The power of being vulnerable 

The more you give the more you get back. It’s scary opening our heart sometimes but I urge you to try it. If you have the courage to be vulnerable, especially if you’re in a leadership role, you empower others. 

I arrived in India 2 days ago to do a yoga course and didn’t know a soul. I hadn’t slept for about 30 hours or had much to eat due to the fact that airlines don’t seem to understand the concept that you can be coeliac and vegetarian. Added to that there are currency problems in India and I had very little cash. I reached out to the group that had been set up for our course. It was a heartfelt and emotional post but it has received the biggest response out of any other in the group. I have connected with so many people since because I can simply introduce myself as ‘the crazy woman who wrote that post!’ Not that anyone has said I’m crazy they’ve all been very kind. The chances are most of them were feeling the same way and by opening up I’ve given them permission to do so too. 

So if you’re a leader in a school or elsewhere do you have the courage to be vulnerable? It’s a lot easier, albeit a lot more painful, to erect barriers around ourselves. But just imagine how your organisation could be transformed if you dropped them. 

Helen Pengelly is a coach who is passionate about helping school leaders create coaching and mindfulness cultures. Visit http://www.happyteachers.co.uk for more information about how she can help. 

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The true cost of not taking care of your staff

While I worked as a supply teacher for 10 years on and off I became aware that more teachers were going off sick for longer. Many schools now have trouble recruiting and retaining staff. It is not unusual now for teachers to leave in the middle of the academic year – something that never used to happen. A BBC News report tells us that each school in the UK spends £168 a year on average on each pupil for extra staffing and this can be as much as over £500. According an NAHT report schools can spend as much as £10,000 on agency fees to recruit teachers.

However there is a simple solution. By investing in your staff’s well being your school can save thousands of pounds. A primary school in London gave coaching to all their staff and they all stayed – no one resigned last year. Another in Bristol recognised the benefits of coaching and created a coaching culture in their school. Their following two OFSTED inspections were outstanding. We are waiting with bated breath for the result of the next one.

Last year I was facilitating a workshop when teachers reported back that they had the 3 minute breathing space I taught and they were sleeping better within a few days. So if only one of your teachers has a better night’s sleep and has one fewer absence our mindfulness course has paid for itself. I know finances in schools are tight but can you really afford not to?

Two very different books on school leadership

This week I have read books about two very different approaches to school leadership.

The first was Supporting the Emotional Work of School Leaders ( Leading Teachers, Leading Schools) by Belinda Harris. At last here is a book for school leaders that goes deeper than improving exam results and passing the OFSTED inspection. It is very telling that this book was written 10 years ago and if anything the education system has deteriorated in that time.
Belinda Harris draws on a wealth of experience and research, both theoretical and practical, to back up her claims. With so many teachers leaving the profession and suffering stress-related illnesses working from the inside out is not ‘fluffy stuff’ but vital to education’s future. With the current revolution in ‘mindfulness’ and ‘well-being’ in education things are slowly changing but a lot of it is still superficial and does not go deep enough for lasting change. In my view becoming more self aware and the importance of self care needs to be embedded from initial teacher training so this book should be read by everyone in education, not just school leaders. Every member of staff in a school is a leader, just at different levels.
A lot of what Belinda writes about is probably still beyond the comprehension of many school leaders. I’ve worked in over 40 schools and I have seen very few school leaders that are aware of their inner processes and how it affects their school ethos. However it will take a few school leaders to take that leap of faith and try it out for themselves to see the difference it can make to life in and out of school.

I was in tears reading this book because there is so much evidence that by becoming more self aware we can change the world for the better and yet very little is still being done in education.

The second was Headstrong: 11 Lessons of School Leadership by Dame Sally Coates.  I call this a ‘car crash’ book – I read the sample on my Kindle and had to buy the book because I could not believe what I was seeing. This is not a book in lessons of leadership but more a story of bad management. I do believe that Sally (sorry Sally titles don’t impress me, actions do) had the best interests of her pupils at heart but she appeared to be completely unaware of the lasting impact of her actions. She does not write much about her background or what makes her qualified to be asked to turn around a failing school. From what I can see, although she had been teaching for 40 years, her experience inside and outside education is very limited. She had only worked in two schools in London and, from the length of her experience, it would appear that she has never worked in any other fields.
There are many contradictions in this book and it would take another book to go through them all fully. She bandies about the term ’emotional intelligence’ but does not apply it to herself. She has no boundaries for herself or her staff and as any good leader knows self-care is paramount. She is proud of the fact that teachers ‘drag themselves in’ – her words, not mine – rather than take time off when they are sick and calls them at all times in the evenings and weekends. She says a lot of her staff are young so perhaps they can cope with this kind of pressure and don’t have many other commitments but I was under the impression that she has dismissed the wisdom and experience that older teachers can bring to the leadership team.
Here is a woman who is so afraid to be vulnerable and let any cracks show. Bullies are very insecure in themselves and she openly admits that she wants her staff and pupils to be a bit afraid of her. There is no reference to what happened in her early life that makes her so hard on herself. She is right about one thing though and that is the ethos and the culture of the school reflects on the headteacher. However she is blinded by her own definition of ‘success’ and does not see that might mean different things to different people. She was very dismissive of people outside London who in her view were not as ambitious. I wonder who cuts her hair? Her lawyer? Her doctor? There is more to life than GCSEs and not everybody wants to go to Oxbridge, just look at their suicide rates.
I am concerned about the lasting damage she has caused with her ‘headstrong’ approach; to those teachers she told were ‘inadequate’ simply based on the hearsay of SLT, to those children that did not conform whose spirits she broke by her punitive measures  (2 hours’ detention after school on a Friday and 8 sides of lines and then only looking at the cause of their behaviour if they came back 4 or 5 times), to her young staff who have not had a good role model in self care and not least to her own children, who as teenagers need their mother at this time more than any other, while she was working 60 hours a week.
This is not a sustainable model as evidenced by the school’s exam results which dropped sharply the year after she left the school. I sincerely hope she has retired and has moved a long way so she cannot inflict any further damage. We need heartstrong leaders not headstrong ones. Read this book by all means to see in why our education system is in the state it is and then read Supporting the Emotional Work of School Leaders and take your leadership lessons from that.

I was also in tears reading this book but for very different reasons.  I really feel for Sally who is obviously suffering deep inside, even if she doesn’t know it, and all the people who have had their lives and careers destroyed by her actions. I have had it done to me and I know what that feels like.

Thoughts on Bristol WomenEd LeadMeet 16/4/16

I first came across TeachMeets about a year and a half ago and I continue to be inspired by all the wonderful stuff going on in schools despite what we read in the media.

As well as the traditional TeachMeet formula the Bristol event had a presentation from a keynote speaker, a choice of workshops – we had to choose 3 out of about 18, it was so hard I wanted to go to them all, followed by a wonderful ‘plenary’ by Sue Cowley and a few short presentations, of which I did one and led a 3 minute meditation.

It was so refreshing to hear Natalie Scott talk about ‘imposter syndrome’. It is something I felt for years and if it wasn’t for my lovely mentor in my first teaching practice I would have given up before I started. I then went on to have my confidence severely knocked by my mentor in my second placement and in the first school I worked at. After a few years out of teaching I was able to rebuild my self belief by working as a supply teacher when it got to the point where schools were asking for me by name.

The keynote speaker Claire Carter explained that she did not follow a traditional career route which did away with some of my pre-conceptions about leadership in schools. I am currently writing a book to help school leaders become more mindful and I have suffered with a lot of self doubt over this. For example, who am I to be advising people who are more senior than me? Yes I know this is just a perception. Thanks to my own mindfulness work I know my thoughts and beliefs aren’t real and although I have not followed a conventional career path I do know what I am talking about!

I identified with much of what Sue Cowley said in the ‘plenary.’ My first entry into personal development was through the book ‘Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway’ by Susan Jeffers. I had done pretty much everything Sue talked about and more and it’s that depth of experience that enables us to be authentic. I still feel scared when I am going to coach someone or get up to speak but I have managed to get over myself.

I came away from the day feeling inspired. I have worked in over 40 schools and at times felt very much alone and that heart-centred leadership was an impossible dream. I will mention Kat Schofield and Jane Tailby because I heard them speak but if they are just two (and I know there are many more) the future for education is looking good despite the government rather than because of it.

Academies – what can you do as a head teacher?

Unless you’ve been in outer space for the last week you will have heard the news that the government intend  to ‘force’ all state schools to become academies by 2020. I am not going to get involved with any political debate or say whether this is a good or bad thing. There has been a lot in the news and on social media saying more teachers will leave, schools will be employing unqualified teachers and amongst other reactions.

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Non-directed or directed?

I have recently started training to be a coach. An exercise we did in our workshop last week was around whether we prefer to be ‘directed’ or ‘non-directed’ or somewhere in between. What this means is do we prefer to be directed externally or internally. The extremes I suppose would be at the directed end, a soldier, and at the non-directed end, an entrepreneur.

Having reflected on this since then perhaps this should be ‘reactive or responsive’. We can’t always change what happens to us but we can change the way we respond to external events. The more we take responsibility for creating our circumstances the more we move to the ‘non-directed’ end and the happier we will be. It’s not always easy but it’s always worth it.