Creative Teacher Support

Creative, practical support and discussion for classroom teachers everywhere

The Vulgar Mistake

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“How much easier it is to be critical than to be correct.” – Benjamin Disraeli
“Critics are our friends, they show us our faults.” – Benjamin Franklin

I’m new to SLT. I’m still loving it. (This is another update for @deadshelley and @ASTsupportAAli)

The variety and focus is the odd oxymoronic beauty of the job. One minute I’m teaching then I’m “on-call” (we’re always on-call), counselling kids, disciplining kids, on duty, in a meeting, showing round prospective parents or delivering inset. It’s a whirlwind. Constantly. And there’s a thin line between excitement and the overpowering feeling that you’d like the world to stop for a second, just so you can catch your breath. But, I’m embracing that feeling and staying with it. After half term I have my first inspection as a member of a core SLT, a commissioned inspection requested by our Academy sponsors, by real live Ofsted inspectors. Not the real thing, but close enough to make me sit up and …get prepared.

“To avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.” – Aristotle

After the positivity of #TLT13 I have come across the clutch of tweets and blogs criticising leadership teams or individual SLT. This is to be expected. It’s an expected part of the job, indeed an expectation or a culture amongst teachers – one just needs to listen to an experienced staff member talk to an NQT. Teaching denies hierarchy. Teaching also desires hierarchy.

I was, for many years, a thorn in the side of SLT who I perceived to be ineffective. Gradually, as the years have gone by, I have tried to be pragmatic about the way that SLT do things: balancing the demands of the job on them, whilst trying to ensure that they protect their staff but challenge colleagues to do the best that they can. I have not always been successful and have, I am sure, been both out of order and challenging to the SLT for and with whom I worked. I believe this is necessary. Support, challenge and feedback work both ways. Hierarchy does not unfortunately.

“He has a right to criticise, who has a heart to help.” – Abraham Lincoln

Teachers at once want direction and are disgusted by it. Degree qualified and more, they know their classrooms better than anyone and want Senior Leaders to keep their hands off the minutiae of the job but at the same time direct and provide clarity of purpose. There is an endemic culture amongst many teachers that deny Senior Leaders the benefit of the doubt that their intentions are, if not pure, at least backed up by experience and a clear view of a “bigger picture”.

I have been lucky to have a relatively smooth introduction to my new post in terms of personnel. People have been friendly, welcoming and, above all, understanding of my “newness”. I have tried to be open. I answer the questions I know the answers to and I say that I will find out the answers to those that I do not. I think that this has been appreciated. Position is nothing without the acknowledgement that those around me, know more about the context and many of our kids.

“You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.” – Winston Churchill

What I do know, I hope, and why I was appointed, I hope, is the knowledge that I have gathered through working with a range of people in a range of schools and contexts about learning and teaching. My challenge now, and what I try to spend most of my days doing, is making that work in my new context. It has led to a few “vibrant” professional discussions. Our systems and processes are evolving and that’s hard for teachers who teach full timetables of challenging kids. They want to do well.

I, however, don’t have a track record yet and reputation is worth very little until money is firmly in place of mouth. My questions and directions in terms of our vision for learning and teaching have largely gone down very well with positive feedback common, however, the “vibrancy” of some of the challenges I have received are what are sticking with me. I question my handling of these moments and, to be honest, those people, recognising that, although we are all professionals, the onus is on me, as the Senior Leader, to model what we want from our school. Perhaps that self reflection is important.

“Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

It was pointed out to me at the end of last week, after an inset that I provided, that, I should consider some of the images and messages that I use more carefully. This is useful feedback, which I hope that I took on the chin, whilst also clarifying my intentions in presenting information in the way that I did. I’m glad that this challenge took place – it allowed me the chance to clarify my message and consider better how I will present it next time.

The message was the sticking point in this conversation and I pursued this aspect. The final segment of the meeting focused on literacy rates in our school. Around 63% of our KS3 students alone have reading ages below their chronological reading ages. Around a third of our teaching still requires improvement. Many of our students come to us from social and economic deprivation. Achievement and standards for our students are not where we want them to be yet. These factors alone dictate our focuses. If Ofsted had never even been envisaged, these would be our focuses.

How any of us left the meeting without these messages at the forefront of our minds. I do not know.

At the moment, because of the necessity to share “big” messages, our inset is whole staff, single input. I made it clear, at the start of the meeting, that this was not my preferred style of delivery. That I want teachers working with teachers, learning from each other and that, ultimately, that is where we are heading. Still, at the end of the meeting, several colleagues felt it necessary to publicly undermine this message.

I’ve managed to catch up with another colleague who took up a senior post this term and he has found a similar thread. He is someone I hope to emulate in his desire to remain emotionally intelligent and to retain the “soft” skills that supported him in being promoted. I’ve asked him to keep me right. It is, however, a difficult balance to achieve. I have to accept criticism and should actively encourage and accept feedback and should modify what I do as a result. The flip side of this is also true. Taking up this post means that I stand up in front of the staff body and put myself in the firing line. I do not do this because of some misplaced desire for attention or glory. I want to make a difference and hope that this, and my expertise, will carry all of us forward together. It is a reasonable professional expectation of others that they will respect the fact that I am “out there” when couching and offering criticism or feedback.

I can never, and would never ask anyone to feel sorry for me. I went into this with my eyes open. The next time you read a blog about “bad SMT” however, consider the experience of that person and the damage that may do to our already difficult jobs. Think about the important messages in your own context and how we can all do something about them. It’s part of the job to accept some slings and arrows, the bigger picture however is the lack of teachers who want to be Senior Leaders. Isn’t this a bigger threat than the perception that there is “bad SLT” that is slowly killing the teaching profession?

“Hell, I suppose if you stick around long enough they have to say something nice about you.” – Ava Gardner

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Author: Gordon Baillie

I am an Advanced Skills teacher in a large comprehensive school in the North West of the UK. Trained in Scotland, I have worked in a number of different settings in my almost fifteen years of teaching. I have been working with both my own and other local schools and their teachers to both enhance and improve learning and teaching for a number of years now. I am an experienced trainer of both trainee and experienced teachers and have contributed to both local and national conferences around learning and teaching, particularly around Assessment for Learning as well as being asked to contribute to keynote addresses around other, more generic areas of teaching. I believe that teaching and particularly learning are deeply creative pursuits and that the only way to continue to enhance them and the practice of teachers is to collaborate.

7 thoughts on “The Vulgar Mistake

  1. Enjoyed reading this – thanks for sharing your thoughts, and for your openness and honesty.

    Senior Leadership is HARD, and making the move from ML to SL quite a challenge. It’s worth giving some thought to what the main differences between being an ML and an SL are. In my experience it was all about parameters – as an ML there are frustrations sometimes, but there’s also huge satisfaction in having a clearly identified ‘domain’ within which you can work hard to get things right. As an SL, the parameters expand significantly (and get ready for it – as a head there are no parameters!) This brings opportunities to make more of a difference on a whole-school scale, and will stretch you in ways you didn’t anticipate. But you can have that ‘plate-spinning’ feeling at times where no matter how hard you try, things crash somewhere.

    The important thing, I’d say, is that you’re reflective, that you keep learning, and that you use all feedback constructively to help you move forward.

    It’s a great job! Good luck!

    • Thanks Jill, I appreciate you taking the time to comment. It’s useful to benefit from your experience.
      I am really enjoying the job – the moments of challenging enjoyment far outweigh all the others.
      Thanks again.

  2. Dear friend,
    Did you see Martin O’neill called himself ‘bad cop’ and he called Keano ‘bad bad cop’. An interesting and frank description of Football SLT.
    You will spin plates, tightrope walk, produce doves- always helping students & teachers because this is what you do, so well.
    Barnum & Baillie?

  3. Pingback: “Planning” for Improvement | Creative Teacher Support

  4. Pingback: Self Image: Character Not Reputation | Creative Teacher Support

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