Break (your) rules

Sometimes we create rules for ourselves that used to serve a purpose but now could be holding us back.

In 2011, or there abouts, I had a major break down. It was related to many things but probably the combination of becoming a parent for the first time and having (what felt to me at the time)  a very stressful and highly accountable job didn’t help. I may have written about this on here before. I may not have done, I’ve no idea because I tend not to re read posts. Anyway, as part of my recovery, I took up photography because I wanted something beyond work that I could use to unwind that was just for me.

In the intervening years I have grown and taught myself to become a competent photographer, good enough to be approached by publishers, taken seriously by professional photographers and other creatives and good enough not to embarrass myself when I photographed a friend’s wedding as a gift.

Wedding day (30 of 110)

L and A’s Wedding

Where our rules come from

However, I don’t think I’ve ever posted one of my own photographs on this blog (until now). There are three reasons.

  1. I was a perfectionist Initially, I probably didn’t think they were good enough.
  2. I didn’t want to mix my professional persona with my personal persona. This blog was/is mostly leadership and professional things but photography was personal for me.
  3. I didn’t want a reason to procrastinate. Adding a photograph to a post was just another thing to do that would stop me writing and publishing.

These were useful rules for a time but I realised they are holding me back. They are stopping me being creative. What rules have you set up in your life that are now getting in the way?

Questioning our rules 

Good enough by whose standards? Perfectionism is the enemy. Having to be perfect  stops us doing things. It stops me using my photographs it stops you speaking out in meetings in case  you look silly. It stops us both trying something new in case it fails.

Don’t worry about being perfect. Do the best job you can do and put it out there then refine and improve with time.

The personal is the professional. If you work with people, which most of us in schools do, then your professional approach is informed by who you are as a person and what you do or think personally. I used to be ashamed of talking about depression or similar then I realised that actually it made me more human and many others could relate.

Share your love of fly fishing or whatever with your class or team, it’s the personal connections that make us want to work hard for others.

I’ve learnt that actually, for me, procrastination is fear in disguise. I’m actually a fairly driven person. When I procrastinate it’s for one of two reasons. I either don’t really want to do the thing, or more usually, I’m scared. I don’t entirely know how to do something, it’s new to me and I don’t want to get it wrong. When I start new things I’ve not done before I always take a while to get going. I don’t know where to start and I don’t want to fail.

When you keep putting something off that you know you actually want to do ask yourself “What am I afraid of?” Then go find somebody who has done it before, get some advice and get started. 

Always evolve

When I first heard of Facebook, maybe in 2007 or something, I couldn’t really see the point of it. My partner was really into Myspace (if you are under 35 you won’t know what I’m talking about) and then she got in Facebook and persuaded me to get on it. I started using it a great deal until our kids were born and I made a conscious decision not to post (m)any pictures of them because it felt too public. So since 2011 ish  I’ve barely used it. I only check it when friends or family  tell me there is some group thing  they’ve put on there.

At work I used to be more along the “no excuses” mode with kids but now I feel I’ve mellowed a bit. I once led a department where I wanted to get rid of all text books now I just think teachers need space to do what works for them and helps their classes learn.

It’s ok to change your mind, along as you can explain why.  In fact, I now feel that a rigid sticking to ideas is the hallmark of a closed mind. Things change, why should you believe everything you did as a child, as a fresh graduate, as a new leader? People need to evolve and that might involve making mistakes or changing our views. So what?

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Bedtime project

We do not need to be hamsters on our own self-imposed wheels.

I don’t know how to end this post. I just know that I want to write it. I want somebody who needs to read it and hear the message today to see it and act. To do something or stop doing something in order to improve. Maybe that somebody is you. Let me know what you did(n’t).

Publish.

Are company values too vague?

Lots of companies have core values that they promote. How specific are employers about how these look in practice, and how are they embodied by people they employ or wish to collaborate with? – 652 words

Over dinner recently, I got talking to my companion, Matt, about values. He is currently recruiting for his new start-up and was bemoaning nebulous business-speak. We also both lamented how easy it is to fall into it, and how we both had ourselves in the past.

We are all so familiar with values in a corporate context that we often don’t even question them.

When I walk around school on my teaching days, the values of the school are written on the walls. They run from the ground floor up to the top floor and are a clear statement about what we wish to promote. This include:

  • compassion
  • stickability

My personal values, decided after an internal shift and re-evaluation throughout 2015 and 2016, are:

  • relationships
  • integrity
  • curiosity/development (never can decide which)
  • fun

Beyond the corporate-speak

However, Matt challenged: what do these words actually mean? How useful are they in practice?

He then proceeded to outline very specific things that he valued, looked for and would reward in his employees. My favourite was “people who actually get shit done.”

It got me thinking. What do I value in people I’ve worked with, and who have worked for me?

  1. Transparency. I really don’t see the need for secrets. Be clear what you are doing and why. Share it with all concerned, or all who ask for it.
  2. Being straight forward. I prefer dealing with people who say what they mean, as long as it’s constructive. Even if it may not be what they think I, or others, want to hear.
  3. Kindness. I respect people who treat other people well. Irrespective of status. Irrespective of whether they agree with them. Especially in difficult situations.
  4. Challenge. People who will try new things to challenge their own and others’ thinking.
  5. Reliability. People whose actions match what they say (whoever the audience).
  6. Humility. People who recognise and acknowledge the contribution of others.
  7. Generosity. People who help others to improve and develop, and are happy to share their skills.
  8. Expertise. People who I can learn from and share expertise or ideas with.
  9. Fun. People who are fun to spend time with and make me laugh (professionally or otherwise).
  10. Learners. People who are committed to learning and getting better, no matter how skilled they already may be. People who are unafraid to admit and learn from their mistakes.
  11. Passion. I really appreciate people who care and are unashamedly excited about something beyond themselves, and who act on that passion.

The above is not an exhaustive list, but it’s the one that immediately came to me when I thought: “What do I value in people I work with?” It’s survived a couple of weeks in my notebook and eventual transfer to this blog, so must reflect my current thinking pretty well. It also seems to work fairly well for people that I know and value in my personal life.

Asking the right questions

If you have responsibility for hiring people, or are involved in your school or company’s recruitment process in any way, give some thought to what you truly value. Sure, you may want somebody who can bust out a great spreadsheet, or teach a brilliant history lesson – the expertise side of things is obvious.

However, what about the rest? What works for your particular context? A question like: “Give an example of a time that you acknowledged the contribution of somebody on your team” for leadership positions would send a really powerful signal to candidates about what is really seen as important – much more so than “we value team work” as a bland statement on a website.

 

 

 

 

Are we only as good as our titles?

What brings us worth at work? Is it all about titles? What can we do when we know we need a change? 766 words

At the start of this academic year I’d pretty much decided that I wanted to leave teaching. There were things I liked about my job but I was also frustrated. Each job I’d done was to have more impact. I was now an Assistant Head and facing the fact that maybe education couldn’t do what I’d idealistically thought when I started as a bright eyed and bushy tailed as a new recruit to the Teach First scheme in 2004.

Had I become part of the problem?

Was I really in the place where I could make the biggest difference possible for the bits of society I wanted to?

The past academic year has seen many ups and downs. I’ve felt stuck personally and professionally. I’ve been confused and despondent. I’ve been self critical and asked people I respect to help me reflect and reassess things.  I’ve also grown immensely and discovered that I have, do and can continue to make a difference. In ways that were unexpected in September 2015 but still as important.

I’ve finally seen the fruit of some of my behind the scenes work with middle managers and students in my own school. I’ve had leaders from other schools that I’ve worked with talk to me about the impact I’ve had on them and their teams and I’ve discovered that I’m a person whose writing and speaking can touch particular people, especially those in leadership positions and spur them to real and important action.

After being somewhat at sea and realising that a promotion and new school weren’t going to solve whatever my issues were- I started to think about what else could be done. Then I started to try and make things happen. This unexpectedly lead to a wonderful opportunity  for me and  I had really honest conversation with my boss. As a result we came to a solution that would have been unimaginable for me back in September.  I’ll be working for 2 days at my current school in the maths department (maths teachers are always needed) and will be working for 3 days with LMKco helping other organisations to tackling social disadvantage in a different way. It seems like my mission is the same but the way I’m tackling it is different.

So the title thing? I’ve been in middle or senior leadership positions since my 4th year of teaching. I was clearing my office ready for my own move but also because the school’s into a brand new building. I’ve never really cared about titles but they matter to other people. You can see people reassessing you as a youngish woman when they ask what you do and you say you are a senior manager.  I like the freedom and autonomy + potential impact on a much wider range of people that senior leadership in a school can bring even if I can do without some of the other bits.

I know I’m doing the right thing for me. I knew that as soon as I made the decision and it was all finalised a few months ago.  I don’t think that I’ve mentioned to my Nan and Mum yet that I’ve decided to step down from SLT. Have a let them down? People always talk to me about what a good Head I’d make but I’ve decided to go in a completely different direction.

I’ll still be me, with the same knowledge and experience. I’ll still write about leadership here and in my book because I feel that effective leadership can impact such a wide range of people and people tell me that I have interesting things to say. It seems that I’ll still have the opportunity to work with leaders within and beyond education, which is exciting.

I’ll enjoy my new teaching role working at the same school with children I’ve built relationships with and it won’t do me any harm at all to experience leadership from the other side again for a while.  I look forward to taking on a new challenge with my new team in my other job.

It doesn’t stop things being scary though. The unknown is often scary.

If you are reading this and thinking of making a big change or leap into the unknown- don’t discount things. My decision hasn’t been easy, it’s had real practical implications on my family life. We’ll have to change how we live but it will be worth it.

Consider what really matters to you, personally and professionally and remember that titles are just that. They don’t measure your worth.

 

Introverted leaders: brief notes from my Telegraph Festival of Education 2016 Talk

Last Friday I delivered a talk at the Telegraph Festival of Education about the benefits that introverts can bring to school leadership. Here are some brief notes.

I don’t tend to do powerpoint for these kinds of talks and they are designed to be experienced rather than read but here are some notes and resources that may be of use.

In Jung’s view, introverts and extroverts compliment each other and can help broaden their outlook and use new perspectives. He saw both types and their traits as important and valuable – Sylvia Loehken, Quiet Impact, page 9

Five typically introverted traits which can be used as strengths that were explored during the talk were:

  1. Listening
  2. Quiet passion
  3. Caution/reserved nature
  4. Observation and ability to notice what others may miss
  5. Independence/ self sufficiency

The books that I quoted, in the order that they were featured in the talk, were

  • Quiet Impact, Sylvia Loehken
  • Do/purpose/Why brands with a purpose do better and matter more, David Hieatt
  • High Challenge, Low Threat, Mary Myatt
  • Quiet; The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking, Susan Cain

Quotes from school leaders that I read were from interviews that I have conducted for a book that I’m writing. The working title is ‘The Unexpected Leader’ featuring successful school leaders who don’t feel they fit the traditional mould. It will be published by Crown House in 2017 but I have to finish writing it first.

A resource which I forgot to mention, which is especially useful for creating space and quiet for reflection is meditation. Personally, I’d recommend the Headspace  app which provides daily guided meditations of 10mins so can fit into a busy day.

The most important thing for leaders of all types is to be really clear about our purpose and aims

I think you have to centre whatever you are passionate about. You have to really, really interrogate what you think. It makes you sure that what you are passionate about matters and you will find the confidence to defend it. – CN, School Leader that I have interviewed.

Enjoy your Sunday fellow introverts, make sure you create some time and space to recharge. Remember that our contributions are valid and if you are somewhere where they aren’t, there are other places where they will be.

 

 

 

 

‘That’s not me’ – leadership lessons from Skepta

What insights can leaders get from music – specifically Skepta’s grime anthem ‘That’s not me’ ? (547 words)

It’s half term for teachers right now so I’ve been in holiday mood. This holiday has been one of recharging and relaxation especially heightened by the fact that this time last year I was attempting to write our school timetable and most of the holiday was spent in my office at work.

Part of my relaxation has been to catch up with some recently released albums and dance around the kitchen to them with our kids. Namely, Beyonce’s Lemonade, Skepta’s Konnichiwa and Radiohead’s  A Moon shaped Pool. Much to the amusement of my colleagues and classes I am a big Grime fan and have been since it started in the early 2000s. Since I’m a big fan of authenticity, Skepta’s That’s not me (which made it onto Konniciwa but has actually been around for a while) really resonated. I’m not fully back into work mode so I thought I’d have a play with getting some leadership insights from it.

‘Act like a waste man, that’s not me.’

A waste man is a slang term for an idiot. Leader’s shouldn’t act like idiots. It’s a bad look. I recently interviewed an Assistant Head for book I’m writing. He said that one of his drivers for treating staff well was ‘I just didn’t want to be a dickhead’ – not sure if I’ll put that directly in or not but I do agree with him.

‘Yeah, I used to wear Gucci. Put it all in the bin cos that’s not me’

There was a time when I was younger when it was fashionable to wear really bright and ostentatious designer clothes, Gucci, Moschino, Versace.  We all looked a mess. Equally as a leader there are some things that everybody seems to do. We all do it because we don’t know any better and everybody has to start somewhere. There comes a point when we have to reevaluate things and decide whether they really fit with our ethos. I did that once when I decided that individual targets weren’t helpful for my specific context so I only set a group one which everybody had to contribute to. We got the best results that year.

‘I ain’t coming to fight like Jet Li’

Direct confrontation doesn’t (always) work. Not in terms of actually winning people over to an idea. It’s good to keep in mind the overall goal – to get the most out of people and achieve the best results- rather than to win a fight/argument.   Dale Carnegie echoes this in his book How to Win Friends and Influence people- “Let the other person save face. Nothing diminishes the dignity of a man quite like an insult to his pride. If we don’t condemn our employees in front of others and allow them to save face, they will be motivated to do better in the future and confident that they can.”

‘True, I used to look like you but dressing like a mess, nah that’s not me.’

Leaders are allowed to make mistakes and change their minds.  It’s not a big deal to acknowledge who you used to be and how you’ve changed. The key is to be aware of who you are now. Know your values and how they guide you professionally and be aware that leadership (and life in general) is a journey.

 

 

How can managers get the best out of employees with mental health issues?

Tips for employers to support staff with mental health issues so they can do their best work. This post is in support of mental health awareness week. (680 words)

Create a workplace ethos of safety

I have had major periods of depression since I was in my late teens. Generally, when considered over medium to long term it hasn’t affected my overall academic achievement or outcomes at work. I didn’t feel safe disclosing my depression at work until I was in my 30s. Working in an environment where I could tell that staff were valued made all the difference.  My boss was open minded and non-judgmental and we had built a good rapport. I knew she respected my work and didn’t expect things to be perfect. Mistakes were acknowledged but not excessively penalised as the had been in other places I’d worked. This created a place of safety where I felt able to mention – at a time when I was feeling fine- that I sometimes had major depressive episodes but would be able to continue working through them and most people wouldn’t notice.

Listen to what they tell you- not what you think they need

If somebody feels comfortable enough to tell you about their mental health, just listen. Don’t come with any pre conceived notions of what you feel may be useful to them. They are adults and they will tell you. Everybody is different and what works for some people may not work for others.

Ask what they need to be able to do the job to the best of their ability when not 100%

For some people it could be ensuring that a colleague popping in just to say hello during a difficult classes. For others it might be communicating via email for a few days rather than face to face. For others it could just be having the space to mention to a boss or somebody on their team that they having a bad period.

Alongside this – some colleagues may feel overwhelmed during periods of mental ill health. Help them by making it clear which  1 or 2 aspects of their role that they need to focus on at that particular time. Reassure them that the other aspects can wait until they  are closer to their best.

Ask if there are any preventative measures that can be implemented

For me having an office with a window makes a huge difference. I also have a special light that I use during the winter. This helps immensely.

Don’t assume everything is a result of their mental health issue

Sometimes people are just quiet. Sometimes people are tired. Sometimes people are just sad.  Not everything is a result of somebodies anxiety or depression. It can be annoying if people assume that .

Treat them like everybody else

People with mental health issues can do their jobs as effectively as everybody else when they are self a

ware, well prepared and adequately supported (personally and professionally). Aside from some of the hints above, managers need to be aware of the genral motivations and strengths and interests of all their staff.

Be honest about your own vulnerabilities

Maybe you secretly don’t understand how to use a spreadsheet. Perhaps you’ve always found it hard teaching Year 9 history at the end of the day. Appropriately letting staff know that you aren’t infallible will make them feel better about discussing something that is intensely personal and still attracts stigma.

And finally

This goes without saying, but alongside any other personal issues related to staff of sensitive nature- confidentiality if important. Nobody wants to bare their soul then have it repeated back to them by Rob at the photocopier by lunchtime. If you need to tell other people for organisational reasons, let the staff member know beforehand.

Schools are fast moving and pressurised environments. Lets support our staff and make sure they feel safe enough to have a conversation about mental health.

What about if you are a manager or leader with mental health issues? Should you keep it to yourself? That will be the subject of my next blog post.

 

 

 

 

 

The importance of hope

Why hope is important? How can we foster hope in others and ourselves?(89 words)

Hope is essential to the human spirit. Hope can turn a bad day into a good one. It doesn’t need to be much,

A small seed.

A kernel.

A dot on the horizon.

Hope is the belief that change is possible.

That now isn’t forever.

That there is a chance that the future will be different. Better.

Hope gives a reason to get up in the morning. To live. To work. To love. To try again. To wait.

Hope gives meaning. Hope is life.

 

Stop lying about being honest

It is easy for people and organisations to say they have values like honesty and integrity but what does that actually mean in practice? (173 words)

Companies and organisations quite often have values that they bandy about on their websites.

Two that come up a lot are integrity and honesty which could be considered similar things.

Leaders often talk about their own personal integrity too. It’s a popular thing to say and who can argue with it?

But what does it actually mean?

Theoretical integrity  is easy. Honesty is not really a big deal if nothing is at stake.But actual practical honesty what about that?

Would you still be honest if it meant not getting a job that you really wanted?

What about if it meant you loosing something  that meant a great deal to you?

How about if it meant failing a really key inspection at work with dire consequences for the organisation?

Integrity means nothing if it hasn’t been tested. Honesty that isn’t ever about something that really matters is just an illusion.

 

 

 

 

 

Reframing self-promotion for introverts

How can people who hate self promotion let others know about our work in a way that is authentic to us and doesn’t turn us into human spam? (350 words)

I’m not big on self-promotion. Since I was a kid I hated being praised publicly in class by my teacher or singled out for great work in public.  We didn’t even have speeches at our civil partnership – that’s how much I hate being in the limelight.

The odd thing is that I’m not especially shy. I’m fine asking questions and am actually pretty good in social situations, especially 1-2-1, as I’m interested in people and like hearing what they have to say. I’m confident talking about topics that I know a lot about and am passionate about.

I do consider myself an introvert though. I’m a ‘I’ll let my work do the talking ‘type which is great and has served me fairly well so far but has limitations.

At this moment in my life I’m wondering if I need to reframe how I consider self-promotion. If you are reading this far, it’s probably something that you’ve thought about too.

Maybe self-promotion for people like us needs to just be rephrased as good communication.

I’m told an an excellent listener. This allows me to ask very insightful questions.  It’s commented on by people I’ve line managed and it’s what makes me a good coach and helps me find solutions to things that others sometimes miss.

However, communication is a two way street.

People can’t recognise work that they don’t know is there- professionally or personally.  As a senior manager, I make it my business to find out the good things that people in my areas of responsibility are doing but it’s always possible to miss things.  Most people are busy living their lives, working their jobs – maybe we need to find out about them but also talk about ourselves too.

Perhaps good self-promotion is just having a conversation, building relationships. One person at a time. That’s my take for now.

Share your work is an interesting book related to this in the creative space.

 

 

Unconventional Leadership: My interview on the inspiration for teachers podcast

Recently I was interviewed by Kelly Long for the Inspiration for Teachers podcast. Being interviewed really makes you reflect on your professional practice so I’d recommend it if you get offered the opportunity. Kelly conducted a great interview with the main theme being unconventional leadership. 

A few of the key points covered:

  • Teacher parent relationships – parents are partners not adversaries. Approach conversations from that viewpoint and often parents respond well even if the topic you are discussing is difficult
  • My unexpected introduction to my first middle management role after my boss went off sick
  • Recognising the expertise in a team and getting them on board as partners
  • The importance of your personal core values when applying for middle and senior leadership- why are you in education?
  • How knowing core values will help you in your daily working life
  • Knowing your leadership philosophy- mine is student centred but I’m also very clear that staff need to be treated well and respected. Great staff are not an expendable resource.
  • The gap between what leadership actually has been for me and what I thought it would be earlier in my career
  • Leadership as relationships- the importance of small 1-2-1 conversations
  • Noticing the positives

Have a listen and see if you agree

inspiration4teachers