Lessons learned​ from my first half term as a Deputy Headteacher

I’ve tried numerous times to get into blogging, but never too much success.  Life takes over, something important comes up and it leaves little time to process thoughts let alone write them down into something vaguely coherent.  I’ve not used my wordpress page for some time and did have a little chuckle reading some of my thinking from 2015.

However, it is half term and for the first time in 4 years I have not booked to go home (I come from Scotland); or work at a holiday club; or tutor and therefore, I have found a pocket of time while sitting in Pret in Borough Market.

This blog needs a context, I have not been teaching for the greatest amount of time, and I’m incredibly aware of that.  I have a degree in Theatre from Surrey University and completed School’s Direct in 2013.  As an aside, I think School’s Direct has a bad reputation amongst those who trained through longer university-led routes.  I absolutely loved it – for me, at that particular time, it was the only way I could have afforded to train and it had the right mix of school-based practical lessons and university, tutor-led, lectures.  That makes it sound easy… it wasn’t.  It was a very trying year, but I had two great school-based mentors who worked with me the entire time to make sure I was ready to take my own class the following year.

I’m entering my fifth year of teaching in a state school and have the privilege of taking on an interim deputy headship. Through a series of circumstances, the school required the substantive deputy to step up to become acting headteacher and an internal advert was placed for her replacement.

I’ve been a member of the SLT for two years as the Upper KS2 Phase Leader and latterly as the Y3,4 and 5 Phase Leader.  I knew it was an ambitious application to make, but I really did feel like I could step up to the challenge.  I applied, was lucky enough to get it and I now find myself at the end of a busy and immensely rewarding half term.

It has taken me a little while to reflect on the important lessons I’ve learned in my new role and I have been sure not to shy away from recognising that.  Life as a deputy head has been fast-paced and often you focus so much on moving forward with ideas, policy and strategy that you forget to look back on the key lessons you have learned. Here are my three musings on the biggest lessons I’ve looked back and reflected on during the half term…

You better like your headteacher!

This half term I have been in school 7am – 5:45pm on most days, I then get home and do a few hours at home.  The absence mobile phone starts going off any time from 6am, so it can be an early start too.  On top of this is the constant thinking, digesting of complex information and planning which takes places almost always – I have my best ideas at 11pm apparently. It can be pretty intense…

This isn’t any different to any other leader in any other school, I’m sure.  But it did make me realise – I spend more time with my headteacher than I do my own partner.  The phrase ‘work wife’ has never been more relevant!

I cannot imagine working with a headteacher I did not see eye to eye with.  In my current position, the headteacher and I spent a long time working on the vision for the year and the changes we were going to make together from around Easter time.  This is of course easier as we are both new to our positions and therefore we have had the opportunity to make changes which we both agree on.  We were also lucky to have time to do this before summer – a luxury, I know!  To improve the situation further, we have and still do have the support of the previous acting headteacher and current substantive headteacher (who is currently on a partial secondment).

It did however make me realise the importance of this relationship when looking towards the future.  Any school which gets the investment of your time at any level needs to be a place which breathes the ethos and vision you believe in – this half term would have been considerably more challenging if I didn’t believe in the direction my head was taking the school.  Thankfully, she is excellent and I trust and believe in her fully; I really enjoy working with her.

You can’t always please people…

This was a tough one.  As an individual, I do like to try and please people – it’s an annoying quality I’ve become more aware of in the past few years.  I’m sure a therapist would enjoy picking that apart, but I’m happy in the knowledge of not knowing where that comes from!

Schools are incredibly complex organisations and there is categorically no way that all decisions made by the senior leadership team will be positively viewed by all staff members. It is important in these times to remember why you work in a school: we are here for children and because we want them to have the best possible start in life.  If I’ve been part of making a decision that ensures a child is safer or a decision that empowers a child to achieve more – then I need not think about it twice, it is the right decision. I think transparency is key here.  Not all staff are privy to the full picture and knowledge is power when it comes to decision making.

You need to find time to have a laugh.

This is possibly the most important lesson. Senior Leadership in a school can sometimes be stressful, it can sometimes be difficult and it is often exhausting.  You can find yourself at the other end of problems, complaints and concerns for a full day.  This is part of the job and it is vitally important that you make time to hear concerns from others as they arise.

It can be hard to find ‘me time’ amongst all of this… you do need to make time to get into the staff room and eat.  You do need to make time to have a drink with staff at break time and you do need to find a time to share the funny stories others have.  It is so important for your own wellbeing to find the time to do this! You need to make sure that you are in a position to give off the energy and attitude you expect of your staff – if you don’t set the tone, who will?

 As I say – I’m sure I’ve learned many more lessons than this and I know I’ve got many more to learn too.  Here’s to the next half term.

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Children can’t read. Apparently.

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I saw this on twitter earlier this week and at the time I didn’t think much of it.  A few days later, I saw lots of edu bloggers giving opinions on Katherine’s tweet and it made me consider my thoughts.

Firstly, what a hugely sweeping statement.  In reality, the situation should be considered child by child; possibly class by class but I find it hard to believe that an entire school, or primary education system(!), is unable to teach children how to read.   Are you seriously telling me that the 232,000 primary trained specialist teachers have no success in teaching children how to read?  After all, I can read!

As a relatively inexperienced year 6 teacher, I find guided reading pretty difficult to teach – most teachers do.  Not because the subject matter is overly challenging, but the sheer organisational/differentiation effort that it requires takes a huge amount of planning.  I’ve often been in a situation where teachers of varying experience share their ideas on managing it; nearly always sharing their difficulties in delivering it consistently.  Having said that, I have no reason to believe that I haven’t helped my children progress in their reading.

Reading covers a broad range of skills – many of which are not ‘tested’ or acknowledged as a progress marker at the end of KS2.  If, at the end of a year, a pupil enjoys picking up a book, or enjoys spending time in the book corner, I consider that a huge amount of progress.  Fostering a love of reading far out weighs teaching a pupil how to answer a closed comprehension question.

Perhaps what Katherine is hinting at is that the way we approach delivering reading sessions in teacher training isn’t hitting the mark?  However, again I disagree.  Observing good practice forms a huge part of initial teacher training; working with a mentor and year partner also provides opportunity to share good practice in this area.

What I also find interesting about this statement is that if 232,000 teachers were really getting it wrong; why are there no paid research opportunities to improve it?  At my university all the paid research opportunities are looking into improving outcomes in maths, attendance and assessment.  Reading doesn’t feature in the list at all.  Then again, maybe this is where the problem comes from?   If there is a problem at all…  I’d be interested to see some national data on this.

Setting up your first classroom

1, Make an audit of the things in the classroom you want to fix. You’ll never be able to have everything sorted prior to getting the kids in, so pick your battles wisely. I always like to get the chipped parts of the walls painted. Speak to your headteacher or premises manager to see what is realistic to get fixed.

2, Know the date of the paper delivery. I know so many stories of teachers being left with horrendous colours for their backing paper, make sure you get a fair selection of what is on offer. Primary colours work well or if you want a more neutral classroom lots of beige, tan and cream can look great. Anything that makes the children’s work stand out is a winner!

3, Get to know your school’s learning environment policy. This is key! Making sure you stick to the rules will help you create an environment the school are happy with. They normally include some pictures as an example which can always be useful as a starting point.

4, Speak to other teachers; ask questions, advice and get stealing good ideas. Nobody knows the schools expectation better than its staff.

5, Make labels… then make some more. Having an organised classroom will not only help you keep control of your stock but it will foster an independent workforce of children. It makes a massive difference if children can assemble and clean the classroom.

6, Explore different options for table configurations. When I first started as an NQT, I looked into the work of Kagan. This really informed my practice and made my ‘table situation’ fairly easy to cope with.

7, Get a book corner and make it as inviting as possible. As a teacher, I believe we need to foster a love of reading in children; reading for pleasure is a huge priority for me. Having a book corner which is exciting and organised will only make children want to spend time in it. Pinterest has some fantastic idea – check them out!

8, Get charity shopping. I recently found an Oxfam book shop and it was amazing! I am going to find something similar when I’m in London – I’ll let you know if I do! I got almost 30 books for £20! They were all books which were on the CLPE recommended reading list. I was so chuffed!!

9, Pick up small trinkets. I am a huge fan of making the classroom feel homely. Ikea is a great way of doing this! I like to visit vintage shops when I come across them too – often they have some really great ideas you can steal and replicate yourself…

10, Give children designated responsibilities. Book monitor, board monitor, display monitor, eco warrior… are just a few of my job titles.  I make the children apply and interview for the jobs at the start of the year. At the end of each day all children are given 5 minutes to do their duties. This makes sure the classroom is already set up for the following day; saving you hours of time after work.

Random Acts of Kindness

I’ve been reading lots of work by Andy Cope who founded ‘The Art of Being Brilliant’.  I find it to be a resource which, if used properly, can ignite a powerful and meaningful personal transformation.  My class also find his writing style hilarious which helps!

Random Acts of Kindness are featured in one of his publications and I instantly loved the idea.  It works on the premise that by doing something nice for somebody else (anonymously or not) you will feel good.  Do good to feel good.

Now, I feel I should say that I’m not a massive fan of ‘feel good’ mumbo jumbo – but for some reason, possibly the anonymity, this resonated with me.  It sounded exciting.

I tried it – I put a cake on a colleague’s desk with a little note saying, ‘have a good day’.  And yes, I felt awesome!  I even overheard them saying it made them feel good too.

It got me thinking… how fantastic would it be to work in school which actively supported this idea of ‘giving’.  I don’t mean everyone should walk into class to find a red velvet cupcake on their seat (although, feel free to do that!) – simply that if every member of that community; pupils, staff, parents and governors consciously tried to go out of their way to do one kind thing each day, what a wonderful environment that would be.

I assume it all falls back down to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  Higher up the hierarchy we have a need to feel wanted which is something a nice gesture could easily pacify.

An easter rambling from an NQT – evidence based practice…

As of late I have become interested in the idea of teaching being a profession which uses research to underpin the methodology that I, as a practitioner, use on a day-to-day basis.  This has been fairly useful as it has been directly feeding into the word count on a rather large masters essay!  It got me interested so I thought I’d pop it down to see what other practitioners opinions are.

David Hargreaves is going to be quoted quite a bit here as he is the one who initially (over ten years ago!) questioned the idea of a research based practice and suggested that we hadn’t, as teachers, got it right.  I read a transcript of a lecture he gave back in 1996.  It resonates with me today as I’m sure it would have back in 1996 to many practitioners.

One thing he does is pull a really interesting comparison between two very different (or so I thought) professions: medicine and education.

Medicine
The world of medicine is governed hugely by continuing research.  A vast array of stakeholders collectively discuss potential areas to research, draw up an action plan, research and subsequently the results of this research are directly applied to day-to-day diagnosing of patients at hospital level.  To me, this is the epitome of a research and evidence based practice.

Have a question -> agreed it is a suitable form of research with a variety of stakeholders -> research undertaken by a variety of professionals -> published in a journal accessible to all -> accessed by practitioner -> applied, discussed, argued or agreed at practitioner level.

The medical profession have a significant budget for this funded by a variety of stakeholder;  doctors, nurses, professors at university level and dedicated researchers conduct this research as part of a team.

“It [the research] is not is a search for more accurate means of diagnosing medical problems; better ways of managing the patient; the determination of more effective treatments.  The people best placed to do this work are no basic scientists of a special category of medical researchers, but medical practitioners.”

I know I am looking at a comparison which is significantly different to that of teaching – however, the principals and hierarchy have a lot to be learnt from.  Practitioners have an educated dialogue of methodology based upon CURRENT research which is underpinned in traditional ideas.  It is constantly evolving and growing.

Teaching
To start with I think it is worth noting that teaching has no specific and comparable journal to that which we can find in the medical community.  We have the TES which often does discuss and look at the negative side of government policy, union chit chat and of course job advertisements.   Should we be seeing research on staff room desks for staff to look at and discuss?  Would this be an effective way to disseminate currently proven successful practice?  I’m not entirely sure, but it does seem like a good place to start.

I first noticed the stark difference between practice being taught at university level (which was often dated) and practice I was observing at school level whilst in my training year.  At times it was not even comparable – I was trying to underpin an outstanding lesson I was watching with outdated, no longer relevant ideas.  It seemed that teachers had moved on, developed and flourished without the ‘professional side’ of the industry noting, recording and researching into why ideas worked.   David Hargreaves presents the idea that perhaps this is because teachers have become complacent with what they ‘like’ and ‘know’ due to a lack of guidance further into their careers.  I personally think there is a middle ground on this one.  Either way, the practice I was being taught at university level didn’t match that of the practice I was observing (and being expected to replicate) in a class setting.

The reason for this is because we are practicing in an industry which has a specific budget, staff base and separate council for research.  It is not something which considers all stakeholders needs and requirement.  Often the research is closed meaning only those conducting it and the charity or university seeking it have access granted to the outcome.  Furthermore, those conducting the research often haven’t been teachers on the ‘front line’ and quite often the research I am finding isn’t building on a previous idea – more often than not it endorses ‘fads’ and acts as a sales pitch for a scheme or method of teaching.  Therefore, the teaching industry have stopped listening and moved on themselves.  I don’t blame them!

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if groups of teachers or schools had the opportunity to work as research hubs/groups and were funded to explore specifically designed and selected areas of interest?  I bet this already exists somewhere and I just haven’t come across it yet.

This is all merely the ramblings of an NQT but I honestly think there is leverage for a national CPD system which allows teachers to access up to date and relevant research which they could use to underpin their classroom ideas and expectations.  In ten years time I don’t want to be teaching using the methods I learnt in my NQT year.   I hope to have kept up with new methodology and changed my practice accordingly.  Most of all, I hope to be able to eloquently explain why I have chosen a given methods to teach ‘x’ or ‘y’.

I’m lucky to currently work in a school which constantly sends staff to CPD training, holds in house training and brings in professionals who are considered to be at the top of their game.  But what happens if the next school I work in doesn’t have this ethos and culture?

I believe that we are masters of our own profession.  It’s up to us how we seek, implement and assess the effectiveness of new ideas.  We just need to be able to access the relevant new ideas in any setting.

Hmm…

Growth Mindset

As teaching practitioners and as a school we have received a CPD on ‘Growth Mindset’.  For me, this has pretty much meant changing my way of thinking; going from ‘I can’t’ to ‘what a good opportunity to try’.  If anything, it has highlighted how incredibly pessimistic my approach to my skill set has been.  I would encourage anyone, involved in teaching or not, to give it a go.

If you don’t know what growth mindset is… in short, someone with growth mindset would embrace challenges, keep going when things get tough, see effort as a path to mastery, learn from criticism and find inspiration in the success of others.   Someone who has a fixed mindset would avoid challenges, give up easily, see effort as a waste of time, ignore or dislike criticism and feel threatened by the success of others.

I’ve drawn up a few examples of how people with a fixed mindset compare to people with a growth one…

example

Professor Carol Dweck explains it in this video.

Myself, my TA and LSA have been trying our hardest to include it in as much whole class teaching as possible.  It is definitely making a difference.  The children in my class are relaxed, calm and increasingly resilient when tackling problems which are incredibly challenging for them.  It’s so exciting to watch!

I’m going to try and update this each time I come up with a good way to include growth mindset in daily practice.  As a little starter, here is something I plan to share with my Year 6 class this coming week:

1) The road to mastery
This is quite a well known concept and visual interpretation of it.  I’ve adapted it and made it my own for use in year 6.  The aim of this is for them to recognise ‘a mistake’ or ‘failure’ as an opportunity for them to learn further knowledge to refine the skills they are trying to apply.  A member of  our SLT often says that fail is an acronym for First Attempt In Learning.  I like that, lots!

Road to mastery
UPDATE – Monday 6th October
Today I shared the above with my Year 6 class.  At the end of our maths session I asked the children to consider where they were on their road to mastery in relation to division methods.  I was so impressed that every child was able to talk eloquently about what they had achieved and what their next steps were.  Some children even left me a little note in their book:

Mastery“today on my route to mastery I got to test my new skill/mastery…”

This will continue into my lesson tomorrow where  children will pick up where they left off on their road to mastery.  At the end of the lesson I will use the conversations we have as a way to assess their learning and plan further focus groups and interventions.  It all feeds into the idea of children owning and taking responsibility for their learning.  What I love about this is that it can be used for any subject or skill.  It is completely flexible.

2) Surround yourself and your pupils in it!
I know it sounds silly but getting the growth mindset into the children’s work (and as a result, onto a display) can have such a significant impact on their attitude towards learning.  As part of our ‘welcome back to school’ teaching sequence we made the children write themselves a motivational speech.  We now, as part of an English display, have a wall of motivation.  It is so useful to refer children to it when they are having a difficult moment.  My year 6 students responded so well to this… check it out:

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