Some of you will know that I have been a bit lost and voiceless recently. But I am slowly finding my way back.
Today I was given the great privilege of speaking at Pedagoo Goliath.
I was in the room.
Photo courtesy of Charlaine Simpson.
This is what I said.
I have been teaching since 1992. I have worked in 8 different schools across England, Scotland and Germany. I have been a teaching assistant, a classroom teacher, a PT, a key stage manager, a deputy head teacher..and a youth theatre leader.
What I am going to talk about today is based on thinking and experience across all of those roles and settings and is not related specifically to the school or context I am in now or any one school or setting I have worked in.
I went into teaching and I am a teacher and leader because I want children to have the best lives they can.
I went into teaching and I am a teacher and leader because I love the creativity, energy and brilliance that every child can demonstrate.
I went into teaching and I am a teacher and leader because I want to work in a school where inclusion, care, ambition, success and relationships between people are at the heart.
I went into teaching and I am a teacher and leader because I was incredibly successful at school and have been in my career but have suffered lifelong mental health issues because I experienced an adverse childhood experience at the age of seven and lived with the shame and confusion for way too long. I know that if we can work with children at an early stage to mitigate against such experiences they can be spared years of suffering and struggle.
I am a genuine idealist and optimist and I would imagine that many of you are too. That is why you are here on a Saturday!
Hands up if you find it hard to be positive and idealistic sometimes.
Hands up if you find that the educational world you want for education is not the world you find yourself in.
Hands up if you want your school to be like the ones that Sir Ken Robinson envisaged in his talk back in 2010 on Changing Education Paradigms.
But maybe sometimes you find yourself or have found yourself in a position where everything you value or believe is challenged on a regular basis?
Maybe by a boss who insists on celebrating the success of National 5 or Higher pupils in the press but failing to mention the pupils who got National 3s?
Maybe by a colleague who insists that detentions, punishments and shouting are the best way of educating children about behaviour?
Maybe by a government minister who has never taught, has no idea about pedagogy or child development but who decides that we need high stakes testing to raise standards?
Or maybe by the lack of services for children experiencing significant mental health challenges?
So, my key questions, after all these other questions, and the theme of my conversation today, are:
Can you survive and thrive in education if this is the world you live in?
How do you keep going when much of the media seems to hold schools single handedly responsible for overcoming the imperfections of the world?
How do you stay true to your values in an imperfect world?
Let’s face it, lots of teachers are deciding that it can’t be done. Difficulties with the recruitment and retention of teachers across the UK are being reported on a daily basis. More and more leaders are turning to jobs in consultancy or advisory roles. Lots are going off sick.
But having wrestled with these questions on and off throughout my career I want to suggest that it is possible to survive and thrive.
I have left teaching twice; once when my kids were small and we emigrated to the Outer Hebrides for change of pace and again after a year in Argyll when I was seconded to my authority central team.
Both times I found myself missing being in a school, missing teaching and missing what I know I do best.
Last year I also came close to burning out, giving up and leaving it to someone else.
So, what does it take for us to keep going in our chosen profession, to retain our optimism and idealism and to continue to do our jobs with joy and love?
I would like to suggest a few tools that can make it possible. Some are based on my own experience and others are borrowed from much wiser people.
I like to refer to these tools as instruments of personal power. These are things that have worked for me but after I have shared them, I’d like to invite you to consider what your own might be.
1. The GTCS standards
We are really fortunate to have these at the heart of our profession in Scotland. Not all nations do.
I love the positivity, integrity and passion of the standards and the fact that these underpin our profession and these ones in particular are really empowering to me.
If I am facing doubts or feeling like a lone lunatic some days I find it really useful to come back to them and repeat them, almost like a mantra.


I embrace locally and globally the educational and social values of sustainability, equality and justice and I recognise the rights and responsibilities of future as well as current generations.


I am committed to the principles of democracy and social justice through fair, transparent, inclusive and sustainable policies and practices in relation to: age, disability, gender and gender identity, race, ethnicity, religion and belief and sexual orientation.


I value as well as respect social, cultural and ecological diversity and I promote the principles and practices of local and global citizenship for all learners.


I demonstrate a commitment to engaging learners in real world issues to enhance learning experiences and outcomes, and to encourage learning our way to a better future.


I respect the rights of all learners as outlined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and their entitlement to be included in decisions regarding their learning experiences and have all aspects of their well-being developed and supported.


I demonstrate openness, honesty, courage and wisdom.


I critically examine personal and professional attitudes and beliefs and I challenge assumptions and professional practice.


I critically examine the connections between personal and professional attitudes and beliefs, values and practices to effect improvement and, when appropriate, bring about transformative change in practice.


I act and behave in ways that develop a culture of trust and respect through, for example, being trusting and respectful of others within the school, and with all those involved in influencing the lives of learners in and beyond the learning community.


I provide and ensure a safe and secure environment for all learners within a caring and compassionate ethos and with an understanding of wellbeing.


I demonstrate a commitment to motivating and inspiring learners, acknowledging their social and economic context, individuality and specific learning needs and taking into consideration barriers to learning.

2. Twitter – connect with your Tribe. The fantastic speaker and writer Jaz Ampaw Farr who talks about sometimes feeling like a lone lunatic.
Now in theory, if all the teachers in your context are living up to the standards above, then you should be able to find loads of like minded souls in the place where you work and Scottish schools should be like one huge happy party venue. But we know that sometimes, for various reasons, we can feel lonely and isolated…maybe because our setting is very small, maybe because we are a one teacher school or maybe because we are so busy in the working day that we don’t have time to connect with people who we see every day.
I urge that you do try to find support and solidarity amongst those you are with in real life but to back that up, I would really urge using forums like Twitter and, of course, Pedagoo to keep you energised and inspired.
3. Blog or journal. Write down your thoughts, fears and anxieties. Reflect and use writing to help you get your thoughts straight. Do so publicly, via a blog, privately, in a journal or maybe even under a pseudonym. https://read.amazon.co.uk/kp/embed?asin=B01KP8XT86&preview=newtab&linkCode=kpe&ref_=cm_sw_r_kb_dp_yNodyb2G7M8DZ&reshareId=AG74E4ZS8HK5P546KMTY&reshareChannel=system
4. Your voice – use it to challenge, question and champion human rights (you may not be popular…). But sometimes, we need to speak out to keep ourselves sane, if we know that something is not right. Question in a way that is respectful and well thought-through and be willing to accept the answer or to ask another question.
5. Your true self; don’t hide behind something you think others want you to be. Do smile before Christmas.
Of course, we play roles in our lives and probably have a teacher persona that helps us do the job:
I talk to pupils a lot about this in drama; I acknowledge that the me they see in school is a slightly different version to the one they would see at home….but fundamentally it is still me.
Don’t let the roles mask the real you. Hiding the real you is exhausting and soul destroying. If you feel you have to do it at work, look at why that is.
6. Have a “what else?” plan (Thanks to my wonderful coach Mal Krishnasamy for this idea). Knowing you have choice is empowering and most of us do have a choice. If you have a plan B (to teach abroad, to set up a coffee shop, to set up as a consultant), then when things get really tough you know you have options; one of the worst things for our mental health can be feeling that we don’t have control. If things start to get really tough, it can be really helpful to sit down and look at your current situation and the plan B and weigh up the pros and cons of each…and probably you will end up realising that the pros of working in a school are what will keep you there. But maybe not.
7. Have a break… don’t fear “career suicide”.
I have done it twice. I actually think it can be hugely beneficial and bring all sorts of new perspectives to what we do and don’t listen to people who say “ooh if you leave now, you’ll never get back” as if you are going to lose all your experience, personality and skill just by taking a break.
8. Books – James Hilton is my number one recommendation at the moment.
9. As well as reflecting on the GTCS values, make sure you can define your own values.
I last reflected on mine last spring.
Feb 2018
I have been reflecting and looking back over the things I said I wanted to be and achieve as a school leader and I am glad to say that they have not changed:
  • Everyone must be willing to self-reflect and learn.
  • We don’t shout at others.
  • We all get things wrong and need to be able to apologise when we do.
  • We are all human and being in a position of authority does not mean you are better than anyone else.
  • Everyone needs to take time to see the reality of a situation and not fall into making judgements based on half-truths, prejudice or stereotypes.
  • Everyone is worthy of love.
These non-negotiables were arrived at after working in a number of settings over many years but I would assert that they are absolutely essential in any successful school.
And they are still what I hold true to.
My job is the best job in the world.
A final thought.
Sometimes it takes time to move things on, to achieve our goals and to change culture.
If you are a bit impatient like me, it can be hard to remember this and it is important to set goals and timescales and realise that changing the world won’t happen overnight.
But don’t be a martyr. My mum was and always used to say “well, someone has to do it”…. but she left teaching at 50 on stress grounds.
If you are a martyr, and exhausted and demoralised, it is unlikely you will be the optimistic and energetic role model you want to be.
If you are in a position where you have tried to empower yourself and you still feel that you are fighting a losing battle, sacrificing too much or you aren’t happy because things aren’t right for you, don’t feel you have to keep soldiering on.
But as my mentor and source of constant inspiration Jill Berry says, before you quit teaching, try another school. Sometimes it might be all it takes to keep you teaching.
Every child in your school has the right to be happy, healthy and doing the best they can.
But so do you. If you aren’t, I hope that some of this may help to ensure that you can be.
Now I invite you to take some time to reflect on these for yourself:
My challenges:
My instruments of personal power:
My non-negotiables:

11 thoughts on “Goliath

  1. So brave. Thank you for voicing our inner struggles.

    I’m reflecting on:

    My challenges
    My instruments of personal power (Love this phrase)
    My nonnegotiables

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a moving and empowering blog. Thanks so much for sharing. Undestanding my own values and those that shape my workplace, where they meet or differ has been incredibly important for me. Its never an easy thing to do. But I know its those periods of reflection that have driven me to improve myself, promote change or move on to new opportunities.


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