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 for more information about how she can help. 

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?

Are you being short-changed?

More and more schools are embracing mindfulness training but if you are new it can be a minefield. Look for a teacher who had a daily spiritual practice and trust your intuition. Do you feel comfortable with them? Don’t be afraid to ask questions and walk away if it does not feel right.  There is no regulation and some organisations are gaining a hold despite only requiring minimal experience from people before going on their training courses. You cannot learn to teach mindfulness in six weeks – it is a lifetime’s practice.

I would love to talk to you about the benefits mindfulness can bring. I am authentic and speak from the heart but if you don’t like me I will not be offended.

Find out more on my website Happy Teachers.

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.

Read more

Reflecting on my best lessons

Those that I remember the most are not the lessons where I had written a detailed 3-part lesson plan and stuck to it, had a learning objective, starter and plenary and would have been judged ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted. No the lessons that stay with me are the messy ones, where I didn’t even try very hard yet I received the best feedback ever – from the kids. The lessons where I went with my intuition, responded to the needs of the children and made it up as I went along and allowed the children to do the same.

To this day my favourite was a music lesson with year 7s. We spent most of the hour playing the drums, dancing and singing, making it up as we went along. They told me it was the best lesson they had ever had. I became known in another school because I danced with some year 9s during an Art lesson so I wager those year 7s will remember that lesson for a long time.

Maybe I could get away with it a bit more because I was doing supply cover, or is that just an assumption? I believe we need more teachers to take ownership of their lessons and give their pupils space to be creative and exercise their imaginations. It takes courage and means stepping out of your comfort zone but imagine what it will do for teachers’ personal development as well as that of their pupils.


DHS TeachMeet 2015

Disclaimer: I would not recommend David Didau as a speaker, he completely failed to engage the audience and spoke for too long. Lessons to be learned!

Class Teaching



Last Thursday saw our fourth annual TeachMeet at Durrington High School.  As always, it was a fantastic evening.  A great demonstration of the appetite of teachers for sharing and collaboration – exactly what teachmeets should be about.

tmdd3The evening got off to a great start with David Didau.  David asked us to challenge our assumptions about teaching and learning – something that he is very good at.  He discussed the fact that many of the things that actually make a difference to learning are counter-intuitive – so need us to think about and change our own practice.  He unpicked the difference between learning and performance, the need for desireable difficulties and what we can do about it.  His presentation can be downloaded here.


The Presentations:

Kate Bloomfield – The best revision guide…ever – @tennisbloom

Kate discussed the fact that there was no need to spend loads of money…

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Allowing children time to simply ‘be’

I worry for our children, particularly those in secondary schools, and I know I am not alone. I have been doing a maternity cover for the last three months and it’s the first time I’ve worked full time since my first teaching job which I left in 2005. I’ve been grateful for the opportunity because it has given me a chance to observe and see what really goes on, which can be difficult when you are doing day to day supply. I am not blaming the teachers, I think they are doing a wonderful job given the circumstances. I suppose I am lucky because I know I am out of there in 6 days so there is no pressure on me to ensure the children reach their target grades. I have no doubt that they would if I were to stay but I would not be doing it the conventional way, oh no.

I am surprised though that some teachers do not seem to understand the correlation between the restlessness in year 7s  in 4th period and the fact that they have been made to sit down for four hours on the trot with only a 20 minute break. Added to that they are hungry and I wonder how many of them even ate a proper breakfast before coming to school. Have the teachers really become that disconnected? Probably because the same is happening to them too.

I teach a group of year 9s, only eight of them now. After a few weeks the group was split in two, the hard-working, compliant children (I am deliberately not using the term ‘well-behaved’ – there is no such thing as good or bad behaviour, just behaviour)  were taken off to work with an LSA while I was left with the more ‘difficult’ ones. I don’t find them difficult at all, in fact my eyes are welling up with tears as I type this, I have so much love for them. These are the children you will constantly find in detention, being excluded, on report, you know the ones. I tried to teach them as a class at first – I had the group settled before the compliant ones were removed. These children are not stupid, they knew why they weren’t picked to be in the other group so I was left with the task of settling them again. A few weeks ago I gave up trying to ‘teach’ them as a class, they were so unsettled there was no point. At the beginning one girl sat for the whole lesson with her coat over her face and her head on the desk. I left her alone and after a few lessons she looked up. I said how lovely it was to see her face and she gave me a beautiful smile. She commented on my necklace, a rose quartz heart, and we had a conversation about crystals. The following day I brought in a larger rose quartz heart from home and she carefully looked after it for me. Another one has recently been diagnosed with ‘ADHD’ and put on Ritalin yet the other day she showed me a picture she had drawn which had taken her about an hour, it was beautiful. She told me she rarely watches TV in the evening because she prefers to do Art.

I wonder how often anyone ever really listens to these children – they are only children, it’s easy to forget that sometimes. I allow them the chance to feel safe. I hear some dreadful stories when they talk about their home life and what other teachers have said to them. At the beginning I would spend half the lesson trying to round them up and would be lucky if they were all there by the middle of the period and did not wander off half way through. Last week they were all there within the first ten minutes of the lesson, the first breakthrough, and they stayed till the end. I gave them the option of doing some maths, some were doing a worksheet – a calculated colouring exercise, or colouring mandalas – very therapeutic or playing a game on the netbooks. They are noticeably calmer now and I know that given a few more weeks with them they would be making more progress with their maths too. I worry what will happen when I am gone but I can only hope that I have restored their faith in humanity slightly and counteracted some of the damage.

I hope if you are a teacher reading this you will have the courage to give your pupils some space. I did this in my first job with a similar group when the year 9s still did SATs and most of them achieved a level 4 or 5.

Read here for more about mandala colouring healing.