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Surviving and Thriving in Schools

I’m coming to the end of my first term in the new role.  It’s been “odd”, that’s all I can say when people ask me “How’s it going?”

Photo Credit: Ewan Topping via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Ewan Topping via Flickr cc

The role of leading the multi academy trust is very different to anything I’ve done before.  There seems to be some generic leadership skills alongside knowledge of education which I can put to good use.  Apart from that it’s just odd.  Having been a headteacher for fourteen years, I started this blog thinking about the advice I would want to give someone considering headship.  As I started writing it seemed the advice might equally apply to a middle or senior leader.  Now I’m wondering whether it might just apply to everyone working in a school.

These thoughts may be of use to you or a load of “big balls” as AC/DC so famously sung.  I’ll leave you to decide which one.

Be On the Ball

Photo Credit: Joel Agee via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Joel Agee via Flickr cc

Whether you’re leading in the school or the department/phase or the class room you need to keep on top of the job.  Being organised is a skill and a habit that can be learnt.  Many moons ago I used to organise key tasks, for the following week, on an A4 piece of paper using a simple urgent/important matrix.  I would do this on a Friday night before I went home.  I then scheduled which day, of the following week, I would do each task.

I tried to make sure I didn’t have too many things in the red box.  Cross out the items in the bottom right hand box, you haven’t got time to waste. 

Stephen Covey's Urgent/Important Prioritisation Matrix

Stephen Covey’s Urgent/Important Prioritisation Matrix


You Cannot Do Everything, Do What is Important

The crucial next step is often missed by people.  You need to allocate a realistic period of time to do each task in your diary.  Be realistic.  This helps with overall time management as it soon becomes apparent when you have more tasks than time.  This is a familiar feeling for us all, focus on the red and then move to the green.  The yellow – urgent but not important tasks – are only for when you have lots of time with not much to do.  Time management is as much about deciding what you won’t do as it is about creating a list and then timetabling the tasks on it.

I now use an electronic diary to plan and my timescale has changed, from the week ahead, to the next three weeks.  The urgent/important and not urgent/important analysis is second nature to me.  I look to spend as much of my time in the important but not urgent box as possible so when the inevitable hi-jacks and last minute panics land they can be dealt with.

Don’t Waste Time, Just Get Started

It’s surprising how marking the first book leads to the second and then the third or writing a few random sentences produces a blog post.  You need momentum so get the ball rolling.  Promise yourself a cup of coffee, a dance around the living room or chat with a friend at the mid-point of the task.  Then go just beyond the mid-point before taking the break.  Remember to think how your work contributes to that of the whole department or school and timetable in these key tasks as well.  Don’t get know as a serial deadline miser as this only creates time management problems for others.

Have a Ball

Photo Credit: Terry Presley via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Terry Presley via Flickr cc

In the Chimp Paradox (2012), Prof Steve Peters talks about discovering your life force, “Imagine that you are 100 years old and on your death bed with one minute left to live.  Your great-great-grandchild asks, “Before you die, tell me what I should do with my life?”

There is no right and wrong answer but your ability to survive and thrive in a school will be linked to whether educating young people meets your life force.

Are you enjoying working in school?  No, I mean are you really enjoying working in your school?

If you can’t answer yes to this simple question or respond to the question, “Where do you find joy in your work?” with a positive response then it is unlikely you will thrive and may not even survive much longer working in a school.  You need to enjoy working with people, the young and the older ones, and you need to be fascinated by learning.

Commit to things in your life which gives you purpose: do them well; enjoy them and have fun.

We can all accept the ups and downs of daily life but we need to be able to look back and smile.  We need to enjoy significant aspects of our work.  I still get a real buzz leading professional development.  Whilst I need to write policies, they never get me out of bed in the morning or ever will.  My work has taken me slightly further away from young people but I still love the idiosyncrasies, tensions and contradictions of the teenage mind.  My occasional visits to the foundation stage make me smile.

Which aspects of you current job do you want to keep doing and what would you give up if you could? 

Which of your lists is longer?

Go to the Ball

Photo Credit: TheArches via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: TheArches via Flickr cc

When I first started teaching I can remember mates from university, who worked in the city or large companies in London, laughing about how they had gone out during the week until the early hours, had far too much drink and then hidden behind a cup of coffee or two for the whole of the following morning.  The paper work could wait and the phone could be answered by someone else.  I don’t know how true these stories were but I could never get past the outrageous notion of going out during the week, never mind parking work for a whole morning.

Teaching is a full on activity.  Thirty eager children or thirty challenging children or thirty unmotivated children won’t let you simply hide, behind a cup of coffee, at the front of the class room.  The same goes for leading staff.  I’m not quite sure whether I’m missing the constant interruptions from staff asking, “Are you busy?  Have you got five minutes?” in the new role or not.  As I said at the beginning it still feels very odd.

I’ve worked too hard, I know I have.  Some of the hours worked were due to me being inefficient and others because my way of working was ineffective.  There were also times when I was just too tired.  Sound or feel familiar?  I tend to work on a Sunday and Monday to Thursday evenings.  Friday night is a no, no and Saturday working is a real rarity.

Would it really be outrageous for a teacher to go out during the week?  Assuming all things in moderation it might actually do you good.  As a profession we need to think more about well-being and sustainability.  Too often as a headteacher I talked about what else we need to do or what we need to do next without talking about what we would abandon.  The environment in which we work doesn’t help but we need to also need to check more often whether we are spending time on the busy peripheral things or the important key things (note to self).

Photo Credit: Karin Bell via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Karin Bell via Flickr cc

At the end of a long hard term it’s probably not time to implement a new way of working.  However, a new term, following a well-earned rest, could be a good time to reset your self-management system.

Looking back at this post the section about being on the ball, managing your workload, seems to be the longest.  Maybe it’s time to have a ball or go to the ball a little bit more often.  First, it is time to recharge the batteries and refill the reservoir.

Other Related Posts:

#5MinWellBeingPlan by @LeadingLearner & @TeacherToolkit

Challenging Workloads & the Workload Challenge


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