some of the team, see the school ahead of the process enables you to gather more soft intelligence, also to meet some of the wider school staff, you need to make yourself stand out so that you are remembered and the informal feedback is positive about you. A warm smile, acknowledging everyone you meet, a strong handshake, are all important first impressions, no matter how nervous you are feeling. Take a book and make notes of what you notice, jot down questions you want to ask when you return or things you want to go away and think about or research into.
So, by this point in the process you are ready for your interview. I want to emphasise that interviews are a 2-way process. A job offer needs to be a 2-way fit. I know a lot of people get really nervous at interview as they feel scrutinised and like they are under a spotlight. Reverse this thinking, re-imagine that it is you interviewing your future employer, it is you asking them questions and putting them through their paces instead! Your notebook is key – by this stage in the process, there will be several pages of notes and research, you will have a list of questions, a list of things to find out, a reminder of your core values and non-negotiables. Do not be afraid to have your book with you, in your hand and to make notes as the process pans out. If I write it down I know that I am more likely to remember it, and it helps me reflect, focus and slow down. The other thing to remember is that the interview is only one component of the process, the other components are of equal importance. You are being assessed on your leadership technical skills and your leadership behaviours. We are in control of what we know, the experiences we have had and the narrative that we share. We need to be in control of how we present, how we interact and how we perform.
So, what you wear is important. Selecting your interview outfit is part of the process and if you are going for a big role you might need multiple outfits! (I once had a 3 day interview for Headship, so I had to pack 3 sets of everything!) It might sound silly but wear what makes you feel good, what is comfortable and what will give you that confidence boost. I like matching underwear but I know some people have a pair of lucky pants. I have a charm bracelet that I wear on important occasions, to bring me luck. My work uniform is always a smart dress, opaque tights, a pair of flat pumps and a blazer, which I will take but not always wear. I wouldn’t start wearing heels nor a suit to an interview as it does not reflect who I am. I also often wear bold colours, which at interview helps you stand out from the crowd. Remember to pack essentials like a spare pair of tights, sanitary products, some stationery, some water and some headache tables – all the little things which might derail you should you need them on the day and do not have them on you.
Wearing an outfit that makes you both look and feel the part, will impact your presence. When it is a multi-day process, and there is a large group to start the Apprentice-style knock out process, you need to be aware of the power dynamics in the group/ room and make sure your status holds your space in the process. Be aware of: what you say, how you say it, what you don’t say, what you are thinking and feeling, what your face is saying, ask questions and try not to be intimidated by the louder, more confident candidates. It does not mean they are stronger than you! Take a moment to leave the room, collect your thoughts, do some mindfulness to hold yourself together if you need to. A task that can be difficult is the ‘Fish Bowl’ exercise. As a woman try to hold back from being the scribe, ensure that you are not ‘mansplained’ and that you get your voice heard. A tip is to listen and summarise what is being said, also to invite those who are being quiet in the process to contribute their ideas. Be aware of who is standing/ sitting and how loud voices are as it is easy to get lost in this task. Sometimes the loudest, most confidence voices take the whole group in the wrong direction, be prepared to stand your ground and propose different angles.
If everything in the process has gone well, you then get to the stage of offer but more importantly to the stage of negotiation. Please don’t give your power away when they offer you the job and say ‘yes!’ impulsively because you are so flattered and relieved! Pause and leverage your power to negotiate for what you need to enable you to flourish in the role. How you compose yourself at this point sets the tone for your leadership style as you transition into a new role and a new organisation. Do you want them to think you are a pushover or that you do not value the skillset that you are bringing? It is tempting to take the call in the car, as you are rushing through the door, but make sure you are composed and in a calm environment to leverage your wish list. Remember to have your book in your hand when they call you and recap what has been discussed so you know the full offer. I know so many women who accept the promotion but do not even know the salary! You need to ask for what you need and I have negotiated throughout my career the following: salary; remit; timetable/ release time; flexibility; office; devices e.g. phone/ laptop; admin support; CPD e.g. NPQs, coaching or supervision; relocation. Each thing I asked for has made my life easier and added value to my role, negotiation is not just about financial value.
At this stage, you may be disappointed to discover that you have not been successful. My advice is to celebrate the the process and to ask for feedback to enable you to grow. So, we need to celebrate the small wins: being longlisted; being shortlisted; being at day 1; being at day 2; being offered the right role; being offered the right package. When you have prepared so hard and emotionally invested it is gutting to be disappointed but we need to be resilient and we need to bounce back. Again, there is research to show the quicker recovery rate of male applicants versus female applicants when applications are unsuccessful. To stereotype, men brush themselves off and get back on the horse, they move on to the next opportunity and put it down to experience. Women tend to take it more personally and feel wounded, then take longer to reapply for another role. I personally see applications/ interviews as great CPD and as an opportunity to shine, it is like playing a game, with myself and I get a kick from the sense of competition. The irony is that there have been jobs that I am less emotionally invested in, and these are the processes where I perform better and have been offered a role that I have later declined, sometimes caring less about the outcome enables us to be our best.
If my session and my blog have been helpful I would suggest the following next steps: work on yourself, reflect on your triggers, develop self-care and draft your lists. To get out of your comfort zone: create a vision board, dress for the job you want, RAG rate the JD/ PS above you and practise your Power Pose in the shower and your daily affirmations in the mirror! As the Women Leading with Confidence course draws to a close consider: How confident were you at the start of the course? How confident are you now in the middle of the course? How confident would you like to be in the future?
Last Friday I was delighted to be asked to be the opening keynote for the inaugural Leadership Matters conference in Birmingham at the Think Tank, in the Millennium centre. I opened the day with a series of provocations about recruitment, staff development and retention:
How do you recruit?
We need to disrupt this education recruitment space and move away from some of the traditional practices of days gone by. As a headteacher I recruited for potential and for aligned values as I believe that you need to get the right person on the bus. You can enhance someone’s subject knowledge but can you develop someone’s teacher persona?
How do you grow your own talent?
I have always been heavily involved in professional learning and staff development. Having worked in big MATs I have had hands-on roles with our SCITT and University providers. In my new role at the University of Buckingham I work closely with Premier Pathways on a salaried distance learning teacher training model. Retention rates are high on school-based pathways into our profession.
What is your NQT/RQT/ECT offer?
In our increasingly competitive market we need to hook our trainees but we also need to look after them. Offering to pay them from July 1st means they can have a summer break and start refreshed instead of holding down a summer job. Ensuring beginner teachers across a LEA or a MAT have a similar experience and a consistent offer reduces the comparison of school offers and ensures teachers are employed by schools that are aligned with their values. RQTs need consideration too including mentoring, reduced timetables and ongoing training opportunities to consolidate their NQT year.
What is your Mentoring offer?
I am shocked at how much we ask from our Middle Leaders. Some Heads of Subject have 3 or 4 trainee teachers in their teams due to recruitment issues. We need to invest in our mentors, with time, training, support and remuneration. Our trainees are only as good as our mentors and they can make a massive difference to the experience of an early career teacher. If we want to retain our staff we need to look after both parties with equal consideration.
How much ownership do your staff have over their professional development?
We want our teachers and educational staff to be lifelong learners and passionate about what they do. We want them to be reading and interested in constantly developing as professionals. The surge in grassroots events and Saturday CPD opportunities reflects the high interest for teachers to take their growth into their own hands. We need to enable staff to find their own path and develop their own approaches rather than delivering a ‘one size fits all’ CPD offer.
How does your Professional Learning offer extend from Beginner Teacher to CEO?
When you review your offer for all staff in your organisation, where are the gaps? Are there opportunities to grow and develop for every tier of personnel and for the operational as well as the teaching staff? The National College of Education are doing some brilliant work around the Apprenticeship Levy and how to reinvest this pot of money back into our greatest resource – our staff!
How do you retain?
We hear all the time about the ‘recruitment crisis’ but we know in fact our profession is facing a ‘retention crisis’. We need to do better. We need to invest our time, energy and resources on the staff we have, to keep them in the system or to reengage them in the profession instead of focusing on increasing our recruitment drive. If we don’t change why teachers are leaving, we are not going to change the problem longer term. We need to listen to our staff, we need to review our workload, and we need to challenge the systems that are driving our teachers out of the profession and out of the country.
How do you spot and nurture talent?
We live in nepotistic times and a lot of internal recruitment processes lack transparency. As school leaders we reward presenteeism, we reward heroic leadership, we reward the self-promoters. How can we level the playing the field? How can we create opportunities which diverse staff can apply for and excel in? How can we grow our bright spots through shadowing opportunities and secondments?
How can you innovate your HR processes?
As a profession we need to catch up with other approaches. Flexible working…. Agile working… Flipped meetings… Secondments and Sabbaticals…. Unconscious Bias training… Talent Partnerships… are just some of the initiatives I know are disrupting how staff are deployed in different industries. In the highly competitive job market for millennials how can we ensure that we are meeting the needs of our workforce?
How can we compete with the international market?
Statistically we are under an increasing pressure to compete with the appeal of a teaching role overseas as the number of international schools is set to snowball over the coming years. The international market need is set to be greater than the total number of teachers in the UK by the end of the decade. We need to prepare ourselves for how to transition staff in and out of the UK education system as the workforce will become increasingly fluid and more internationally minded in the coming years.
How diverse is your work force?
We have seen some marginal shifts in more diverse representation at entry level, headteacher level and governance level but we still have a long way to go. Our schools do not reflect the communities that we serve. Our young people do not have visible role models. There have been a number of diversity and inclusion initiatives, but we have systemic and structural barriers which we need to address to diversify our workforce.
Who does your recruitment?
When you scrutinise the make-up of your trust board, your governors and your senior leadership team which demographic groups are represented? I reflected on the fact that I fulfil the stereotype of who leads ITT. We are a homogenous group. We need to rethink not only how we recruit teachers but who recruits them. How are we creating opportunities for career pathways for under-represented groups?
Who do you retain?
When you drill down into the data of who is leaving your school, how honest are you being about the groups who are voting with their feet? Which groups of school staff are most vulnerable in your school and how can you mitigate against a pattern of departures? The exit interview is a powerful way to hear the truth, no matter how uncomfortable it may be, about why people leave.
How flexible is your workforce?
With 250,000 qualified teachers in our country, not working in our schools, we need to address the need to create flexible working opportunities in our schools. I find it ironic that our schools serve the children of others but make it difficult for working parents and carers to juggle their personal and professional commitments. The main group leaving teaching are women between 30 and 39. We need to challenge our mindsets about TLRs in particular – if someone works 0.6 FTE as an English Subject Lead they may teach for 3 days but they will lead for 5 and they need to be rewarded for that.
Who does your timetabling?
One of the biggest barriers to enabling flexible working in our schools is the timetable. Or should I say the timetable? We have a fixed approach to teaching which does not exist in other countries and cultures, in The Netherlands for example every teacher works part time, they have a happy culture and high outcomes – win, win! If we trained more people to timetable and timetabling became a team sport, we could find more solutions to the perceived problems in a timetable. The children need the best teachers in front of them – 2 experienced teachers for half a week each is surely better than 1 less experienced teacher for a whole week?
So, I don’t come with all of the answers, but I have spent most of my 18 year career in schools, and now universities thinking about how to innovate how we do things. I am a connector, a collaborator and I thrive on joining up the dots and finding solutions to problems.
Some shout outs to organisations I cited in my talk: the grassroots communities of #DisabilityEd #LGBTed #BAMEed and #WomenEd. The organisations bringing solutions for flexible working: Return to Teaching, Maternity CPD, Flexible Teaching and the Shared Headship Network. I also recommended 3 books: Mental Wellbeing and Selfcare (Essential Guide for Early Career Teachers) by Sally Price, Talent Architect by Mandy Coalter and 10% Braver by the #WomenEd community – all are recommended for your leadership team to disrupt their thinking.
I like speaking at events where I am part of the day and stay to network with those attending and listen to/ learn from the other speakers. This event did not disappoint. I was followed by Steve Radcliffe who spoke such sense about the need to simplify leadership. He said many things that really spoke to me about our purpose as leaders, our energies as leaders.
Before lunch a group of Leadership Matters Ambassadors joined the stage for a panel to unpick some of the emerging themes of the day. Allana Gay spoke with grace about the stereotypes we need to learn to navigate, Bukky Yusuf spoke passionately about practical wellbeing strategies, Tricia Taylor reminded us that the fundamentals of teaching centre around the quality of our relationships with our students and Mandy Coalter’s wisdom about people management developed some of the ideas I had sown in my earlier talk. I was impressed by the level of humility from some of the speakers – Mike Buchanan shared that he had made some mistakes on his leadership journey and told us that he had stepped down from his role as Chair of the HMC, Cameron Parker, a motivational speaker in schools, who chaired the panel shared his vulnerability as a dyslexic reading complex questions off of cue cards and Andy Buck shared his thoughts on flexible working and reflected that when he was a Headteacher, he realises that he might have been a blocker rather than an enabler for his staff seeking such roles.
The final session of the day was delivered by Phyllida Hancock, from Contender Charlie, who inspired us with Henry V. She invited us to consider how we create and fill our leadership spaces, how we make choices about specific situations and how we narrate our leadership journeys.
The inaugural Leadership Matters Conference was most definitely a day bursting with ideas, connections and opportunities. I hope to see you at the next one in January 2021!
Former Headteacher, Co-Founder of #WomenEd and Head of Secondary Teacher Training
Invited to contribute to one of The Big Education’s ‘Big Conversations’ I was excited to join a stellar line up including Sir Tim Brighouse, Karen Giles and Nadine Bernard. Each speaker contributed a perspective on leadership which we all agreed should be underpinned by values, integrity and authenticity. However, we realised that in order to talk with conviction about vulnerability it felt appropriate to reveal some of our own vulnerabilities, both professionally and personally, so that the audience may learn from our reflections on our career experiences and indeed mistakes we had made along the way.
So, my musings began: Is vulnerability a new thing? Indeed, it is not. Is it a new thing when we are looking at leadership? Perhaps it is. How does it relate to hero leadership? Well, this is where it gets interesting in my eyes – if we review the dominant narrative and imagery of leadership, it is depicted as acts of heroism, as an effective leader being a strong leader, and often through a gender stereotyped lens too.
When you start searching for vulnerability definitions and quotations some common ideas begin to take shape which encompass elements of uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. An expert in the field of vulnerability is Positive Psychologist Brene Brown who has written a number of books and delivered a TED talk on why we need to embrace it.
“Vulnerability is at the core, the centre, of meaningful human experiences”. (Brown)
Thus as schools are people-centred, and the ultimate success of a school is based on the quality of the relationships nurtured between the people the school serves and those who are serving them, then the messiness of the human existence and the rawness of human vulnerability is at the core of education.
As school leaders we work with increasingly vulnerable communities. We are under daily pressure to meet the needs of the children in our care, their families and the wider community. As a headteacher I was acutely aware of the emotional labour my team were weighed down with as we safeguarded our school community. As a school we decided to put mental health and wellbeing at the centre of our curriculum and our decision making as a school, which elevated the initiatives we committed to such as our art therapy, thrive and nurture programmes.
Alongside, the needs of our students, we also needed to meet the needs of our vulnerable staff. As a school who was prepared to do things differently to strive for a different outcome, our hope and optimism attracted staff who were looking for solutions, staff who wanted to stay in the system but who were feeling forced out. A school is often a safe haven, a place of security and stability, a place of belonging and visibility, a place of diversity and inclusion. In her work on silence and speaking out, Audrey Lourde suggests “that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength”. (Lourde, 2017)
“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they are never weakness”. (Brown, Daring Greatly , 2015)
It has become more and more apparent that some schools are more vulnerable than others to work in. Schools serving the disadvantaged communities, coastal schools and schools with poor inspection outcomes often become SNOW schools (schools no one wants) which are then often academized and (re) brokered into trusts to fix.
In our current school system we equally find that school teachers and school leaders are finding themselves in increasingly vulnerable roles. The ‘glass ceiling’ for women leaders in the school system has been a high-profile topic of debate for the last five years since we started #WomenEd a grassroots gender equality movement. With the arrival of our sibling #BAMEed, our reflections and discussions moved from the ‘glass’ ceilings to ‘concrete’ ceilings as we scrutinised the data of the demographic breakdown of our teachers and leaders versus our students. In an increasingly diverse country, with nearly one quarter of children in our primary schools representing a range of different cultures we have a disconnect when the number of BAME teachers is significantly lower than this and the number of BAME school leaders represent a marginal percentage. With national initiatives to increase the number of women and BAME headteachers, we need to ensure that they are recruited to roles which are well-supported and do not end up in roles which are ‘glass cliffs’, those roles which are isolated, unstable and unsupported. Vulnerable demographic groups ending up in vulnerable roles in vulnerable schools is problematic for our workforce data as the narrative then becomes warped about who the ‘heroes’ in the system are.
“Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage”. (Brown, Rising Strong , 2015)
We also find ourselves in an era where we are struggling to recruit and retain teachers, but equally where we have a high attrition rate and mobility of headteachers. There is an emerging narrative of headteachers speaking out about the vulnerability of their role. James Pope, the former Headteacher who featured on the ‘School’ television documentary has started a campaign and series of events to support school leaders who are casualties of the system. With the corporatisation of our education system, the HR processes and systems in schools are becoming increasingly business like. The language of ‘NDA’s, ‘Gagging Orders’, ‘Pay Offs’ and ‘Gardening Leave’ is now commonplace.
As I prepared my speech, listened to the other speakers, reflected on the topic and discussed it with others in the room my final thoughts are: is there a difference to being vulnerable and feeling vulnerable as a school leader? Do we thereby need to learn from and embrace these facets in different ways?
“Daring greatly means the courage to be vulnerable. It means to show up and be seen. To ask for what you need. To talk about how you’re feeling. To have the hard conversations”. (Brown, Daring Greatly , 2015)
To embrace our vulnerability we are encouraged to: find the courage to be seen; ask for what we need; accept the imperfect; show compassion to self and others; talk about how we are feeling; be authentic; be prepared to take risks; own our stories. A great piece of advice I once received stated that: maybe life isn’t about avoiding the bruises, maybe it’s about collecting the scars to prove we showed up for it. This resonated with me and my philosophy of character education, growth mindset and learning from mistakes, as a fear of failure can inhibit our potential. In order for us to be ‘innovative, creative and agents of change’ we need to lean into our vulnerability. (Brown, Daring Greatly , 2015)
Former Executive Headteacher, Co-Founder of #WomenEd and Head of Secondary Teacher Training
Brown, B. (2015). Daring Greatly . New York: Penguin.
Brown, B. (2015). Rising Strong . New York: Penguin.
Brown, B. (n.d.). The Power of Vulnerability. TED Talk.
Lourde, A. (2017). Your Silence Will Not Protect You. Silver Press.