Yesterday morning I woke up to my weekly Guardian and TES job alerts and, instead of exploring the latest batch, I deleted them. I’ve unsubscribed. Doing that has sealed the decisions I’ve made this week marking a major turning point in my professional life. I’m no longer someone in between jobs, looking to return to Headship; I’ve decided to commit to my work as a consultant with fingers in lots of pies – indefinitely.
Some folk may think I’d made that decision already – but I hadn’t. Psychologically I’ve been biding my time waiting for the right opportunity for me to return. I’ve been thinking of myself as Headteacher on hold. Things came to a resolution recently after I had been encouraged to consider applying for a job as Head of a school I admire enormously; I was sorely tempted. I downloaded the application forms and started to compose my personal statement. But then I had a couple of important conversations that made me change my mind.
Now I’ve decided, it feels great! Liberating.
Why try going back to being a Head ?
I have a strong sense of unfinished business. I loved being a Headteacher – the sense of mission, building a team, trying to shape the ethos, the daily interaction with students and colleagues. I loved all the problem-solving and the sense of community. There are lots of things I miss. I visit schools around the country and meet lots of Heads that I’m totally inspired by – like Sam Gorse at Turton in Bolton, to give just one example. Meeting inspiring Heads reminds me that it can be a brilliant job. Even though it didn’t pan out so well last time, I still think it’s a job I’d be good at. It’s certainly a privilege to be a Headteacher and, in the right circumstances, I can’t think of a better, more rewarding job.
There has also been an element of feeling an obligation – that it’s something I should be doing; if all these other people are soldiering away on the frontline, then so should I. That’s where you make the most difference. I’m not entirely comfortable being someone on the outside; an ex-Head, an associate of the Heads’ Roundtable, not a full-blown member. The system needs more Headteachers and a big part of me feels that I should be one of them.
There is also the downside of setting out as a consultant: no long-term security, working job to job, travelling a lot, all the invoicing and tax stuff, being away from home a lot (the 247 hotel in Oldham is quite a place!), doing a lot of one-off inputs without the joy of seeing ideas come to fruition. I was questioning whether this was a sustainable life and Headship often seems more rooted, grounded, long-term.
For all these reasons, I was sorely tempted to take the plunge again.
Why not go back to being a Head?
I told someone – whose opinion I respect – that I was considering making applications for September 2018. They said. “Really? I’d think very hard about that. You’ve got nothing to prove.” So I did think very hard and I asked my family.
There are actually lots of significant positives to my new world as a consultant. I meet lots of great people, see lots of interesting schools and, crucially, I’ve got some longer-term arrangements – at Oldham College, for example – that are fascinating and rewarding where I still get the sense of building something. I’ve found that I really enjoy engaging in CPD events -sharing ideas with teachers and leaders about great teaching. It’s the thing I enjoy doing the most – including observing lessons and giving constructive feedback, working closely with teachers in leaders in schools of all kinds.
I’ve had lots of interesting work and I enjoy the variety and freedom. It could be that I’m no longer suited to the deep single-school commitment of frontline Headship – I’m better working across the system supporting in lots of schools where I’m needed. I love spending time one-to-one with Headteachers, walking through their challenges and offering support and ideas. Far from being a deficit on their part, I see it as a sign of strength when a Head welcomes an external eye to support them along their improvement journey.
And here is the thing: I have no stress. No pressure. Nobody to answer to but myself and my clients. All of that makes life better for everyone. Everyone at home is happier about it and you’ve got to listen to that. I may be late after a journey or be away from home a lot, but there are no days when I come home in a horrible mental state or weekends when I never switch off. None.
Finally, there is still a personal dark cloud over Headship and our ludicrous accountability regime that I don’t think I can shift- not yet anyway. My capacity for tolerating BS of any kind is now very low; my bubble of faith in the integrity of our system has burst, and I don’t honestly think I can risk putting myself in a situation where I have to explain myself to my masters based on measures and judgements I don’t have any respect for. Life’s too short. Most job adverts still fall into the ‘Son of God Required’ trap and there’s still too much hubristic Cult of Outstanding nonsense and Performance Target blaggery to wade through even at the application stage. I’m just not interested in playing all those games.
What I’ve found is that it’s hugely rewarding working with teachers and leaders directly, dealing with the details of how to construct a good curriculum and how to teach more effectively. This is where the action is: face-to-face, in the detail of how you manage classrooms, how you ask questions, how you assess, how you motivate learners, how you sequence concepts. That’s what I’m talking about all week instead of budgets – that aren’t big enough; development plans – that no-one reads; governors’ reports – that have so little impact relative to the time they take; data patterns – that very few people really understand and responding to incidents and staffing crises of one kind or another. The Head-as-Employer with all the HR issues that go with it – is not something you go into the job for.
I do believe that things could be different. We could have a world class system led by motivated, trusted leaders – but we’ll never get that while our overseers label people and schools as inadequate based on unscientific judgement-making processes and schools are compared via single house-built-on-sand data-point numbers like -0.17. Maybe one day we’ll catch up with the best systems and dial down all this foolishness. One day. For now, it’s not for me. And I cannot lie: it feels good!
I’m excited. I’m getting interesting offers for work well into next year and it’s a relief to be looking forward in a frame of mind where I can put all my energy into whatever I do. Primarily I’m developing some experience and expertise around professional learning for teachers and that is exciting to be involved in. In a couple of weeks my website will be upgraded but for now, my consultancy page is here. Get in touch if you think I can help.
There is also all the potential for following up on The Learning Rainforest. I’ve had some great feedback and I’m optimistic that this will lead to further possibilities for writing and supporting the work of teachers and leaders.
I received two letters from people about my book this week that made me very happy indeed. It turns out there are other ways I can make a difference: