For UKEdchat April 2021. How to be a professional human.

This week I was privileged to present a session at UKEdChat’s global online conference. This is a video of my contribution to the event:

This is the basis of what I said.

Hello there I’m absolutely delighted that you’ve joined me for this session today and that you are ready to consider the idea of authentic leadership or how to be a professional human.

Our focus for the next 20 minutes is going to be on exploring the balance and maybe the tensions of being both professional and human but also taking a bit of time and space to think about how we align our professional selves and behaviours with our values.

My contention, after almost 30 years in the classroom is that if we spend too much time playing a role in our working life that isn’t aligned with our true self and personality then eventually that will take its toll on us.. but also on those we teach and work with.

Now although my title for this session talked about leadership, I am coming out at that from the perspective of us all being leaders in our classrooms; leaders of learning but most importantly role models who have responsibility for shaping the lives of children and young people.

It’s my belief that the pandemic and the way that leaders at national and international level have acted has given us a good landscape and maybe a new and current example of what we need from people who are role models and have responsibility for us and our futures.

Without going into politics or commenting about any individuals I’m sure you can all look at the leaders out there and think for yourself which leaders you feel you have faith in, which leaders you feel you would trust with your life and which leaders you would trust with the future of our society and communities and the lives of those close to you.

Now I know you may think that your job as a teacher isn’t really compatible with the job of a prime minister or president …but actually one of the things that I’ve learnt over my career (and it’s backed up by some of the greats in educational discourse) is that we do take on a huge amount of responsibility when we choose this incredible job of shaping the lives of children and young people. And that responsibility is also a privilege.

Dr Haim Ginott who was was a school teacher, a child psychologist and psychotherapist and a parent educator working in Israel and the USA in the 1940s through to the 70s. He said, in his preface to “Teacher and Child: A Book for Parents and Teachers” in 1972:

So, before I say more i’d like you to take a moment to think about this question.

How do you show up at work? I don’t know what stage of your career you’re in, whether you’re new to teaching, whether you’re like me, a bit long in the tooth and having done the job for many years…. but just for a moment, have a think.

Is the person who shows up at work the same as the person watching this presentation?

When you show up at work do you act differently to how you would right now?

When you show up at work do you talk differently to how you would right now?

When you show up at work do you dress differently to how you would right now?

Now when it comes to dress, possibly it would be a good thing if you dress differently for work because I imagine that some of you may have got into some of those lockdown habits, whereby you are in a state of dress or undress right now that is absolutely appropriate in your own home on your sofa but *possibly* wouldn’t be in the outside world….

Because of course we have social norms and conventions of what is acceptable in different contexts.

As a drama teacher I used to talk a lot children about this and I would explain to them about the fact that as human beings we often play different roles in our lives. whereby we change our language and behaviour to suit different contexts and relationships.

So for example I would explain how the language and behaviour that they might use when they were out with their friends would probably be different to the language and behaviour that they might use in front of their granny or perhaps if they ever got to meet the Queen.

I would explain that as we grow up we learn appropriate behaviours to use in different contexts and that school is a place where children can explore this.

However I also used to explain to children that under all behaviours and language we have a personality, identity and a character that shouldn’t have to change across the different contexts that we are in.

Because although in society we have to adapt our behaviours and language so that they don’t cause harm or hurt to the other people around us, we should never have to change the essence of who we are in order to fit in.

And of course that sort of teaching is absolutely underpinned by the United Nations Convention on the rights of the child and in particular article 8 around identity, article 12 around the views of the child, article 13 around freedom of expression and article 14 around freedom of thought, belief and religion.

So what happens if we take those ideas and relate them to ourselves as teachers? How important is it that,whilst we may change our behaviours and language to suit the context of the classroom and the role of being a teacher, we also need to be clear that we should never have to change the essence of who we are, in order to fit into the role?

Of course it is important, when we explore what the elements of being an authentic professional human might be, that we also take a moment to look at what it is not.

It is not about over sharing or making lessons all about you. We can probably all remember the equivalent of the teacher whom we all adored and who told us everything about his family, dogs an holidays but from whom we learnt practically nothing about ..(insert subject).

It is not about subverting agreed professional codes relating to use of language or dress. (Tattoos, use of social media and hairstyles seem to constantly cause debate but the best advice I can offer is to check out the codes in any school you plan to work in.)

More about boundaries later.

I believe that it is very important and that, in fact, that it’s only by taking our true selves to work that we will make our classrooms the most conducive learning environments that they can be.

Rita Pierson once said that children don’t learn from people they don’t like.

I understand what she was saying but I think it’s about more than liking. In my experience, children will learn best from people they trust.

And how to we get people to trust us?

By being honest. By being consistent.

By showing that we are interested in them.

By giving something of ourselves.

When I was in my second year of teaching and struggling, as a twenty three year old, to manage some of my classes of young people who were just 7 years younger than me, I had in my head this idea that I needed to project an image of some sort of strict, sensible and mature professional in order to gain respect and establish control.

My teacher training has definitely instilled in me the idea that I should never consider smiling before Christmas.

Incidentally if you want proof as to why this was one of the worst pieces of advice that young teachers could ever be given, find the video of the still face experiment by Dr Edward Tronick on YouTube.

Why was it ever thought a good idea to withhold from children the warmth, empathy and enthusiasm that comes from a smiling face?

But I digress. In desperately trying so hard to be something that I was not and suppress my personality, I ended up with lessons that were chaotic and a desperate attempt by me to “keep a lid on things”.

One day, my line manager came to me after a lesson observation and said “the one thing you need to do is relax and be yourself. You don’t have to control it all so much. Take some time to get to know the pupils, talk to them about their hair, their hobbies and their families. You know your subject and your stuff but you need to get to know them. And they need to get to know you.”

In following that advice, I found that my practice was transformed. And it is advice that I have used in every classroom and in every school and every role that I’ve taken on since.

And not just in my relationships with pupils but also in my relationships with colleagues and with parents and carers.

Children will work hard for you and learn from you if they trust you and feel safe in your company.

Colleagues will cooperate with you and, if you’re a leader, work most productively for you if they trust you and feel safe in your company.

And parents and carers will be confident that you are doing the best for the most precious beings in their lives if they trust you and feel safe in your company.

And trust and safety come when people see who you are, what your values are and what makes you human.

If you work in a school or setting where you feel that you have to put on a mask, or maybe worse still, a suit of armour before you step through the door, maybe take some time to reflect as to whether changing your behaviour and fitting someone else’s mould is really serving you and your values. If you are asked to do things that, in your heart or your gut, don’t feel right, if you are being motivated by drivers from someone else’s belief system, consider the toll that, over time, this may have on you.

Back in September I was lucky enough to attend an online conference with the psychiatrist Dr Bruce Perry who is one of the most inspiring and knowledgeable experts on child development and trauma in the world.

At that conference spoke of something called ego-dystonic behaviour in relation to employees who are expected to undertake actions and behaviours which they know are not in the best interests of those they are there to serve – so for example therapists who have to see 8 children in an hour when in fact they know that this is too rushed.

He talked about the negative impact that, over time, working in such a context will have on the health of the organisation and the individual.

I attended that conference as, over the last couple of years and through my work with care experienced children and young people, I’ve been involved in some work around what is known as trauma informed leadership. This is specifically to do with making sure that the practice of anybody working with children and families takes account of the trauma that people may have experienced in their lives and how we as organisations make sure that we don’t traumatise or re-traumatised people through the work we do with them.

If you’re interested in this work more generally I would encourage you to look at the work of Dr Karen Treisman or Lisa Cherry and Dr Bruce Perry at an international level.

However as part of my work in this field I began to explore what it might be like to be a truly authentic trauma informed leader. As part of this I began to talk about my own personal experiences of trauma and the impact on my development and mental health over my formative years.

Two years ago, I stood up at a Head Teacher conference in my local authority to speak to my colleagues about our Trauma informed work.

Many of my colleagues knew me as a respected teacher and education leader with many years of experience. They knew I had worked in a number of countries and schools throughout my career and I had a reputation for speaking and writing on a number of educational issues including leadership, inclusion, curriculum design and pedagogy.

They didn’t necessarily know some of the other reasons that I feel so passionate about this project and this work. But as part of modelling courageous and trauma-sensitive practice, I decided to tell them about the abuse that I had suffered as a child about the coping strategies and behaviours that I developed to help me survive in a world that I saw as unsafe, scary and sad and about the subsequent mental health challenges that I had faced throughout my life.

I had actually already written about these experiences in a book. I first wrote that book three years previously under a pen name but had gradually been sharing it as “me” because I had a strong belief that my authenticity as a leader is what might help change things for others.

I know I took a big risk in doing this. I know my bosses and my colleagues will never see me in the same way again. 

I know it is possible that this has had and it will have negative consequences for my career but I feel strongly that it was necessary for me to take that risk.

I know that, on the whole, people are “either” an “education professional” or an “inspirational speaker on trauma with lived experience” but what I have tried to show that it is possible to be a hybrid, a professional human and simultaneously outstanding and flawed.

But on the whole, my risk has paid off because some of our most “dis-engaged” families have reached out to me because of what they know and because, rather than creating a barrier, it has built a bridge.

It’s not “me over here in my comfortable world as a leader” and “you over there in your family with your trauma and mess”. It’s us, in the middle.

Now to go back to what I said previously about boundaries, I have never mentioned these issues directly to pupils or families who I have worked with. I have never discussed them in classes I have taught or in conversations with pupils.

I have touched on them with colleagues, on occasions, as part of coaching and when I felt that a shared experience might help them.

But my writing is out there and my contributions at events like today are out there.

Because to me, anything else would be inauthentic.

I am absolutely not advocating this approach for anyone else, if it doesn’t feel right or comfortable.

But I do advocate today, as an invitation to you, thinking about whether you make take a little bit more of you to your work.

If you want to find an example of someone who has been an absolute inspiration to me in this respect, I would recommend that you find out about Rae Snape who is a primary head teacher down in Cambridgeshire.

Rae unrelentingly takes her whole self to work and I asked her permission to share her recent avatar which I think sums up the idea of being a professional human.


So before I do that, thanks so much for joining me today. I hope you have taken something from the time you have spent with me and above all I hope this gives you the power to be the person you want and need to be at school.

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