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:


I have nothing to write or say.

If you want to know how I CAN write, how much I reflect on my job, my rôle, education and “all things learning”, feel free to read back through my blog. Lots of people have told me that I write well. That I inspire, help, teach through my writing.


But just now, I am not doing too well. I feel low, tired and the much-needed holidays didn’t really refresh me.

So I am writing this to say that just now, I can’t write.

I can’t see much point in it.

I have been here before and I will get back to somewhere better.

I will manage the day job just fine and I will find solace in the classroom, in teaching the subject I love and in helping lead my school.

There isn’t space for much else.

Don’t worry and don’t ask.

But above all, don’t think that anyone is immune from not living up to what the world (or perhaps the world of their inner critical voice) expects.





Deep breath needed.

Deep breath neeed here. Some honesty.

This is a post for my lovely virtual friend Hope Virgo and her #dumpthescales campaign.

Warning – there is mention of weight and scales here. Possible trigger.

This is the reality of being in recovery from disordered eating.

I am 49.

I am a senior leader in a school.

I am empirically very good at what I do (Ouch. It feels uncomfortable saying that but it is true.)

I am a good enough wife and mum.

In the holidays, I went to my childhood home where there are scales. I have no scales in my own house and could tell you that I maybe weigh 9 and a half stone but most of the time I don’t know.

Years back, it was a very different story and the scales ruled my life.

When I got home to Dorset, the scales told me that I was 9 stone 5 (first morning, no clothes, post exercise.) I felt happy with that.

There was no change to this for the next four mornings.

I then went to France. No scales. Food. Wine. Daily exercise. Relaxation.

I came back from France and back to scales in my parents’ home. On the first morning back the scales showed 9 stone 9. 

Free floating panic. Self hatred. Suddenly my clothes felt tight. I did not want to eat. I felt guilty. Stupid. Ugly.

I engaged with all the positive self-talk and self-help strategies that I could.

I got through it.

The next day the scales told me 9,5 again.

I felt relieved, delivered, forgiven.

What is it that a small metal measuring device can render a grown, strong, capable woman so disempowered?

What is it?

What is it that the anorexic voices are always ready to pounce?

How can I be so self-absorbed, ungrateful, unaware of all that I have when others have so little?

The homeless, the starving, the really needy….

I don’t know. 

But I do know that there are lots of us who are in the same boat and that it isn’t something that we can easily out-think or overcome.

And that we stand more chance of overcoming it if we are honest about it.

Book review: Leading From The Edge. James Hilton. Published by Bloomsbury.

1E5593F4-1555-470F-8A7A-1A60E6BBE9A1.jpegThis book is an absolute must-read for any school leader who is experiencing stress or wishes to understand what it is like to do so. I write and know a lot about teacher wellbeing but this year I have teetered on the edge and wondered about my ability and desire to carry on.

James is living proof that it is possible to step back from the edge (or, in his case, to fall off it for a while but then climb back up) and become a thriving leader again.

Broken for a bit does not mean broken permanently and the advice that James offers will help to ensure that more of us stay sane and in the game.

The book offers an analysis of James’ own personal journey with insights from the mental health practitioner who supported him. It also gives practical techniques and strategies to help senior leaders deal with the likely causes of stress. It looks at sleep, diet, lifestyle, relaxation and mindset and is interspersed with advice from other experienced leaders from across the globe who have faced and overcome the challenges of school leadership.

This book will be my bible over the coming weeks and months. Thanks for writing it, James.

10 Questions

Another outing for this one.

In the summer holidays we often reflect on whether the job we are in the right one, or whether we should have a re-think.

Here, then, 10 questions that you need to answer ‘yes’ to* if you want to be a teacher/stay in teaching, in my humblest of opinions. (Please insert the  phrase ‘on the whole’ at the *. On reflection and after first writing, I have realised that we probably can’t achieve a resounding ‘yes’ on absolutely all occasions as we are human and fallible and all have ‘those’ days.)

1. Do you like children and are you able to love each one as if they were related to you?

2. Do you like hard work?

3. Do you like working in a team of adults?

4. Are you self-aware and self-reflective?

5. Do you understand your own behaviour and its impact on others?

6. Do you genuinely value inclusion and equity?

7. Are you able to see beyond fads and trends and stay committed to your values and evidence based research?

8. Do you understand that the long holidays are not really all holidays? See here for more excellent reflection on this by @teachertoolkit‍ : www.teachertoolkit.me/2015/08/…

9. If you have never worked outside of education, are you willing to work hard to research and understand other ways of being?

10. Are you able to say sorry?

In the room.

There is a song in the musical “Hamilton” called “The Room Where it Happens”.


Today, for the first time, I experienced a live WomenEd event. Over the last couple of years, I have supported WomenEd online, blogged as part of digimeets, had incredible coaching as part of the WomenEd coaching pledge, Skyped with Hannah Wilson, co-facilitated an event where we tried to get something off the ground in Scotland and created the Scottish #Womenedwednesday hashtag.

All of the support and learning that these activities and connections have brought me has been invaluable. Without the digital connections that have been facilitated through Womened, I would not have achieved much of what I have as a leader and teacher.

But today I experienced the immeasurable impact of being in the room where a WomenEd live event happens. 

The venue was Aureus School and the event was called Breaking the Mould. It was mainly aimed at women leaders from Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire and posed the following questions:

Why do women lead differently?

How can we challenge the leadership stereotypes?

What can we learn from role models who have broken the mould?

How can we create a female shaped leadership mould?

I had signed up for the event back In December, knowing that it would be a chance for me to connect in real life with some of my WomenEd sheroes; with Scottish Schools on holiday from the end of June, I’d known that I’d be able to plan my annual summer pilgrimage to family in the South around it….

And so, today, I set off from Salisbury at 7.30 and drove for a leisurely hour an a half to get to Didcot for a 9.30 start.

The first treat was meeting the gorgeous Kiran Satti in the car park; we have been virtual friends for a while and we immediately fell into easy conversation.  

And then the day kicked off with an intro from the inspiring and hugely engaging Hannah Wilson.

She told us of her desire to “fill her cup” and be inspired enough to get her through the last 2 weeks of term.

She asked people to consider their reason for being there and I spoke up: to be there for real; to show that there is a real Lena behind the Lenabellina blogs; to be in the room, (even though I might disappoint in real life…)

And then, eight speakers who made me remember why I do what I do.

It is hard to do them all justice as so much of what they said, the humour, the passion and vulnerability will not be replicated in my black words on a white screen. 

But, here, the essence of what I heard them say:

Jaz Ampaw Farr:

If you have no why as a leader, your why becomes fear. 

The stuff I am scared of you finding out is what connects us.

Do not live in the confines of who you are too scared to be.

Rae Snape

Use the resources you have on the inside and the outside.

Use the WomenEd network as a resource to find answers to your questions.

Be a mentor and be mentored.

“To achieve greatness, start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.” Arthur Ashe

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Maya Angelou.

Ladies, you are enough. Just keep learning.

Rae Snape.

Lee Ryman

Seeing children in Kenya and Sweden who were passionate about school made her ask (about England) “what the hell are we doing?” and inspired her to walk

away and start her own school.

Passion, authenticity, commitment to wellbeing, values and real learning.

What schools offer is not suitable for too many people.

Pupils should be able to follow their interests and passions.

What change would you like to see in the world of education?

Debra Kidd

Sometimes we may need to walk away from a mould if we do not fit it, rather than breaking it.

How do we ensure that mavericks can stay as educational leaders?

How we ensure that difference and diversity are celebrated and that we do not have to fit into labels like “I am a teacher of x subject/ secondary/primary”?

We need to lead from within and not wait for change to come from outside.

Alison Kriel

If someone is polar opposites to you, invite them in.

If you are going to lead, be honest in who you are.

To get through every day:

Know yourself.

Know your values.

Stay true to your values.

If you are happy in your job, you will be productive.

What are we modelling for children? Do we want box-tickers or people who connect and accept us for who we are?

What needs to be adjusted to that you can be true to your values?

Having people who are different to you in your team is not the same as having different values to them.

Paulina Tervo

Technology as a force for good.

Wanted to make films that will change the world.

Global citizenship can be delivered through immersive storytelling.

We can be held back by fear and labels.

Tech start-up has no female role models…. so she became one.

Can you see yourself as a leader?

If not, why not?

Carly Waterman

Our inner voices can be both enabling and debilitating. 

Name your inner critic (Doris) and challenge!

Everyone who wants to give back on education should be given a platform, not just the teachers and school leaders. 

Your negative inner voice knows you so well but is filtered by fear and paranoia.

Mary Myatt

WomenEd CPD is very special.

Mary’s ambition is to have used up all of her by the end of her life.

The power of concentration that is nurtured by others is healing.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter has inspired Mary:

Show Up (honestly)

Look Up (literally, at the sky and metaphorically, at your vision)

Speak Up (you have a right to express your voice)

Team Up

Never Give Up (there will always be energy at the start and then a hump but if your vision is right, keep going)

Lift Others Up.

Mary points out that we are human beings first and professionals second.

When children keep talking after a teacher had asked for quiet, they are not being disruptive.

My self esteem as an educator does not trump children’s learning.

We must live our values and not just laminate them. 

I listened.

I nodded.

I made notes.

I cried.

I hugged.

I felt nurtured and challenged.

I decided that now is not the time for me to walk away, no matter how hard it has been recently.

I was reminded of my why.

At the end of the day, Hannah asked us to consider the pledges that we will mark as a result of the day.

Mine is to keep going and to step out of the shadows of fear.

I am hugely grateful to Hannah and the WomenEd team for today.


The Mould in which I have been comfortable has, to date, been one where I have worn a mask; the cartoon avatar, the authentic voice behind the keyboard. That has been the best I could do until now. But now I know better and need to do better; to bring my whole self and resources into the room.

My final word:

“Education is everything.  We can’t and shouldn’t simplify it and talk in terms of it being the job of either teachers or parents. We need to accept that our job, as adults, is to be honest with children and to help them negotiate the complexity ahead.  It is our job to develop in each child the skill to know and understand himself, the tools to express herself and the strategies to meet challenges along the way. And it is our job to talk openly and honestly so that, if and when bad things happen, like abuse, children know to talk about them so that they do not become a source of guilt, a life-stealing force, a legacy of hidden pain and shame.”

Lena Carter

Breaking up and breaking down.

Breaking up and breaking down.

This post is inspired by a tweet from @RogersHistory (Tom Rogers) on Friday:

“Ok, so today we broke up. Major elation at school but does anyone ever get that deflation once that’s worn off and your alone? There can be a strange sort of melancholy in any ending, even a happy one? Weird, but get it temporarily at end of every year before holiday sets in.”

I break up and I break down.

Suddenly everything I know is taken away; routine, what to eat, what to wear, what to do. Excessive pressure is an excellent motivator but also a way of absolving all responsibility for making decisions.

A friend said to me recently that a high-pressure working life can be tolerated, as long as periods of sprinting are followed by periods of jogging; but what happens when you have been sprinting for months on end; if not physically then mentally? What if, even during the other times that you were meant to stop and relax and give your attention to your loved ones and your own wellbeing, your head was secretly still working and worrying because how do you stop worrying about not having teachers to teach and having children who are in such distress that they might be dead after the holidays and having new assessments to administer and having more and more and more and more with nothing taken away and having to protect your colleagues from it all and yet having them resent you because you represent “management?”.

All through this, you keep going. Because you can see that there are small wins and every single day there is something that helps you keep your faith in what you are doing; a smile from a pupil who doesn’t normally smile; a word from a colleague who can see the bigger picture of what you are doing; an end of year review that celebrates the huge achievements in your school; a parent who tells you that you are what the school needs.

And then what happens is that you hit the first day of the long holiday, the only holiday when you really can afford yourself time off, and you break down.

Some folk avoid it by going straight off on holiday.

Some avoid it by launching into DIY, an exercise regime, more doing; maybe even straight into planning for next year.

Each unto his or her own.

But for me, I need to not plan for a while. To not do. To not be responsible.

To take responsibility for me and to remember some key truths about my self. 

To sit on my sun deck for a while and not do. 

It is the hardest thing for me but also the most necessary.