I’d not led a school that was in special measures before. I didn’t know that I had it in me.
Marie-Claire continued: “The CEO knew of the work I was doing with the Kyra teaching school alliance; he’d heard me speak about social justice. He knew that our vision was to create partnerships that are ambitious for children”.
The CEO phoned her and “called her bluff”. “He said ‘if you really believe in social justice this is the school you need to be in - this is where you are needed most’”.
Marie-Claire was busy leading two schools at the time, as well as leading the work of the teaching school alliance. She was also scared. “It was a very high profile school and well known for the difficult community it serves,” she said. “It was the poorest performing school in the local authority with a long tail of under-achievement, very high levels of deprivation and a very mobile community"
The school has never been graded ‘good’ in the history of school inspections. I felt like my reputation would be on the line if I couldn’t do it!
Marie-Claire agreed to support the acting headteacher ‘from the sidelines’ and visited the school a few weeks later.
“It was much worse that I had imagined,” she said. “I remember arriving at the school and noting that it had no perimeter fence at the front of the school. I later discovered that some pupils were freely leaving the site through the fire escape when they’d had enough of school. The playground was a wasteland of concrete. My first reflections on meeting the pupils were that they were pale, some looked malnourished and some seemed lifeless. Standards, as you can imagine, were chronically low.”
The acting head was deeply committed to the school but she had lost all sense of hope. Marie-Claire heard the about the backgrounds of some of the children she met in an uninspiring nurture room that included child prostitution, domestic violence, parental drug abuse and alcoholism. “The thing that broke my heart was not that bad things had happened to the children, but what really hit me in the pit of my stomach was that the acting head said that it was the best they could do.
For possibly the first time in my career I realised what the purpose of education is.
"Until we fully grasp the purpose of what we are trying to achieve there is no basis for school improvement, leadership or hope.”
Marie-Claire said that she believed that the first step for any new leader was answering the fundamental question of purpose – why do you do what you do, and why should anyone follow you? She quoted from Simon Sinek’s book Start with Why: “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”
“Every single leader and teacher should be asking the question of purpose,” she said, asking: “Can you talk about why you do your job, and what the purpose and vision for education in your school is?”
She pointed to research quoted in the Harvard Business Review that states inspired employees are twice as productive as dissatisfied employees. She added: “So inspiring your colleagues has a direct correlation with productivity and success in your school.”
The article spoke about the three-tiered pyramid of employee needs, consisting of satisfaction at its base, engagement as the middle tier and inspiration as the pinnacle. She said: “To be satisfied employees needed a safe working environment, the tools, training and resources to do their jobs well, no bureaucracy and to be valued and rewarded fairly. If they were to be satisfied as well as engaged they needed to be part of an extraordinary team, have autonomy to do their jobs and the opportunity to learn and grow every day and make a difference. But to be inspired employees needed to get inspiration from their company vision and be inspired by their leaders.”
She spoke about the importance of leaders enrolling all staff in their vision – not just those who are teaching and working with children directly. “It’s about everyone - your school administrators, support staff, your caretaker, site staff, business or finance manager - being enrolled in your vision and purpose.”
Marie-Claire asked: “What would happen in our nation if the teaching profession felt truly valued, well-resourced and inspired by those who lead us? It is up to us, in the words of Gandhi, to ‘be the change we want to see in this world’.
When Marie-Claire eventually decided to become the head at Benjamin Adlard resilience was as important as hope. “Resilience grows from hope,” she said.
Believing that things can be better or different and that people can change is fundamental to school improvement or survival in any context.
You can’t make things better without believing that better is possible.
Marie-Claire said she developed some important habits in the early days of working with the school to help her hold on to hope. “Every day as I drove into school I would rehearse to myself the kind of things I wanted to see in that community and in that school. It became a personal declaration or a mantra. I would say to myself ‘this school will be a place where children are loved, this will be a school full of joy, a school where talents are nurtured, where children thrive, where staff are listened to and developed, where children love to learn, where parents are welcome, a school that is full of optimism and fun, a school where it is ok to take risks and try things.’”
Marie-Claire was determined not to sack teaching staff to tackle the school’s challenges. “Some heads in this situation would get rid of the teaching team,” she said. “That happens all over the place and I can understand the reasons for this, but I didn’t do that. The reason was that it didn’t match my values. If a teacher is not doing well in their classroom the question should be what is the system, and the people and processes needed around that teacher to help them succeed. My first move was to examine those things and make sure that the professional development was in place. I needed to find hope for the teachers as much as I needed to find hope for the children.”
She added: “The ability to see possibilities, to overcome barriers, to innovate and make changes in a school is only possible when you, and the people you lead, believe that it will make a difference.”
How do you project hope as a leader?
Marie-Claire shared tips from Caryn Wells, author of Mindfulness: How School Leaders Can Reduce Stress and Thrive on the Job, for leaders who want to project hope:
- Practice being fully present for your colleagues, students and parents.
- Believe in the power of teachers – to make all the difference, and consistently communicate that so all will know.
- Encourage others that their work and their lives matter.
- Showing compassion for the starts, stops and backward movements of any change effort.
- Pay attention to what is happening in the organisation, being attuned to others who might be marginalised or disconnected. Who are the colleagues who never come in the staffroom?
- Show empathy and sensitivity to others.
- Encourage others to not worry about the next agenda, or regret actions of the past – the work is in the present tense.
- Remain patient for the things that will take a great deal of time.
- Self-monitor and self-regulate your own emotional response to situations.
- Use the quiet and stillness to gain perspective that allows you to continue to move forward.
Reporting by Nick Bannister, education communications consultant.