This week the TES in the UK started a Twitter thread asking people to respond to #WhyITeach. I’m sure that my response ‘to ignite the hope and belief in every person that they are of immense worth, and to help them show it’ was one many tweets from across the world.
I’m not sure that I trained as a teacher because I held such lofty ideals. I enjoyed my subjects of History and English and I was inspired by a couple of fantastic teachers who shaped my own learning (strangely enough my teachers of – yes, you guessed it, History and English). I had fun during my post-grad year of teacher training, creating resources and tasks that would engender a love of learning and ignite interest in the past. After 25 years of teaching, I am still energized by finding the hook that will capture students and set them off on their own learning journey.
The first year of teaching was pretty tough going, as I’m sure it is for most graduate teachers; no practicum can really prepare you for the endless hours of preparation, marking, meetings and reports. However, something happened in that first year that sparked my career long belief that I could make a difference to the young people in my care. I had the ‘low ability’ class (terrible and inaccurate term) for GCSE History, boys and girls who were mostly disengaged and had little sense of self worth or confidence in their ability as learners. In one of my first lessons, a young lad stood on the table and threatened to throw a chair at me. My response was ‘I wouldn’t do that if I were you; you’re better than that’ and, with heart in my mouth, I just waited. Thankfully, he got down and I carried on with the lesson. He wasn’t ejected from the lesson or marched off to the Principal’s office. Like many students I’ve taught over the years, he didn’t have any belief that he would succeed in History; he’d been turned off by a focus on content and very traditional methodologies, and it was easier to play up than struggle. I believed in that class, and with patience and a lot of time re-thinking how to engage my learners through role play, audio-visuals and plenty of positive feedback, they slowly began to believe in themselves. When the GCSE results came out, no one in the class achieved below a C grade and for some students, it was the highest of their grades. I was thrilled, but not more than they were!
I learned more from that class than they learned from me and I’m grateful to them. They taught me that effective teaching and learning was about knowing students and building relationships and self-belief. People first, always.
I have spent a lot of time recently applying for another leadership position. I’m currently an assistant principal in a school that does not have a deputy principal, so I deputise for the principal and have had a number of opportunities to be Acting Principal. The step up from assistant principal is a significant one and the process to make this step is challenging; applications are extensive and the emotional investment is considerable. I’m sure that many aspiring leaders can relate to the feeling of disappointment when you don’t make the short list, or get to interview and then don’t win the position. In spite of the fact that some of the challenge lies in the flat leadership structure of my current school and the fact that I do not hold a ‘deputy’ title, I am not deterred. In some respects it is very encouraging that competition for principal positions is fierce, seemingly challenging media hype about a shortage of prospective school leaders. The application process, whilst draining, is also very productive as it provides the opportunity to really think about what I stand for, my achievements and practices, and what these say about me a leader.
I recently heard a new principal say that he felt ready for leadership when he began to challenge his own principal, feeling that he would have done things differently. Disagreeing with your principal is not a sign of disrespect; in fact I think it is healthy to have robust conversation in leadership teams, discussions that challenge opinion or direction. Nor is it necessarily a sign of readiness for higher leadership; some people are just argumentative for the sake of it. I have learned a great deal from the principals and deputies I have worked with in my career; each leader has influenced my beliefs and leadership practices in some way. A great mentor or role model is more valuable than any paper espousing leadership theories and styles.
However, I can relate to this new principal’s sense of awareness that he was ready to take on the challenge of leading a school himself, conscious that his suggestions were not reactive, but well-considered, based on evidence, and firmly founded in his values and beliefs about teaching and learning. That is the point I have reached. In some respects I think leadership aspirations, style and practice can be influenced as much by leaders whose values or behaviours we don’t completely relate to or agree with as by those we admire and might wish to emulate. There is nothing profound in this but how many of us really articulate what it is that makes us leaders or potential leaders? Applications and interviews give us the opportunity to do this; they are helping me move beyond a simple list of achievements to reflecting on what they say about who I am, what kind of leader I want to be and how I can best serve the school community that I aspire to lead.
A few years ago when starting further study, I became convinced of the value of personal narrative as a means to make sense of experience (Ochs & Capps, 1996). Of course, any self-narrative carries the risk of conveying my ‘preferred self’, although that is not my intention. Stories are a way of knowing (Connelly & Clandinin, 1985) and, in exploring my own story as a teacher, learner and leader I hope to better understand myself and learn from others. I have been teaching for 25 years, almost half my life. I began teaching secondary school History in the UK in the early days of the National Curriculum, and then spent two years in The Netherlands teaching English as an Additional Language (EAL) at an international primary school. Since 2001, I have lived and worked in Australia as an EAL teacher, consultant and Assistant Principal. I am an aspiring Principal and a life-long learner, undertaking a Masters in Educational Leadership having graduated last year with a professional doctorate in Education. My eldest son is in his third year of teacher training and it strikes me as interesting that when he begins his teaching career his context will, in many ways, be similar to mine a quarter of a century ago. In the global education system of which we are part, international ‘policy borrowing’ (Lingard, 2010) means that he will be teaching from a prescribed national curriculum and preparing students for participation in national testing for which he will be held accountable. Yet teachers’ work has changed, as has the role of leaders, and education is often shaped more by political and economic imperatives than moral and philosophical ones. Change is a constant, and the challenge of leading and managing change is what I aim to explore in my blog.