I’ve been an Assistant Headteacher for just over a year now. In my school, I oversee Year 5 and Year 6. The way the role works is that my time is dedicated to this phase; I am expected to spend 1 day covering in Y3/4 (to cover the teachers’ PPA and give me a chance to know another cohort), but to then to split the lion’s share of the rest of my time between the six classes in my phase. How this has looked has altered throughout the year.
My ultimate summary is that I am so grateful to be working in such a lovely school. I have great colleagues and amazing teachers in my phase, and I feel as though I know the kids so well, considering it’s just been a year. The kids really are a remarkable group of humans – never not-funny, often witty, always thoughtful and phenomenally hard working.
Four things that come to mind, as I look on it, are juggling, integrity, stress and relationships.
I underestimated quite how much juggling of roles and responsibilities I would be doing, and have found myself – at times – quite literally breathless as I try to keep them all flying. Between supporting individual teachers, managing my own teaching, planning and preparing interventions and involving myself in SLT activities, I have struggled to get the balances right.
In ways, it is a bit of a zero sum game. I feel that things have worked really well with Year 6; we recognised the benefits of an extra class for more focused teaching, so I’ve had a maths group since January. The kids have responded well and have enjoyed their year, whilst working very hard to catch up from a low starting point, and I’ve been very involved with the Year 6 team as a consequence. But a side-effect has been that I have not given Year 5 an equitable amount of my time and involvement.
I’ll switch to a plate spinning metaphor. It has been useful to know that if a plate drops, it doesn’t necessarily break, but can be picked up. Over the course of the year, I have come to recognise that some of the plates I need to keep spinning might seem less important than others, but these ones sometimes would be the ones that are harder to fix.
I began the year reading weekly with one pupil in Year 6 who needed it most, and carved out half an hour for him; he would come to my office, browse my shelf or bring whatever he was reading at home, and we would read together and have a bit of a life chat. Over the year, pressures built up and it became harder to guarantee that time. I was being called for meetings, I was dealing with behavioural issues, I was being pulled in to cover. At one point, I realised that our reading time had just stopped. He didn’t tell me about it, he didn’t ask why. He just presumed it had stopped, despite us both recognising these time as one of our favourite half-hours of the week. We brought it back, and even kept it up throughout SATs week, and it remains my fragile delicate porcelain saucer, that spins lightly above the SATS platter, and the gargantuan dinner plate of writing moderation.
So there have been some successes, certainly, but at this point I am dwelling on what hasn’t gone so well and as I look at next year, I want to think more sensibly about that which I am juggling. I am learning when to say no, recognising how to pre-plan my workload, and will be ‘ring fencing’ certain activities that I know to be meaningful, even if they don’t readily appear so.
My integrity has been tidal. I began my time in this school by trying to usher in a change in the curriculum. Now, whilst I am happy with what the teachers have crafted, and whilst it continues to improve, I look back with a bit of a grimace. I was guilty of stomping in, anxious to seem useful, and acting rashly without due consideration of impact. I know that this did not go down well, and got some people’s heckles up.
Since September, I recognised that it was important to continue building a reputation as a good teacher, and that this would be a better way to work and act authentically from my position as a senior leader. This has been OK I feel – I am still most comfortable when teaching – but there have been several hurdles as I have been trying to ‘become’ an AHT, rather than just be paid as one.
Nothing erodes trust as much as unfulfilled promises. I knew this before, but haven’t felt it as sharply as when I have been the eroder. I tend to be harrowingly keen to please people, and this is incompatible with the role – or certainly without a lot of modification. In the beginning of the year, I have shied away from giving teachers clear feedback that I knew would be helpful to them but would perhaps upset them in the short term. I have smiled and nodded at points in meetings when I ought really to have piped up with a question in order to learn more.
As I look at next year – and incidentally after a post-BrewEd drink with Rebekah Iiyambo – I am thinking with a different mindset. As Rebekah said, feedback is a gift. I seek it out and I will share it more confidently. In addition, I will look to contribute more actively in leadership team discussions, not resting on my laurels and twiddling silently with my New Boy badge.
I am fortunate to be able to deal quite well with stress. I know that it sounds strange, but I always have. I put this down to having been lucky enough to have been raised in a calm, loving environment, in which I was cocooned from it, and for as long as I can remember, I have taken a peculiar pleasure in the things which might often cause stress to others. My butterflies in my stomach tickle me rather than make me queasy. I have always enjoyed sitting tests and enjoyed revising, I felt excited when I had my university interviews at Cambridge and felt confident when leaving home. I am quite annoyingly placid of spirit.
I think because I have never really struggled with it – and hadn’t really in my first six year of teaching – I was blindsided by its impact this year. It certainly hasn’t been all of the time, but for a period of about three weeks, I have never felt so anxious. My resting face is quite inscrutable, but it was noticed by others. My chest was tight. I woke up every morning after a night of restless and disturbed sleep. I felt as though I was trying to live three minutes for every sixty seconds, literally running around and watching as my To Do list grew longer every time I tried to settle it.
At its peak, I had one day when I was an absolute arsehole. As is its nature, it was the photocopier that tipped me over the edge. I needed to print some sheets for a lesson I was due to teach in three minutes, and the whole year group would be teaching from this resource that I had forgotten to print. I sprinted up the staircase and waited to get at the copier, and then a colleague jammed it – unintentionally but in a pretty foolish manner. Everything came out and I subjected this innocent machine, and the colleague operating it, to a fifteen-second outpouring of three week’s worth of rage-tinted anxiety. Yes I reflected and calmed immediately, and apologised, but I wouldn’t have forgiven and forgotten, and I doubt they ever will fully. I have to own that.
I have generally sought to be the one who brings the stress-levels down. The teachers I have been working with have been focused but content, and we have had a good year together, and look forward to working together next year too. We have become friends and have worked collaboratively – my greatest gratitude is to our Year 6 Leader, who is a towering presence in the classroom and has steered the ship with confidence and great humour.
In general, it has been a year where we have consciously attempted to create a micro-culture of hard work without strain, and the children have risen to the occasion, and can be really proud of themselves.
I’ve been to a lot of conference talks in the last few years, and without question, the one which moved me and changed my thinking most of all was about relational schools, led by Dr Robert Loe. His talk was deeply personal, reflective and it outlined his organisations work on relational thinking – to improve society by strengthening the quality of relationships between people, starting with children in schools.
Immediately after attending, I began thinking differently about the impact of relationships in the classroom, and their impact. Given the number of pupils who might not have secure relationships in their homelives, it was all the more important to ensure that the relationships they foster at school are as open, safe and supportive.
It has become a focus of activity within my phase, and something that we have discussed as a group. We have reflected on how our relationships are better with some pupils than others, and considered how this alters the children’s experience of school.
A crucial idea we have settled upon is that not all pupils are in a position to seek out the kind of supportive relationships – with each other and with their teachers – that they actually need. We have planned our mentoring, and the work of our learning coach, by thinking carefully about which pupils struggle most of all to form stable relationships, both social and learning relationships.
It has altered my own work with the pupils, but also with the teachers. Belonging to a group and being accepted as an active part of it is vital. Being heard and knowing somebody is there is vital – for everyone. As we begin looking to 2018-19, it is something that will be on our radar from day one, and I am very excited for it.