One of the first questions we ask friends and colleagues, when we see them after the long break is, “Did you have a great summer?” Thanks for asking but it was a rubbish. This summer was focussed on the conversion of three schools into academies as part of a multi academy trust.
It was complex to begin with and got more complex before someone switched on the light at the end of the tunnel. Debates ensued about who owned little bits of land that had never been registered, TUPE arrangements for staff from a contracted firm, finalising HR Policies that I doubt anyone will ever read, requests for documentation, local government pension schemes, bank accounts, new service level agreements and the inevitable last minute hassles that always seem to occur. If you are a new headteacher or someone aspiring to headship and think, “I don’t know anything about this.” Don’t worry nor do I. It was necessary but none of the work gave me life.
What Gives You Life In Your Work?
“Please never, ever work for money. Please don’t just get a job. A job is something that many of you had while you worked your way through college. A job is something you do for money. But a career is something you do because you’re inspired to do it. You want to do it, you love doing it, you’re excited when you do it. And you’d do it even if you were paid nothing beyond food and the basics. You’d do it because it’s your life.”
The thought that I could choose to retire in four years makes me smile. The reality terrifies me. This is not just about the passing of time or another key milestone in life’s journey. It’s also a question of what I would actually do with my time.
I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to literally build a dream with a secondary school, primary school and parish church having just been completed on the one site. One of our early vision documents also had a special school as part of the campus. It’s a pity but that bit never came off. A seven year old dream of creating an all through educational campus became a reality thanks to Building Schools for the Future and Primary Capital Programmes. The realisation is two stunning schools – St. Mary’s Catholic Academy & Christ the King Catholic Academy – and a new parish church for Christ the King. Along the way the opportunity to establish a multi academy trust and engage with St. Cuthbert’s Catholic Academy came along. It widens the vision and the possibilities.
I realise the vast majority of school leaders are never given this opportunity. I live a blessed life. However, with it has come the cost of the excessive hours and stress. It’s not been easy personally; there have been times of near exhaustion. I also know I’ve not always (some would say ever) been easy to work with over the past five years. I want more balance in my life but retirement wasn’t exactly what I had in mind.
In Blackpool, similar to other disadvantaged areas, you’re often only one bad set of results or a poor Ofsted Report away from the dole queue. A sad reflection on the damaging accountability system we work in but it was my choice to work here so let’s get on with it.
Living the Dream
On the first day of this academic year I decided to pop along the corridor, from my office in St. Mary’s, to Christ the King Catholic Academy. Ending up in the Early Years and Foundation Stage class room, I was shown how to move pasta shapes using the crane by one little girl. One boy told me about the difference between a dropped scone and a pancake as he consumed three of the latter. Eventually I was able to make a contribution by explaining to a young boy that the wooden juice squeezer wasn’t great for cutting up plastic bread. We then both practised using the juice squeezer on a plastic orange. Goodness knows what the children made of me. I thought they were fantastic.
Going back along the corridor I resisted the temptation to face bomb the leopard skin rug. There was a real sense of awe and wonder around the academy. Primary and secondary schools are different. There is so much we can learn from each other. This excites me, I’m deeply passionate about the impact we can make together and it gives me life.
We’ve walked the long hard miles for many years and last Wednesday was just joyous.
A Leader’s Life … Choices and Decisions
As a leader you have greater control over your professional life and what you spend your time doing. You can choose to believe that what you must do is prescribed and not open to challenge or change but remember you choose to do that. Once you make a choice there are obvious consequence and commitments. On occasion there is no turning back – like when you say yes to a £23.5 million build and have signed the contracts – but we have much more choice than we think. Our time is not ruled by the dictatorial bell so we need to choose wisely what we do with it.
I could choose to become a better leader. I could choose to do less better. I could choose to spend more time explaining why we are doing certain things certain ways. I could choose to discuss whether we really need to do them that way at all. There’s more than one path to the end goal.
These are choices. I make them every day in a lot of different small ways.
Making Wise Choices
Over the summer I read a number of books. These included, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown, Leverage Leadership by Paul Bambrick-Santoyo and Switch: How to Change things when Change is Hard by Chip & Dan Heath.
The left hand note is largely from the Switch book and right hand from the Essentialism book. Leverage Leadership is not explicitly within either of the notes but exemplifies what is possible. I didn’t always find it a comfortable read. It challenged my status quo.
What’s the Highest Contribution I can make? What’s the contribution that would meet a significant need in the schools I help lead? Which of these issues do I have a particular talent in and passion for? What do I need to do now?
How Can I do Less but Better? I don’t mean to do a poor job. I just try to do to many things. What should be my focus this year and what’s the trade off – the things I won’t do?
What about you?
On Tuesday I’ll be sitting down with the three headteachers of the academies. We are the professional leadership team of the trust and it’s our first meeting as such. The big agenda item is the “Main Things”. What are the key leadership issues that we need to address and focus on? I sense the following may come up: quality of teaching, assessment after levels and how we link assessment more to learning, cross phase curriculum, pedagogy and learning (we are ideally placed to address this), the Catholic ethos of our schools and how we develop and care for our staff and students. You see the problem? The list is already too long.
What would your priorities be? Are you spending the majority of your time on these priorities?
I’m going to suggest we read Leverage Leadership a chapter at a time and reflect on it together at the next meeting. Not sure how this will go down, we’ll see. Our own professional development must not be neglected if we are to be leading learners and model what we expect of others.
The slides below are a reminder for me. I’ll play them every now and again to ground myself and centre my work on what is important – I can add to them and take irrelevant slides away. I need these reminders as my head is a box of frogs and possibly always has been. I’m a daydreamer – one of my greatest strengths and biggest weaknesses.
Don’t Forget your Other Passions
I was walking with my wife one morning and she was telling me about a book she was reading. It was about a lady with a chronic illness and her workaholic husband. The women had written about how her husband’s passion has been his work. She finished with the line:
“I wish his passion had been me.”
That walk was months and months ago but I still remember the line. It hit hard. My wife and my family are also my passion. God willing, they will be there long after the work has gone. At the end of life I doubt I’ll think about the work not done. I will regret the relationships that were not fulfilled.
My family has given up too much of me for too long to work. This isn’t about neglecting my responsibilities. It’s not in my nature, I wouldn’t do that. It’s not about the old adage, “I work to live, not live to work”. Times have changed and our pattern of work is more intensive but possibly for a shorter time period than other workers. They may work less hours per week but work for more years.
You need to find life in your work. Work for your passion not your pension. The challenge is to balance the time between your passions in the right way. I’ll be a better person and leader as I rebalance my life.
Some of the work I want to take further forward is contained in this post: