The Culture Code and I noticed

The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle has had a profound effect on my thinking over the last few months. Indeed, I used several sections from the book to frame my recent whole staff Inset. High expectations in everything is a key part of our ethos and so the first extract I used was about having high expectations of our students, using the study by the Harvard psychologist Robert Rosenthal from 1965, where teachers were told some of their students had high potential. These students thrived over the following year, despite the truth being that they had actually been chosen at random. What had changed was the teacher’s expectations. Coyle goes on to explain that these teachers showed more warmth, more input, more response opportunities (as in asked more questions to check understanding) and gave more feedback, presuming that when the students made a mistake it was because they just needed better feedback. These thousands of small behaviours over the following year contributed to huge student success. What a challenge for us as teachers! We should constantly be asking ourselves whether we really have these high expectations for the students that we teach. 

The second aspect of the Culture Code I shared with our staff was around giving the most effective feedback, again related to a key part of our school priorities as we continue to embed our no written feedback policy; using live feedback and whole class feedback. Coyle gives the example of the research carried out by a team of psychologists from Stanford, Yale and Columbia where middle school students were given feedback on an essay. The most effective, nicknamed “magical feedback,” consisted of one single phrase – “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.” What this communicates links to high expectations, but it also shows that students are noticed, this feedback makes them feel valued and part of the group. It helps the students believe that their teacher believes in them and cares about them. This phrase is so powerful, and is one I am encouraging staff to use as part of their feedback process.

There are so many other aspects of the book which have really changed my thinking but the one I want to spend some time unpacking now is the section about avoiding typical sandwich feedback and what we can do instead to make our feedback more effective. Coyle outlines that the usual way leaders give feedback is by giving some positives, perhaps of a lesson observation, some areas which need an improvement and then end by going back to a positive. Coyle says: “This makes sense in theory, but in practice it often leads to confusion, as people tend to focus either entirely on the positive or entirely on the negative.” He advises that the best leaders he observed separated this feedback, and made them distinct.

Lesson observation feedback is high on my agenda anyway, as we move to an Instructional coaching model over the next year. I have been reflecting a great deal on the process of observations after reading David Didau’s section on this in his fantastic book Intelligent Accountability. He advocates avoiding a checklist or any form of guidance on “looking for” and instead promotes “looking at”. In the excellent training materials for Powerful Action Steps, the professional learning platform devised by Josh Goodrich, which we are using for our Instructional coaching, one of the key principles is around how we give feedback. We know that the sandwich approach mentioned above is not effective and we also know that feedback can be emotional. Despite a huge shift in culture away from graded, formalised lesson observations to short drop ins which show typicality, staff still to an extent crave that feeling of “knowing I’ve done ok”, or “Was it good enough?” Instructional coaching is a powerful tool in shifting feedback to a conversation about what was seen in the lesson and the setting of a granular action step followed by deliberate practice. But if the sandwich approach doesn’t work, how else can you open up a discussion with the teacher where what’s going on in the lesson can be discussed in the “looking at” sense, whilst still being meaningful?

This is where we have started using “I noticed”, also shared in the PAS coaching feedback process of praise, probe, agree action step, plan and practise. “I noticed….the three students at the front didn’t start writing anything immediately, why do you think that might have been? How can we ensure a more prompt start?” or “I noticed….the students were quite chaotic when they entered the room, one student threw something at another and none got their books out, how do you think the entrance to the room could be made less chaotic?” are good openers for a meaningful conversation to take place before the setting of an action step. “I noticed” takes the emotion out of the lesson feedback and gives the teacher concrete evidence of something that has been seen in a “looking at” manner. This simple phrase opens up a discussion, rather than teachers being told straight away what aspects of the lesson are “good” or “need improved”, and it makes it far less threatening.

We are early on our Instructional coaching journey, but this is certainly one element of how lesson drop ins are changing which has been received overwhelmingly positively by teachers and I’m really grateful both to the Culture Code and Powerful Action Steps for challenging my thinking.

Rachel Ball

Over the Net!

I feel that you don’t care about my workload…”

You’re not making this subject a priority

You’re only thinking about your own perspective..”

You have a poor attitude which is interfering with your performance…”

Phrases like this are not uncommon in everyday life and can even be heard in schools, whether it’s between colleagues or in interactions between staff and students. I’ll admit that in the heat of the moment I’ve used phrases like this myself. It’s easy to think that you’re giving feedback when you talk like this, but as David Bradford and Carol Robin point out in their recently published book ConnectBuilding Exceptional Relationships with Family, Friends and Colleagues, this is falling into a trap of thinking we know someone else’s motives and intentions and the result can be very damaging.

Let’s take the example where a colleague, Sue, arrives late for an important meeting with me for the third time. It would be easy for me to launch into a conversation about how she isn’t prioritising this meeting and she doesn’t care. Bradford and Robin would describe this kind of talk as “over the net”. They explain that in fact there are three realities that exist:

  • The first is what Sue knows – her intentions, needs, motives and emotions. 
  • The second is what is known to both parties – these are the facts, the behaviours which both sides are aware of and are indisputable, such as Sue arriving late multiple times. In the book this is outlined as the net – the area both parties have common knowledge of. 
  • The third reality is that which is only known to me – my emotions, reactions and responses. 

By making statements like the ones above, I am not staying on my side of the net. If I stick with reality I can raise issues in a direct-non accusatory way that helps both of us. Perhaps: “Sue, this is the third time you’ve been late for our meeting. This makes me feel flustered and irritated.  Is there something going on which is making you late?” might be a better opener. I stay on my side of the net, describing the impact of Sue’s behaviour on me without Sue feeling misunderstood or attacked. 

Bradford and Robin explain that relationships often break down because people don’t stay on their side of the net, and we fall into the trap of thinking we know the other person’s intent or motives. This makes feedback accusatory and increases tensions, causing hurt and defensiveness. 

I found this really interesting to read, and couldn’t help but think of conversations with colleagues and students where I may have made this mistake, and unknowingly escalated a situation when I thought I was just giving feedback. Since then, I have tried to focus on staying on my side of the net in my interactions, and the results have been quite remarkable. I could tell student X that he has a poor attitude and that is causing him to fall behind in History. This would make him feel defensive, and also doesn’t tell him what exactly he’s done wrong or needs to work on. Instead I said to student X, “I noticed that you were chatting a lot in today’s lesson and when I asked you to stop you argued back or carried on talking. If we have a look at your book from today, you haven’t completed the work and I’m worried you will not be able to answer the exam question next week.” This had a completely different effect. Student X apologised, we agreed he would move seats and his attitude improved. 

One other point: This kind of feedback requires using vocabulary about how certain behaviour makes us feel. Bradford and Robin emphasise that we need to be careful with the language we use. “I feel that” or “I feel like” are thoughts, not feelings:

Think of the difference between “I feel irritated and dismissed” and “I feel that you don’t care.” The shift in language might be subtle, but the impact is profound. “I feel that you don’t really care about my opinion” contains no feeling words, although it is likely that there are some strong feelings unstated! (Note that you could drop the “I feel that” and the sentence would not change.) “I feel irritated and dismissed” is a statement about me whereas “I feel that you don’t care” is an accusation that is likely to cause defensiveness.”

There are many more interesting and relevant aspects of the book and some excellent case studies, but “Over the net” in particular has been so revelatory to me and has had a real impact in improving some difficult relationships.


This podcast is an excellent starter if you are interested in the book Connect.

40 things I feel guilty about

Maybe it’s because I’m a working mum, my religious background, my imposter syndrome, or maybe it’s just because of my age, but guilt is a frequently felt emotion in my life. Elizabeth Day’s column in You magazine this week hit me hard, and like her I wonder how much more productive my life would be if I let go of some of this guilt I carry around like a very heavy backpack. Certainly I know I’d sleep better, probably stop stress eating biscuits and maybe even live in the moment more. Elizabeth herself muses: “It makes me wonder: what could we achieve with all that energy wasted on unnecessary shame? The sock drawer might get organised. I might read War and Peace. Maybe – just maybe – I’d forgive myself. And then, perhaps, we could all allow ourselves to believe in our worth, just as we are.

Sometimes the guilty feelings are fleeting, gone before it’s really felt. Other times, it’s like a punch to the stomach, or a wave of nausea across my body. I know in my rational mind I work hard, try my best, and am doing a good job, but maintaining the balance in my life and always wanting to be better means guilt is a constant presence, and I often think teaching exacerbates this. We are in a profession of perfectionism, of moral duty, and therefore can always do more and be better. As Rachel Mallon writes here, the performance pressure that teachers are still under can add to that fear of inadequacy, as well as the constant worry that we are doing “enough” for the staff and students that we teach, and lead. Our job is never “done” and whereas to an extent my husband can pack away his desk for the night and leave his job behind, my mind is constantly seeking ways to be better, to improve results and to give our students even better chances in life. Even though I might not physically be working, my mind is always ticking away, pre-empting what will need done next and what we can do better. Teaching is a job like no other; at times I find it all consuming – then feel guilty that this is unsustainable and worry I will burn out. Over recent years, reading books like Stop talking about Wellbeing by Kat Howard and High Challenge, Low Threat by Mary Myatt have helped me to put things in perspective, and start to achieve more balance, not just for myself but those I lead and am an example for. Mary’s mantra of “Done, not perfect” in particular has resonated, but the gnawing feeling of guilt about my job remains.

I feel guilty:

  1. I’m not a more inspirational teacher.
  2. I don’t always leap out of bed, ready for another day at work.
  3. I have 10gb of podcasts I NEED to listen to on my phone but I keep adding more.
  4. I leave home before my kids are up in the mornings.
  5. I had to look up the date of the Vienna summit this morning in my Y10 lesson.
  6. I didn’t love that book which everyone said was brilliant.
  7. I take some poor behaviour personally.
  8. I have a shelf of unread books but keep buying more.
  9. I count down to the holidays in my head.
  10. I spend too much time worrying about what others think of me.
  11. I find most museums really boring…
  12. …and feel double guilt because I’m a History teacher.
  13. I once fell asleep in a museum on a school trip (in my defence I had taken an anti sickness tablet!).
  14. I find Teaching History magazine inspirational but hard to absorb.
  15. I sometimes have to look up education acronyms.
  16. When the Head calls me into his office I always wonder what I’ve done wrong first.
  17. I missed bedtime twice last week…
  18. …but I felt relieved not to have to have to do bathtime.
  19. I spent anytime at all teaching through information hunts and playdough.
  20. Sometimes I have to have difficult conversations with people I’d really rather not have.
  21. I never work on a Sunday evening…..
  22. ..but checked Twitter while pushing my daughter on the swing this weekend.
  23. Sometimes I forget to say “What questions do you have?” rather than “Any questions?”
  24. I often get tongue tied and wish I was more articulate.
  25. Sometimes I get so passionate, I forget to see other points of view.
  26. My husband says I’m a different person during the holidays.
  27. I desperately want school culture to change more quickly than it does.
  28. I missed bus duty.
  29. I don’t see my friends enough…
  30. ..but I hate talking on the phone.
  31. Sometimes I rush jobs and make mistakes I wouldn’t have made if I’d been more careful.
  32. I find holidays hard with no sense of purpose and still set myself jobs on a ticklist.
  33. I went back to work full-time when my babies were only 7 months old.
  34. The thought of speaking at some virtual conferences this month makes me feel a bit sick.
  35. Some of my Year 11 grades weren’t as good as they could have and should have been.
  36. I don’t make as many positive phone calls home as I know I should.
  37. I feel exhausted just thinking about another 25 years of teaching…
  38. ….but I don’t teach anywhere near a full timetable.
  39. If I call in sick I’m causing others more work.
  40. I’m not kinder to myself.

I could quite easily have added more to this list, and I know it’s something I need to work on, but perhaps by being more public about our guilt we can start to be kinder to ourselves. I wouldn’t dream of judging a friend so harshly and so my aim going forward is more compassion, recognising the impossible standards I’m holding myself up to and accepting that I try my best. And that’s all that any of us can do, right?


Systems not Goals

I recently finished the book Atomic Habits by James Clear. It’s a brilliant book, filled with the lessons from individual success stories and really clear structured advice about how to lose a bad habit, or create a good one. I found many sections in the book pertinent to schools and the habits we want to create in our students, but there was one key point in the book that really struck a nerve about school leadership.

In the first section of the book, Clear outlines some of the reasons why our good intentions with habits often fail. We are told as individuals or organisations to have a goal and focus on that goal. Clear instead instructs us to “forget about goals, focus on systems instead.” This advice seems so contrary to how we are usually taught to get what we want in life, be it getting fit, getting a promotion, or generally becoming happier. Yet Clear sets out 4 main reasons why goals don’t often get us very far, and actually it’s systems that are more beneficial.

  1. Winners and losers have the same goals – We assume that when we see successful people and their goals, that that explains their success, but: “Every Olympian wants to win a gold medal. Every candidate wants to get the job. And if successful and unsuccessful people share the same goals, then the goal cannot be what differentiates the winners from the losers.”
  2. Achieving a goal is only a momentary change – “Achieving a goal only changes your life for the moment….When you solve problems at the results level, you only solve them temporarily.”
  3. Goals restrict your happiness – This is something which resonated personally. When I was losing weight I focused so much on my end goal and how I’d be happy once I’d lost the weight. In reality even when I hit an 8 stone weight loss, I still wanted more, dind’t know how to stop and felt I couldn’t enjoy the achievement I’d made. In fact, stopping dieting and moving to maintenance over the last couple of years has been far far harder mentally than losing weight ever was. Clear says: “The problem with a goals-first mentality is that you’re continually putting off happiness until the next milestone.” Furthermore, goals set us up for failure – “Goals create an either-or conflict; either you achieve your goal and are successful or you fail and are a disappointment.”
  4. Goals are at odds with long-term progress – “Goals can create a yo-yo effect. Many runners work hard for months, but as soon as they cross the finish line, they stop training.”

Clear therefore emphasises a focus on the system, rather than just having a goal: “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your system.”

So what lessons are here for us working and leading in schools? Well how many of us still focus on a goal of achieving a grading of X from Ofsted, or a P8 of Y, a certain % pass rate for our class or even a particular target grade for a student, rather than just focusing on building the very best systems and cultures in our schools or classes? What would happen if we had a goal-less culture in our schools, and instead built systems of continual refinement and improvement? Why don’t we focus on building school cultures where we create the systems that will bring success naturally, without the short-term goals we sometimes build in? I think this means being brave and stepping away with some of our measures of success. For example, I had a recent conversation with governors about why we have moved away in the last few years from a % measurement of good and better teaching when reporting to them. There are many reasons why this is meaningless and unhelpful, but it takes courage to move past the comfort of statistics like this. It’s also a reason why I rarely if ever use target grades with students, something Ben Newmark wrote a fantastic blog about here and Mary Myatt recently reinforced:

As Ben says in the blog: “…it’s better to have high expectations and to focus on meaningful step-by-step improvements from the subject specific point they have reached. Generic target grades are a distraction.” John Thomsett has also written an excellent blog on this theme, explaining the reasons why they do not publish target grades to parents or students at Huntington: “The idea that a school policy should put a cap on students’ outcomes seems so ridiculous; there are enough things which inhibit their progress, for goodness’ sake! Our decision does not mean we will not track their progress using assessment data; rather we will use assessment data to enhance our teaching.”

In addition, there is a danger with goals in focusing too much on the actual measurement, a temptation in our data-driven world. Clear outlines this danger in his chapter on habit-trackers (something that can be really useful when used correctly): “The pitfall is evident in many areas of life. We focus on working long hours instead of getting meaningful work done. We care more about getting ten thousand steps than we do about being healthy…In short, we optimize for what we measure.” Instead of focusing on this measured target, it’s much more useful to be concerned about the larger context and see this measurement as only one piece of feedback. Clear adds a comment I think we should hold close in our work in schools: “Just because you can’t measure something doesn’t mean it’s not important at all.”

Clear’s final part of the book returns to this theme of goals and I think he presents a real challenge for us in schools: “Success is not a goal to reach or a finish line to cross. It is a system to improve, an endless process to refine….The secret to getting results that last is to never stop making improvements. It’s remarkable what you can build if you just don’t stop.” Let’s instead work on building school systems with the highest expectations, a relentless drive and commitment to improvement and a focus on the highest quality curriculum. Accountability is of course important, but let’s move away from short term goals and targets and instead be brave enough to focus on goal-less improvement.


Leverage Leadership and CPD

“Take a moment to remember the best Professional Development you’ve ever attended.” This is the statement posed by Paul Bambrick Santoyo in chapter 4 of Leverage Leadership. I must admit, this threw me for a few minutes before a couple of really clear examples came to mind. The sessions that had the most impact on me were delivered with both passion and expertise. Rooted in evidence, they allowed me to see how my practice could be improved in an easy and sustainable way. Moreover, the sessions that really stuck in my mind  centred on an element of practice; a practice interview in Leadership CPD or practicing creating a modelling example in a History session. Bambrick Santoyo says “Whatever it was, chances are that the reason this PD still sticks in your mind is that it made a difference to who you became as a person, teacher or leader. The PD that matters is the PD that marks us and changes us.” When I look back, there are clear examples of CPD meetings, events or courses where my practice has been challenged and irreversibly changed. But there has also been a lot of CPD that had changed very little, or fleetingly, before I resorted back to old methods. Bambrick Santoyo goes on to ask: “What if you could lead PD that made that same difference to everyone in a workshop – not just the hungry learners but the entire staff? Think back again to the session that made such a difference to you, and imagine the impact it would have had if all the participants in that session had gone on to make the same improvements to their practice that you did…The question is: How can we craft PD that results in that kind of change? …We have to reach everyone – every time.”

In the rest of the chapter, he goes on to outline advice for ensuring your CPD has the most impact on its participants. I thought it might be helpful to share some reflections and how they relate to the CPD I have co-led this week.

1. Set up participants to experience success. Kelly Dowling, one of the school principals who contributes to the book says “Most PD doesn’t make a difference in the classroom…because you talk about things but you don’t tackle the hardest part – doing it! You leave it for the teachers to figure out when they go back to their classroom. But when I give them the opportunity to practice with me right then, we see more results right away.” This view goes back to the heart of the Leverage Leadership model, which is based on the principle of See It, Name It, Do It, and this immediately challenged my thinking. How many times have I led whole school CPD, explained something we wanted staff to change and then left them to go off and do it. No time to practice, to find pitfalls, to ask questions or to see results right away. If I’m honest, I think this is incredibly hard to do, but can absolutely see the value in.

2. CPD matters when it responds to a need. This is something I have been trying to focus on and implement in our CPD programme, rather than just sharing something when I read a good book, or see something done well in another school. The best CPD responds to a need that has been raised through lesson drop-ins, assessment data, book looks, information from Middle leaders etc. For example, when embedding our “no expectation for written feedback” policy, it became clear over time from book looks and talking to students, that whole class feedback required specific CPD. We then spent time identifying the key barriers and designing a set of CPD sessions which broke down those barriers one by one. Bambrick Santoyo also writes about meeting teachers where they are; in-house CPD can be much more specific and tied to teacher’s needs, rather than buying in external CPD. We have found in-house development, very specific, and subject focused wherever possible to be incredibly beneficial. In our recent TLC model for CPD for example, we use the fantastic walkthrus materials as part of the session. However the rest of the session is discussion and examples about what this looks like in our context and in each subject. Not only is the walkthru focus itself carefully chosen in response to need, but the materials are never shown in isolation without application to the needs of our Academy.

Not only does the best CPD respond to a need, it is the highest leverage need – what will make the most difference in this area: “The objective must be the most important skill teachers currently cannot do that will increase student learning and teacher proficiency.” In good CPD,  as in Instructional coaching,the teacher’s action step should be the one highest leverage area for improvement. Just because we can lead a session on X, evidence might show that Y would have more direct impact on the classroom at this point in time. That’s not to say that it isn’t incredibly difficult to do this in practice. I know at times I can be overwhelmed thinking that there is so much I want to share with staff and there is so much good CPD out there, so many possibilities! But part of my job is to ensure that the messages shared are timely and manageable for staff and based on evidence indicating it will have the most impact.

3. Narrow your focus. How often am I guilty of cramming too much into a CPD session?  Or thinking I’ll just add this little idea in while I’ve got everyone’s attention? Bambrick Santoyo says this is a natural tendency, but one which could undermine what we want to focus on. Similarly, if we talk for too long and don’t allow time for discussion and practice, this can also be an error: “In the end, what they practice is what they learn.” Just as when teaching a lesson, far better to focus on less but give plenty of time for practice, questions and embedding the idea. Similarly, if you’re the kind of leader who wanders off the point, the book suggests scripting and rehearsing presentations; a simple tip to make your CPD “more polished and effective. Even if it feels awkward presenting in front of a mirror or to a colleague, rehearsing will make the final performance much better.” Finally, Bambrick Santoyo warns leaders to “anticipate tough responses.” When delivering CPD we need to have spent time thinking about what challenging questions may arise, and scripting appropriate responses…this “will help you keep your cool and remain confident even if the questions or responses are challenging.”

Fittingly, we are taking this week in school to work on resetting our culture, looking at our routines,  standards of behaviour, and thinking carefully about what we may need to tighten up on with the return to the classroom. We will lead this face to face with all staff, in small groups, to ensure a consistent and coherent message. Reading Leverage Leadership and other publications reflecting on effective CPD has really made me think about how best to deliver these important messages. I am not claiming that this CPD was the best, or 100% effective.  Yet I am convinced that careful contemplation  about how our CPD could be most effective rather than jumping straight in, has been incredibly beneficial.

  • The CPD is a response to a lot of time spent as a leadership team thinking about the  need to reestablish our expectations and work on our student culture. Students re-entering the school building presents the chance for us to tighten up some of our routines and standards and it was important to focus on this in the session, establishing why this was so important. Staff won’t buy-in to any changes if they can’t see the evidence about why this matters and why we are choosing to spend time relentlessly pushing on these things. We also carefully thought about the context of our staff, and made sure our examples were right for the place our staff are currently in.
  • When planning the session, we thought carefully about what the highest leverage actions we could take at the moment would be. Improving student culture and motivation is a huge area, and so it was important we only focused one one or two areas. Entrance to and exit from lessons as well as lesson transitions were the areas where we felt we could have immediate and significant impact.
  • Staff were given practical examples of what this would look like, although time to practice was much more limited that I would have liked. Leverage Leadership has challenged me to think about making sure this is a must for future sessions.
  • The session was led as a joint effort between myself and the Vice Principal. We spent time together making sure the session was cohesive and that despite our different roles and styles, that our message was the same. Time was spent scripting the presentation and practicing together to make sure it was more polished and effective. We also thought about questions we might get asked or possible barriers and some ways we could respond.

Thinking carefully about how the CPD should be delivered as well as what the message should be has really helped me focus, I’m convinced this process resulted in a clearer and more effective session. I’m not claiming this week will be on people’s lists of the best CPD they’ve received, but I hope it was more practical and more useful than it may well have otherwise been.

It won’t be a surprise that I highly recommend the book. CPD is only one chapter – there is so much more covered from Instructional coaching to observations and using data. It is a massively inspiring book and  makes you think about what is really possible; what elements of CPD can we be brave enough to let go of? Which elements that might feel uncomfortable do we need to do more of? There are a few landmark books that sit on my shelf and I return to time and time again. I can already tell that this is one of those.


Lockdown loneliness

I’m writing this during a half term break which I have struggled with to be honest. Whilst grateful for the break from remote learning and home-school, it’s been hard to relax. There’s the constant speculation in the press about when and how we will return to school, the challenge of entertaining two kids who are desperate for adventure, and the feeling of needing to escape myself. Many of the usual activities I would choose just aren’t possible, but this morning I met one of my best friends for a walk around a big local park and wow did I feel better afterwards! The chance to offload with someone else, have a laugh about our mutual home-school disasters or lament the feeling of an empty house was worth its weight in gold. The walk and how I came back feeling reminded me of a part of Brené Brown’s book Dare to Lead which I finished yesterday. It made me realise that I acknowledged I had been feeling overwhelmingly tired and low, but that what I was actually suffering from was loneliness. Brené tells the story of a leader called Colonel DeDe Halfhill, who works in the American Air Force Global Strike Command. She had read an article in Harvard Business Review about an organisation researching high levels of exhaustion in different companies: “What they found was that whilst these employees were in fact exhausted, it wasn’t because of the ops tempo. They were actually exhausted because people were lonely. Their workforces were lonely, and that loneliness was manifesting itself in a feeling of exhaustion….When we’re lonely, we just feel lethargic. We don’t really want to do anything; we think we’re tired and we just want to sleep.” Thanks to reading Brené’s work, Halfhill was able to have the courage to ask her Air Force team if they were lonely and start to work through some solutions.

It’s easy to ignore the possibility that what I may have been experiencing was loneliness when like me, you don’t live on your own and have active whatsapp conversations, regular zooms and even go out to work a couple of days a week. In fact I would have said as an introvert, I actually crave time on my own! But in lockdown having those real heart to heart conversations which break down barriers are rare and yet without these conversations and moments to be really vulnerable, it’s easy to feel like you carry the load on your own. Even without our normal hugs, seeing my friend this morning, someone I knew I could be brutally honest and let my guard down with, cry with and laugh with, made me feel less lonely than I have done for weeks.

This prompted me to think about staff wellbeing during this tough lockdown period and how this loneliness may be even more profound for our colleagues who live alone, who are shielding or who just don’t have the opportunity to meet up with a friend like I had today. I feel as leaders during this period in particular, we have a responsibility as far as is possible to help our colleagues who may be experiencing these feelings. As part of building up our school cultures and protecting staff wellbeing, perhaps loneliness should be something we are considering. Hopefully the lockdown will not last for many more weeks, but it seems that life as we knew it may not return for quite some time yet. So what can we do practically to help?

Building a sense of community is not something which develops overnight, but having a strong foundation and vision led from the top where everyone knows how they contribute is obviously important as a starting point. But in this lockdown period, I think small gestures can mean so much to colleagues who may be struggling with loneliness. A personal thank you card written by the Principal and received over the half term break by post, in recognition of going above and beyond in the last few weeks, I know has meant so much to staff at my school. A public or private thank you gives you a sense of belonging and feeling noticed. Having a line manager who checks in on you regularly, not to ask you if you have completed the assessment data or planned that new scheme of work, but who actually takes the time to ask how you are really and expresses real empathy, certainly can help you feel less alone. Our staff newsletter has also really connected staff, helped us get to know each other a little better and find things in common. A rota in school has also been set up where wherever possible the same subject team can be in together and work socially distanced and this has also really helped maintain a sense of community.

Colonel DeDe Halfhill writes “Loneliness is such a hard thing for many of us to admit. I thought maybe one person would raise their hand. But when fifteen people raised their hands, I was shocked.” The pandemic and lockdown is undoubtedly affecting people’s mental health and I think a deep loneliness may be at the root of much of that and be more widespread than we may realise. I don’t have many answers but I do think it’s something school leaders need to be aware of and seek to mitigate until we are able to come back together again. There’s no shame in feeling lonely; I know for me, the online world is no substitute for a muddy walk in the park with my best friend.


Changing direction

On Saturday, I drove my Mum to her appointment for the covid vaccine. We had to drive over 20 miles away to another town and so I’d already looked up the route, checked the weather (plenty of snow about here at the moment and so often roads near us get closed), and calculated how long it should take. I had my plans in place and felt prepared, but I wasn’t expecting a set of roadworks on a key point in the journey. The route had to be carefully amended and the direction changed in order for us to make the appointment and get to where we needed. In actual fact, the detour was less busy with traffic and there was a Home Bargains on the way home and so the route change ended up being a very good move! I thought I’d known best, but actually it was proven that there was a better way.

So why do I tell this story? Well it’s a good comparison to my recent thinking with CPD and Quality Assurance in our school. When I started out on my leadership journey, I believed that good leaders had a strong vision and a plan for getting there, and to deviate from that plan would be to show weakness. In fact, what I’ve learnt is that strong leadership is recognising that you don’t always know best, and that plans may have to change as you respond to changing situations, reading new research, changes in staffing, challenge from others or feedback from stakeholders. Changing direction doesn’t mean you lack focus or that you’re retreating from a challenging situation. In fact, it can be the wisest decision you can make.

When I first took on this role, I did an enormous amount of research and so I thought I knew the formula to a great CPD programme, but to be a good leader you need to keep reading, listening to the research, and responding to what your staff are telling you. Whilst mostly very positive, some staff in my school were telling me there were flaws with our CPD programme: it wasn’t bespoke enough and failed to harness enough of the good practice that existed already. Whilst having every good intention and keeping my eyes on the vision, which obviously included consistency, I’d become blinkered to the fact that there may be a different, perhaps better approach to get there; a different route to the same goal. For the first time in months, I’ve been able to take a step back and see the bigger picture, prompted by some brilliant blogs by Louis Everett which really challenged me, and David Didau’s recent book: Intelligent Accountability. Both of these pieces of reading gave me a firm nudge to changing direction in a way I had been mulling over, but had not yet been brave enough to move forward with.

There is still a lot of work to be done, both practically and in my thinking. But what I’ve learnt is, there’s nothing wrong with needing to change your direction in order to get to your final goal. The fact that my car journey on Saturday needed to take a detour didn’t change the result of us making the appointment, and actually I learnt a new route on the way. Being a good leader, in my opinion, is having the humility to realise that there may be different approaches, different routes to the same goal. In this case, I would have been a poor leader if I’d relentlessly continued on the same road, ignoring any criticism and refusing to be challenged by my reading (or worse still not doing the reading in the first place!). It isn’t weakness to change direction or to admit there may be a better way. And just like my route change on Saturday, there could be a whole world of positives experienced on the way.


No limits

Parents evenings were usually a pretty good experience for me at school. I worked hard, really hard, and was desperate to please. Unlike my extremely talented younger brother, good results did not come easily to me, and I often had to fail many times before I achieved. It’s for this reason that this particular parents evening when I was 15 stands out. I had been chosen to sit my GCSE English language exam early, along with a group of friends who were part of what we’d probably call a “most able cohort” now. I don’t know why I was picked or even why early entry was chosen (and I’m certainly not here to discuss the merits of it!). I do know that I was excited and was prepared to give it everything. So, when my parents and I sat in front of Mr N, my English teacher, and he proceeded to tell my parents that the early entry would be a catastrophe, my heart broke. I wasn’t good enough, he said. I would end up getting a grade I’d regret and have to resit anyway. I simply wasn’t as able as the rest of the group sitting the exam and he wasn’t sure why I’d been selected. Looking back, there were clearly tensions within the Department, but the fallout from those divisions was me.

Mr N was known as a difficult teacher, harsh and uncompromising, but this was still a shock. I’m sure Mr N has no idea of the impact his words had that night, but I was utterly crestfallen. My parents were confused and questioned what we should do, but I was already entered and I decided to carry on and just do my best. Getting an “A” and smiling smugly at Mr N when I got my results, were moments of deep satisfaction for me, but now looking back, I feel only sadness. I achieved despite my teacher, not because of him. I worked hard to prove him wrong, not to prove him right, and no child should have to do that. His words have remained with me all this time, over 25 years later, and they came back to me again very clearly when I read Kat Howard‘s recent brilliant blog on Attainment over Ability. I did go on to study English literature at A-Level and did well, but when I thought of pursuing a degree in literature, I just never felt like I’d be good enough. Unfortunately I’m sure some of that lack of self-belief was down to the words of Mr N.

There is a happy ending, as I discovered a love of History and don’t regret my degree and teaching career in History for a second. However, I was a lucky one who achieved anyway, and was able to find a fulfilling career. I often wonder who else Mr N may have broken in his career and wonder what happened to them.

So why am I talking about this? Well, this background is one of the reasons I’m so passionate about high expectations, and one of my reasons for writing this previous blog on differentiated learning objectives. I’m far from a perfect teacher and make mistakes every day; I’m human. However, Mr N is never far from my mind when I have conversations about expectations. I don’t ever want to be that teacher who puts limits on what a student can achieve. Some will need more support and guidance than others, but if a student is prepared to work hard there are no lids in my classroom.


Creating a professional development area

One of the biggest challenges for a Teaching and Learning lead, especially in a school which needs to rapidly improve, is treading the fine line of ensuring all staff have the foundational professional learning to ensure the quality of Teaching and Learning is good, but also to ensure that CPD is bespoke. I feel it’s important to have a balance of the CPD that all should receive, whilst ensuring that staff have autonomy and can work on the areas of professional development which they personally would like to improve in. To ensure this happens consistently, we have developed a Disciplined Inquiry programme for all staff to improve in one area of practice which has been identified as a development need (based on the ideas outlined by John Tomsett and Jonny Uttley in Putting Staff First).

Over the past year or so I have been considering the best ways to make this happen effectively and making sure access to resources is organised well for staff. I have also been thinking about how best to support our subject leads who need to access to high quality resources and CPD to further develop their teams. Since I took over the role of Teaching and Learning lead, I have started a Teaching and Learning weekly email, including a blog of the week. I have vastly improved the provisions in our staff CPD library and I have also developed a half termly Teaching and Learning newsletter which includes a podcast/book of the half term. We have also bought into the Walkthrus package, which has been fantastic at helping us structure our Teacher Learning Communities. I have become conscious though, that this means teachers and leaders trawling back through emails, and logistically, it isn’t always easy for staff to find the best CPD which they need in a timely manner. On Twitter one night I was blown away by the work of Claire Hill and the amazing CPD area which she had set up to share Walkthrus materials, using Google classroom in her school. I thought this was a really good way of organising access to resources for everyone and so started to create the professional development clasroom all our staff are invited to and you can see here.

In creating the classroom, I first created topic areas. I used the main areas from Walkthrus, as that is our main CPD resource in school, then added others which I thought should sit separately, such as EAL, Safeguarding and remote learning. I started with the Walkthrus materials, which really are brilliant. There is a video resource and slideshow for each topic area, plus workbook reflections. I then explored the best CPD channels I knew of such as the researchEd youtube channel, Tom Sherrington’s Kitchen pedagogy series, Rosenshine masterclass material, podcasts such as Naylor’s Natter and Becoming Educated, Seneca teacher courses and of course all of our own internal CPD. We have also bought into Bluesky learning, which provides video resources with tasks and reflections so these were all linked on the classroom in the topic areas.

The hope for this area is that individuals will access it for their own personal development first and foremost. Any CPD undertaken can be reflected and evaluated in Blue sky, which we use for professional development and Performance management, or in staff own personal records. Some of the resources, such as Walkthrus, also contain their own workbook reflections which staff can of course use. I hope that a member of staff studying an element of retrieval practice for their Disciplined Inquiry for example, will quickly and easily be able to find relevant reading, videos and current research which is well explained and accessible. I hope that leaders and coaches will also be able to use the classroom to help drive improvement in their areas of responsibility. The Head of Geography for example, might notice a need for more work on scaffolding with her team, and be able to choose a suitable video to focus on as part of her next department meeting followed by a discussion and sharing of ideas. An NQT mentor might want her NQT to spend some more time exploring assessment and so set the Seneca course for him, and plan to meet up in a couple of week’s time to explore his findings. Ultimately, I hope having an area like this means CPD will be happening in a more consistent way, using the best research and practice that exists and help with my aim of making CPD more bespoke for staff.

Obviously the professional development area is still in it’s infancy in terms of it’s use and will be continually developed, but I hope this explains the rationale for it, and the practical process I went through whilst creating it, in case it is beneficial to anyone else in the same position.


2020 in 100 books

2020 has been a year filled with uncertainty, fear and worry. However, for me, it has also been a year filled with far off continents, tales of humanity from centuries ago, the depths of grief and the passion of new love. At the beginning of the year I set myself a challenge to read 52 books. Then covid and lockdown happened, and the lack of a commute plus much more time at home meant I read more and more, until today, when I finished the last page of my hundredth book. The books I’ve read have taught me so much and made me feel every possible emotion, from absolute joy to deepest sorrow. Some of the books I’ve read will stay with me forever.

A while back I shared a thread on Twitter to one of my most-asked questions: How do you read so much? I wrote about reading once before here and how until a couple of years ago had lost my way with reading. Now, I cannot imagine not having a book on the go, and I have so much I want to read! There are a few practical things I have done to make reading fit more into my life that I thought it might be helpful to share.

  1. Peps Mccrea in his book Motivated Teaching writes about routines being a huge motivator. Reading has now become routine for me. I make myself read every day, usually just before I go to sleep, even if it’s just one page. It’s amazing how quickly this has become a habit and what I’ve found is that once I’ve made that initial action of picking up the book to read, I find myself quickly getting immersed! It’s also become routine to always carry a book with me. If I’m queuing for the supermarket, or waiting to pick the kids up and have 5 minutes break I will try and use those times to read rather than scrolling through my phone. Practically, I honestly believe not having a TV in our bedroom really helps me read more too!
  2. Secondly, I try and vary the books I am reading. I’m not one of those people that can have multiple books on the go at once, so I try and vary my reads between history books, education books and fiction and I think this helps keep me motivated.
  3. Quite simply, I really want to read! I believe in the power of books in transforming us and shaping us. When I look back over the books of my childhood or books I’ve read and learnt from, books that have got me through challenging times or books that have been a much-needed escape route they have fundamentally changed me. I love learning and focusing on knowing more and experiencing more and books allow me to do that. I also strongly believe in the importance of reading in my family and I want my son and daughter to grow up seeing me reading around the house. At the moment they both absolutely love books too and I want it to stay that way as long as possible!
  4. Don’t be afraid to give up on a book you’re not enjoying. This year I’ve given myself permission not to finish a book that I’m struggling with – life is just too short! Ironically, having given myself this permission, I think I’ve only done it once or twice this year but I know in the past this would have caused my reading to stall if I wasn’t gripped or enjoying a read.
  5. Lastly, I’ve kept a record of all the books read this year. I try and use Goodreads as much as I can and it’s great to look over books I’ve read and remember how they made me feel. I share quite a lot on social media too. I know I love seeing book recommendations from others and so many of my reads this year have come from recommendations on Twitter, so I hope people don’t mind me sharing when I find a book that I’ve loved or learnt from.

I didn’t want to do a top 3 from my 100 books or anything like that, because I think it’s unfair to pit my reads against each other, but I can’t finish this blogpost without writing about the book I’ve read this year that I’ve loved the most. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi is the story of two sisters: one sold into slavery and the other a slave trader’s wife. I was gripped from the first chapter. It is incredibly moving and epic, as the story continues through generations. It is so intelligently written and so interesting that I absolutely couldn’t put it down. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend that 2021 becomes the year you do!

And so for 2021! I’m sure I won’t manage 100 books again- 2020 was quite unique in allowing me so much time and opportunity to read. However, I’m going to aim for my 52 again – I need to clear the bulging bookcase of a huge stack before too long!

Thanks for all the support in 2020 and I hope Christmas brings you a good book or two to enjoy!


Create your website with
Get started