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.

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What do the last 5 things you purchased say about your priorities?

It’s easy to spend money randomly and without thinking. How well do your recent purchases reflect what you consider to be important?

My last 5 purchases

I recently came across a blog post somewhere asking readers to consider their last 5 purchases. At the time of reading* my last 5 things were…

  • x1 photobook on Blurb of 30ish  photographs I’d taken. This marks the end of a long term personal creative project- charting our journey through IVF fertility treatment and birth of our twin daughters
  • x1 commissioned work of art for our landing from an artist I came across via Facebook
  • x1 photo journal which features the 40 snapshots from my iPhone’s camera reel which I feel best represent my 2016. A visual kind of visual review of the year.
  • x1  present for my mum
  • X1 2017 calendar featuring photos that I’d taken of our kids throughout the previous year

That was a few days ago…

Now my last 5 purchases immediately prior to writing this post are (most recent first)

  • x2  bottles of jojoba oil (for my hair and skin)
  • x1  Mean Girls DVD
  • x1 chicken shish kebab
  • x1 rail ticket into London

How does our spending match what we say we care about?

What do each of those say about me? Do they even say the same thing? People fixate a lot on money. I see it as a tool not an end to itself.

An interesting exercise is to consider how well the above purchases correspond to the words that I currently** use to guide my personal and professional life.

Integrity. Relationships. Curiosity. Fun

Now it’s your turn

  • What do your last 5 purchases say about you?
  • How well do they reflect what you feel is important?
  • Do you know what your next 5 purchases will be?

I’m interested to hear your thoughts. Send me an email on ismall1408@gmail.com or tweet me at @ieshasmall

*I think I originally read and wrote this at the start of 2017. I found it today in my drafts and thought I should publish it. 

** These are now Integrity. Relationships. Growth. Fun. Abundance.

Experienced people need to keep a beginner’s mind

Highly experienced people can do with remembering what it’s like to start out.  Keeping a beginner’s mind can help with humility, joy and fresh perspectives. (3 min read) 

I’ve just finished helping my 6 year old son, G, with his homework. I won’t lie, initially I used to get my partner to do his maths homework with him. I’d sit with him while he did his English or reading work instead. I taught maths at work and I didn’t want to come and do it more at home (also why I’ve never tutored). Additionally, I didn’t want to be a pushy teacher parent and put him off it for life.  However, since he started Year 2 last September I’ve been getting more involved.

Today’s was about different ways that he could fold a rectangular piece of  paper and make it into a halves.  We had fun experimenting and trying new things. Eventually G wanted to do “halves of halves.” Then he wanted to try some triangles. Eventually he proposed something that I knew, with the benefit of experience, wasn’t going to work. I was about to mention it, but then I thought ” well why not just let him try and see what happens?”

G was trying to fold his rectangular paper to make a square and then half that to make triangles. Because of the dimensions and how he folded it I knew it wasn’t going to work but I kept it to myself while he tried it.  At first he was disappointed. Then we explored what had happened.

The result reminded me how wonderful it is to discover a new thing for the first time. G had folded his paper in half 4 successive times when he opened it out to count he was so excited to find that he’d made sixteenths. He’d never made them before. He was so excited that he ran to tell my partner, then he and grabbed each of his 3 year old sisters and told them that he was about to show them “some magic” and got them to to the same with their own bits of paper.

He then spent a further 10 minutes of folding into more halves and discovering 1/32 and 1/64 without any real input from the adults in his life.

Why am I sharing this? For experienced people we can easily take things for granted or become jaded. I’ve  known about fractions for a long time. I have an engineering degree and have taught up to A level and taught other teachers how to teach maths. It would be easy to dismiss this homework and G’s discovery as a trivial thing.  This morning I remembered there is something special about the allowing somebody the space to learn and discover something new for the first time. There is also something special about seeing a familiar task or outcome through beginner’s eyes.

Equally, I’ve spent almost a a decade managing and leading people. For the first time in ages I’ve now chosen not to. It’s good to see things from the other side and remember what it’s like starting out. It’d recommend it to everybody. Especially those in charge of others. Be like Paul Fisher “The Undercover boss” and go back to the floor. Even if it’s only for a short period. Beginner’s mind is essential even for the highly experienced. It keeps you grounded, gives new insights and can be an easy source of joy.

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.

 

Do we educate for conformity?

Is education too often about making children conform? Is so, is that a problem? 157 words

I was listening to a podcast recently when the interviewer said

‘In a world that is trying to get you to be vanilla, nobody that I know who is successful took the normal path’ – Chase Jarvis, CEO Creative Live

It got me thinking.

  • what do we teach young people that success is? Are we right?
  • who decides what normal is?
  • how do we decide which deviations from normal are good and which are bad?

Schools can be wonderful places where education is transformative and life long learning begins. Schools can also be uninspiring places where we teach students (and staff) that the way to have a quiet life is to do what everybody else does and conform. Sure, we’ll allow questions as long as we already know the answers and it doesn’t shake things up too much.

People who end up changing things and being great didn’t always follow the rules.

Hmmm.

Enjoy your Wednesday.

 

 

 

What do our fathers teach us about leadership?

In the UK it’s Fathers’ day today. For many of us, our fathers are the first model of leadership that we have – what do we learn from them subconsciously? (630 words) 

Today is Fathers’ day.  My Dad’s birthday is in the same week and some years ago we decided that we wouldn’t officially celebrate Fathers’ day. He doesn’t expect a separate card or presents from me but it’s always a time to reflect and I usually give him a ring.

It occurred to me this morning that, for me and many other people, my Dad is possibly the first real model of leadership that I ever experienced, even if it was subconscious.

My Dad was and an excellent Dad to a young child. From him I learnt dependability and stability. I remember him once being made redundant and taking a job that he was massively over qualified for in order to ensure that his family were provided for, I never once heard him complain about it. He knew his responsibilities as a husband and father and did what had to be done. He was and is a man of his word if he said he would be somewhere or do something then he always followed through.  He was a fair, calm and considered presence throughout my childhood. Even as an adult I ask him for measured and objective advice about particular things as I value his opinion despite our different perspectives on life.

I have always been a Daddy’s girl but as an older teenager and young adult in my 20s our relationship shifted. My Dad is a product of his generation and upbringing. He is quiet and stoic like his father before him and like many men aged 55+ of Caribbean heritage. Actions are his thing. Feelings, or the expression of them, not so much. The mood swings and exploding hormones of a teenage girl and my earlier difficulties as a young adult were something beyond his sphere of reference and increasingly I learnt that factual things were best to talk about with him but feelings not so much.

I wonder how many other of us have subconsciously taken on the leadership model of our parents?  For many years I considered feelings to be a private thing and the expression of them to be a weakness. Not from others so much- I didn’t really mind that- but from myself. My general approach in life and at work was just to get on with things and if things weren’t going so well to keep on getting on with things and not admit to vulnerability. This worked for a time and it’s not always appropriate to express or share everything in a professional context but actually there is a danger with this approach. Eventually, with some very big life events, I realised that I could’t always keep things to my self.

Now, I have learnt that a healthier model for me is to express feelings (to appropriate people) as well as more factual things. In leadership and life I have found that people appreciate my intellect and analysing of the facts but actually it’s my passion about things that really draws them and and persuades them. In recent years, quite surprisingly to me, my honesty and vulnerability about mistakes and professional and personal conflicts that I have experienced has also been an asset- leading to new and deeper relationships and interesting professional opportunities.

But what about my Dad? Well, this week I had quite possibly the most surprising conversation with him of recent years. What started off as a quick birthday call ended up as a wide ranging discussion about trust, intimacy and our own quirks and mistakes in relationships with our spouses. This was all interpersed with the general laughter and mickey-taking that is a constant feature of our relationship.   It seems that sometimes opening ourselves up allows others to do the same.

 

 

Management of Change

Why are people so scared of change? How can we experience and implement it in a more positive way? (464 words)

There is a lot of change happening in schools right now. New curricula, new external and internal assessment, reduced budgets leading to redundancies and other large changes. Today, 31st May, is the last official day when most teaching staff can hand in their notice ready to start a job at a new school ready for the next academic year. I’ll be starting a couple of new roles myself so it got me thinking.

Why do most of us fear change so much?

In recent times the phrase ‘Management of Change’ has become a euphemism for redundancies. I strongly dislike that. For me, it plays into the idea held by many that change is always bad.

For me, and what I’ve observed of other people, worry about change is about two main things

  • Fear of the unknown
  • Fear regarding lack of autonomy and being unable to control the eventual outcome

In my professional life I’m generally fine with change. In fact, compared to others, I appear to welcome it. In my career so far, I’ve tended to have a new role every two to three years but that’s change that I’ve welcomed and initiated myself so I have had a degree of control. In my personal life, I prefer things much more stable, perhaps the reliability and stability away from work gives me the confidence to try new things professionally, who knows?

One thing that managers sometimes forget is that we tend to know what change is coming and be kept in the loop for some time. It’s not generally a surprise for us in the way that it is for our our teams.

How can those of us managing change make it more bearable?

Give those experiencing the change as much information and control as is possible (without compromising key things). The outcome may not be their ideal but some control over the process and clear communication definitely does help.

How can those of us experiencing change become less worried about it?

Ask yourself… what opportunities does this change/experience make possible?

A colleague of mine who recently stepped down and went part time told me how much more it has made him enjoy his teaching and his joy at being able to get out more on the golf course. I’m relishing the more flexible working that one of my new roles will give me which will mean that I can build in time to drop my son off at school once a week or build in a regular hike which isn’t possible with my current schedule.

Change doesn’t have to be bad. Change is just different and the difference is all mostly down to perception.

 

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.

 

Stuff nobody tells you when you get promoted #1

How underperformance can be about a variety of factors. This will be a sporadic series of things that I wish I’d known when I first got promoted to various leadership positions. Mistakes I’ve made and learnt from (394 words). 

I don’t have many regrets in my working life but one often comes back to me. As a young Head of Maths I was newly promoted and had been teaching for 3 or 4 years. I was passionate about improving outcomes for the kids in my hectic, underperforming, inner city school and had high expectations of myself and my team.  I’d noticed one teacher, H, consistently delivering poor lessons, missing deadlines and I felt that the kids in his classes were getting a bad deal.  It was especially frustrating as the kids looked up to him, as a young good-looking guy from their own community background, and I knew he had potential.

I tackled H in a way that I’m ashamed of now and haven’t done to any member of staff since- it was from a place of wanting the best for students but wasn’t respectful to him as a person. Luckily my deputy challenged me on it and I reflected and changed but the damage had already been done to our working relationship. There was bad language and  lot of stick rather than carrot.

Now, with the benefit of hindsight and more life experience I realise that H almost certainly had issues going on in his personal life over a prolonged time period. Amongst other things, he was quiet and withdrawn and often checking his phone, often disappearing to use it during lessons. I spotted the behaviour, which affected his teaching, but didn’t think to ask about the reasons or how he might be supported. In fact it didn’t occur to me what the reasons might be, I was so used to the deficit model prevalent in some schools that I automatically assumed it was just laziness.

We get a lot of training about kids and how their personal lives may affect how they present and act in school but less so about staff.  We learn signs to flag up safeguarding issues for students but not for the adults who we are also responsible for in our schools and teams. We don’t get taught the stuff when we are promoted to manage others. It comes with experience but in the meantime the mistakes are made in real time with real people.