What I learnt from picturebooks…My Top 10 tips for leading a school.

When Gaz Needle asked me if I’d like to present at #PrimaryRocksLive I jumped at the chance. Having attended the year before I knew it was an education event not to be missed full of fun an energy and most importantly an evident love for primary teaching. I randomly threw out a jokey title and then thought no more about it really… well that was until I saw it on the program. Then I was stuck and had no choice but to see it through. I have to say I think I managed to get away with it.

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1.Build a culture of trust. Let them feel safe in taking a risk (Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak)

Sendak is the godfather of picturebooks and Where the Wild Things are is undoubtedly his Masterpiece. For me its a book about unconditional love and care and more importantly Trust. When Max sails away ultimately he knows and believes that his mum will be waiting. In Leadership terms it has a simple message about creating trust and belief. I know my school has been a better place for the development of trust both in adults and children. Staff free to take risks. Systems built around trust and belief change the dynamic of your work. So many systems in school have been set based on not trusting the staff. Performance management, data drop, excessive marking policies, lesson observations and much more based on the belief that staff aren’t doing a good job. I genuinely believe staff come to school to do the best job they can. They almost always live up to that trust. Trust is equally a two-way street, staff believing in you is equally important and that takes time to get people to authentically believe in you. Running alongside that is honesty. Creating a climate where honest discussions about children inform the work should surely be the goal of every school. I’ve sadly seen to often spurious data used as a stick to beat up staff and  the data increasingly become a nonsense. Trust and honesty solves that.

TRUST ME… You gotta believe.

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2.Grow the seeds, even if others come and pick the flowers (The Promise by Nicola Davies and Laura Carlin)

The Promise is a stunning book about changing our world, growing and nurturing things and the impact the can have on our spaces and our lives. As a Leader in a school this is one of the most important things we do. Growing our staff to be the best they can be. That doesn’t necessarily mean Leadership. Helping your staff take the career paths that are right for them is and supporting them to do that is a key part of what school leaders should do. Sadly this means that sometimes those carefully nurtured plants are picked for other gardens. That ‘s OK though you get to plant the next seed and do it all again. Having just appointed two new staff for September I am really excited to start that process all over again.

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

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3.Make the space to think about and reflect on your actions (The Sound of Silence by Katrina Goldsaito and Julia Kuo)

Sound of Silence is a quiet and contemplative text about the hunt for that moment of true silence. It’s thoughtfulness and calm completely hits its target. As a bit of advice for Leadership it’s simple really, find your space and time to think about your work, both to reflect and plan. Stepping back. sometimes is vital. If you don’t your leadership can become reactive rather than pro-active. So whether its bobbing on a surf-board in the North sea of sitting on a hill. Find the place to step away and think.

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4.Listen and pay attention. Don’t ignore the signals (Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems)

Knuffle Bunny is just one of the most wonderfully funny books ever. A simple tale told well. The frustration of the child as her Father both doesn’t listen or understand what she is saying is fantastic. The facial expressions are just magnificent. For a Leader again the message is simple. Just look, listen and read the signals.  Ask questions, pay attention and be sure to read between the lines. Almost anything can be solved with clear open communication and honesty.

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5.Pay attention to the detail but keep an eye on how it fits in the bigger picture (Zoom by Istvan Banyai)

Zoom is on of those books that completely blows your mind when you first see it. It completely pans out and out and out, going from micro to macro. As a leader it’s vital you have an eye on both. The clarity of the big picture and what you are trying to achieve has to be supplemented by an eye on the detail. Precision actions and getting the detail right will make it stick.

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6.Understand that sometimes the apparent rules are there to be broken  and we need to be brave (Don’t Cross the Line by Isabel Minhos Martins and Bernardo Carvello)

The book ‘Cross the Line’ is just the most brilliant book about breaking the rules and standing up for something The fantastic use of the gutter to create a barrier sets up the story perfectly an creates a moment when the pressure becomes too much and you have the character have to stand-up and break the rules.

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The same is true of leadership. Sometime you just have to cross the line and break the rules. Sometimes things are thrown at you and you have to know when to say NO. Pointless data is one such line, lots of people ask you for pointless stuff, being brave enough to not do it for the right reasons is vital and scary in equal measure. I have often said NO. Sometimes it is blummin’ scary to do so. In the blog below I became an accidental hero, often by being brave you find you’re not the only one.

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

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7.Remember one Yes is stronger than countless Nos. Don’t let detractors stop you doing the things that are needed (The Yes by Sarah Bee and Satoshi Kitamura)

The Yes is a cheerful orange creature who sets off to explore the big wide Where. But the Where is home to the Nos, who travel in packs and discourage the Yes at every turn. The book has a great message about overcoming obstacles and not being put off.

Do I really need to explain this one? Essentially just keep focused on where your going and the reasons why and you will get there. Equally stick to the things that are important to you and you won’t go far wrong. Finding the important things is the challenge.

Those three words… a lens on your work.

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8.Understand and know your community both its strengths and its challenges. Schools are not islands (Town is by the Sea by Joanne Schwartz and Sydney Smith)

Town is by the Sea is a melancholy, wistful delight. It talks about lack of choice and how destiny and future is set. Most importantly it evokes its community. I was struck on reading it to the parallels to the community my school is in. The rhythms and the potentially limited futures. Knowing and understanding your community is key to truly making an impact. Getting your community to support and believe in the work you are doing can significantly change the work you do.

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9.Be honest when you get things wrong, take the knocks then get up and try again (After the Fall by Dan Santat)

A brilliantly clever picturebook that uses all the tricks to get the reader to truly understand the dilemmas faced by Humpty Dumpty following the ‘fall.’ Colour and perspective are masterfully used to draw us in.

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The message is simple. Get up and go again. If the mistake is yours, then own it. Be honest! Equally make sure the successes are shared. The true job of a leader is to create the space for your teachers to do the best job they can.

Be More Alfred! (Let Batman be Batman)

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10.Don’t forget what the job is really about… Children. Put them at the centre of every decision (Love by Matt De La Pena and Loren Long)

“In the beginning there is light/ and two wide-eyed figures standing/ near the foot of your bed,/ and the sound of their voices is love,”

A beautiful book about the true meaning of Love with children at its heart. For me as a Leader it’s that signal to look at the choices we make and to make sure that the children in our school are at the center of those actions and decisions . This doesn’t mean increasing workload in fact it means the opposite. It’s about doing the things that work and getting rid of the rest. Equally the best deal for our children is teachers who aren’t worn-out and exhausted. Children should always be the lens you use to look at your work. Sadly they can sometimes get forgotten.

TOP 10 TIPS FOR LEADING A SCHOOL (Picturebook Edition)

  • 1.Build a culture of trust. Let them feel safe in taking a risk
  • 2.Grow the seeds, even if others come and pick the flowers
  • 3.Make the space to think about and reflect on your actions
  • 4.Listen and pay attention. Don’t ignore the signals
  • 5.Pay attention to the detail but keep an eye on how it fits in the bigger picture
  • 6.Understand that sometimes the apparent rules are there to be broken  and we need to be brave
  • 7.Remember one Yes is stronger than countless Nos. Don’t let detractors stop you doing the things that are needed
  • 8.Understand and know your community both its strengths and its challenges. Schools are more than an island
  • 9.Be honest when you get things wrong, take the knocks then get up and try again
  • 10.Don’t forget what the job is really about… Children. Put them at the centre of every decision

Thanks to the @PrimaryRocks team for inviting me and  letting me waffle. It was a brill day with lots of amazing primary practitioners.

We all need days like #PrimaryRocksLive to remind us about the brilliance of our job.

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