The last decade has been an amazing time for our family. 10 years ago my children were kids of 11 and 7; now they’re young adults of 21 and 17. Watching them grow up has been the central joy of our lives. I wrote about the moment my daughter went to university here – it captures some of the emotions. In personal terms, I couldn’t be more grateful for all life has given us.
Professionally, things have been more of a roller-coaster.
It’s been an adventure for sure. I’ve learned a lot and happily I’m finishing on a bit a of high. In 2010 I was the Head of KEGS in Chelmsford – a hyper-selective school where I wore a gown in every assembly and the students all sang Jerusalem with great gusto. It doesn’t sound very ‘me’ but I loved it there; it was a natural enough progression after three years on the international school scene in Jakarta (2005-8) and, whilst feeling like a fish out of water much of the time, I learned a great deal and worked with incredibly talented people. When I left in 2014, I wrote a long list here:
During that time I enjoyed some success – fully accepting that the privileged circumstances made that reasonably likely. In one year KEGS was the only English school in the BBC top 10 for both GCSE and A level points. That felt good! I joined the Headteachers’ Roundtable and made lots of friends with comprehensive school leaders like John Tomsett, despite being someone from The Dark Side.
Significantly, in May 2012, I was sitting with Vic Goddard at an Essex Heads’ gathering when we heard about the power of blogging and twitter. (Vic was already a bit of a celebrity post-Educating Essex at this point). I resurrected my dormant jokily-named @headguruteacher twitter profile – Vic was my 50th follower. I also had a go at blogging – which was when the ‘Rainforest’ idea was born. I found a writing voice and discovered that people will read things about marking and behaviour management. To my great surprise, blogging took off.
From around 2013, it felt like there was a great fresh wave of thinking flooding through the system with teachmeets starting up, the Teacher Development Trust setting up, #UKEdChat and other forums connecting people – and then the launch of the mighty ResearchEd. We seemed to break free from the confines of formal channels and expensive conferences exclusively for the big-hitters. So much has changed in the last decade just in terms of how teachers can engage with each other.
In 2014, I finally landed a job as Head of a London comprehensive – my dream job, so I thought. There was a honeymoon period of sorts (before it began to unravel). Throughout my time there I especially loved watching students grow and captured some of that in one my blogs: It’s massively rewarding to harness that energy; to see students growing, maturing, learning, knowing that we’re making a difference. A quick mental scan of recent weeks (names changed, real people):
- James, another chat in the playground. He talks to me every week. He’s always excited about something; this time he’s excited but a bit nervous about his Soapbox speech. He asks me (again) when he’ll get his 100% attendance certificate. He runs off suddenly to join in a game.
- Sabrina, in Maths, struggles continually and has to wrestle with low self-confidence but is relentlessly cheerful and determined. She was in my squad on Outward Bound – I know what she is capable of.
- Robert and Simon, a pair of Sixth Formers, always at the centre of things. They stroll up for a chat, to talk politics and share their latest escapades with various student elections, appearances on BBCQT…
- Kolo, always wants to say ‘Hi’. He’s a great model to his peers; shows a real zeal to succeed though not a conformist; he’s committed to his faith; he’s very argumentative – he’s in the Student Council and always has a beef of one kind or another. He’ll go far.
- Sana, a multiple A* uber-achiever. Always so impressive to talk to her; awe-inspiring in her calm, humble confidence and maturity, her dedication to music and her commitment to various causes. The world’s at her feet.
- Allana. A very troubled young person; she truants, she’s stubborn, she digs a hole for herself all the time and can be super challenging. But recently, she’s had an awakening – she’s started to admit to her problems and is starting to face them. At the heart of it, he is a girl with very low confidence in learning and it all stems from there. I think we can save her.
- Ryan, transformed from his time in Year 7 and 8 when people used to say he was unteachable. That was almost true – relentless attention-seeking and work avoidance. He’s one of our great successes from the Behaviour Support Centre – it’s like a switch was switched and he decided to reinvent himself. He walks a bit taller now – you can tell he feels better about himself. It’s great to see.
- Ava. Fabulously confident and fiercely intelligent, Ava knows what she wants and makes it happen. It’s fabulous to see her in lessons, always at the centre of any discussion going. She approaches me regularly to voice her latest idea, question or concern and invariably, she leaves with the answer she wanted – usually ‘Yes’ or ‘I’ll get that sorted’.
Despite working flat-out and beyond, things kind of spiralled out of my control and this end-of-decade holiday period marks three years since I hit the absolute professional low point . Disappointing summer results and then a two-day inspection car crash in the last weeks of an absolutely brutal term; the worst possible outcome and then, finally, a two line email on the last day of term informing me of my fate. It was over.
It’s still hard to write in detail about that experience because of the mixed emotions and the fact that people I care about are still there. It’s a combination of:
- feeling like an absolute failure, letting people down; I know the many mistakes I made and things I could and should have done differently. I was out of my depth a lot of the time, not able to tackle the most deep-seated issues, and was almost certainly the wrong person for that particular job. It was unhealthy in many ways – I just didn’t realise how serious this was until afterwards.
- feeling a sense of injustice; I inherited a school with huge potential but also facing complex internal and external challenges (that haven’t gone away even now) and wasn’t really given time to do or learn about what needed to be done. I didn’t find the right kind of expert support and it all came to a fairly brutal end. I don’t think a decent system should treat well-meaning people in such a humiliating way. It broke me, for a while at least.
- feeling some residual pride in beginning to establish a professional culture and curriculum that I’d still seek to implement in any school. It wasn’t all bad – and there were lots of great people there that I enjoyed working with.
After leaving, it took about six months to get some kind of perspective: an intense month of mental health walks, then, with time on my hands, writing The Learning Rainforest and getting bits and pieces of consultancy work. This allowed me to wade through all the recriminations and pull out of the nosedive. At some point, you just have to get on with life. My family helped me keep it all in perspective. In the end it was actually a relief.
Three years on and I’ve more or less reinvented myself as a consultant and writer. I’ve got lots of people to thank for that. The last year has been extraordinary; it feels like I’m riding the crest of a wave, exceeding all my hopes and expectations. I have work nearly every day, and in 2019 alone I visited 13 countries and over 100 fabulous schools; I’m already booked solid for 2020. My travel map for the last three years looks like this:
Amidst all this, Rosenshine’s Principles in Action, written rather casually as a ‘short explainer’ for the US market, has sold 55,000 copies since its publication in May, proving that ‘short is good’ when it comes to edu-books. The Learning Rainforest Fieldbook also came out and I’m thrilled with the way it captures the spirit of some of my favourite schools and people. When you’re basically a physics teacher at heart, it’s not natural to think of yourself as a writer but I guess that is now something that I can call myself. It’s lovely to be a member of the John Catt family.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working with Mary Myatt and John Tomsett on our Curriculum Masterclasses events and running my own Rosenshine events which helped to raise £10,000 for Shelter. Most recently I’ve been working on next year’s big project with Oliver Caviglioli: Teaching Walkthrus. We’re super excited about it:
I’ve managed to keep my blog going and this year it hit some stats heights I’ll probably not reach again, with 1 million views in 2019, five million overall after writing my 600th blog post. I’m determined to worry less about stats in future.. but they do actually motivate me to write: they’re the sign that there are readers out there.
The contrast from now to three years ago is significant – recovering to a position of sound mental health, two stone lighter and generally in control of what I do each day. I’ve been lucky. I’m very firmly an ex-Headteacher – there’s no going back – but that’s OK. I had my chance and I think I’m much better at doing what I do now.
What have I learned?
I’m not one for amping up the meme-cheese but, looking back, there are several things I’ve learned, about myself, about education, about people and about life in general:
- Life’s not a ladder: it’s healthier to think of it as a series of experiences, each adding variety, offering different perspectives and opportunities. If things don’t work out – that’s ok because it means you can do something else instead.
- It’s important to find or create conditions where you can be yourself. If you’re trying to be something you’re not, you’re on the road to unhappiness. The trick is to notice when this is happening.
- It’s better to succeed by doing a few simple things well than to fight on too many fronts and fail. Hubris is seductive but ends badly; honesty and humility pay dividends.
- It’s important to accept your limitations and pick up the signals when you’ve exceeded them. Admitting this to yourself is very hard. You need people to offload to that you can trust and people who you allow to tell you things you need to hear.
I’ve learned a lot from meeting school leaders around the country: The most common feature of the leaders I respect the most is this: they establish an affinity with the communities they serve and they stick around. They exude a kind of unconditional love for the students in their care and their students repay them with trust and respect. Where they enjoy enormous privileges, they acknowledge it and don’t make false claims about tackling disadvantage or preach to others from on high.
People doing the toughest jobs need maximum support and respect, not least for just being there, doing it, day in day out. Way too many people offer commentary and/or advice on scenarios they have almost no real understanding or experience of or abandoned long ago. If I meet a Head running a great or improving school in difficult circumstances, after making tough or controversial choices, I’m not going to judge them. I’m taking my hat off to them; I’m thanking them. I’m standing back in awe, applauding. Time and time again I meet teachers and leaders where I think thank God for you; that you’re here for these kids in this place. These people are heroes in my eyes. And the system still finds a way to kick them in the teeth all too often.
Writing and consultancy are hugely rewarding – but there’s nothing like being part of a community of teachers and students. I miss that a lot. But, without doubt, I couldn’t go back to it. There are numerous family factors but even putting those aside, mainly I just couldn’t go back to having a boss and dealing with all the accountability, finance and HR stuff that bogs you down. That BS-bubble has burst. But also I wouldn’t offer myself up to be the community figure that school leaders have to be. I have the deepest admiration and respect for Headteachers and school leaders in general – it helps to live with someone who does this hard graft every day, keeping me in touch with the realities of it. Even though I actually literally dream about being a Head again – quite often in fact – in real life I know I couldn’t do it with the sustained commitment needed or as well as any group of children would deserve and I’m happy to accept that. I’ve moved on.
Looking ahead to the 2020s, it’s pretty exciting. I’m looking forward to developing the WalkThrus project with Oliver and the good people at John Catt, to more events with John and Mary, to continuing work with some of my longer term partners in Oldham, Colchester, Bolton, Gosport and Milton Keynes – and to seeing more of the world. I’ve got a trip to Australia booked for March 2021. As I edge toward retirement, perhaps at some point in the late 2020s, I’d like to find a way to do some more teaching – maybe 2 days a week teaching physics somewhere, bringing my career back full circle. That might be the best combination. But who knows what might happen. Hopefully I’ll find a way to continue to make a contribution one way or another. The adventure continues.
Thanks to everyone who has supported me and/or engaged with my work in any form in the last 10 years. I’m looking forward to the next 10.
Happy New Year.
Here’s to a Decade of Ideas; a Decade of Togetherness; a Decade of Hope; a Decade of Possibilities.
We are all different, there is no such thing as a standard or run-of-the-mill human being, but we share the same human spirit. Stephen Hawking 2012