Building Relationships Reflections on perceptions, politics, support and tough love…

Blogging to unwind and untangle.

If you’d asked me ten years ago what my educational values were, I’d probably have looked a bit bemused. To be honest, I wasn’t able to articulate them then. But I know what I stand for now, and it’s well-known to those I’ve worked with and regular readers of my blog, and I won’t re-hash them here.

So, starting a new job in a new role and a new school with a department facing lots of change, I had a clear idea of how to proceed. Relationships are paramount, as we were inspiringly reminded at the Relational Schools’ film launch last Thursday.

Regular face-to-face contact, chances for open dialogue, teaching and learning as the focus of what we’re all passionate about and students at the centre of everything. These were my first priorities. Along with getting my head around dozens of new systems and fifteen different log-ins….

It was always going to be challenging, and we know that assumption is the mother of all… mistakes. I’d planned a pretty long introduction to the department about who I was and why I was there, but on the day, judged that keeping this down to a sentence and getting on with the bread-and-butter work was a priority. In retrospect, this was possibly a mistake. A split-site and my own pretty demanding teaching made daily contact with individuals in a large dept unreliable, so there was room for assumptions to be made and conclusions jumped to.

What I saw as supportive had the capacity to be construed by some as overly invasive. The culture of lesson drop-ins might be associated too closely with a sense of being ‘caught out’ or ‘checked upon’. What I saw as invitations to communicate regularly could be seen as overly zealous. I hadn’t necessarily considered context or history enough. And I’ve never been a fan of workplace politics…

To know so wholeheartedly what we stand for and find that others’ perceptions might just be at odds is actually quite difficult to swallow. In previous roles, my various flaws were always balanced by a persona who was supportive and placed well-being as first priority.

From teachers to students. I gave most in terms of relationships to an early cohort of students in London. Many of them , now in their late twenties, are still in touch, and I regularly act as referee, sounding board and occasionally, author of court references! But I do wonder. They were so utterly and unconditionally supported by me that I fear it created a culture of over-dependence. It may have been the generation, the social context of any number of other factors, but many have failed to flourish as we’d all hoped. I wonder if some more ‘tough love’ might not have been called for. It’s something that occasionally keeps me up at night.

And with staff, with a department we lead, perhaps it’s sometimes the same. Of course support and nurturing are important, but challenge and robust conversations and a reminder that we’re in it, not for our own self-esteem and gain, ultimately, but for that of the students. Is this not worth considering too? To be seen, even momentarily, as an authoritative leader was a nasty shock, but I can’t help wondering if there’s a place for this too, even in talented, high-achieving departments.

In the end, it all comes back to balance. And culture and understanding and patience. And always, always learning.

(Re-)finding my groove

I’ve just completed my fourth day of my new one-term Head of English post. At 3.10 today, I told my line-manager that, if circumstances permitted and all goes well, I’d love to stay beyond Christmas.

Much could happen between now and January. This last twelve months have been a bit of a crash-course in the unpredictable. This may not work out in terms of options or practicalities. My instincts may be fooling me, rusty after a summer-holiday of wine, children, friends and sunshine. I hope not. And I reckon I’m seasoned enough these days to trust my waters…

It feels like a pretty bold and daring statement to make, so early in. So, why did I do it?

Could it be because the transition from SLT back to MLT marked a dramatic decrease in workload?

Erm… Nope. In fact, it’s been a good reminder of the day-in day-out challenges of MLT. You don’t get to ask someone else to sort it out. You have to get in and sort it yourself. Whatever it takes. All of it. From book covers to board pens, panics to politics. I’m exhausted and my brain is buzzing with information overload.

Because, having now changed schools twice in two years, I’ve sussed it?

Hollow laughter. I’ve barely grazed the list of things I’ve got to get my head around, from log-ins to photocopiers to identities of individuals to how to use the phones. I’m still not sure where our nearest toilet it. Several patient people have tolerated me asking them to repeat their names on numerous occasions.

Because everything’s gone swimmingly since day one?

Not a bit of it. Not that this is what I expected. But at least now the boxes aren’t blocking the office door. I’ve never seen so many copies of Holes in one place. And the class set of Julius Caesar WILL turn up. It WILL.

Is it because I’ve found a magically efficient way to transport myself to the environs of the North Circular?

Don’t make me laugh.

So ,why, then, do I feel a conviction that, if possible, if things work out, if, if, if, I’d so love to stay a part of this team?

  • Because I’ve never heard so many people cackle and giggle so much through an INSET day.
  • Because I saw SLT hugging staff to welcome them back.
  • Because some cracking quotes set the tone for the week. I give you: ‘Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don’t want to.’ (Branson).
  • Because I found myself nodding, smiling, physically concurring through two days’ positive, passionate, profession and informed INSET,
  • Because I feel trusted to run meetings, organise coaching, organise my own time, my own homework, my own merits, my own clothing
  • Because I feel genuinely welcome, with a friendly greeting in every encounter.
  • Because I feel I can be myself, apologise for my mistakes, celebrate my department’s triumphs, and resolve issues calmly and positively and with confidence that they can be sorted.
  • Because I have an intelligent, wise, talented and diverse team.
  • Because I was able to take my daughter to her gymnastics class tonight without bleeding my neighbours dry for favours.

John Tomsett writes of ‘love over fear’ in Leadership. All the research tells us what a hugely emotional investment teaching is. It truly breaks a little piece of my heart to leave colleagues –and above all, students – when I leave schools (though I know of course this must happen at times and is life).

So when I introduced myself to my classes today and yesterday, the thought of leaving them in three months grated horribly and made me feel genuinely sad. Just as it should be, I have a long way to go to establish myself with my colleagues; to earn their trust and respect. And the thought of making headway and then walking away feels a little wrong.

I think, after five years and eight in my successive two London schools, I’m a stayer really. There are few better feelings than being part of the furniture. Maybe one day I’ll be able to flit in and out of schools and stand-in and support then walk away. But not yet. At least I hope not.

Of course, I may be wrong, but it’s a while since I’ve ended a working week feeling this positive. So hoorah to that.