Emerging from the shadows

I’ve read a couple of blogs recently which really resonated with me – they were about individuality in teaching, and knowing when to ‘let it go’ in leadership. The first struck a chord because as long as I can remember I have frequently sought to fit in and be accepted by conforming to the ideals of others, even when my own wishes, and sometimes even beliefs and convictions pointed in another direction. Sometimes this involved not doing things I would have loved to have done (like having singing lessons as a teenager) out of fear of the judgement of others, at other times it led to me trying to copy the behaviour or traits of others who I perceived to be more popular, happy or successful than me (even down to trying to change my handwriting to be like that of someone at school who I envied). Looking back, these teenage decisions seem ludicrous, but they were symptomatic of a way of thinking which is a part of me and has influenced so much in my life. Even in my career as a teacher I have made decisions (which I lived to regret) because of how I thought others would perceive me, and I spent several years trying to be other teachers before I realised that I did a better job if I taught and managed my classroom according to my own character and strengths. 

The second, on leadership, and recognising which problems are important to fix, and which are too small to worry about, highlighted other personality traits which have their pros and cons, but which make leadership more challenging – I am a worrier and a perfectionist, and I always want to please everybody. When I can’t, I feel as though I have failed. I hope this makes me a thoughtful and considerate head of department, but I’m well aware that it can also make me come across as judgmental, and that my desire for perfection, can lead to me having unrealistic expectations of others. I definitely need to get better at ‘letting go’ of the things which don’t really need to change so that I have the time and energy to give to the things which matter and will make a difference.

I’ve written previously about how others can help introverted teachers (like myself) to develop and find their place and their voice in the profession, but reflecting on these two blogs made me realise that if I had my time again, there are things I would do differently, which don’t rely on how others behave towards me. Over the past 18 months various things have helped me to understand more about myself, which has enabled me to see how I could have done some things differently, which would have benefited both me, and others. As I head towards the end of my tenth year as a teacher, I feel that I am only now starting to emerge from the shadows of some of these unhelpful ways of thinking. It seems like a good time to look back and to share some lessons I have learned, and continue to learn – perhaps this will help someone else to avoid some of my mistakes.

  • Don’t try to be who you’re not. As a new teacher, I observed a lot of lessons. This was really valuable in developing my teaching practice, but I didn’t make the best use of it. My tendency was to try to mimic other teachers’ behaviours, to try to be them in my classroom. This never really worked – it felt like acting a part rather than me teaching and led to me focusing on the acting rather than the teaching. Similarly, when I became Head of Department, there were leaders who I admired more than others, some I worked with then, and others I had worked for in the past. I found myself making the same mistake again, I tried to lead by copying how others led – but I was not them and it often didn’t work. In both these scenarios, what I really needed to learn from others was a way of thinking – when I started to understand the thought processes behind the actions of an excellent teacher or leader, I was able to apply that to my own practice in accordance with my personality, rather than trying to mimic theirs. I’ve succeeded in this with my teaching, I’m comfortable in my own skin in my classroom, I know who I am as a teacher and I can explain why I do what I do because I understand the thought processes behind effective classroom practice. This doesn’t mean I no longer learn, but when I do, it’s me learning and developing, not me trying to copy someone else. I’m still growing into my leadership skin – it doesn’t fit comfortably yet – but things invariably go better when I seek advice, think things through, and approach them as myself, rather than trying to act a part that I’ve seen another play. And as each term passes, the challenges feel a bit more manageable, the decisions a little less scary, and I start to believe that this is something I can do, and do well, whilst still being myself.
  • Don’t try to control and fix everything. Jill Berry summed this up beautifully in her blog last week – I can’t put it better, so I quote, “In leadership, you need to make judgement calls all the time about what you tackle, and what you rise above. No-one can fight on all fronts, and so you pick the battles that are worth fighting, and where you believe you have a chance of success. Which are the boulders that may slow the water, but the stream will continue to flow around them? What are the barriers that are causing so much obstruction and damage that you need to take time, working with others, to remove them?” My mistake has been to try and remove every tiny obstruction, even the little pieces of gravel sitting at the bottom of the stream, which you would hardly even notice, this uses up so much time and energy – emotionally and physically – for very little gain, and can even make things worse if it ends up putting someone else’s nose out of joint. Learning what to leave and what is worth the trouble of changing, and having the confidence to do both, is crucial.

    Another important aspect of this point is to give as much autonomy as possible to those you lead. I know that I value being trusted to do things in the way that I feel is best in my situation, with my classes and my department. When I try to control every little thing it sends out a message of mistrust to others. There will always be certain things which need to be done, deadlines to be met, standards to be maintained. But there is also so much scope for autonomy and trust – to allow teachers to own their classrooms and their careers. Given this degree of freedom, people will be more positive when you start wanting to shift the boulders, and need their help in doing so.
  • Don’t make decisions based on what you think others are thinking. I often go around with a running commentary of what I believe to be other peoples’ thoughts about me and my actions and decisions running through my mind. This can be valuable if it prompts me to think about the impact of my decisions on others and to take these into consideration, but more often than not it is focused not on how I can help others, but on negative thoughts towards myself – I am trying to learn to challenge this as it is often profoundly unhelpful and can stop me from making good decisions, simply because I imagine someone might object. This applies both to personal professional decisions and leadership decisions.  Rather than imagining what others think you should do, ask them for advice, discuss the various options when making decisions. If you’re a leader, know your team well so that you can lead effectively and provide different people with opportunities which play to their strengths. Don’t make a decision based on what you think they’re thinking. If you want to know their opinion, or how they will react, then ask them – it might not be what you imagined, and if it is, you can make an informed decision based on fact, rather than fiction.

These are my three don’ts – my three biggest challenges – to be myself in my actions and decisions, and to let go of the things which I really don’t need to control. There are also some things which I’d encourage you to do – things which I didn’t, until relatively recently, but which have made a huge difference:

  • Read and learn. About whatever it is you’re doing. If you’re teaching something for the first time, learn more about it. If you’re moving into leadership, learn about what you’re leading (I think this is more important than learning about leadership itself) – you can’t lead a department effectively if you don’t know your curriculum and understand something about curricular and assessment theory. I knew nothing about these when I became a HoD and I didn’t really do anything useful beyond admin for the first year or so – learning about these has transformed my perspective of what department leadership is and it’s much more exciting (but also harder and more important) than I thought!
  • Engage with evidence. This has made the single biggest difference to my knowledge and assurance as a teacher and a leader. If I know that my decisions and opinions are informed by evidence then I have so much more confidence in sharing them with others and asking them to work with me to make changes which the evidence points to. How can you do this – read books, read blogs, read papers, read the Guidance Reports from the Education Endowment Foundation, go to conferences, get on Twitter, the list could go on and on.
  • Engage with others. Reach out, ask questions, join the conversation – about curriculum, about your subject, about cognitive science, about leadership … – even if you’re an introvert like me. It has made such a difference and has played a significant part in my emergence from the shadows with the confidence to speak out, share my thoughts and be heard.

Image by jplenio from Pixabay


One thought on “Emerging from the shadows

  1. I love this, Helen. Many thanks for writing it, and for sharing it – and best wishes to you as you continue to learn and to grow as a teacher and a leader.


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