In September of this year I became head of science at The Totteridge Academy. A new role in a new school was never going to be easy, but despite all the various trials and tribulations of the 19/20 academic year, I’ve learnt more this year about teaching and leading than I did in my six preceding years in the classroom. Below is a diary of sorts, it’s my record of the things I’ve picked up along the way from my colleagues and superiors, to whom the credit for anything useful is owed.
Look in the mirror
There’s a phrase my boss uses a lot, which is that when things are going well, you look out the window and spread the good vibes outwards; say thank-you to everyone involved, make sure they get full credit and the like. When a mistake happens, you look in the mirror and see what you could have done differently. No need to be flagellistic about it – it’s about learning. If you asked someone to do x and they did not-x, what could you do next time to make x more likely? Of course it doesn’t mean that people can get off lightly for not doing what they were supposed to – you don’t do anybody any favours by not holding them to account – but as far as you are concerned – as a leader – what can I take from this going forwards?
At the schools I worked at previously, there was little shared vision around what we were trying to achieve. Teaching and learning is the best example of this, where schools without a shared language end up with whole school priorities focused on “best practice” or “differentiation” or “AfL” which are just too broad to be meaningful at all. They mean different things to different people, so how can you ever hope to have meaningful dialogue about them? At TTA we are very specific and clear about what we want to see and do which means that dialogue and discussion are ten times more fruitful.
Following on from the above, having a shared language to implement that shared vision is crucial. In our department for example, we now have a shared language around challenge in science. This means that I can go into any lesson and judge – using centrally agreed criteria and referents – whether the challenge is appropriate. The same can happen in reverse, and my colleagues can hold me to account for the challenge that I build into my lessons or resources that the whole team will use. This applies to all sorts of other aspects of teaching too; if I feedback to an NQT that he missed an opportunity for a Stretch-It, he knows exactly what I mean without having to have a whole conversation about its appropriate use.
Importance of autonomy
Giving people as much autonomy over their work is empowering and professionalising. Obviously there are limits, but the general philosophy has led to us having our own T&L policy and the departmental ability to set our own culture. This doesn’t mean that anything goes, and line managers view it as their responsibility to challenge and probe reasoning. If I can’t provide a good enough response to a legitimate challenge then I need to get my arguments in order before returning to the table.
Learning from everyone
We have a philosophy of kai zen – continual improvement – which encompasses a lot of habits and dispositions, with one of the most important being taking feedback as a gift – whoever it comes from. At my previous school I had a bit of a reputation for being tough on behaviour, and used to spend a lot of time supporting within the department. On one of my first few days at TTA I waded in to try and support a colleague with a difficult student which, well, went really badly. This colleague was an NQT and she told me in no uncertain terms that I hadn’t handled that particular student in the right way and I should have done x, y and z. She was dead right, and Mr “hardman” Boxer had to listen, take notes, and do better next time.
Tuesday lunch club
The pace of the school day can be pretty intense and my days are definitely more high-octane than they have been in the past. A few colleagues decided that we would try really hard to all have lunch together in the staffroom at least once a week – Tuesday lunch club. It’s a great time to just sit, chill, unload and get to know people from across the school. It’s also a really great support net: if someone didn’t make it to lunch club and I bump into them I can see “missed you earlier – is everything alright? Can I help with anything?”
The power of purpose
As mentioned, my workload has definitely gone up this year. Part of that is simply due to taking up a new role and working in a new school but a big part of it is also the raising of the baseline expectation. I’d been coasting for too long and this year I’ve been challenged and pushed to be the best I can be. By definition, that’s increased the load on me. The important thing though is that even though the load has been high, I’ve been totally ok with it because everything I’m asked to do has a purpose. I’m not asked to do all those stupid jobs that took time and slowly eked away at the tattered remains of my motivation and job satisfaction. I don’t mark students’ books. I don’t have to leave comments or stamps everywhere. I don’t have to print things on different coloured sheets so that an observer can easily find them. I don’t do written reports or mindless data drops four times a year. I don’t have to hand in lesson plans or co-operate with daft initiatives planned by someone with a whole-school priority to push through so they can get their NPQSL. Everything I’m asked to do is meaningful and has purpose. So more and more I’ve found with workload that purpose is a key moderator.
If you are a regular reader of my blog, you may have noticed that this year my blogs have got a lot more nitty gritty and concrete. There’s less philosophising like you might find in Teaching and Learning is Dead (early 2019), and more concrete in-the-class strategies and contexts like you might find in Challenge Beyond Blooms , How I Teach a Bottom Set and Ratio. That’s because, even though both have their place, I’ve been focussed a lot more on how to help the teachers in my team. At root, that means less philosophy, more practice.
Getting better, faster
This year, I’ve been helped and supported to get better at every aspect of my job – faster. It’s taught me the value of working somewhere where you have that chance, and I desperately hope that I can repay the favour by doing the same for others. A rabbi I used to study under was once asked how children can properly repay their parents for all the love, care, guidance and support they gave them. He answered very simply: “do the same for your children.” If I’m lucky, I’ll be able to take that spirit with me.