Tagged: leadership

The Red Pledge

I’m about to make people uncomfortable.  If you’re of a sensitive disposition, or if you’ve ever said the words “why can’t we have a men’s movement/party/international day?”, then it’s probably best to look away now. We can’t talk about leadership of schools without talking periods.

There.  Did you squirm?  Did you move away from the computer screen (checking your seat surreptitiously as you did so?) Look, I have some questions for my female colleagues on this most female of issues.  As women leaders, I’d like you to ponder on the following questions.

1) Does your institution provide free pads/tampons for staff? (And stop calling them ‘sanitary items’!) In my experience, if you’ve been caught short and you work in the back end of beyond, then nipping out to the shops is pretty much a no-go.  Why haven’t you demanded that this essential item be provided and staff told where they are?  Dispensers would do, right? Can’t we at least ask someone?

2) How does your organisation make provision for menstruation-related illness? How many times have you gone to work in agony, thinking I’ll just take some painkillers and I’ll be fine?  I’ve known vomiters, fainters, heavy bleeders, pelvic pain heroes and all sorts.  No where is it noted that leave relating to menstruation is acceptable.  What if we have a clause in sickness policies that if you have a genuinely horrific experience every month, you won’t be hauled in to the HR office to discuss your absence that morning, that day, that afternoon when you thought your insides were making a swift, sharp exit?

3) Gynaecological issues.  I have a misbehaving uterus.  This summer I experienced a hystersoscopy without anaesthetic and I thought I was dying.  I had to wait until a holiday to have it done, because I knew I’d have to take time off to find a rogue Mirena coil and that it would bloody hurt.  Could I have done that in term time without struggling to explain that a piece of plastic was lost in my nether region to my male headteacher? I’d like to think so. But I would have been mortified doing so.  What do we do as women leaders to make it easier to have these discussions?

I appreciate that not everyone experiences menstruation and gynaecological issues in quite the same way as I do – we are unique flowers after all. But when do we start making it easier for women to talk about all of this? When do we start feeling like we can without feeling like wilting reeds?

Join me in my Red Tent to discuss.  Bring your own incense and rags. And pledge to speak more openly about periods with everyone.

Where are the Female Headteachers?

I decided to go out on a Tuesday night in the middle of exam season.  Before you get carried away with a largely inappropriate vision of me out on the proverbial, my days of wearing purple wigs and sashaying the night away to trance music are long behind me.  My idea of a night out these days involves some sort of teaching event that carries the promise of a glass of wine or two and sure enough, one came along last week in the form of a panel event organised by Teach First on ‘Women in Leadership: Education, Business and Beyond’.  I was happy to accept their invite to be a panel member, alongside Hannah Wilson, one of the co-founders of the WomenEd movement and Henrietta Baldock- Chairman of European Financial Institutions at Bank of America Merrill Lynch – one of Teach First’s partner organisations.  We were ably chaired by Fiona Rawes, the Director of Community Impact at Teach First, who ensured that as many voices were heard as possible at this important event.

We dealt with two official questions on the night, as well as a raft of well-thought out and provoking ones from an audience that was made up of about 100 women in teaching and business and precisely 2 men.  Hannah and I wryly noted that had the event been entitled: ‘Leadership: Education, Business and Beyond’, there may have been a greater balance between male and female delegates.  I do wonder whether taking out the gendered title at these events is the right thing to do.  We were due to talk about the lack of female headteachers and how to raise aspirations in the girls we teach.  To me and many of the women in the room, this isn’t an exclusively female issue.  As the night progressed, the ideas became more and more central: for more women to enter into positions of responsibility in schools, in businesses and in politics, support from male colleagues is essential.

When I left, I realised we had covered so much in the time given to us as panellists that it would be hard to capture all the ideas and questions in one place.  What I can do is provide a run-down of my points in response to the main questions.  And possibly leave with you with more questions to consider.

Question 1

Recent figures, released by the Future Leaders Trust, show that the overall proportion of women taking on headteacher positions is not reflected by the number of women in the workforce. A government report on the school workforce in England, issued in 2014, showed that the state education sector is 74% female, yet only 65% of headteachers are women. If these percentages were equal, there would over 1,500 more female headteachers in the UK – a number that the Future Leaders Trust believes could potentially fill many long-standing headship vacancies.

Recent research by the Guardian showed there are more men called John running FTSE 100 companies than all thfemale bosses put together. Among chief executives and chairs of FTSE 100 companies, there were 17 men called John (or Jean) – and seven women.

What in your view is the most important way we could influence a change with leadership positions?

In a groundbreaking study in 1975, Don Zimmerman and Candace West tracked the interruption rates in conversations between men and women.  The study can be read in its entirety at the link provided but the findings can be summarised succinctly in these tables:

same sex interruptions copy 2

mixed sex interruptions copy

Source: Zimmerman/West, 1975

Interruptions are interesting interaction mechanisms.  They serve to assert dominance and control in a conversation.  Ask a Year 10 student how Lady Macbeth asserts her dominance over her husband in Macbeth and she will tell you that she interrupts and questions.  It is ironic that she is seen as a manifestation of a witch for doing so and ‘corrected’ at the end of the play for her foolish attempt to control her husband and usurp the Elizabethan natural order.  The rota fortunae turns. Exit Lady Macbeth.  And yet we have a study here that shows that mixed gender conversations are rife with interruption.

How does this contribute to our understanding of where all the female headteachers are?  I explained that the results of this study, and all of the subsequent studies that proved the same phenomenon, are still being played out in education institutions and businesses today.  Women make up the majority of the teaching workforce and disappear as you climb the ranks into senior leadership, headship and governance – a fact reinforced by Warwick Mansell in The Guardian here.  If the daily experience of leadership in schools for women is working in environments not only physically, but verbally dominated by male colleagues, then why would anyone want to do it?  It is exhausting and demoralising.  And we might not even be aware of the issue and the reason why.

Rather than just pose the problem and pondered, I spoke about solutions.  The solution doesn’t involve flinging down your meeting agenda and storming out of the room, neither does it involve shouting louder than your interruptor.  It is the rain that grows flowers, not the thunder (thanks Rumi).  Women have to train themselves to deal with interruption so they can be heard.

If this was the only problem then we’d be fine because women would just do this and make progress.  I talked about ‘Askers and Guessers’ at the WomenEd Unconference in last year and I came back to the topic on Tuesday night.  I read Oliver Burkeman’s article in The Guardian a long time ago and was citing the concept of Askers vs Guessers as his idea.  Only on re-reading the article last week did I notice that the original idea came from Andrea Donderi, a woman, on a discussion forum. Irony klaxon.

Untitled copy 2

The idea is simple. And it resonates with me as a female leader so completely because I am a Guesser.  I have waited for promotion and hoped someone would notice my work and assumed that if I just worked harder, longer, better, then I would be promoted.  And I stalled.  This wasn’t a result of male oppression.  This was me, not realising I could move into being an Asker.


If we want more women in headships, or being CEOs of MATs and global banking institutions, we have to coach and mentor them to be confident Askers.

Question 2

Looking to the next generation, it was reported last week that sexist bullying in schools is inhibiting girls from putting up their hands and speaking out in class because they fear appearing “swotty and clever”. Teach First works in collaboration with other organisations on The Fair Education Impact Goals. Goal 3 is – Ensure young people
develop key strengths, including resilience and wellbeing, to support high aspirations.
A recent report on data taken from pupils at Teach First partner schools explored this too – When asked if they felt comfortable asking questions in class, boys’ replies were between 8 and 11 percentage points higher than girls’. When asked “I am confident in my ability to learn what is being taught” girls’ responses were between 5 and 6 percentage points lower than boys.
What can we do to as figures of authority – mentors, line managers, teachers etc – to ensure we foster self-confidence and high aspirations in girls and young women?
I did almost fall out of my seat, so keen was I to answer this one.
Young women already have high aspirations.  The evidence shows that girls have systematically reported higher aspirations than their male peers for years.  They outperform boys.  The issue is not in aspiration.  Somewhere along the line, those aspirations fizzle and it is job as educational professionals to work why a girl who aspires to be an astronaut at the age of 10 not only fails to become one, but actively rejects the idea that she might be one.
I go back to interruptions here.  Because the study on interruptions does not apply only to adults in educational or corporate environments.  Kieran Snyder has continued to look at the phenomenon since Zimmerman and West started the process.  In this article, we can see that the interruption process – the assertion of dominance in conversation and discussion – starts at a very young age.  Snyder discovered the pre-schooler girls are much more likely to be interrupted by their male peers and the more boys there are, the more the interruption rate goes up.  How does this apply to teachers?  I was astonished to read that teachers reinforce the model of interruption in the classroon and reinforce gender stereotypes – both belittling female ability in the STEM subjects and belittling male ability in languages and arts. We are literally creating exactly the kind of society we want to avoid.
Is it any surprise then, as the article from Kieran Snyder suggests, girls are 1.5 times more likely to study STEM subjects if taught in single-sex environments?  I can imagine that the gender stereotyping, the interruptions, the fight for dominance, is less of an issue.  I am conflicted on the benefits of single-sex education, but these ideas are hard to ignore.
I made my views clear on how we raise levels of confidence – and I think this might be the basis of another article entirely – but we are not going to foster self-confidence if we send girls home en masse for uniform infringements.  The recent sending home of 29 girls because the length of their skirts didn’t meet with the approval of their headteacher not only reinforced the sexualisation of those girls, it suggested that their education was less important than the poor boys who may have been distracted or titillated by their ungodly flesh.
We are actively showing girls there is no point in aspiring.  We are doing it ourselves by interrupting them.  We are telling them that what they look like in the classroom is more important than the contents of their minds.
Teachers need to manage their unconscious biases on appearance and sexuality and all teachers – male of female – have to manage their interruption biases too.
I finished my answer to this question by citing my favourite documentary of recent years.  In Miss Representation, the phrases “you can’t be what you can’t see’ is used repeatedly.  Our girls need to see that women can take on roles and responsibilities at a high level. What do they see in school?  Chances are they see a male CEO of the MAT, a male headteacher, a mix of genders at senior and middle leadership and a hell of a lot of female teaching assistants.  The schools workforce data in 2014 shows that 91% of teaching assistants were female.  The message is clear.  There are jobs for the boys and jobs for the girls.
We are only applying for jobs if we are certain we can fulfil every aspect of the job spec.  And girls can’t be what they can’t see.  We have to step up.

What makes a brilliant team member?

“It takes two flints to make a fire.” –-Louisa May Alcott

You think you’re pretty good at your job, right?  At Teach Meet London, I spoke about whether great teachers are born or made.  I don’t have an answer; I want to ask the question to get people thinking about teaching and professional qualities that lead to outstanding outcomes for students.  In my Teaching and Learning sessions, I want staff to consider how their professional qualities make them great – and I want them to be specific.

There are times when I will find myself seeing the qualities I have listed in people and I will be overwhelmed by how grateful I am to have them on my side.  But, as with any job, I have been in situations where teams have become dysfunctional.  One can use as many leadership models as one likes to analyse their staff – a team is only as strong as its weakest link.  It takes individuals to step up and demonstrate professional qualities.  If I was hiring a member of staff, I’d want to see the qualities I’ve listed because those are the qualities I want in myself.  It’s no good as a leader writing a person specification that does not tie in with my own values.

Speaking of person specs – how many times have you seen the same qualities flagged up as essential?  Organisations pilfer person and job specs, particularly in schools and end up being less than specific about the qualities they want in their teams.  I’d like to actually see the list below on a person spec.  At least it would be clear and precise.  I want to poke out my own eyeballs when I see person specs that outline a requirement for a ‘good sense of humour’.  The last thing I want on my team is someone who needs to be told how to do every part of their job, but does a stunning impression of Donald Trump in kindergarten.

The list below isn’t purely a wish list for the ideal team or team member, it’s a reminder to myself of all I want to be.  I don’t think anyone can be all of the things below, all of the time – but it’s worth sharing with your teams to see whether they can remind themselves at intervals that the following qualities and professional skills make a team hum positively.  And it’s worth having somewhere so you can remind yourself as a leader what you want to be as part of the team you are part of.

  1. Resilient – reflects on failure and self-motivates to move on
  2. Intuitive – senses when others are struggling and steps in
  3. Empathetic – is able to see the work environment from another’s perspective
  4. Pitches in – doesn’t need to be asked
  5. Optimistic – comes in with a smile and keeps shoulders up and head up
  6. Constructively critical – can spot where errors might be made and flags up
  7. Solutions focused – finds the problem and suggests the solution
  8. Determined – for students and the rest of the team
  9. Productive – often underrated – can get a lot done in the time given
  10. Anticipates problems – and finds ways around them before making mistakes
  11. Intellectual – you don’t have to be a genius, just someone who ponders, reads and knows their stuff
  12. Precise and careful – someone who proofreads, checks and double checks
  13. Independent – doesn’t need their hand holding beyond the start of a role
  14. Organised – plans, schedules, lists – throws them out – does it all again

When a team gets to the point where these qualities are not evident – or certainly not evident in the majority of team members, the only possible result is underperformance.  And more pertinently, for education professionals, the result is good people leaving.  Workload is intense, the external pressures on staff can make or break people – but in my experience as a school leader, what makes people leave is other people.  That could be a member of Senior Leadership who forgets that they are part of the department team, whether they like it or not; it could be a staff member who doesn’t pull their weight, whose lack of enthusiasm for the job leads to tension and resentment; it could be that the middle leader isn’t precise and careful enough.

With a new half term about to swing into action – one that requires teams to be the best versions of themselves – I’m going to pin this up on my wall at work and give myself a daily reminder of the qualities I want to display.  And then I think it is important to hold people to account – not in having these qualities instantly – but to hold people to account for working towards them.  That’s professional development and quite often we forget as leaders that we have to develop the whole professional, not just their hard skills, knowledge and the mechanics of how they do their job.  We owe it to the education sector, in any case.  We need to develop good people. We want good people to stay.


Teach Like a Woman

It has taken me two weeks to think this one through aEditnd not even remotely because it has been half term.  I woke up at two in the morning a few nights ago with the alarming thought that I was possibly stealing someone else’s title for this blogpost. Cue scrambling round for my phone on the bedside table and googling the phrase.  Well, it turns out that you can Teach Like a Champion (thanks Mr Lemov), and you can Teach Like a Girl (if you are a ‘gospel centred woman’) and Teach Like a Pirate (I didn’t check, which I now regret). But no one has really talked about what it means to Teach Like a Woman.

There are people reading this who are already starting to object.  I can see you now, that little vein in your temple has started to throb at the mere thought that teaching like a woman might be a thing.  It’s not a thing yet. I haven’t even started to define it. Before you hit the comment button, maybe just let me explore the idea, first? So the idea comes from a long forgotten tweet.  I read an article about the Swedish Foreign Minister’s intent to practice “feminist foreign policy” in the face of ‘Russian macho agression” – it can be read about here.  While my brain processed the concept, it did what it usually does: it tried to relate the concept of what it would look like in an educational context. 

Can one ‘teach like a woman’? What does that even mean

The concept is problematic because without careful examination, it contains unhelpful value judgements. Our tendency towards binary opposition means that immediately, we have to question whether to teach like a woman means not to teach like a man. Once we start to dichotomise in that way, we face a raft of stereotypes that are, quite frankly, offensive. The Swedish Foreign Minister has created an opposition – her policy is predicated in opposition to what she perceives to be a male characteristic – that of aggression.  It doesn’t sit well with me to start claiming that male teaching is, at its heart, aggressive. Whatever shouty, man-thrusty teaching style that is.  And that teaching like a woman is doing the opposite of that. Feminine qualities are often seen as ‘soft’.  I return, once again to Phillip Zimbardo in The Guardian who claims that boys are underperforming “moodles” (his word) because the education system is feminised. 

I’m reluctant to define it, understandably, because if teaching like a man involves brashness, machismo and banter, woman-teaching probably involves emotions, diary writing and telling people how you feel.  I can’t believe I actually wrote that down. See! The danger is clear. Stereotypes ahoy. I’m just doing what Zimbardo is doing. 

Can we please move away from the idea that teaching like a woman is somehow the teaching equivalent of a three-day old soggy teabag? We use, possibly inappropriately, the phrases ‘man up’ and ‘be a man’ to mean positive things.  We are conditioned to believe it means to be ‘better’.  Where is the female equivalent of these phrases? It is an act of reclaiming gender positivity and does not have to be used in opposition to masculinity.This article – ‘Why Women Talk Less’ – outlines reasons why women are not more confident in their field, but highlights the need to avoid constructed frameworks of gender expectation. 

In the sprawling ridiculousness of his thoughts, Zimbardo acknowledges something that strikes a chord with me – and believe me, this surprises me. It is rare that I am so irked by an article that I write about it twice.  He says of men in education and society: “Men are opting out and women are opting in. Women are working harder at jobs, they’re working harder in school, and they are achieving – last year women had more of every single category of degree, even engineering. This is data from around the world. Now in many colleges there’s a big gap as boys are dropping out of school and college.” 

It seems to me, and correct me if I am wrong, that he is pointing out a quality of women that is to be celebrated!  While he doesn’t celebrate it, I can.  It says to me that women have qualities of independence, confidence and determination. They work hard, they reach for careers that have not traditionally been accessible to them, they achieve their goals. 

When you think about ‘teaching like a woman’ in this way, all of a sudden you have reframed the concept. For me, it comes down to this idea of what it means to be a ‘fierce’ woman – a blog that has received such positive feedback from men and women alike. How do we turn the qualities of a fierce woman into a framework for outstanding professional practice? If, as @Miss_Wilsey says – ‘fierce’ translates to ‘formidable, independent, empowered, resilient, caring and equal’, those words sound like a pretty good starting point to define what it means to ‘teach like a woman’.

If women are succeeding, there is a reason why.   The aforementioned are qualities that translate directly into the ethos of a school, a year team, a department.  They are qualities that can be instilled into a difficult group.  They are qualities that mean that boys and girls can achieve equally.  But I am not actually defining it here.  That’s a job for us all, I think.  Perhaps a job for the @WomenEd Team… 

Inevitably, I know what criticisms I will face for writing this. I’m anticipating the response: why do those positive characteristics have to be specific to women? Men can be those things too, someone will say.  In the interest of saving some time, I agree wholeheartedly.  Someone will say that this article is, quite frankly, offensive, and if a man had written an article what it means to teach like a man – there would be outrage, I tell you.  Again, to save time, I suggest that it would be fascinating to see what that article would say.  I’ve been following the @GoodMenProject on Twitter and they have started many such conversations. Why can’t we start a conversation about teaching like a woman when the profession is dominated by women? Don’t laugh at the word ‘dominated’. I know you want to. 

Let me know what you think.

A Prayer for Teachers: St Francis and Leadership in Education

It’s not often that I turn to a Catholic prayer to begin anything, let alone a blog post. I count myself, most days, as agnostic. My first encounter with the Prayer of St Francis came, embarrassingly, in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and even then, it was a song version by chanteuse Sarah McLachlan. Even more embarrassing is the fact that I like the sentiments of a prayer that Margaret Thatcher quoted in 1979 after winning the General Election. However, despite the inauspicious circumstances of my first hearing and the associations with rampant Toryism, I am moved today to show how the prayer itself should be the mantra of those of us who work in leadership positions in education.

The prayer itself is attributed to St Francis of Assisi although it probably only dates back to 1912. St Francis was known for his commitment to poverty, to nature and the environment. Popular images show him with birds, ever the gentle hand. So, how is this prayer relevant to the modern leader in education? It reads:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

The first line requests that we are made “an instrument of [the] peace”. On a literal level, teachers in general on a daily basis function as instruments of peace. Notwithstanding the obvious connotations of behaviour management, teaching is a profession that seeks to create a peaceful and prosperous society by educating young people. It is with this in mind that we should consider our role as educators this year – are we employed to churn out grades or to mould a generation of peaceful, useful members of society? If we are truly to be instruments of peace as teachers, then the bigger picture – one that goes beyond league tables and percentages – needs to be taken into consideration.

Specifically, middle leaders, in particular, function as the sponge of all disgruntlement in schools. If you have ever been asked by a senior leader to “speak to” a classroom teacher for some small misdemeanour, then you will know what I mean. Developing skills that allow you to be the hub whilst keeping the peace between groups of staff members is absolutely essential for middle leaders. It is the core skill of the emotionally intelligent middle leader.

To be able to “pardon” when there is “injury” speaks of the kind of resilience a leader has to have in leading their team. You are the one who has the “faith” when there is “doubt”, especially when the stationery hasn’t arrived and term starts tomorrow. You are the person who remains hopeful when Year 11 seem nowhere near their target grades. The hopeful leader is the one who says that child, the one who has been written off elsewhere, is still capable of that C grade or above. You are the one that helps your team to learn that “despair” is not forever, it is just until the end of the day, after that particular class has been taught. In leadership, you relish providing the opposite perspective – and indeed, perspective, in general.

My favourite line from the prayer is the one that instructs us “not so much seek to be consoled, as to console”. In any kind of leadership position, your aim should be to alleviate the distress of others. This may not be as simple as being a shoulder to cry on – it is making sure that you are a sympathetic ear, but also an ear that listens for what is needed and then acts upon it. Distress, despair, disheartenment – they are all things that require you to “console” and the worst thing you can do to your team is to be the one that is consoled. Here, consolation is action.

If you can be the kind of leader who seeks to “understand”, and not merely a figurehead that seeks to be “understood”, you may end of commanding the kind of loyalty in a team that some people dream about. When you have to implement a new department policy, the instinct is to gather people round and make them understand your reasons for doing so. The best kind of change comes from collaboration and from understanding the perspective of others. There may be times when you have to be “understood”, but the balance should always be tipped in the favour of understanding others.

Of course, the last lines of the prayer are particularly pertinent if you are in a leadership position. It is in “dying that we are born”. Not literally, of course, but you do need to let things come to a natural end if they do not work. Policies and practices that are hindering progress can be put to one side; new isn’t always better, but it is better that stagnating and struggling. That feeling at the end of the day – when you think you are “dying” of exhaustion? It is okay to feel that – you are “born” again in the morning and the next day happens, whether you like it or not.

Now you may be thinking: what on earth has she taken to go quasi-religious and quite frankly, a bit touchy-feely? Nothing, in fact. This feels remarkably zen-like for a me that is prone to panic and frustration. Perhaps 2013 is a year in which I learn to follow my own, and St Francis’ advice, to become a better leader and for all the right reasons.