What I’ve learned from spending a year in the right school…

Young teachers are leaving our profession in droves; between 40-50% have left the classroom by their fifth year. I am just finishing my fifth year in teaching and, despite some monumental challenges over the past 12 months, I am loving my job. I hope this doesn’t come across as a sickening, self-congratulatory blog about how much I love my job, and I am not expecting a pat on the back; I just wonder whether my experience this year could help those 40-50% who are on the edge and struggling to find their motivation again.

This time last year, I wrote a post: What I learned from spending a year in the wrong school. It was a therapeutic experience; I wrote in order to shed some bad memories and find the positives in what had been a very difficult year both professionally and personally. At Easter 2014 I took a job at my current school. It is a 3-18 academy in Bradford, which is officially rated a 3, but which feels like a 2 (you know, one of those places with a heart, which Ofsted refuses to recognise has more to offer than statistics). In the past 15 months I have dramatically changed my role in school, learned a raft of new skills, run complex projects and taught my socks off. But the most surprising thing about this year is that, for the first time ever, I have NOT made myself ill or had two weeks off with fatigue in the summer term!

The reasons for this, I think, are here:

  • I have rules (agreed with my partner). 1. No emails after 6pm on a week night. No emails on a Saturday. No emails outside the hours of 3-6pm on a Sunday. 2. Make time for lunch EVERY DAY. 3. Do something for pleasure every day – have made a LOT more time for reading this year.
  • I have focused on learning something new. I started playing the cello – it is wonderful, and has made me realise that it is ok to be the worst in the room at something! There is something liberating about being told what to do, and putting yourself completely in the hands of an expert.
  • I have an EXCELLENT head of department, who knows exactly how to get the best out of me. She gives me the freedom to do what I love, but tells me to stop when it is too much. She has helped me to become a better leader, and shown me that it is OK to rely on someone else – I have genuinely never been able to let go and trust other people to do a good job, but I know her standards are just as high as mine, and we make a pretty strong team!
  • I have learned that being a leader means letting go of the minutiae of school life, and looking at the bigger picture; if I help my colleagues to be the best they can be, then THEY will look after the students.
  • My school invests in a life coach/therapist, and our HR manager arranged for me to speak with her. Aside from the fact that I love talking about myself for an hour every few weeks, it is really helpful to talk through my stresses with someone who is completely removed. I’ve also learned some practical strategies for sleeping better, organising my work, and confronting things head on.
  • My Head and VP have worked very hard to recognise the things I do, validate my feelings about work, and put in place the things I need. They are supporting my ambitions, and for the first time, I feel like I’m being taken seriously.
  • I’ve realised that I am not the font of all creativity, and that being part of a strong team is far better than being the Jenny Show all by myself…

I won’t apologise for the gushy-ness of the above; it’s all true. I feel that there is so much negativity surrounding schools at the moment, that sharing something which is working, at least for me, is important.

So, this is the right school for me. Their mantra is that they put the kids first. Other schools I have worked at have said this too, but what they really meant was that they put the RESULTS first, and the knock on effect would be that the kids would have a better life. Obviously, I’m not going to argue against this – better results lead to better options and more opportunities. However, schools which focus only on academic success are in danger; their only intervention is based on whether the data paints the right picture, not on what is needed by a child. At my school, we know our kids. We know what makes them tick, and we go the extra mile to support them, regardless of their academic targets or attainment. This is how it should be. I have realised that, although I have been incredibly stressed and busy this year, it has been bearable because I believe in what the school is doing. In the past, I have had little faith in my school’s mission, but in my current school I am on board, and that’s the difference.

Here is what I’ve learned from spending a year in the RIGHT school:

1. If you believe in what the school is doing, you can cope with a LOT.

2. A change in role or direction is fine, as long as someone above you understands where you want to go in the end…

3. A good team is built on mutual respect; celebrate each others’ individual talents AND take time to appreciate the collective power of a department.

4. It is OK to manage your time, work and stress in your own way; don’t try to be like other people or worry how you will look if you go home before 4pm.

5. Trust and professional respect is about always doing exactly what you said you would do. Every time you walk the walk, that is money in the bank.

6. Approach new tasks and the development of new skills with enthusiasm and a fresh eye, but never be slow to ask for help.

I like to think that in a year’s time I will be reflecting on a less hectic, more stable year at school, but I know things will always feel crazy. I look forward to being in the same school for a long time; I want to consolidate, build, and invest properly in the young people who come through our doors.

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