W/b 30 January 2023

Monday 30th January

The hours of a working week in term time, in themselves, don’t begin to cover all that a teacher or headteacher needs to do and does.  I’m not complaining about this.  Personally, I enjoy the intensity and focus required during the weeks of term time.  For me, this year, Sundays are important days that allow me to prepare myself for and to tee up the week ahead.  I don’t expect this of others, of course.  Doing or thinking about work might be the last thing a colleague needs on a Sunday, and that’s fine.  I trust the adults that I work with each to manage their hours, their downtime, their marking, checking of emails, etc as best suits them at that stage or moment in their life. 

How you manage term time changes from person to person, and over the course of a working life.  I know teachers who arrive very early each morning, teachers that work (possibly too) late in evenings after children are in bed, and my younger brother does most of his planning and prep for the next week on a Saturday before the football begins.  Each to their own. There will be weeks in each term when a teacher/Head has gone beyond their healthy boundaries for that week and needs a weekend to switch off, in which case they should.  It’s hugely important to check-in with yourself and see if you need time to rest, time outdoors, space to play, or just catch up with chores and hopefully sleep.   

Very occasionally (and I do mean that), before I was a Headteacher, I have worked alongside colleagues who tried to manage on the barest minimum of absolutely necessary work of an evening, at weekends, and outside of term time, i.e. tried not to be working outside the working day at all, wherever possible.  From what I’ve seen, that’s when a teacher ends up in trouble, metaphorically speaking.  Perhaps they have already fallen out of love with the job, temporarily at least.  Those colleagues I worked with in that context weren’t enjoying the best experiences with their students and weren’t enjoying their teaching.  I don’t know how you could do the job that way.  The regular hours of a working week in term time don’t begin to cover all that a dedicated teacher/headteacher does and needs to do, but how you manage those extra hours is entirely up to you. 

Some of the cliches about teaching are true.  It is an incredibly rewarding profession, working with children and young adults, and can be a true vocation.  But it is very demanding.

Sundays are important to me this year because alongside using some of the hours on Sundays to get plans and actions for the coming week lined up, I also use Sundays to prepare for my Year 8 lessons.  I need to know that the marking, planning, prepping of resources for the students is done because, as the last couple of weeks have shown, there are times when things unexpectedly drop into a Head’s week that are simultaneously both serious and important enough to mean that all the intentions and scenario planning that has taken place have to be placed to one side, delegated, rearranged or postponed, because other things now need to happen.  In those weeks, adaptability and experience trumps planning.  Every time.  But my Year 8s still deserve to be taught decent lessons, and so Sundays are important for them too.

Monday morning periods 1 and 2 this week was a decent lesson.  My class are responding better to the challenges of Sherlock Holmes and to Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1902 prose than they did to Romeo and Juliet, and Shakespeare’s blank verse from 1507.

The curriculum of a school always needs reviewing in one way or another.  At the moment, the DfE are defunding BTECs, which has prompted our thinking.  We always need to consider whether our curriculum has the right range, variety and stretch for our students, whether there are new subjects that should be considered, and which subjects we couldn’t guarantee will still be there in 3-5 years.  I meet with half a dozen colleagues today to share research and thoughts.  Mostly, these kind of discussions don’t lead to change, and certainly not straight away; it is more a case of considering what is coming up over the horizon, but you always need to be prepared, to have the proactively open mind of “What is best for our pupils in the coming years?”

After school, I join colleagues in Cadogan House for a ‘Book Look’, a review of learning over a period of time which, in many ways, is better than the impression of learning that you get from watching a single lesson.  I can see pupils’ understanding in mathematics improving, errors being corrected (mostly), and the quality of the pupils’ writing all improving over time.  I’m not putting weight on any one piece of work but seeing the development of learning over half a school year.  It’s lovely to listen in on colleagues’ conversations, to hear them comparing, contrasting, and reflecting on their own practice.  Most teachers are wonderfully dedicated professionals.

Tuesday 31st January

In the middle of the day, a pupil calmly brings me a note that requires immediate investigation.  The pupil does this calmly, and I thank them for bringing something to my attention.  I check their well-being and promise to look into it.  I share only the facts and ask an experienced colleague to gather more evidence and then report back.  It is another one of those moments when you are conscious that the week could be changing gear.

As Head there are occasions when pupils, colleagues, or parents come into your office showing great distress, expressing strong emotions, clearly deeply upset and, sometimes, wanting immediate action to be taken against another person. I need to listen carefully, be understanding, to care and to show that I care. But I can’t ever jump to any conclusions when I hear one side of a story, no matter how strong a person expresses their views. Even inside my mind, I need to keep a tight lid on my emotional response so as not to prejudice my thinking. This isn’t necessarily easy when, for example, a hard-working colleague or parent is in tears, but for every story, there are always multiple viewpoints. A person’s motivations don’t always emerge at first, are possibly actively being hidden. There can be conflicting emotions and unconscious factors at play. Occasionally, there is a one-hundred-and-eighty-degree revolution in my understanding of a situation from what was first presented to me; often, there is movement.

Later that day, my colleague tells me that it is an indication of a good culture in our school that pupils feel they can share concerns that they have, or make disclosures, to tutors, teachers, Heads of Year, or directly to me.  This has some truth to it.  It is extremely difficult for a pupil to come forwards and question the actions or views of a trusted adult, for example a parent or a teacher.  We’ll see what comes of the concerns raised by these pupils (because by now they are plural). 

The rest of the day is a series of meetings, two with parents, five with colleagues. As term progresses and the Diary gets increasingly busy, I am highly conscious of too much time being spent in my office, and of the need to get out and around school more.  My PA and I always keep this in mind, but sometimes, often in the final fortnight of a term, events and the diary gang up and conspire against us.

Wednesday 1st February

There is an early morning meeting with our Head of Sixth Form and Academic Deputy to discuss a pupil who is going through a very tough time. It is a sensitive matter, but one that my colleagues have investigated and researched thoroughly.  They are currently supporting a couple of delicate matters with students who have significant contexts.  I listen carefully, and then ask questions that try to add value to their thinking, but my admiration for both is immense.  Witnessing a senior team grow in experience, empathy, and expand their range of possible solutions to complex issues has been one rewarding aspect of this year.  We are not at our peak as a team in any respect, most of the SLT here have been in their current position for fewer than three years (though some in an SLT position for longer), but they are very good people working extremely hard for our school.  Seeing them grow in challenging situations is satisfying and rewarding.

There are a couple of members of the Senior School SLT who are comparatively new to school leadership, and who have the potential to take on larger, whole-school roles. I have spent the year thinking about ways we can keep developing them, and I meet with one of these colleagues today to begin to explore with her how we can grow her role for September 2023.

The Whole School SLT meeting involves colleagues feeding back on how we can evolve with Google, email and our school calendar.  I hear about what can’t be done or what will be problematic and difficult.  I am pleased to hear honest, open discussion.  As a Head of English, an Academic Deputy, and now headteacher, I have often said “I am happy for you to come into my office say ‘I tried X in order to achieve Y, but it hasn’t worked.  In fact, it’s all gone horribly wrong’.  I want that honesty, very much so.  If everybody felt comfortable enough to hold up their hands when something has gone wrong or isn’t working, that would be wonderful.  Of course, that isn’t always the case, and my job is to help create the culture where more people feel that is possible.

A lot of my time in February is focused on the next academic year.  The day ends with four colleagues meeting to discuss staffing needs as we now have option choices in for next year’s Year 12 (A Level) and 10 (GCSE).  It’s always a changing picture at this stage of the year, but the meeting is a productive one, again because good work had been done in advance.

Thursday 2nd February

Much of the morning is spent at a local school where I am a governor, having oversight of their work supporting an ECT (Early Career Teacher).  As is so very often the case, it is a joy hearing teachers reflecting on how they are supporting colleagues, or ways in which they are being supported.  Similarly, observing teachers and then hearing back from them about the lesson is just a pleasure.  This particular ECT is in her second year, in a different school to her first year where she felt far less well supported, and from all I can see she is flourishing. 

The final part of the morning is a confidential chat with the headteacher of this school.  The idea that being a Head is a lonely job is not one I subscribe to, but there are times when you  have to carry a lot of peoples’ concerns around with you and it is notable that whenever you get two Heads together, with a Chatham House Rule understanding, conversation flows as problems are shared and halved and as we get a chance to unburden ourselves a little from things that have been necessarily bottled up in our workplace.

Something similar possibly happens at the end of the day at RMS for parents of Year 11 pupils and their teachers at our Parents’ Evening.  I lose count of the number of parents who tell me how incredibly useful the evening has been for them, how wonderful our teachers are, and how much parents appreciate hearing from teachers and their daughters, and being part of that conversation, as we all work together to support the students in achieving their best possible GCSE results.  There is something beneficial for humans in us seeing ‘our’ problems and issues not as ours alone, but as part of a larger social context – it is reassuring and helpful to us all.

Friday 3rd February

An early morning walk of the campus with our legendary groundsman Billy Lees is always a pleasure.  Billy is in his fourth decade at the school, can name each of the thousands of trees he has planted on our site, and always has a new project on the go. We talk about life, the universe, and his team, agreeing on many points and ending by restating our view that neither of us “can be doing with liars”.  Anything else we can deal with, anybody who holds up their hands for any error, but when a teammate is lying to you then you don’t know where you are with them, and that’s when you’ve got real problems.

I meet with the second colleague from Senior School SLT whose role I would like to see growing next year. Helen is an Assistant Head with a Senior School focus who I would like to take on whole-school responsibilities next year. Culturally, she is just what I wish for in her view of pupils, learning, teachers, and staff development and well-being. She is a great colleague who we are lucky to have with us. We share some thoughts, and then decide to take half-term to process before we progress our conversation.

Late afternoon I meet with our Head of Prep, Melanie, who has had a challenging week too. Melanie is in her second year as headteacher at RMS, learning the role wonderfully but inevitably still facing some challenges for the first time. “There must be something in the water” she says.  I reassure her that the very experienced Head of another school yesterday was saying much the same, and it’s more that it’s the penultimate week of a busy half-term than anything else.

The week ends positively with a Friday evening meeting with parents that we had feared was going to be difficult, but that was very productive.  My PA, Sharon, is no small part in its success.  She is a key member of the team here, a brilliant colleague who will doubtless pop up in this Blog again, and who is an often unseen presence behind most everything that works well in relation to the Headteacher at RMS.  

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