GCSE Results – ‘You are not alone’

With the approach of GCSE results, every year, a sort of atavistic nausea grows in my stomach, catching me during a moment on the beach, in a nightmare or whilst playing with my kids.

It harks back to a particular Wednesday night, the evening before the results were due to come out, when my headteacher phoned to declare a state of crisis regarding the languages results. Hours, days and weeks of soul-searching and wailing followed what were, frankly, a disastrous and unexpected set of GCSE results. The department bared its soul for examination, we fell on our swords, admitted defeat and effectively started again from scratch. Needless to say, we came out far stronger for it – and there have been many triumphs (and of course disappointments) since.

A couple of years later, I went running to my line manager during one of those stomach-lurching moments, somewhere around the end of June (the point of no return, where there’s Nothing You Can Do), in a blind panic that the same thing might happen again (following an improvement the previous year). His words, that kind, wise and wonderful man whom I still miss hugely, have stayed with me:

‘You are not alone,’ he said.

In my research for my book on teacher wellbeing, recruitment and retention, there is a striking theme of teachers crumbling under the weight of responsibility for their subject, with the huge changes in the curriculum and the pressure of accountability – now linked to pay, but more emotively, I believe, to a sense of professional efficacy and self-esteem. Obviously, this is huge, the higher up the management ladder you climb, with the Headteacher/football manager  (the career-expectancy) without the pay analogy seeming more striking than ever during this period.

But actually, it’s teachers of the smaller and non-core subjects who seemed to be most acutely affected. Subjects which have to continually fight for their credibility and for numbers at GCSE and A Level – or indeed, to exist at all, in this climate of financial strain for schools. Subjects which are made up of small departments of two or even one member – who are pretty much isolated in learning a new set of assessment criteria and attempting to tailor a new curriculum in order to get the best deal for their students.

Having moved from MFL to English – where, in the latter, I frequently found myself reverting to tiger-mother to fight for my subject’s status and credibility – the difference between core and non-core has been striking.

With English, there has been such a huge amount of support – numerous staff members across the school to support, offer expertise, and take the whole year group off timetable whenever required or requested… I’m not saying this isn’t justified – these subjects are so important, not just for schools, but for students. But it is different. Whether in triumph or disappointment, I am literally aware of being a relatively small part of a far bigger team.

For those not yet in the know, tonight may be a restless night. Leaders and core-subject teachers, spare a thought for subjects that don’t have such a high profile – disappointment and triumph are just as intense, if not more so, for these teachers. And all, teachers, especially he middle leaders to whom I can relate so well, it is ultimately true – you are not alone. And however disappointing or brilliant your results – or, most likely, a mixture of the two – there will be schools experiencing something similar and teachers feeling the same as you do.

This is my 20th year of this – with time and experience does come a sense of perspective (which nevertheless never quite counters the nausea). Things can’t continually get better and better and better. Contrary to Gove’s expectations, schools can’t ALL be ‘above average’. Performance Related Pay threatens to belie this, but all our efforts are collective – they have to be. Community is at the very heart of what we do.

There are two groups of people for whom I retain genuine and acute feeling today – headteachers, for whom the pressure must be enormous, because I know how much they want the best for their students and their teams. And the students themselves. Who ultimately, in a sense, ARE alone with the results they’ll still be listing on forms when they’re as old as I am, and older. In every school basking in triumph, there will be students who will experience acute disappointment tomorrow. Amidst every apparently catastrophic set of results, there will be bright sparks and students who have beaten the odds.

So however important these results are to you, your team, your performance management, or your career prospects, there will be plenty of time for robust analysis, champagne or quiet pride. Tomorrow, if you are in school, let it be about the students – do what you do best. Guide them calmly through crises, take them aside to tell them you always knew they could do it and how every very proud you are, give them space to retreat into corners with unopened envelopes or howl in pack.

But whatever you do, make sure that they truly feel and know that they are not alone.

Edit: How could I possibly have forgotten the parents! The blissful ignorance of having primary age children. A shout out to parents of teenagers receiving their results tomorrow. And a whole new lurch as I realise that in 6 years, I will be sitting where you are…

 

What it means to switch off

‘Shall I move back into the shade or get in the water?’

‘Boeuf bourguignon or roast chicken?’

‘Who’s got the bite cream?’

‘Campari or Champagne?’

‘Lunch first or sandwiches on the beach?’

‘Families in cars or shall we let the children swap?’

‘Who stole my towel?’

‘Who peed in the child’s suitcase?’

 

With the exception of approximately three hours, in which I cracked open the laptop and did some light work, these have been as complex and as stressful as my dilemmas have been over the past two weeks.

The holiday wasn’t quite as perfect as it could have been. Rio demanded my journalist husband’s presence, so he couldn’t be there, and we missed him hugely, especially when cackling over card games, playing tickling games with the girls, changing the rules of pool and dithering over moules frites.

For some people, a house full of between 6 and 9 children (families came and went; we didn’t dispose of the annoying ones…) may not appear an ideal holiday, but we relish it, and this was our seventh year of the same main people in a new location. My mind boggles at quite how we managed it when they were all under 4 (the nappy bill was huge and at least 3 had to be held at all times, with the others requiring constant vigilance). But the kids are older now. And whilst electronic devices are still present and the cause of countless spats, they also play imaginary games of mermaids and wolves and do spontaneous clothing swaps in between driving us all mad with their losses of shoes and goggles. Average time to leave the house: ca 2 hours.

I actually had intended to do a bit more work than I actually did. (The cry of teachers everywhere?) I had intentions of spending mornings in quiet rooms with my laptop before relaxing for the afternoon. But I blinked and realised I’d spent a whole three days not once thinking about teachers or teaching. I’d cackled so hard, my stomach hurt, feasted shamelessly on amazing French food, spent tons of time lost in cuddles and strops with my daughters, and lost repeatedly and spectacularly at cards… but I hadn’t thought about work. Even the confirmation of my doctorate award, though celebrated by my friends, was marginally less important than the identification of the latest pair of pants discarded by the pool.

So I allowed  myself to drift, and before I’d blinked, another week had passed. I managed to write a piece I’d promised and read a fantastic book I’d said I’d review, but I approached these with a new energy. I have played the fool, been the clumsy one, eaten FAR too many croissants and been involved in too many inappropriate jokes to share here. I have shepherded small people through ice-cream orders (more traumatic than you may imagine), played a losing battle against mosquitoes and smugly basked as the children yelled ‘Messi!’ (yes, I have only today realised that the footballer and the word for ‘thank you’ are synonymous for most of them).

I have briefly stropped – at the stink of the plumbing and the inability of children to flush a toilet – at my terminal loathing of all supermarkets – at the French militant insistence on what is appropriate ‘eating time’ and what is not.

But mainly, I have cackled. So hard, that there have been tears. I have tried to fit my croissant-filled body through gaps that were too small, tried (and failed) to leap into a disturbingly vulva-shaped inflatable pink sofa-thing, sent table tennis balls flying in the most inept manner, consoled my petit-garcon tomboy daughter as her cap flew off the Ferris wheel, never to be seen again. And tried, and failed, to establish who peed on the clothes of my eldest.

And, having arrived home, I feel thoroughly, properly refreshed – for possibly the first time in years. And, whilst I know the croissants and local Champagne have taken their toll on my waistline and am still scratching at pesky mosquito bites, I feel better. So much better. And, as ever, lucky – to have such good fortune and good people and the freedom and resources to drop it all for a bit. And as if my edges have been somehow defined a little more clearly, and as if I have the space and permission to be proud of what I’ve achieved and the space and permission to be optimistic – very optimistic – about the challenging journey ahead. All with a whole ten days of holiday to go.

I hope you have also managed to have a break – god knows, we deserve one. Happy Summer to you all.

 

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Almost Dr, Almost Author…

It’s been of a bit of a draggy sort of a week. I haven’t been feeling well. I’m rubbish at feeling unwell, as those who know me know far too well. Unlike my cliche-defying husband, who will shake off the most hideous of bugs in a matter of hours and get on with it, barely mentioning it, the germs make themselves constantly known and I’m filled with self-pity and irritation.

I also sat down, with an almighty sense of purpose, to Actually Start Writing My Book yesterday. From my thesis days, I should have known better and recognised sooner that it was all a bit of a write-off. The thing is that my basic premise is to Stay Positive. And so much of the data I’ve collected and the material I’ve read is startling and worrying. There are statistics around mental health that make the mind boggle. And I’m reading account after account of being undermined, overlooked, belittled and driven to the edge of breakdown (and beyond). And hearing people say, ‘it’s not going to get better any time soon’ and ‘ooh, I can’t wait to retire’. A bit like the germs, I find these things a bit hard to ignore and they get under my skin. So I sat, with phenomenal idiocy, a) trying to start my book at the beginning and b) trying to write something that would please everyone and c) trying to immediately provide an honest and balanced representation of the 4000 voices who’ve contributed. And by the end of the day, I’d achieved precisely nothing.

I even attempted the housework to feel that I’d actually achieved something on my day off.

I hauled myself and my tissues to work this morning. I’m trying not to think too much about the fact that I’m leaving another cohort of students in a couple of weeks, but it’s nagging at me too, and if I think about it too much, I feel a bit like crying.

The one of my tutor group, a confident, cheeky young lady who has recently discovered the sex scenes in Malorie Blackman and insists repeatedly on reading them aloud to the rest of the group (I worry slightly for the reaction of her strict parents) sidled up to me with a totally unexpected card which told me what a difference I’d made and that she loves all the books I’ve recommended (cynics, be still). And I gave her a hug and told her I’d better get her autograph now and that she’ll never be [sic] ‘just an ordinary teenager’ to me.

And then, after making the merest dint in a pile of marking, a usually quiet student on their way into my library lesson said, ‘I’m SO looking forward to this! I LOVE reading’ And then my starter on the Chilcot inquiry with Year 7 (non-fiction module) turned into a whole-lesson discussion on the rights and wrongs of war and revealed some of the most amazing political awareness from some of my previously reticent students. And then I stopped to comment on the really amazing vocal tone of another quiet student who reads so beautifully and discovered than when he lived in Japan he went to drama school and we wondered at the fact that he speaks Japanese, Urdu, Russian AND a bit of Spanish and how special that made him and how maybe he should think about working as an international reporter and I was so glad not to have rushed straight to my meeting.

And then I realised I’m ready to start writing. Consider this the beginning.

With the best of wishes to all and a big hoorah for the best job in the world.

Very nearly Dr Kell, very nearly author of How to Survive and Thrive in Teaching for Bloomsbury.

An injection of hope and energy

Yesterday was the craziest day. Herts to Brent to Tottenham to Westminster then home again. 2 near accidents, 2 late arrivals, phone died for an hour, emergency charger purchase AND my lipstick fell under the car seat, probably never to be seen again. My shoulders ache from gripping the steering wheel through rush-hour central London traffic.

By rights, I should be feeling thoroughly sorry for myself. But it was one of those days which incited a shift in perspective – for the better. A day of meeting like-minded people – inspiring, authentic and direct; of vibrant, happy and reflective schools and of the beginnings of a new direction for my career. In short, I’d travel 5.5 hours again in a heartbeat to be there.

I won’t tempt fate by saying much about the Tottenham bit, yet… The Brent bit represents a school where I’ve been happy and lucky (and part-time – hence blogging on a Wednesday!) and to which I will be sad to say goodbye. But it is the crazy journey to Westminster for the #womened #leadmeet, SO worthwhile for all it involved that I wish to reflect upon.

Like one of the other speakers, I was having a rather ‘Tony Blair’ sweaty moment as I ran through the door, 25 mins late, to be handed the clicker by Hannah Wilson. I’m not a natural public speaker, but Jill Berry is right – it does get far easier with each time you do it. I was all geared up for authenticity and solidarity, and I knew that is what I had in front of me, so I made eye contact, smiled, was smiled at, and the five minutes went it a whisk. I have no real memory of what I said (!) but am still kicking myself for missing two bits out:

Serendipity – women tend (more than men) to attribute their success to this – I have consistently referred to it in my studies and writing. I was lucky! I was there by chance. I applied on a whim. I didn’t for a second expect to get it. Hmm. One to think about here and a theme that echoed through the evening.

Social networking, research and suspicion – my experience is that some colleagues find my involvement in these networks worrying and this makes them wary of me. I won’t analyse this here, but I do worry that there are, increasingly, two ‘camps’ in education – those of us who, increasingly, know one another’s names, values and journeys and those who consciously eschew all social media contact. Again, one to think about.

More importantly, I wanted to share a few my take-home messages from the evening – if I were to write them all, I’d be here all day, and every speaker moved me in some way, so I apologise in advance for omissions. I got the warmth and solidarity I’d hoped for, but, more importantly, my thinking was regularly challenged by the speakers.

Yinka spoke about the importance of food for our students. I have always been shamelessly – almost slightly braggingly – rubbish with food, frequently living on Pringles or chick peas whilst my husband is away, and she made me really think about my attitude… and more important about the link between social deprivation and nutrition and the responsibility we have to make this a key priority. Trying (and failing) to quietly open a bottle of fizzy drink whilst she was speaking made me a little sheepish.

There was a lot of talk of mentors and role models and their vital importance. Strong, inspiring women have played a key role in my career journey and two women brought out that fizz of excitement and optimism in me, together with an admiration that made me feel quite emotional – the relief that there are such people out there, playing such a key role, and the frustration that there aren’t more of them. Having spent my early childhood in Italy, the Italian accent always holds a special comfort and security and hearing Alessandra, @everydaymentor, speak was a bit like receiving an in-vitro input of strength and energy. I just about resisted the urge to hurl myself at her and demand that she mentor me NOW!

Carol Jones, a former Head who looks impossibly good for being in her sixties stated her her lifelong commitment to feminism and collegiality  – and insisted we put our phones down to listen (something of a relief, I admit – multi-tasking gets exhausting after a while!). Her faith in ‘us’, as a group as potential school leaders of the future was both moving and empowering and made me almost a little tearful. She is right – we can’t wait for it to happen. We need to make it happen.

My friends, Bukky and Natalie, with whom I have shared some uncannily similar experience both did themselves – and us – entirely proud. Bukky has a voice which inspires such respect and expresses such absolute integrity and wisdom and shared numerous nuggets. In particular, an awareness of politics (something I’ve always claimed ‘not to do’) and an awareness of how we present ourselves under the spotlight as leaders really made me think. Aspiring to be owls.

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Natalie admitted her nerves but spoke of issues which had so many of us murmuring agreement, and I love this photo of her – literally – getting into her stride (and inspiring major heel-envy!). Those negative voices and how to tame them.

 

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After a brief dash out to avoid a parking ticket (success!), the inimitable Hannah Wilson ended the proceedings. For me, this was possibly the most powerful message. It was around taking control and working together to Make Things Happen. About directly challenging the pay gap by knowing our worth and being prepared to negotiate. About steeling ourselves against – and learning to expect, as Carol discussed – setbacks and rejection and staying true to our values. For me, it was about not giving up, not being a victim, perseverance and true grit.

Thank you, Hannah and Bennie, for organising a phenomenal evening.

 

Which way now?

I haven’t blogged for a while. This is mainly because I’ve been in the final throes of my Doctorate in Education. I PASSED the viva (you’d have to be living in a hole not to have gathered that bit). This tends to mean a teensy bit more work… an excruciating task, if I’m honest, and one I hope to finish TOMORROW (you heard it here first).

But, if you know me, online quiet is rarely a great thing, and tends to mean I’m not in the Best Place.

You see, I’m not sure what I’m doing in September. I’ve had a genuinely wonderful and happy year in my current role. I’ve learned LOADS and have gained invaluable core subject experience. Also, people are endlessly complicated – I will never again imagine I have them sussed, nor assume anything.

In recent months, I have been wary of applying for anything that might be ‘right’ (and vaguely hopeful that a role for me at the same place might be conjured up out of my temporary contract) so applications can be counted on one finger… and ultimately, I was philosophical and Not Sad that one didn’t work out. I sat back and assumed that, post-30 May-resignations, there would be a flurry of SLT posts in teaching and learning or CPD in a variety of enlightened and inspirational institutions.

Number of jobs of this type within 20 miles of my house advertised in the last 7 working days? 0.

This, against the backdrop of the literally unbelievable achievement that is (so nearly) becoming Dr Kell and a genuinely successful year in which there is so much I am proud to have achieved AND the chance to be a half-decent mother, wife and friend in my part-time role. And a book! (Yes, I joined the club – no, it’s not half as glamorous as it sounds!)

Also, my passionate and ongoing decision that I want to stay part of the fabric and rough-and-tumble and joy and challenge and thousands of daily interactions that are life in a school. And that I really, really want to get back into SLT, because I loved it and I was good at it (uncharacteristic self-praise, but I was – I like people and understand people and can get the best out of people. And I Know My Stuff. And I’m honest. And I know when to say I don’t know).

And the letting go of pipe-dreams. Part-time? Forget it. We’ll make it work somehow. Hopefully, having had a year of me every Wednesday before and after school, the girls will be  happy. MAYBE  I’ll be able to go to the odd assembly.

And then, a confession to the rising panic. And the rising worry that the doctorate and the book might actually Put People Off and that my CV might be flawed and that they might just not like my taste in shoes at all and that actually, I might just Not Be Good Enough. And the reassuring of my husband that it will be Fine and I will still bring in at least 40% of the household income and that there is really no reason to worry. And the wobbly, sick feeling that, despite knowing it doesn’t help responds inversely to attempts at suppression. And my colleague in SLT was kind enough to take a moment to let me know that she’d noticed today I Wasn’t OK; that I was in a battle with myself and close to irrational tears. Compared to my usual compulsive (probably annoying) smile and determination.

From one end of the day to the other, there are already options – some less exciting than others, but the dole queue is looking a little less likely. And I know that as long as I’m teaching young people, I’ll build relationships and continue to have those hours which pass in moments because they’re exactly what I want to be doing. And I Will Survive saying goodbye to the young people I’ve got to know so very, very well, though the thought, after 20 years in the profession, brings tears to my eyes. And they will survive too. And a little part of me hopes and thinks some of them will remember me, if only for having to repeatedly explain ‘sweated like a stallion’ from The Crucible to what became a Y8 PSHE module…

And a part of me really, passionately wants to become part of the fabric of a school again – part of the ethos and identity and challenges. To know all the children’s names and know all of the teachers’ talents and foibles. To grow with a school, overcome the blows and celebrate the triumphs.

And I really hope that I’ll be in a position to inspire and guide others to feel the same as a leader. If not now, then very soon.

 

I made a decision #notleavingteaching

I have been absolutely overwhelmed by the response to my article in yesterday’s GuardianTeach. Mainly by the support, but there’s something nagging.

See, I’m worried. I think that’s clear from the article. I’m also so saddened and frustrated to see so many talented people walking away from the profession I love. There are Bad Days, of course. There are frustrations, of course. Spoon-feeding Year 11s hours before deadlines eats my head and makes me wonder what we’ve taught them about resilience and independence. People don’t always behave impeccably. Not even big ones.

And I’ve vowed, through my book, that I will acknowledge this sense of injustice and rage and downright exhaustion felt by many teachers – and I won’t shy from this. But I will also be optimistic and pragmatic in my approach to these.

I love our profession (it IS a profession!). I love the corridor banter and the breakthroughs in the difficult and honest conversations with people big and small. I love the sense of buzz and purpose of a busy school day. I love the unexpected giggles with crazy Year 8s and the thank yous from the grateful Year 11s above. I love knowing that as I enter the car park, there is always at least one thing that I’m really looking forward to. I love hearing from students 15 years on and writing references (even if they are for the occasional court case). I love seeing new teachers face challenges and grow. I love the surprise Avon perfume birthday gift and marking a book to find a child has really Got It. I love feeling like Part of It All. I love the feeling of being at a place for a few years and knowing all the students and all the boltholes and open-door classrooms and staffroom hilarity.

When I started teaching, it was soon after Thatcher (one of Thatcher’s children, me) and people were wary. My parents encouraged me to re-think. Others questioned my ambition. I said, ‘you have to be in it to fight it’. And, after numerous debates with myself and with others, I still believe this.

See, with the writing and the research and everything else, I realised I have options. I’d love to train new teachers, mentor and coach existing teachers, work with universities, and these options MIGHT be possible. This is exciting and quite exhausting. ‘What are you planning to do in September?’ someone asked me today (my current lovely job was always temporary). ‘About fifty things,’ was the response. ‘But I can’t decide which ones’. I’d considered going at least partly freelance. I may still.

But there’s one thing for sure, I won’t walk away. I’d be a hypocrite to express my disappointment and sadness at those walking away and not to be in the thick of it myself. I’d be a hypocrite to empathise and listen if I didn’t know exactly how it felt. Also, young people keep me sane.

So, I don’t know quite what and I don’t know quite where I’ll be working – and I won’t work just anywhere. I firmly believe there has to be a match in ethos between teacher and employee – but I won’t be leaving teaching any time soon. Because you have to be in it to make a difference. And it would be entirely ludicrous to be writing a book called How to Survive and Thrive in Teaching if I weren’t walking the walk with the rest of you.