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 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.





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.



How managers can build relationships

What can line managers do to build trust and make people feel valued? Take a genuine interest in them. (244 words)
Do you line manage people?
How many of the following do you know about them?
  • Do they have kids?
  • Do they have a pet?
  • Do they have a partner?
  • What are the names of the above?
  • What are their professional hopes for the future?
  • What are their personal hopes for the future?
  • What keeps them awake at night?
  • What are they passionate about?
  • Have they done anything recently at work that was really good and had an impact?
  • Have they done anything recently at work that they were disappointed about?
Once you’ve found out the above do you ever ask them about it again?
Do you care?
Do they know any of the above about you?
Do you treat this information sensitively and confidentially?
How do the answers to the above impact their work?
How can you use your knowledge of the above questions, or others like them, to show then that you value them?
I can be pretty driven but I’ve learnt that it’s relationships that really matter in life – personally and professionally. People want to be seen. People want to be valued.  People want to feel special. People want to feel acknowledged. If it’s genuine, it’s so much better than a great big stick.
This is the stuff that happens when nobody else is watching. This is the stuff that builds relationships.  This is the stuff that builds trust.

How do you get experience? By doing the damned thing.

I honestly think that ‘You don’t have enough experience,’ is generally a cop out answer for feedback as to why a person didn’t get a leadership role. Especially if it’s the only reason given. (326 words)

  1. That’s usually pretty obvious from their CV or application form so why waste their time interviewing?
  2. I honestly believe that any competent person can be trained to do the operational bits of most jobs if they have the right training, support and overall ethos or attitude.
  3. I’ve seen people with no experience be given jobs over those who have several times in my career

Anybody remember the TV series, ‘Faking It’? People were given a month to master a new skill, with the help of an expert mentor.  Most went from nothing to doing a pretty competent job. Also Strictly (used to) have people who had never really danced properly and got many up to a decent standard with intensive support from a professional.

I educate young people. None of them were born knowing how to factorise a quadratic equation but with careful teaching, mentoring and support from somebody who knows what they are doing, they learn.

I also develop staff and leaders. I once hired somebody whose boss indicated ‘No leadership potential’ on their reference because I saw something in him. He then went on to have a massive impact in his department and across the school because I and others believed in him and he took and created opportunities.

I’ve also been given roles where I had no direct experience but I learned on the job, I made mistakes and then I got better.

How does somebody get experience? By doing the damed thing. Being supported, given space to learn, reviewing stuff then trying again.

Maybe,  ‘You don’t have enough experience’ really means ‘I’m not willing to or don’t have the capacity to develop you at this time,’ or ‘Your ethos doesn’t fit with ours.’ That would be more honest.



Whatever I think I am, that’s what I’m not*

Perception is an interesting thing.  Some time ago I undertook a 360 degree diagnostic as part of a course that I’m on.  I assessed myself against the criteria and asked a variety of my colleagues to do the same, anonymously and online.  I received feedback from people I line managed, others more senior than me, people I worked closely along side and others who had interacted with me in a wider sense.


As can happen in schools, time passed quickly and I only got around to looking at the results today.  I downloaded them with detached curiosity and discovered something interesting – My colleagues perceive me to be a much better leader than I see myself. This is true of people who work closely with me as well as those who have more intermittent contact. On almost all of the 20ish competencies (apologies for the management speak)  my initial self assessment was lower than the average (mean to be precise- I’m a maths teacher) given by my colleagues.  The one notable exception, somewhat ironically I thought, was self awareness.  On that measure I graded myself on the highest rating but everybody else disagreed, so I clearly don’t know my bum from my elbow.


 This afternoon I got wondering about this disparity. For the record, I’m not a person given to false modesty and my respondents didn’t see my self assessment scores anyway.  Also, I deliberately choose a variety of people who I knew would tell the truth as they saw it, rather than being overly nice for fear of hurting my feelings. I deliberately included direct reports who have disagreed with me and my decisions in the past.  In my mind, I know that there are things that I am good at but I’m also aware that I’m only really at the start of my leadership journey and have lots more to learn. I’ve made mistakes and I’m sure I’ll make more, hopefully different ones,  in the future.  My immediate thought was that this diagnostic is not a measure of my actual effectiveness. It’s something subtly different, other’s perception of my effectiveness and leadership skills.  I could actually talk complete rubbish but perhaps if I do it confidently enough my colleagues may believe that I’m better than I am. Who knows?


Its always nice to know that you are respected but actually in the (not too distant) past I’ve had feedback from colleagues  that wasn’t quite as glowing. When I first managed a department some of my staff told me that I was dismissive and I was mortified. I realized that it was something to do with my fairly brief/terse/direct email style and decided to communicate more in person to counteract it.  I’ve also been told that I can come across as being too relaxed in certain situations so it appears that I am not taking them seriously enough.  This is almost the direct opposite of what is actually happening inside, in such situations, I’m often so nervous that I have terrible stomach cramps and I’ve been unable to eat breakfast and  but I must overcompensate without realising. 


In conclusion, perception is an important part of leadership and our own idea of who we are may not be entirely what others see or experience, for all sorts of reasons.  I think that 360 reviews or less formal ways of finding out what others in our organisation think of us, our vision, values and impact are a useful and essential way to bridge that gap . It’s important for those we work with and lead to know that we actually value their opinions and that if there is anything that is a major issue, that we will act upon it. It’s also useful to see whether what we see as our core values are actually apparent to everybody else.  If they are not then perhaps they aren’t quite as core as we think?   Interestingly, although the actual scores differed two things that are key for me as a leader  and that I hope permeate my daily practice and this blog were also identifies as my strong areas by my colleagues- learning focus and developing others- so maybe I can tell my bum and my elbow apart after all.


* The title for this post was probably influenced by Rachael Stevens’ excellent blog post about differentiation but I’m also an Arctic Monkey’s fan so maybe it was influenced by them.



True beliefs trump fad worship

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about values and ethos. It’s been a month where recent announcements have led to whole cohorts of children being entered for exams and then withdrawn again. I don’t want to write specifically regarding early entries, as I feel much has been written about those subjects and there is no real ground for me to cover. See Kev Bartle  and John Tomsett  for well written and considered blog posts offering differing views on that topic from a school leader’s point of view.

Instead, as a result of this and other more personal events, I’ve been increasingly pondering the ‘why’ of what we do as school leaders. As time passes I realise that, for me, I must keep returning to my own ethos and aims for being in education. If I do not know what they are, as a leader, how can I ask others to follow me? How can I prevent myself ricocheting from fad to fad? How can I have any credibility and command respect? Anecdotal reports of teachers working in schools doing pointless tick box admin exercises and changing policies or practices on a whim based upon Ofsted pronouncements are sadly commonplace. They smack of Heads  and leadership teams who have lost sight of their core purpose or who never really had one in the first place, except perhaps to further their own career.

My personal driver  is to improve educational outcomes for all, irrespective of background or ability. I believe that every local school should be a good school and that all children within a school deserve a great education, irrespective of who they draw on the teacher lottery. Sure, it’s easy to get lost in the day to day but, ultimately, I must come back to this and it needs to inform my professional decisions. As a leader, I cannot fully realise this goal without inspiring others. Thus my thinking has evolved to ensure that I try my best to make it as easy as possible to enable staff in my care to deliver these excellent educational outcomes for students. Teaching is a demanding job and my experience so far is that the majority of teachers want to do it well (although some may lack the tools). I need to have high expectations of my staff but, as they are educated professionals, I must also trust them and listen to what they have to say, and not request foolishness that makes an already difficult job needlessly harder.

Recently, I was asked at interview to explain my ethos and professional influences so far. I was then probed on it for half an hour. I thought this a little odd at the time, as did the other candidates, but with the ever-changing educational landscape I understand it is essential.  Leadership teams in any organization must have a clear and shared vision which underpins everything they do. Otherwise they can be pulled in all directions and become ineffective. In recruitment, understanding a leaders’ core purpose can help to predict how they will interact with staff and students. On the other side of the table, a candidate talking to a Head with a very clear vision and core beliefs that permeate the organisation can quickly work out whether they would be happy working there.

Leaders in education must keep returning to their core purpose. Michael Gove, love him or hate him, is a conviction politician. He is almost evangelical in his zeal to raise standards, although his methods may not be to everybody’s taste.

For me, teaching and learning is the heart of driving up outcomes and achieving my own aims as outlined previously. There are short-term fixes, which are sometimes necessary, but ultimately for sustained improvement we must ensure that children are taught well and learn. I don’t particularly care how, that’s up to individual teachers’ professional judgement. It’s the job of senior leaders to create conditions for this to happen, not prescribe the minutiae of how it should be done. Effective teaching ought to lead to the obvious by-products of improved results and positive inspection reports from Ofsted. If it doesn’t, then I have to ask myself what are league tables and Ofsted measuring and why should we give them any credence?

So finally, I am challenging myself to remain true to my core beliefs. There will always be difficult decisions to make, but if a decision was right for students last week why is it suddenly not so this week? Honesty with ourselves, our staff and our students goes along way and reputation for  integrity is hard won but can be easily thrown away. The communities we work with can handle mistakes and temporary failure (on the way to greater things)  if we gain and maintain their trust and they know we are trying to do the right thing.

Random things I’ve learnt recently about school leadership

I’ve had the opportunity to spend time in schools over than my own over the past few weeks and have been treated generously by Heads and other SLT members who have given me part of their time. I’m still reflecting on specifics that relate to the particular context of my school and responsibilities but below are some general things that I have picked up and may be of use to others.

When applying for an SLT position, choose your head teacher . It’s easy to fixate on getting a particular role or the promotion but its better to choose a head teacher whose ethos you respect and who you think you can work with. You’ll be working closely with this person for sereveral years and need to be able to reflect their views and vision in the wider school. This relationship with the head is less important in other roles but more important the more senior you are in the school.

Nobody truly knows what they are doing in their first leadership position, especially in the early days and months. The more I talk to people I respect in senior positions the more I realise this is true, via their own admission. They just give the impression of knowing and ask a lot of people so that they can learn really quickly.

What is needed to get a school to become good is different to what is needed to make it become outstanding or even great and different schools are on different positions on that journey.

Sometimes you can be a good candidate but not right for a particular position. Head teachers need to consider the whole picture, how do you fit in with the leadership team? Is your thinking in line with where the school is right now? You are just one piece of a larger jigsaw that they have in their mind.

Build and maintain networks from early in your career. They are invaluable sources of advice, resources and information.

Effective heads spot and nurture talent. It’s not always about money or creating substantive roles. It could be CPD opportunities, secondments or fixed term contracts focussed on particular whole school projects related to the School Improvement plan. These not only develop staff and distribute leadership but they also create extra capacity, which is essential.

Great heads have a clear ethos which permeates every pore of the school and can be summed up or embodied by anybody in any position in their organisation.

What’s in a word?

For a person with a background in maths and applied sciences I can be unusually pedantic when it comes to words, especially if they are words which convey an important concept. There are some words that I feel have become dulled in our current society through over use and often misuse. For example, in my early 20s I was quite uncomfortable with the use of the word love as I felt that it was bandied about too readily. You can like a bag of crisps and maybe even appreciate it’s wonderful taste but to love it? Really? For this reason I had an alternative phrase that I used with my partner along the lines of the “Ditto” used by the Patrick Swayze character in Ghost (look it up youngsters). I’ve relaxed a little re the word love, which is just as well since Valentine’s day is coming up. However, there are a few educational equivalents of which my particular bête noir is Outstanding (capital used deliberately).

Outstanding (definition)
1.Distinguised from others in excellence.

2. Having a quality that thrusts itself into attention.

– Word Web app

Outstanding (synonyms)

superior, excellent, distinguished, prominent, remarkable, striking – Dictionary.com

Outstanding is in my view a word which has become dulled by over use in the educational world. Surely for everybody or everything to become outstanding is an oxymoron. If everybody is outstanding then they are all the same and thus no longer distinguished. What do we actually mean by this word?

Within schools we need to be honest. Often what we mean by outstanding is that a teacher has taught a one-off lesson 1, 2 or possibly 3 times a year which meet the current criteria of what OFSTED call Outstanding. Honestly? Is that the only measure of the quality of a teacher’s practice and the quality of learning that students in their care receive? It feels a little reductive and narrow to me.

Consider a teacher with a 20 hr weekly timetable.
Teaching 40 weeks a year.
That’s 800 hrs of teaching on which a max of 3 hrs is judged.

So is that what some members of Senior Leadership Teams throughout the country are throwing around phases like ‘Outstanding Teacher’ based on? Less than half of one percent of a teacher’s annual contact time. That’s it?
• What about longer term outcomes for students?
• What about the exam results of their classes?
• What about student voice?
• What about their contribution to other colleague’s development
• What about, what about, what about?

I would like us to stop using the word Outstanding, it feels a little like using the language of our oppressors. Yes, as professionals we must know OFSTED criteria and yes, we need to know how we will be judged but day-to-day we can use better and more constructive language. If I aim to be Outstanding and then achieve it, then what? Do I stop trying to improve? Do I stop aiming to be better? If I aim to be Outstanding. what happens when Outstanding is the new Good, just as Satisfactory morphed into Requires Improvement in the blink of an eye?

I don’t know about you, but my aim is to continually improve educational outcomes for the students in my care and my job as a school leader is to create conditions for others to do the same. This compels me to want to improve my practice as a classroom practitioner and as a leader. I’ll do this whatever external agencies call it and whether anybody is watching me or not and I’ll expect, encourage and provide opportunities for other people who I am responsible for leading to do the same.

What’s the point of OFSTED?

The above is the rather blunt question I  that  posed recently during an occasional  focus/ discussion group that I attend with other educational professionals at the DfE.  It was posed to a civil servant who was part of the team who advises Michael Gove and was part of a wider discussion about the direction of travel of the current government.

Although it sounded a little blunt, I was actually generally interested.  In my mind there is sometimes some confusion as to whether OFSTED is about school improvement or accountability.  It’s clear that many teachers and schools feel and fear its accountability role but OFSTED itself often wades into the school improvement pool with reports collating best practice in various areas.

The response from the civil servant was very clear and unequivocal “Accountability”. Before going on to outline that school improvement was intended to be more devolved and localised falling into the remit of local partnerships, alliance and teaching schools.

“If, it’s about accountability,” I mused aloud “why do we carry on with the high pressure lesson observations when actually we all know that OFSTED tend to look at the data, make a judgment re what it is telling them and then find the evidence around the school to support the conclusion to which they have already come?”

So far so predictable but it was the response of one of my fellow attendees that made me stop, reflect and write this post.

OFSTED look at lessons to validate the judgements of the senior leadership teams.  It’s not really about the teachers its about whether they agree with what SLT have said about the quality of their schools.

Another participant then added something along the lines of

Yes the data is one source of evidence but they are really just looking at different ones to see if they argee with what the leadership team are saying

I may little slow but at that moment something clicked into place for me.  They were entirely correct. OFSTED is about the SLT, the fear and pressure that teachers feel is very real but it comes from their management teams not the inspectors.  How do I know this? because we recently went through a review by an oranisation called the Challenge Partners and the classroom teacher felt no pressure at all, because they weren’t put under any.  Some people came into their lessons and gave them feedback and behind the scenes there were lots of meetings with senior leaders and various TLR holders to justify what we as a school said about ourselves. That was it.

In schools OFSTED has become the bogey man but it need not be that way.  Leaders need to make it clear that actually we are the ones being judged not teachers. Still not sure? Well when teachers are observed do the best ones put any pressure on their students? No- because it wouldn’t be fair to do so as they aren’t really the ones being judged.