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Case for the defence

My last post was about some of the significant aspects of my role I feel guilty about, as I approach the end of my career in schools. This one has a more positive message, as I consider some of the aspects I feel most satisfied with from my career as a teacher and a school leader. As I indicated in the last post, 'Guilty M'lud', there have been many highlights and lots that I am proud of. Many of these are to do with particular children, parents, members of staff and colleagues, but this is about the big wins I feel I have experienced during my career.

From my last post, you will know I have made mistakes, some of which I feel more guilty about than others. What I will say is that I have tried to learn from all my mistakes, both as a teacher and as a school leader. I have always been willing to admit my mistakes to those most affected, and apologise when necessary. Of course, what I consider to be a mistake, may not be considered so by others, and vice versa. Mistakes tend to be personal both in their occurrence and in their perception. I have tried to do too much, and too quickly, and perhaps for the wrong reasons, at times and this has had repercussions for either learners or colleagues. All of which I regret. But, as I say, I have tried to learn from all of them and to not repeat mistakes, if possible. Like with our learners, I recognise that making mistakes is part of the learning process, and they demonstrate we are pushing ourselves to try new approaches and thinking. The leader who makes no mistakes is either deluded, playing too safe or lying.

I am proud of having stood up and fought for teachers, schools and the profession, and will continue to do so. Perhaps I could have done more of this, but none of us is perfect (see above). I remember a teacher saying to me, that she had been accosted by another headteacher who had said to her, 'what do you make of that George Gilchrist? He always seems to be on the teachers' side.' She thought this was a strange question to have thrown at her, and I thought 'yeah, well okay, I am happy with that, if that's what colleagues are thinking.' As a school leader, and former teacher, why wouldn't I be on the teachers side? As a school leader I have always sought to 'protect' and 'gate-keep' for teachers against the some of the madness from outside. It became obvious to me years ago that we couldn't rely on anyone at national or local level to gate-keep the never ending demands cascading onto to teachers and schools from above. Therefore, I resolved to provide this support myself, after agreeing with staff on where exactly our priorities should lie.

I have supported teachers, and all staff, throughout my career. I am proud that I have been able to help staff at all different points on their professional development journey, as well as colleagues in other schools, local authorities and even countries. I have worked hard to support parents and guardians to achieve the best possible outcomes for their children. I have coached and mentored teachers, as well as those taking their first steps in leadership. I have learned so much from each of them, and hopefully they have picked up useful things from me. I have tried to support colleagues when they have been having difficult times, as well as through their highs. I am proud that I have always had staff well-being as a priority and have stopped many staff from getting the whole work/life-balance thing out of kilter. I have always tried to model the healthy behaviours I have sought to develop in others.

I feel I have learned how to manage change properly for the benefit of all, and so that any such change is sustainable. At first, as a school leader, I was a bit overwhelmed by change and dealing with an ever shifting picture and agenda, and I was guilty of imposing to much change too quickly on staff. However, once I realised that trying to deal with everything all at the same time was just not feasible, or desirable, I began to recognise the power and the necessity of being in charge of your own agenda, and destiny. I came to realise that to embed and sustain meaningful change takes time and that we could achieve more by slowing down, rather than speeding up in our endeavours. I also recognised that many of those who were trying to push more and more change onto schools and their teachers had completely lost sight of what this actually looked like, or felt like, for a class teacher. Which is why I have continually sought to remain in classrooms and with learners every day, though I haven't been able to teach as much as I would have liked in recent years.

I am proud of having always been driven by values and principles, and have encouraged staff to act similarly. I have resisted the push to be driven by data, test results, HMIE and accountability agendas. I have deliberately put culture and ethos front and centre of the schools I have led. Doing this has allowed me to maintain a 'moral compass' to measure my actions against and our direction of travel. It has also helped me draw lines in the sand about what is acceptable, and what not. We found it easier to make decisions about what we would do, and what we would say 'no' to. As my career progressed, I was more often able to say 'no' rather than simply complying. Sometimes I actually said it, other times I said 'no' by just ignoring certain directives, and ploughing our own furrow, but one which we all believed in. Having such an approach helped me prioritise people and relationships over systems and structures. I was also able to keep learning and teaching, and their development, at the heart of every school, and my own role.

In my early years as a teacher, I was focused on my own performance and understanding, but as my career developed I began to recognise, and utilise, the power of collaboration. Certainly as a school leader I have promoted and supported collaborative practices amongst all staff, within schools, across schools and beyond schools. I have come to the belief that most issues and aspects of school development are best solved by the expertise that already resides there, and which are tied to the local context. I have always promoted agency and adaptive expertise in all staff, so that they take charge of their own professional development, and that of the schools they work in. I am proud that we have recognised and embraced the power of practitioner enquiry for the last nine years for professional, and school development. I am also proud that we were one of the first schools to introduce the Forest Schools and outdoor learning approaches, as long ago as 2005, I think we were the second school in Scotland to take this approach at the time.

I have always prioritised, and found time for, professional reading and development, both as a teacher and as a school leader. Initially, I would read for my own purposes and to improve my understanding of different practices, and I still do this. Then I began to read to help inform school development and new approaches. When we began to get involved in practitioner enquiry I began to read more research, and at first was just an uncritical consumer of this. Then I began to develop the skills required to engage critically with research and synthesise this with my own experience and contexts, to produce an informed way forward for schools and teachers. Myself and staff quickly recognised the difference with being 'driven' by data and evidence, and being 'informed' by this. I still believe reading and engaging with research is essential for teachers and school leaders. Without this, you face the near certainty that someone somewhere will be constantly telling you what to do to improve, and most of that telling will be wrong!

Finally, another development that I feel most satisfied about, as I approach the end of my time as a school leader, is in how I have really discovered my professional 'voice' over the last seven or eight years. Before that time, I felt that I was very much restricted in my ability to speak with other educators, to those I met face-to-face as part of my role as a school leader. These face to face meetings were often one off events and were very much time limited. Now, through the development of technology and social media, I am able to have a wider voice and am able to engage in debate and conversations that have no restrictions in terms of accessibility or time, apart from the occasional need for sleep. Through Twitter, blogging and writing I am able to contribute to the discourse around education, and I am able to carry on conversations and discussions with researchers, academics and system leaders across the globe. I feel this is something many school leaders fail to see the power of as yet. To me, it is part of my professional identity and responsibility to look further than my immediate schools and to help, in whatever small way, to shape system development for the benefit of all learners, and especially the very young and the most disadvantaged.

These are some of the big 'wins' from my career, so far. Of course, the biggest win of all is the fabulous people I have worked with, and collaborated with over the years. It is the people who make this job the best one I could have wished for, and it is people who make education and schools work or fail. To succeed they need to be valued, respected, supported and trusted, and the sooner politicians and system leaders recognise that, the sooner we will have education systems and schools that we can all be proud of. Trying to micromanage and clip the wings of such people, instead of supporting them to soar, is the biggest mistake any leader can make.

I will still be working with fabulous people when I leave my role as a school leader, and I will still be writing and Tweeting as I go. There is still much work to be done if we are to achieve anything like our potential and not continue to fail so many of our learners.

'People will forget what you said, they will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.' M Angelou

I hope I have helped at least some people feel proud about what they do and who they are.


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