There is a sense of irony in starting with a cake to celebrate an anniversary and that is because, in a lot of ways, I feel like I am married to my school.
BUT, in January of last year I very naively put in an application for a Head of faculty post. Having seen so many colleagues progress far too quickly, I was determined that I would only apply for a Head of faculty position when I really felt that I had the ability to meet the demands of such a challenging role. That time, came for me, 12 years into my career. By this point, I felt I had been fortunate enough to complete a range of experiences that I felt equipped me with some of the key skills to lead – after all, across a 12 year span I had been the teacher in charge of Media Studies, RAC KS3 English and shared the running of a faculty, an EFL/ESL teacher in Italy, Literacy Co-Ordinator and Acting 2ic.
I had seen an English job advertised at The Wellington Academy previously and had been tempted to apply so I did some research. I watched a video in which year 7 students offered a tour of the school and was taken in by the facilities and the light/space the building seemed to offer. And then I saw the logo.
For me it is the simplest of things that spark off a gut reaction and, in this instance, it was the logo what did it. You see, it’s multi-coloured and for me that held the highest connotations of creativity and personality and fun and life. I was inspired and had the strongest desire to be part of an organisation that held those qualities in high-regard but let the English job pass me by. I knew that it was my time to move up rather than sideways and decided to hold out. Luckily, I didn’t have to wait long because soon after the advert for ‘Director of English’ appeared.
Anyone who has applied for a leadership position knows that actually getting the job is a bonus. For me, the invitation to interview was enough. It meant that someone somewhere had read my application and had a degree of belief in me. It meant that they felt I was capable of doing such a job and, at a point when I felt fairly low in terms of confidence that was more important than anything. Getting the job was somewhat irrelevant.
But get the job I did and I remember the interview day clearly because it very nearly didn’t happen. There was a point when I wasn’t certain if I would make it into the building. It had nothing to do with the school. I was terrified – I was terrified that they would see through me; that they would recognise I was clearly incapable of running a faculty and that I had ideas way above my station but they didn’t. After a lesson observation (which I felt disappointed by), a data exercise (which I felt I bluffed my way through), an admin exercise (in which I must have written my proposed agenda out ten times) and an interview, I was offered the position much to my complete shock and disbelief. And now, as I sit and reflect upon that day – there are three things that strike me. 1) It was a very long but overwhelmingly nice day. I felt bowled over by how welcoming, friendly and supportive the then head and VP were and how relaxed they made me feel throughout the whole process. I enjoyed the banter that they had going on between them and saw, once again, the personality of the school shine through which made it feel so right. 2) The cynic in the corner (luckily I didn’t listen). 3) How proud I felt phoning my dad to tell him I got the job J
And so, just six weeks later, and a shorter Easter holiday than planned, I rocked up to the Wellington Academy to begin work on developing myself in my first head of faculty role.
From the beginning, it wasn’t an easy role. Joining in April, mid-Controlled Assessment organisation and exam preparation was never going to be easy but turning up to find Controlled Assessments still hadn’t been done, were missing and had been very generously marked made life a little bit tougher. There was no easing in period, no induction – it was simply, hit the road and run which we did. In the shortest of time, we put the Controlled Assessment folders together as best we could, we ensured students were entered for the right exams and put together a teach/revision programme. We just about made it.
When year 11 left, it felt as though I could then begin to steer the department in a new direction. We felt energised sitting down – we came up with our vision together; we planned our curriculum together; we talked about policies together and we left for the summer feeling very positive and energised about the future.
And then the results came in. The English Language and English Literature results were great but the English only results weren’t good and it brought us down to 44% A*-C overall. I was heart-broken. Not for myself – as the sense of responsibility didn’t feel overwhelmingly mine – but for the students that I would have to face the next day. I couldn’t believe it.
And then the head left. And I felt a void.
And then, with one week to go, one of the teachers I had hired decided not to join our team.
And I was floored.
It was, quite simply, one of the worst weeks of my professional career.
I cried. And I cried. And I cried. I cried for the students, for the head and for myself as I wondered what on earth I had done and how on earth I was going to cope. But whilst you can visit pity city, you can’t stay there for long (thanks, Lyndy Barclay) and I had to pick myself up, dust myself off and put the game face on.
And that’s what I did. With a week to go, I made the decision to put year 10 onto a new syllabus so I had to re-write the long term plans, the medium term plans and the lesson overviews quickly as well as begin to write cover lesson after cover lesson. It was about surviving. And that’s what we – our team did – we had to.
And then another member of staff left through ill-health.
And so I, with the team, wrote more cover lessons and more cover lessons and covered the classes myself and we took on additional marking to ensure the assessments were marked, sometimes working through to the very early hours of the morning to ensure that, despite being, three staff members down, we would still meet the data deadline.
It was a desperate time and felt so frustrating. I had a vision for the faculty and there was no possible way, at that point, that I could even come close to touching my vision. I literally had to survive every day; my team had to survive every day; we had to make it through.
November was a significant month.
I remember being in school at 7pm and I had taken the decision that I wanted to ensure the year 11 folders matched with the year 11 data and so I went through every single Controlled Assessment folder to realise that the quality of work did not match the fantastic potential of our students. I was heart-broken again. Was I heading for a similar set of results in 2014? I burst into the head’s office and cried on him, distraught by what I had inherited and overtaken by this huge sense of pressure and responsibility. I was a mess so much so he had to tell me to pick up my used tissue from his couch which now, as I look back, makes me laugh. Crying, however, is the greatest of releases (along with alcohol) and in offloading the pressure I was feeling, I was able to find clarity and put together my action plan for year 11. Working with one of our super-heads, Anne, I knocked out an action plan that would not allow what we had inherited to become our end result.
In the same month, I made two fantastic appointments. My Lulu, who has no idea how good she is, and Shorny Morgan who I had got to know through Twitter. Lulu’s appointment was made with my heart – she had a wit about her that I knew would fit in really well and our students would appreciate. She was able to start straight away and she did, meaning life got that little bit easier. I was so excited to appoint Shorny – her enthusiasm for teaching and learning and passion for pedagogy was exactly what I was looking for in order to develop my team. We also successfully managed to recruit Martin from Australia. The only full time bloke in the department, he was like a breath of fresh air – calm, endlessly positive and the only person I have ever heard use the words ‘flaming gallah’ other than Alf Stewart. Things were on the up!
In January, Ofsted arrived. We had been waiting for them for what felt like forever so, on the one hand I was delighted they were coming whilst on the other, I really didn’t feel ready for them. I have to say, the experience was an incredibly positive one. We had a lovely English inspector who was really supportive and even commented that ‘the faculty was such a positive one’ and that she had no doubt ‘we would turn it around.’ I fought really hard for my faculty in the meetings I attended and for the school and was delighted to be complemented by the inspector. Sadly, English took a bit of a hit in the final report but the cynic in me would say that that was to be expected given the summer results.
In February, I made two – hopefully three – further excellent appointments for September. I am so pleased we advertised early because it was one of the most enjoyable interview days I have had. Martin will no longer be alone as the token male, when Chris joins us and Sophie is also adding to the team – a great complement to Lucy.
And now we are in March. My final week of my first year has ended in exhaustion. This week we had Ofsted back in for a monitoring visit, Ark in, in a consultancy type way, a data deadline and observations. I met with Ofsted (and successfully turned him away from my classroom!) and spent some time with Ark, both of whom again complemented the work going on in English. Whilst I am delighted to hear this, I am keeping my fingers crossed that this time, a complement might appear in a letter/report so I have it on paper. And my observation…my first ever OUTSTANDING at The Welly. Yes, I know we are moving away from grading but I desperately needed some reassurance that I still know how to teach.
And year 11…we are still working away – as many English faculties are. I have done everything possible this year – intervention booklets, Saturday sessions, trips, re-organisation of the year group, CAs in the hall, one on one meetings, after school sessions so I am ever hopeful but change takes time so if the progress is not as great as I would hope, I am hoping I won’t be too hard on myself in the summer.
So what have I learnt in a year?
1) Leadership is tough. I know that I have walked into some challenging circumstances which even the most experienced Heads of faculty will have found difficult. It has, without a shadow of a doubt, been the hardest year of my professional career. I have sacrificed my life this year. I have cried endless tears of frustration and exhaustion. None of which has really been any of my doing – it was just that I was the one left to sort it out. And in sorting it out, I realise that I haven’t really had a lot of time to learn my role BUT in doing; in taking on this challenge, I have learnt so much about what it means to be a leader.
Often I will visit pity city for a day or two and think about a life long ago which was easier and kinder. I will have a little cry and then I will be fortunate enough to be confronted by some of the most wonderful students, who need me, and it is then that I know that I need to keep going…for them. And I will, until I can say with my hand on my heart that I am able to offer them the best experiences in English and I can confidently say that we are producing the best outcomes for our amazing students. Then I will have done what I set out to do.
2) Being a leader means recognising what is important right here, right now. I am not where I want to be BUT I will get there. When inheriting situations that you need to turn around, a lot has to be pushed to one side. My focus has had to be on year 11 this year but it has meant that other things that I intended to embed have had to go on the back burner. This is ok. Because whilst I recognise, I am a perfectionist and that I have the highest of standards, I have to be realistic and be content in the knowledge that I cannot achieve everything over-night. And it is ok. It will be ok.
3) I love my school. We have been through the mill this year. Sometimes, really unfairly and it has been upsetting. I will continue to fight for my school when I need to. This is because I genuinely believe in our capacity – we can and we will be brilliant.
4) I love the people I work with.
I have the best line manager I have ever worked for in @KristianStill. We argue, laugh, cry, sigh, collaborate, debate, encourage, motivate together. I could not have got through this year without him. I am so lucky that I know I can do all of the above things with him and knowing that we will continue on this journey together means that we will get there…whatever there looks like.
I have a great Head-teacher in @mikemilner. He has been nothing but supportive of me and what I am doing / trying to achieve. There have been times when his kindness /thoughtfulness towards me has meant everything. I have never worked for such a personable head. He has the highest expectations and I want to achieve great things for him.
My team – what a team! @numptyteacher @shornymorgan @missob69 @martingardner49 @jemmaj_k @academictrust We are going to do / achieve great things. I can’t wait to see what the next year will bring.