Chelsea Flower Show is not the only place where blooms need to be nurtured.

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‘You’re going to reap just what you sow’

Perfect Day Lou Reed

Today is one of those weird days. A member of my staff has gone for an interview for a promotion. It’s the first time it’s happened since I’ve been a head. There is secretly a bit of me that is gutted by this. There is a bit of me that is thinking ‘Well why don’t they want to stay here?’ ‘What’s wrong with here?’

I have to ignore those bits.

Over the last three years I have seen this teacher develop. I have seen them challenge themselves, I’ve seen them make mistakes I’ve watched them fall over a few times. At points I’ve picked them up and set them off again, increasingly now they do it for themselves. They dust themselves down, climb back on that horse and trot on. Whether they get this job or the next at some point if I’m doing my job properly they will rightly move on and go on to impact on more schools and more children.

The moment has just made me stop and think about my job. Fundamentally what is the role of a headteacher.

A member of my governing body and I sat chatting about this just last week and he talked about his time in the police and his analogy really struck. He talked about being a gardener and growing  people,  they often start as seeds and we if we do our job properly we turn them into beautiful blooms and that is when they get picked by others and we get a load more seeds.

I have regularly talked about the need to help teachers to be great. Creating a reflective, supportive culture which challenges our teachers to try to be excellent everyday. It is more than that however. We need to clearly understand their aims and what they really want. It’s really important that the growth is bespoke to the individual. In schools there is often a treadmill towards leadership, the fact is that it’s not the right path everyone.

We have a habit in this country of  promoting people to the point of incompetency. Could we not looks at things in a different way.

Why not let people be really good at the thing they do, use that to its greatest impact and reward appropriately. I had lots of headteachers who did just that for me.

-TANGENT-

I have been very lucky I have had a range of  experiences that have ultimately led me to this point. My journey has been a round the houses route to headship that took 23 years to reach its destination. I had my first five years in the lovely sounding Marton Grove in Middlesbrough working with a wonderful head called Chris Gent.  He gave me space to develop and improve. He helped me improve my teaching. He also had the most effective “I’m disappointed” routine I have ever seen. I definitely stole that from him.

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He pushed me to just get better at the teaching then he when he thought I was good enough he pushed me forward as a lead-teacher.

I was then seconded to Archibald  a school that was at that point in special measures. I was there for an absolutely brilliant eight years. The head Pat Irving was fantastic at building the team and recognising the skills the staff she had and using them to the best effect for the school. It was a joyous time. More than anything in my school I aspire to the team ethic that was instilled in us. I have never laughed more than I did there, I have never sworn more than I did there. The staff room was a place of laughter and support.

Archibald Leavers Video 2005

The trust and faith that Pat showed in me has had profound effects on how I try to lead my school. She both challenged and supported me to be the best I could be, at this point being a head wasn’t even on my radar. She helped me become a good teacher, and let my passion for English impact on the whole school. She also took no prisoners and was always the crap umbrella that let us get on with doing our job. In 2006 that hard work led to an ‘Outstanding’ judgement in Ofsted. I don’t think I have ever been in a school or met a staff that deserved it more.

I then took a sideways move and had a shocking couple of years. I was according to my wife unbearable to live with. The lurch from Archibald to Pennyman was almost too much for me to take. When you’re sat in the middle of something that is ripping you apart in the most destructive way, when you can’t see the wood for the trees, when you lie awake at night because the of it, it can be really hard to see the positives. Pennyman was all that for me. I struggled daily to even go into the place. It was unrelenting. It made me need to get out of schools for a while. Looking back however I learnt so much about leadership there. Mainly that I don’t ever want to be that kind of leader. I was micro-managed to the n-th degree. and there was no trust. Think being a head is in a bit of revenge on this person who had no faith in me.

At that point I left the classroom. I was lucky I got a job as a literacy advisor in Hartlepool, working with  “The Debbies.” This restored my belief in my ability, but also was the point I realised how great a job being a headteacher was. I was inspired by these people managing complex organisations and people. I also for the first time realised I got the bigger picture.

I then moved to Saltburn as a deputy-head teacher and began really to develop the skills of leading. The key bit for me was and still is the understanding of the people you work with. It was a tough but great four years, we got an RI judgement almost straight after I arrived. The head Janet never once blamed the staff. She took it on her shoulders and worked tirelessly to move the school forward. She built us back up, she stuck to the vision of what she believed and carried us on that journey.

Which 23 years later leads me to where I am now.

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So how can we grow our own staff. I  think it’s important, that to develop people, the opportunities are there and it’s the culture that gives authentic experiences. Building capacity is best thought of as both a process as well as a solution for schools seeking to grow. If schools want to get better they must look to make the individual parts better.

  1. Create common goals – (Do you all believe in where you’re going?)
  2. Get to know your staff – (aspirations, ambitions, strengths, challenges and be the person who allows them to be great.)
  3. Look for common links between personal aspiration and school goals. How can enhancing one benefit the other. (Improving you improves us)
  4. All of the learning must be embedded in a trusting environment , in which relationships form a safety net of support and challenge. Make the growth authentic. (Let them have a real impact)
  5. Be aware that in the beginning, however, people are taking risks, and no matter how valuable things may be, in practice barriers may go up when new things are suggested. (be the net under the tight-rope walker)
  6. Let them lead. Don’t micro-manage. (STEP AWAY)
  7. Value that there are different ways for staff to impact on your school. Not everyone wants to be a leader, be creative in how you build your school capacity. (Understand how to grow your different plants, make sure the soil is right and they get enough water)

…building capacity an ongoing process by which individuals, groups, organizations and societies enhance their ability to identify and meet development challenges in a sustainable way…

Keep growing them seeds.

 

Evidence is important but great teaching is still art…TES article arhive #4

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Here is link to TES article about the science and magic of teaching…

“In the rush to promote research-based teaching, we must not forget the artistry that builds relationships and gives the profession magic, writes Simon Smith

Teachers are working in interesting times: we are certainly becoming an evidence-based profession. I am, however, more convinced than ever that there is more to teaching than that.

“In the rush to make teaching a science we mustn’t forget the artistry and craft of the job. Watching a great teacher is a wonderful thing.”

My recent, somewhat small pearl of wisdom on Twitter received a flutter of replies, but sometimes 140 characters is not enough. So what exactly was I getting at?

Time for some clarification. First things first, I believe in teaching: more importantly, I believe in great teaching. Being a great teacher isn’t easy. It’s a complex job. WC Fields famously said, “never work with animals or children.” But as well as providing the greatest challenge, the greatest joy we have within teaching is that we are working with young people…”

Evidence is important but great teaching is still art

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Books are dangerous, powerful and beautiful. They should also be used with caution…Making careful judgements about class books.

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Why do we have the urge to rush children away from being…er…children.

As I stand in the queue to watch Guardians of The Galaxy Vol2( I have two teenage boys) I’m struck by the number of tiny children here. A quarter of the audience must be under the age of eight. The film is a 12A that means it’s judged suitable for people 12 years and older. If the parents in the queue have deemed this day-glo superhero sci-fi fest as being suitable then who am I to disagree, I don’t know their children. The guidance is however there for a purpose to support us in the choices we make for our children.

The same goes for computer games. I’m pretty sure most of us have seen parents picking up a copy of Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty regardless of the rating so that little Johnny can play it because all of his friends have it. Many parents often don’t even question it and it’s certified 18 rating.

Actually I feel the same about books and maybe even more so. The best books are way more affecting than games or TV or Films. I have laughed, cried, been horrified and felt despair more with books than any other medium. The best books are windows to human emotion, glimpses into the human experience. Books are dangerous, powerful and beautiful. They should also be used with caution.

 

 

I’m pretty sure anybody who has ever reread a book from their youth will have found the experience to be very different. I was read Animal Farm at the age of 9 by my Year 5 teacher at that point to me it was some fantastical fairy-tale about talking animals. On reading it now it is a truly different beast that holds universal messages of the dangers of  power, corruption and greed. I loved it at the age of 9. I truly adore it at the age of 46.

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Last week I was involved in a really interesting discussion on twitter. The crux of it was about suitability of texts for various year groups. I have to say I think I came out on the prudish end of the scale. It started with discussion about The Lie Tree, but also pulled in A Monster Calls and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas as well as others. Personally these are books I wouldn’t use in Key Stage 2. For 11 year-olds I think personally that some of the subject matter or the themes are unsuitable. The books require a level of emotional understanding beyond some of the children.

My big concern really is twofold. Firstly that we are pushing books at children that whilst they are able to read them they cannot really access their true beauty and depth because they are not really emotionally ready for them. Much of Shakespeare fits that for me. Romeo and Juliet is wonderful, but why not read around 13/14 and they have some idea of that flush of emotion. My second concern linked to that is that why are we doing it and who are we doing it for. Is it really for the children or for ourselves. I previously worked with a Year 6 teacher who when ‘Twilight’ was all the rage, pushed this onto her Year 6 girls. I won’t get into the relative merits of Twilight but I will say that the book was and in my opinion still  is wholly inappropriate for 10 year olds. Is it a badge of honour for us? The use of the book was an attempt to look cool with the kids and was a bit of an ego-trip for her.

I understand that there is however  huge challenge for primary teachers currently. The need driven by our assessment calls for children to be accessing challenging texts to stretch them. I’m completely on-board with this,  my worry is that this  potentially makes us use things which may not really be suitable.

Of course every class is different. I have read books to one class that I wouldn’t contemplate reading to another. I would also say even with classes I knew really well I still didn’t have enough insight into their lives to understand the potential impact of some of the things we might choose to read.  As a teacher we have to make a judgement call. To be able to do this you need to know and understand the book really well.

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In my head I tend to rate books as  you would rate a film. I know it isn’t the same but there should always be a question of thresholds. It is vital that staff know the book and understand the themes of the book. My measure is always my own children. I am the Dad whose kids watch a fifteen rated film when they are…fifteen. My kids don’t play 18 rated computer games however much their mates are. I know this may not be the best measure but it’s the one I know the best. I judge my book choice on whether I as a parent would have been happy for my child to be exposed to that book, whether my child was emotionally ready for the content and the themes of a book. I know it’s not particularly scientific but it makes me approach books with caution and a healthy respect.

Remember the best books open doors to understanding. They are dangerous and wonderful. Please read with caution.

 

Getting rid of staff isn’t the answer…TES article archive #3

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Here is link to my article on improving schools without someone going overboard…
“New leaders of underperforming schools can feel under pressure to change personnel, but headteacher Simon Smith says his experience proves that this approach is misguided

On the day I had my first look at the school I would later come to lead, it had just received its second “requires improvement” judgement from Ofsted. The head had retired and left a leadership vacuum that the deputy at that point was bravely trying to fill. Staff morale was low.

Then, just after I started, we received a review visit from the local authority, which slammed the school.

Clearly, there were significant problems. As the new head, it was my job to find a way to fix them.

The common narrative for turning around a school in these circumstances almost always involves staff leaving. Changing trajectory, goes the thinking, requires a new head to freshen up the team; it involves a root and branch purge of the dead wood.”

Getting rid of staff isn’t the answer. TES article

Here are links to other related Leadership blogs…

The easy guide to improving schools…Invest in the important stuff.

Missing the positives… The need for #optimisticed

Be More Alfred! (Let Batman be Batman)

The Ministry of Fun

TRUST ME… You gotta believe.

Reflections…Priorities…still not getting it right.

YOU ARE NOT ALONE … In your office no one can hear you scream!

The Fight to be an Inclusive School… TES article archive #2

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Here is link to TES inclusion article…

“For headteacher Simon Smith, the system seems rigged to prevent his school from getting the funding it needs to teach children with special educational needs and disability, but he won’t be put off
I in our town, we have a reputation for being the school that deals with special educational needs and disability. We are a one-form entry primary school with 10 high-needs pupils below the age of seven. We have 14 high-needs pupils in school altogether. A significant number of these children come from outside our school catchment.

When a parent comes to our door and asks whether we can accommodate a pupil’s needs, we bend over backwards to do so. And parents knock on our door a lot. The nearest specialist provisions are an hour’s drive away.”

Fight to be an inclusive school article

and other mildly related links to blogposts

Bigger…Broader…Wider…

Jack of all trades…Master of none. (Doing the jobs I don’t have the skills to do)

Rebels, Robots, Respect and Responsibility. (What is good Behaviour?)

Why Picturebooks are Important…TES article archive #1

Here is a link to the first article I wrote for the TES…
“This primary headteacher and self-confessed picture book obsessive offers some tips on using them in the classroom

I love picture books. I would go as far as to say I am obsessed by them. And because of that – because I use them all the time in my teaching and rave about them in our school – I know something that those schools less keen on picture books do not: they are an absolutely essential tool for boosting literacy. 

But let’s clarify what I mean by picture books. I’m talking about books where the art and the words work together to create meaning so that, without either, the story is nonsensical.”

Why primary schools need to embrace picturebooks to boost Literacy.

Also linked in any reading related blogs…

Reading…(The importance of knowing books)

A Reading Adventure…All adventures come to an end.

Books, glorious books.(#favechildrenslit)

Picture This… Why I Love Picture Books.

#BestBookOpenings-downloadable

#BestBookOpenings-downloadable

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Last week inspired by @mazst who had enthused about The Nowhere Emporium and how great the start was.

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I posted my favourite book opening along with the hashtag #bestbookopening.

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It was fab that so many shared their favourite opening and really lit up quite a dull Tuesday. (It was raining and cold where I live). There are now a load more books I want to go and explore. Both children’s and adult’s books were shared I have however  focussed on the children’ s books first

So this  isn’t really a blogpost. It is instead just a place to share #bestbookopening pdf I have currently done the first 50 openings. They are A4 pages and look a bit like this…

So here is a PDF version,

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and here is a word version if you want to edit or add your own.

bestbookopening pt1 word

I will add more over the next few days…

 

Here are another 20.

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bestbookopening-pt2word

More to follow…

 

Hope people find them useful…I’m putting a set up around school.

 

 

The easy guide to improving schools…Invest in the important stuff.

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What is the thing that truly makes a difference in a school? The thing that ultimately impacts on the life chances of all the children that pass through your door. What is the magic ingredient?

The answer is simple…Teachers…good teachers. If the teaching is right then the other stuff follows. Sounds really simple doesn’t it. Well that’s because in theory it is. The reality is slightly more challenging.

Truth is we need to invest in our teachers. Great teachers make the difference.  We need our teachers to be reflective practitioners, we need to create in our schools communities of learners open to exploring and developing their practice.

If we can’t admit when something isn’t working then we can’t possibly get it right. Performance Management has been in my opinion one of the most mis-used devices in schools. It has essentially been used as a stick to beat people with. It should be something that helps, supports, encourages  and rewards staff. It has more often than not been the tool to knock and threaten staff. Creating a climate where staff can develop their practice and sometimes get it wrong is the best way to getting it right.

 

SO-WHAT

SLT’s need to create the systems that allow their teachers to be great.   Our most important question in all that we do is “So what?” If it’s not making a difference then why the hell are we doing it. Focusing on the stuff that directly impacts on learning and getting rid of the other stuff is an important first step.

I have written before on the concept of Servant Leadership

The main problem with all this is that to get great teachers costs time and money. Investment is the key word. Valuing the professional development of  staff as an investment both in them but also as an investment in our school made me place a higher priority on it when in came to budget meetings. Regardless of the financial challenges we face we still need to invest.  If we want to look at effective models in other countries one of the big common factors is the time staff are given to develop their practice. If the DfE truly want to make a difference maybe that is something they should look at.

The other thing we need to be aware of is that sometimes life gets in the way. We can’t all be great all the time. Whether we like it or not it is just a job. OK it’s the most important job in the world IMO but it is just a job. There are points and times when you are not “ON IT.” As a head being aware and putting the right support (Support is another dirty word in schools as it has been regularly used as a word in the first step towards a capability) at those times can equally pay dividends.  For that to happen there has to be trust. Blogged about that too.

TRUST ME… You gotta believe.

In my school we’ve made a commitment to strive for #everydayexcellence. We are not bothered by the term Outstanding we just try to be the best we can everyday.  That to me is more than enough.

I will continue to invest in my staff even if that means that if we do it right they go onto be great elsewhere. That is good leadership.

 

Missing the positives… The need for #optimisticed

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We have had what can only be described as…” a bit of a term.”  Mostly it’s been due to things out of our control. It has been a deluge. I have been the umbrella but actually it’s taken its toll this term. I have never needed a pause and a break so much. Easter has arrived just in the nick of time… like a gallant white steed with a giant rabbit on its back…or that bit in Lord of the Rings when all the ghosts arrive but instead of swords they are carrying chocolate eggs.

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The Gallant Easter Bunny riding to my rescue

For the last few weeks I have had to steel myself to climb in the car and drive to work. The other stuff has swamped the good stuff. I felt like I was drowning. Sadly the negativity breeds negativity. I have begun to lose sight of the good stuff.

My deputy pulled me to one side at the end of last week. She gave me chocolate and a coffee with too many sugars in. Then she set about realigning my world view. Her main point was actually this is really good. If you go around our school it’s good. The teaching is ‘ON IT!’, the children are ‘ON IT!.’ There is a buzz, an energy, it’s working. I’ve just missed it. The other stuff has blindfolded me. I’ve been walking round with blinkers on. My deputy made me take a deep breath and look at it,  actually really look at it.

Thanks Mrs S.

Twitter has also been a really negative place in the past few weeks with passive-aggressive nonsense, smart-arsery and people posting provocative statements and bashing other professionals. (This is trolling by the way) They say it’s debate…it’s not. Debate holds a possibility of changing a person’s mind. The views of most the people who spark these “debates” are  intransigent. If that’s the case then the argument stands for just letting them get on with it and not giving them the oxygen they seem to require.

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“We will splinter and we will divide
We will disappear to two different sides
And I hope that the world in which you find
Yourself is better than the one you leave behind”

Bubblegum, The Mystery jets

The problem is the negative is often the louder voice. The positive disappears to the margins. Sadly most of us remember the one bad thing rather than the ten good. You stew on the bad. One little bit of bad makes the whole thing taste bitter if we let it.

Yet equally there is much to celebrate.

The Oxford Reading Spree was a joyous celebration of the Power of Reading to change young people’s lives. The event was optimistic, empowering and joyful. The drive and passion of @EdFinch to set it up, the generosity of the people who gave their time to present  as well as the people giving their own time on a Saturday to further their knowledge of what books can do in our classrooms was frankly astounding. Without twitter it would never have happened.  In fact that weekend Oxford was awash with teachers giving their time to try to do the best for their children and learn more about their craft either at the Spree or ResearchEdlang which was held on the same day.

So moving forward. I need to compartmentalize. Celebrate the good, put the bad in it’s box. (like Voldemort in the Kings Cross Scene in the Deathly Hallows)

You’ve got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between
You’ve got to spread joy up to the maximum
Bring gloom down to the minimum
Have faith or pandemonium
Liable to walk upon the scene
Bing Crosby, Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive
I need to be more than an umbrella, I need to be the sunshine breaking through the grey clouds or at least a mug of hot chocolate, an open fire and a good book after a stormy day.

#optimisticed

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Reading Can Change Lives. #OxReadingSpree (bit late sorry)

I went to the Oxford Reading Spree. I have to say it was wonderful. It was a completely joyous event. An event built from passion, from a collective passion that reading is the most important thing we do in schools and that Reading can change lives. In the course of the day I heard loud and clear the need for children to read and be exposed to challenging texts (I think I may have said it myself) and the power of Reading to open doors to understanding and knowledge.

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Summary of my presentation from #oxreadingspree

I had never been to Oxford before. Lots of committed professionals gave up their time on a weekend to further their understanding of Reading and to share a common passion for books. Oxford was actually swimming with professionals doing just that both at the Spree and ResearchEDlang. That we have teachers who  have that commitment to their  profession and to developing their knowledge and understanding of the job makes me very proud. The Day was full of brilliance.

@MaryMyatt and her commitment to push all readers with amazing, challenging books.

@Andrew_Moffat was both funny and compassionate on the power of great books to challenge thinking and to explore equality. He cost me a significant amount of money in his brilliant recommendations,

@Mat_at_Brookes. On digging deeper into picturebooks. and in particular IMO one of the best picturebooks that came out last year. Anybody who shared  Sanna’s The Journey with Mat at the Spree will understand what an amazing book it is for developing an understanding of the plight of refugees. It makes its themes instantly accessible to younger readers, yet has a truly powerful emotional core.

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The Journey by Francesca Sanna

I then missed lots of other fantastic people doing workshops such as @templarwilson and @rapclassroom. but that was because I got the honour of interviewing @PiersTorday. I did my best Parkinson and let him do the talking. It was fab and insightful into the writing process. I was blown away that his first book went through 14 drafts. Equally important was how life experiences and our reading journey  impact on how we write. This confirmed that unwritten rule for me that to get great writers we need great readers,

I crept in late to Mini Grey’s session with a plateful of the best grub ever. Curled up sandwiches this was not. To see Mini sharing both her passion for creative books and the brilliance of Paper-craft was fantastic. Again to get an authors insight into their process was a fantastic privilege

@nickswarb then shared with us the importance of parents in supporting reading, and the best Kylie joke.

@GalwayMr Opened his heart to us discussing  that “Reading is a many Splendoured thing. He enthused about the importance and power of poetry and made us all cry, well me anyway.

That left @marygtroche to round-up a brilliant day by sharing the importance of making room to explore texts and develop thinking around them. She was also brilliantly funny.

Overall the day was an absolute joy Thanks @EdFinch for a day that reaffirmed my belief in the importance of making children real readers.

 

 

As @Alibrarylady tweeted  following the “debate”

“Catching up on reading debate Learning how to read is different to becoming a ‘reader’. I think concentrated on the latter”

I would wholeheartedly agree with this I came away from an amazing day of learning with a fire in my belly to make the children not just able to read but to be readers. That’s what the Spree was about, the importance of reading and power of books to open up a child’s mind and heart.