Guest Blog 14: Surviving, Thriving… or Walking Away.

My Guest Blog for @exitteaching

Exit Teaching

In January, I embarked on a book for Bloomsbury Education entitled How to Survive and Thrive in Teaching, due for completion in January 2017.  The book came about through a combination of sheer serendipity, my doctoral research on balancing teaching and parenthood (http://relationalschools.org/teaching-and-parenting-the-conversation-continues/) and my own blog, charting my recent experiences in the classroom and beyond: https://thosethatcanteach.wordpress.com/. Underpinning my writing (and indeed all of my enterprises) is a passionate commitment to a profession I love and a fierce and hard-wired optimism. A belief that it’s important to acknowledge the many challenges we face, but that it’s possible, with the right combination of strong leadership, self-discipline and moral integrity, to overcome these challenges.

Since starting the book, I’ve been inundated with stories, anecdotes and data from teachers across the UK and beyond. Some stories are optimistic and positive; teachers and leaders who are fulfilled, happy and know they…

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The week that was – snails and gems in the sludge

I couple of weeks ago, someone asked me one of those general, ‘how’s life?’ questions and I reflected that I couldn’t remember being happier in a job or having a more healthy, satisfying work-life balance. That, despite the challenges, I look forward to getting to work and am able to enjoy my weekends and my research.

(In retrospect, this reminded me a little of the time @helenskywalker and I wondered at home beautifully our children were playing in the garden before connecting the repeated CRUNCH sounds to the group massacre of a pile of snails…)

This week was always going to be a challenge.Screenshot 2016-03-25 10.27.05

It was one of those weeks which reminded me a little of my previous SLT role in terms of the level of business and the conflicting commitments which mean that, somehow, you’re always apologising to someone for something. No, PGCE student who has been amazing, I don’t have time to say goodbye properly. No, Year 7, I know I haven’t seen you all week… No, I know I’ve forgotten to nominate our stars of the term. Sorry – sorry – SORRY!

I conducted Year 11 speaking tests for the first time. Actually, once you make it to the exam room, they’re rather lovely things. I conducted three interviews on Monday. I find conducting interviews exhausting – somehow I live through it with the candidate. It’s fascinating (there’s a novel/film to be written there!) but SO intense. Actually, they were great candidates and we were smugly successful by the end of the day, with three happy candidates.

Tuesday, I had to steel myself for. Interviews for the post I’m doing now. It was always the deal. I’m not an English teacher. I’ve been leading an English department. I was ‘helping out’ on a temporary basis. I was even on the panel. Six interviews – and associated activities in a day (never do this -it’s a killer!). A successful day.

Apart from the bit at 7 a.m when I had to stop doing my ostrich lalala impression with my fumy, slight power-losing, juddery car of 2 weeks. Plumes of fumes started to come out of goodness knows where. From AND back, I suspect. Eventually, when I could no longer see anything (…), I phone my husband to check I wasn’t about to go up in a ball of flames. He suspected I probably wasn’t, so I made the rest of the (slightly embarrassingly) smoky journey to work, parked, and – like an sensible person would do – forgot about it.

And the bit when my husband dashed to Brussels for his journalistic coverage of the latest ISIS attack and I had to call on my invaluable, stalwart army of extra childcare.

Post-interview process, after 6 p.m, the challenge of finding a garage in the back-streets of a North London borough. Car drama of three days begins. I’ll spare you the details… but the outcome was that, after much tinkering with parts, many (literal) false starts to get it home, a substantial fee, and some interesting and excruciatingly expensive cab-journeys, it is officially a write-off thanks to a bust head-gasket. A 24 miles from home write-off…

Amidst all of this, a myriad of issues to deal with and, because of my new research, a steady stream of articles about teachers fed-up, angry and exhausted, culminating in a disillusioned and impassioned blog from one of my biggest educational heroes this morning. My deep concern for the profession I love is building by the day.

But I managed not to miss a beat at work. I even managed lunch. Once. As I stood in the rain two hours late for our house-guest of the weekend waiting for an Uber that appeared to be singularly incapable of finding me whilst my husband, on 2 hours’ sleep in three days, sought food to fill our empty fridge (but for the mouldy and out-of-date bits) and our house-guest waiting patiently alone in our house, the phrase FML sprung to mind.

But then, but then… I got home and had a bath. We got a takeaway and had some wine. I had a lie-in this morning. We have sorted a hire-car. And I feel a bit as if I’ve gone through a stress-barrier and come out of the other side.

No one has died. Not even a snail. And the gems in the sludge of the week read a bit as follows:

  • This, to say thanks to all the kids at my children’s school from a parent of a child with Down’s Syndrome

Screenshot 2016-03-25 10.25.45

  • The thoughtfulness of two colleagues in particular who took the time to make me feel valued and recognise that interviewing for my own post was hard…
  • The time taken by my line-manager on her hellish Thursday to listen to my slightly petulant, ‘What about ME?’ and remind me firmly and kindly that I have options – many options – and need to take ownership of them.
  • Because I didn’t have time to say goodbye to her, my NQT came to find ME, with a lovely gift and a card I plan to keep on my desk forever.IMG_0991
  • My friend @helenskyoconner making me literally CACKLE on two occasions. Cackling with a good friend is the BEST medicine.
  • My Year 7s cheering and telling me they missed them when I caught up with them for the first time this week.
  • My friend Clare providing my kids with second-to-none childcare, fresh food, baths and love in the hours I couldn’t be there.
  • Some AMAZING speaking exams from our students which have left me eager to go off and research a whole array of new subjects.
  • A husband home safe and sound to help me sort out the car mess and listen to me endlessly try to figure out whether I’ve been done by cowboys like a mug and persuade me to move on.

 

It’s just a car. The snails are at peace in the garden. And I’ve just had another unsolicited big cuddle from my wobbly-toothed six year old. I’m on holiday. The gems outweigh the sludge.

Happy Easter.

Giving oneself a talking to

I love my current NQT to bits. She is a distillation of so many of the things I’ve seen in trainee teachers. The hope, the optimism, the perfectionism and the own-worst-enemy-ism. She’s honest, humorous, hard-working and full of integrity. Today, she worked herself into quite a pickle over a  forthcoming Significant Day. I gave her a very good Talking To about looking after herself, faith in herself and faith that she is doing a Good Job. I assured her for the umpteenth time I would be entirely honest with her about next steps and areas for development (I hate the word ‘concern’ – I hate the words ‘areas for development’ almost as much). She voiced her worries about at leasts 26 consecutive issues, at least 80% of which were entirely hypothetical and out of her control. I heard her. My former self empathised hugely.  I was stern and – I hope – kind in my middle-aged-experience. I told her to eat, sleep, watch crap TV and spend time with her partner. I told her nobody would win if she worked herself to the ground. I told her I had her back if not every piece of paper in her PGCE folder was filed to perfection.

I had a minor setback of my own today too. It was a busy day, so it didn’t get much airtime. But in the car one the way back, my brain relaxed into what-if scenarios. What if they’d noticed I didn’t iron (ever)? What if they just didn’t like me? What if I’d made a stupid, glaring error that would follow me forever?

The brain is an amazingly unhelpful thing at times. I sometimes wonder whether the female brain can be the least helpful of ever. What if I don’t land on my feet? What if? My children are happy and healthy. I love teaching. I am, by any measure available, thoroughly blessed.

My NQT herself has revealed truths and experiences that have left me thinking for hours and days. She’ll make a brilliant teacher – how do I convince her? How do WE keep her? Because we sure as hell need people like her.

Anyway, I gave myself a Good Talking To and ended up cackling at myself in the car. First signs of insanity? Well, they’re the kinds of signs I can live with.

Case studies sought for book: Surviving and Thriving in Teaching

For my book – provisional title, How to Survive and Thrive in Teaching – I’m looking for people willing to share their stories. In addition to my survey -if you haven’t completed it, please do – it’s HERE! -I’m going to be looking for at least 5 teachers or ex-teachers for case-studies in my research on teacher wellbeing and retention. Options would be either to provide an account of your story in writing or to be available for a 1:1 interview. I am based in Herts/London.

Broad categories:

  • A long-serving teacher (30 years plus) who still loves their job
  • Someone who has walked away from the profession
  • A senior leader or Head who actively priorities teacher wellbeing and is willing to talk about retention issues
  • A thriving NQT who has experienced challenges but still loves the job
  • A teacher of around 10 years experience who is still in the job and enjoys many elements of it, but may be feeling jaded/trapped

Ideally, I would like to cover a range of contexts: urban and rural, male and female teachers, successful schools and struggling ones, primary and secondary, independent and state…

All individuals and schools will be completely anonymised and I will not share any of your information without your permission.

If you are interested, or know someone who might be, please could you email me a quick summary of your story to emmakell@me.com?

 

I give myself permission… NetworkEd2016

I promised I’d blog about the conference I went to three weeks ago, and have only now found the brainspace to do so. This isn’t going to be a detailed blog of every event – others have done plenty of justice to those in alternative blogs, but a reflection on what has ‘stuck’ as a result of the day, for me. The capacity of one day to make a long-term real difference is invariably limited, but I’m going to focus on my key message from the day. In a hugely inspiring session with Jules Daulby on women and leadership, Keziah had talked about a day in her life as a Head.  A whirlwind tour that made me feel I needed a lie-down just from listening, but that oozed passion and joy and her love for her job. Someone asked her whether it upset her to experience so many high-octane episodes in a day and, more specifically, about her response to criticism.

‘You give people permission to upset you’, she said. These aren’t new words – I’ve encountered them many times before, but this time, they stuck. They really stuck. Particularly in the context of guilt – the question left hanging at the end of my thesis on teaching and parenting. How about we simply, en masse, give ourselves permission NOT to feel guilty. Put differently, we do NOT give situations/people the power to make us feel guilty. We know were are doing our best – good enough has to be good enough.

Ropey Tuesday, I was running around frenetically making few inroads into the to-do list, starting one thing before being distracted by another, and I felt the stress starting to grow and grow. Then I realised that I was simply giving myself a headache and that this wasn’t actually helping anyone. That no one was going to come and give me a pat on the back because my stress was clearly a sign I cared, and that I was simply making my own life harder. I gave myself permission not to let this situation make me stressed. It worked.

In the last three weeks, I have given myself permission:

  • To go to bed early if I feel like it and not worry about needing to entertain or nurture after 10 p.m
  • To start to consider new leadership opportunities – Jules has made me slightly itch to fulfil some more ambitions
  • To also consider that I might NOT want to pursue any more leadership opportunities
  • To pick up on texts and emails and tweets when I have the appropriate energy/focus and not the second they ping in
  • To let the paperwork wait whilst I sit and chat with colleagues – to make time to listen
  • To NOT be offended at a perceived rejection or lack of appreciation
  • To NOT attend the latest PTA event, because I needed time at home

Just as ‘let go of the guilt’ is simplistic, I’m aware that this strategy will not work for all, and with  ATL’s research revealing that a staggering 80% of teacher have suffered from poor mental health, but for me, it’s been a step forward, and it may just work for others.

Thanks, Keziah and Jules.

I battled on… where’s my medal?

 

Today’s Wednesday – the study/research day that I’m lucky to have as a part-time middle leader. But I’m not really up to much, and may just need to give in to being unproductive.

I tell everyone I don’t really succumb to germs these days. I think I just have a short memory and tend to blank it out. On Sunday, I succumbed to a stomach bug and will never touch a chicken nugget again. Karma got me…Screenshot 2016-03-09 09.35.16

I’ll be grown-up enough to spare the details, but being more than 30 seconds from a toilet is still not an option. My husband has been away, in Turkey, with refugees, reminding us all of our priorities (do watch and share), and the busy-busy routine continued.

Taking Monday off was Not An Option, as I stubbornly told my Mum and eight year old. My job is Too Important. So I battled my way in (grateful that the toilet is just next to my classroom), half-apologised and half-snapped at Year 8 (but at least we got the next two chapters of Oliver Twist understood), and thanked my lucky stars for strong PGCE students who allowed for regular dashes out of the room. I managed a Year 11 data analysis and a departmental bulletin before my Line Manager suggested I perhaps was a bit too grey and bit too germ-ridden to be in, and gave me permission to give in and go home around lunchtime. We all know what a pain in the bum last-minute cover is, so I was lucky to get stern sympathy from the office.

Tuesday off? Not an Option. I had dreams of Year 8 stepping up and being responsible and sympathetic, but they were their exuberant selves, and god help the child who dared to chew in the classroom… ‘I’m feeling ropey’ may work with emotionally intelligent Year 10s, but in this case, forget it. Watch me roar – I managed a whole day, including Year 11 intervention.

At lunchtime, I saw our NQT, who said she was feeling rotten, but felt she couldn’t take time off. I concurred that the children do seem to ‘punish us’ – especially the more vulnerable ones – when we’re off, and it can take a couple of days to get them back to where we want them, before telling her I was ill too and muttering sympathy and empathy.

Anyway, I MADE IT to the end of the day. My friend looks after my children on a Tuesday, and Tuesday evening is a customary world-to-rights session – and of all times, she could do with some putting to rights, after the Week from Hell of her own. By the time I got to her, keeping my head upright was a struggle, let alone conversation. I was distracted and (still) grumpy. (Some people treat illness as a minor inconvenience – for my, the physiological is all tied up with the psychological and it DRIVES ME NUTS.) I packed up the children and dragged myself home to do what any reasonable person would do and TAKE IT ALL OUT ON MY HUSBAND, who had the audacity to be tired of a weekend in Greece on a refugee camp. Pah. I managed to pick a fight over a piece of chicken and Netflix (fertile ground for argument-picking, if you haven’t yet explored it) before settling myself alone in a corner to Eat Worms.

Later last night, I got a text from my NQT to say she was feeling worse, but planned to be in today. As leaders, we talk about ‘modelling’ behaviours, and I suddenly realised that I’d modelled to her that she really had to forge on regardless. I hastily texted back to acknowledge that the example I’d set hadn’t been the best at all, that her health is more important than anything, that I knew her Mum would agree with me and that she MUST get better.

But my actions clearly had more of an impact that my text, and she dragged herself in this morning. Cue: an 8.30 phone call. ‘I’m too ill – I can’t do it’, she said. Cue: last-minute cover and stern orderings to get back to bed and not worry about anything.

I don’t know the answer to this one. Would my students have suffered more in my absence than with my grumpy self? Possibly, yes, though we have an army of excellent cover supervisors. If I’d taken the day off, would I have spent it compulsively checking my work email and feeling guilty? Undoubtedly. Would I have had the energy for more than a hasty story before ‘BED! NOW!’ with kids? Yes. Would I have been a bit kinder to my husband? Undoubtedly.

But I Forged On. I’m still waiting for the fanfare and the medal, though I’m not sure who wins here, really.

With The Book in progress (sort of), people are constantly sending me articles about teachers bailing out altogether. At which point do you pause in order to prevent yourself from one day stopping altogether? At which point as a line-manager do you model that you truly value your colleagues wellbeing? No easy answers. As ever, just a series of questions.

I had a Big List of Things to Do today. I won’t achieve much, but actually, moments like this are worth capturing, because feeling wrung-out and vulnerable is perhaps when the best research for a book on teacher resilience take place…

haggard teacher