Doctor Who?

I was the last of our triumvirate to get to the end of the EdD. Jill Berry and Tim Jefferies were my support, my challenge, my competition, my trailblazers and my ultimate heroes. There was lengthy, heady discussion about the day when we could call ourselves Doctor.

I have Dr Kell on my office door and my email signature. I haven’t yet gone through the hassle of changing the bank card. I am extremely proud of what I’ve achieved.

Around 18 times a week, I explain to young people that, no, I don’t know the cure for acne or athletes’ foot, but I DID work really hard on a very big essay all about teachers for five years and it was tough, and when my teachers marked my work, there was often lots of upsetting red all over it, and I regularly nearly gave in. I tell them how I revised – using coloured cards and treasury tags, and how I got my family to test me on key concepts. I tell them how I struggled to find quiet places to work and how my computer crashed and I lost several thousand words. I tell them about the days when I sat down with the best intentions and achieved nothing and about the days when I had to stop the car on to way to see a friend to write down all the ideas that had come in a rush. I tell them about my scary two hour speaking exam.

I like these conversations. Teenagers don’t do awe or pretension – it is what it is, just like their own studies – and they’re quite proud of my for getting it handed in on time, but, all in all, it doesn’t much change their views of me.

I gave my Year 10s the choice as to whether to call me ‘Dr’ or ‘Ms’ on their English books – they went about 50:50 with no discernible pattern.

I’ve been Doctor Pepper, Doctor Know and simply The Doctor.

Now, I know impostor syndrome and holding back on celebrating achievements are all terribly common and, dare I say it, something women tend towards, but I must admit that I’ve had a few moments recently when it’s grated a little.

When a colleague refers to me as Dr Kell in front of another colleague I don’t yet know. When someone shouts ‘Dr Kell!’ along the corridor when I’m on duty. Or at parents’ evening – an intimidating enough event for so many parents, when I wasn’t sure the great big DR added anything to what I knew of their children or how much I invest in their progress. If anything, I feared it might make me less approachable. My Doctorate has been regarded with wariness and suspicion. Does it suggest my priorities are a bit wrong? Does it suggest I think I’m better than others?

And yes, when a Twitter contact refers to me as Dr Emma or a close friend boasts to another of my achievement, I glow a little inside.

I suppose it’s a little like the effort to wear make-up. I bother around twice a week – if I’m feeling a bit too tired and need to cover it up, if I’m in the mood for colour, or if I want to make an impression. I’d quite like to use my new title selectively and assert my right to use the title selectively – because it’s a huge achievement, but it’s not remotely all of who I am.

Does that sound like self-indulgent false-modesty? I don’t know. Maybe I’m just being my slightly restless self and the novelty’s worn off a bit. But when I consciously made the decision to stay in the classroom rather than pursue an academic route, when I made the decision to find a job which allows me to be a decent mother and a good friend too, I asserted my right to be Miss and my right to be Mum and my right to be Emma too.


On (not) saying goodbye

Scenario. It’s 11.10 and you’re on your way to an important meeting or training session. You pass members of The Class That Keeps You Awake in the corridor. ‘Where are you going, Miss? Where are you GOING?’ Subtext – you have left us to perish in the deserts. How very DARE you? What better reason do you have to be here than US? They have driven you nuts and yet their attitude makes complete sense. This.

On 28 April, 2006, I mustered up the courage to tell a group of Year 11 students in my tutor group, whom I’d known since they were scuttling under tables in Year 7, that I was leaving. The moment is indelibly stamped on my memory.

The reasons for the momentousness of this moment go against so much of what I’ve thought, advised and written since – I felt searing guilt combined with a need to justify to them why I was moving on. I still talk about this in interviews – I was standing up for my subject. MFL should never have been consigned to the option blocks (N.B. I stand by this!). But, but… I didn’t actually expect to have to really say goodbye.

‘Nobody is indispensable’, ‘you’re part of something much bigger’, ‘true leadership is what happens when you’re not around’… I’ve used each of these lines at least once in the last month and a dozen times a year. I’ve written about humility here.

Those young people of 2001-2006 almost certainly got more of me – or possibly something different of me – in the years before I had children. There were late evenings spent mulling over French verbs and confidence crises and a late night detective work to find errant parents to wish them a happy birthday. Nights on coaches all over Europe spent philosophising and speculating on the horrors and joys and challenges that lay ahead.

My last minutes at that school were spent, not saying tearful goodbyes to colleagues, but with my tutor group, playing crazy table-tennis and sealing a time capsule of god-only-knows-what (I think there was a set of German verbs and a table tennis ball in there) behind the boards which concealed the computer desks. (I wonder if they’re still there…) In the days when such things were acceptable, I spontaneously met with them and their families for  a farewell picnic on Hampstead Heath. A group of us went on to meet regularly and, ten years down the line, there’s a hard core who still make sure a lunch happen, to debate whether N. really did call me a bad word that day (it never gets tired) and to speculate on how the student who told me exactly where to stick French ended up a successful businessman based in Paris with French better than mine could ever be.

My next eight years were spent seeing students and their siblings through my own blur of my early parenthood. The group to whom I’d said goodbye 12 months before negotiated their way across London to welcome my first-born to the world with fluffy toys they still play with. A similar group somehow managed to negotiated the M1 three years later to surprise me at my 40th birthday party.

In my new post, I experienced the leadership of a huge and talented and feisty and challenging department, and the wonderful contradictions of teaching the Year 9 set that once caused you sleepless nights. There were wonderful exam results and appalling ones. Inspirations and huge challenges.

I left because it was time to do so, but remember the day itself, like many momentous events, with a distinct sense of disproportion and unreality. My colleagues said kind things I couldn’t take in. The most unexpected of students ran to me with roses. There were some awkward farewells in between, which feigned the emotions we were ‘supposed’ to feel. I ended the Year 13 assembly with a quote from a letter from Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville West (shamelessly stolen from a close friend):

‘Be wicked, be brave, be drunk, be reckless, be dissolute, be despotic, be an anarchist, be a religious fanatic, be a suffragette, be anything you like, but for pity’s sake be it to the top of your bent — Live — live fully, live passionately, live disastrously if necessary. Live the gamut of human experiences, build, destroy, build up again! Live, let’s live, you and I — let’s live as none ever lived before.’

I’d known the audience since they were in Year 7. I was busting with pride, rumbling with anxiety and entirely disconnected from the reality.

Our Headteacher died not long afterwards, by which time my context had changed dramatically. I was  part of things – but not. Emotionally involved but diverted elsewhere. This was, if I am honest, both a relief and a kind of torture.

The following three years saw, for a number of reasons (few of them sinister) me jump from school to school. I finished my Doctorate – hoorah – but had to say goodbye to three sets of students in three years.

Here’s one of my – stroppy, wonderful – GCSE students. I was permitted to tell them only in my last week. She was going to her home country on the Sunday before.  I waited until the very last moment of Friday afternoon before seeking her out. She thought she was in trouble. I started to speak. She realised. The look of sheer…. what? There is no word for this. Something which combines resignation with disappointment with rage. This is a look that will stay with me always.

Another one year temporary contract with children in a great school who will get the very best. It should have been easier. But I still catch myself imagining I see one of them in the canteen queue. Or about to ask another whether they like the Philip Pullman book I lent them, or whether their Mum’s recovering or how they feel about what’s happening about events in Syria… before realising they have an almost-but-not-quite Doppelgaenger.

And now? There will be few specific details about my current school – it is not my place to share them. What I will share is that I have very recently had it confirmed, officially, that I’m STAYING. I’m staying to watch them grown and dip and rise again. I’m staying for the tears and the tantrums (from the students too….). I’m staying for the moments of confidence and the moments of crisis and the moments of rage. I’m staying for the data-crunches and the monitoring exercises and the appraisal meetings. I’m staying for the births and bereavements. I’m going to be part of the furniture, part of the rough-and-tumble, part of the crises and part of the triumphs. I’m staying until the grey hairs outnumber the brown ones and the great food has taken its justified toll. I have no illusions about the challenges and googlies and downright opposition that will come my way or the apologies and reviews I will have to undertake, but I’m STAYING. And I’m delighted and privileged to be doing so.

When I told my daughters this news, the youngest (just 7) said, ‘you’ve won! When can we go there again?’

Nobody in a profession is indispensable. But some are indelible. And, for all the crises and disasters and the (entirely understandable) ‘had enough’ moments, let’s take a moment to acknowledge what a difference our students make to us – and us to them.

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.



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.



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.



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.