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Guilty M'lud

As many of you know, this is my last term as a Headteacher. Rather like the end of a school year, it has got me looking back retrospectively, not just over one year, but over my career as a teacher and a school leader. There is no doubt that there is much to be proud of and thankful for and I will leave my time in schools with many fantastic memories of all that we have achieved together, and the difference we have made, often in the most challenging of circumstances. I use 'we' because I know I have been fortunate to work with some fabulous teachers and colleagues. I have always believed that you see how great people are when you are faced with immense challenge, not when things are running smoothly and there is a flow to everything you are engaged in. However, like most teachers and school leaders, my mind is also occupied with the failures, the things that I feel guilty about failing to achieve. Because you haven't achieved everything you would like, there always remains that 'itch' you still need to scratch. You could call this professional development, and I have experienced the feeling all through my career in schools. Some of these failures concern individual children and families I feel I have let down, or not achieved the most for, during my career, but most of my pangs of guilt are to do with bigger, wider educational issues that still remain, and about which I feel I too could have done more, and achieved more.

I feel guilty that over my career I have been sucked into the various fads, trends and fashionable pedagogies, without thinking at the time, 'is this credible?' or even 'is this working?' At various times I have embraced such practice, as I sought to be different and challenge norms. I have never wanted to feel that I was destined to do the same things every day throughout my career, and have always sought to freshen up my classroom practice, for me and the learners. I have been guilty of subjecting those learners to 'accelerated learning', 'thinking hats', 'thinking boots', 'Brain Gym', 'Learning Styles', 'Personal Learning Plans', over 'hydration', 'active learning' in the worst sense, and more. All were done with the best of intentions, but with little critical thinking on my part. I, and my learners, were too busy for much thinking, as we moved from one new initiative, or 'thing' to another. I know better now.

I also plead guilty to letting too many politicians, local and national, direct my practice rather than letting them focus on high-level strategy. Education is perhaps the only profession where we are so insecure in our practice and our knowledge base that we allow anyone to tell us what we are doing wrong, and how we could do it better. I have allowed politicians who were former journalists, used car salesmen, bankers, or whatever, dictate my own practice and what should be going on in the schools I lead. At times I allowed myself and the teachers I led to be sucked into a 'delivery' and 'performability' mindsets and models. I have contributed to the de-professionalising of the profession that I am proud to be a member of. I have been guilty of believing that people at local authority level, or who work on national bodies, understood learning better than I did, and always knew what they were talking about. I did come to recognise that this was false on both accounts, though not always. I have learned from them all, good and bad.

I have subjected, and allowed teachers, to subject learners to batches of standardised testing, even when I knew it was for political purposes, not learning ones. I should have fought harder, and learned earlier to say 'No!' I indulged in 'national testing' when I knew the results were neither valid nor helpful. I allowed pupil learning to be condensed down into a letter, a grade or a percentage. This was of no value to them, teachers or parents and devalued the complexity of their learning progress. I have been complicit in allowing such flimsy evidence to be used to assess how effective teachers, schools and the system are, when I know that is not what they show nor what they were designed for.

I plead guilty to being so swamped at times that I have not been a loud enough 'voice' for my teachers and my profession. There have been times when I have been so bogged down by my role as a manager, that I have forgotten about my role as a leader. A leader for teachers, schools, education and learning is part of my professional responsibility, and at times I have ignored this. Too often I have drawn up the drawbridge and continued to do what I believe in, and what my values dictate, and just left everyone else to deal with the madness from above and outside. Perhaps I could have persisted more and continued to engage with all points of view, but it can be extremely wearing at times.

I thus plead guilty to 'playing the game' a little too often. I have always liked Michael Fullan's encouragement to 'exploit policy' and at times it was too easy to convince myself this was what I was doing, rather than complying with much I didn't agree with. I was always told to 'pick your fights' but the danger of this approach is that you can use this as a justification for inaction and more compliance. We should always challenge that which needs to be challenged and it can be too easy at times to not do this to make life a little easier. There have been times, especially in my early career, when I have failed to fight hard enough for what I believe in. True, this lessened as my career progressed, but still hasn't disappeared totally.

As you will see from my earlier admissions, I have had periods in my career where I have failed to engage critically with research and practice, both my own and that of others. I did feel at one time it was enough just to engage with research, but the more I did this, the more I realised that there was so much, and so many conflicting pieces, I needed to engage with this critically, bringing my professional experience and expertise to bear. I was guilty of becoming a reflective practitioner but then of doing little with my reflections. Sometimes, I was guilty of reflecting on and changing my practice, but with little thought to the impact and outcomes for my learners.

I have been guilty of sharing 'good practice'. This was despite the impact of context and the complexity of every learning experience. It helped sustain the idea of teachers as 'deliverers' and technicians. This was fed by a misguided belief by many that teachers needed to see 'good practice' then just copy it. I apologise to the teachers I subjected this on, and to their learners, who became almost invisible in the process. It was later in my career that I realised that it was in fact the principles that lie behind successful practice that are important to share, not just the surface-level practice itself.

Finally and paradoxically, I plead guilty to both speaking up too much and for not speaking enough at meetings, conferences and during consultations. I know I have driven line managers and colleagues mad at times by my predilection to question and challenge what I don't understand or disagree with. But there have also been times when I have just sat on my hands, when I should have spoken up. Being a school leader is a great job, and with it comes great responsibility. Doing and saying the right thing is always the right thing to do.

I started this reflection and confession by mentioning some of the many positives of my time as a teacher and as a school leader. I hope these will be taken into consideration and I hope my failings can help others to become their better selves. I have not given up the fight and arguing for what I believe is the right thing to do, and neither should you.

In a future post, I may write about the successes and aspects that I am most proud of from my career. As with any argument, (or trial) there are at least two sides. All the evidence needs to be considered before verdicts are delivered. There is also the opportunity of appeal!


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