There were two turning points for me that I distinctly remember. The first was in September 2014 on our INSET day. We’d just hit 85% 5A*CEM in the summer, been awarded Outstanding in every category in July, a far cry from Special Measures and 28% three years previously. Behaviour had been described regularly as ‘feral’ but was now brilliant. I announced as much to my staff, then followed with the line that would change our strategic direction:
“But is anyone having any fun?”
I didn’t regret the sledgehammer approach we’d had to take with the school to turn around engrained and endemic inadequacy, but I knew things had to change. Regional Harris director Dr Chris Tomlinson once told me that a head’s job is to make themselves redundant and this principle resonated strongly. If I got hit by the proverbial bus, the school would be stuffed. It was therefore not sustainable.
My question, and challenge, to staff was to begin our journey to create a school that the staff truly wanted to work in, where we could feel the buzz of burning ambition and professional success, the warm glow of helping the most vulnerable in our society change their lives, the pride of being part of a story that is changing our part of South East London. But with no burnout. Ever.
We started by collating all the reasons why staff wanted to work here, in our school, rather than anywhere else. I’m a big believer in your internal brand matching your external brand - by this I mean what you SAY you do, you ACTUALLY do. Staff can sniff out spin a mile off and it truly stinks, breeding cynicism and resistance throughout the organisation.
To avoid this we spent lots of time making sure our ‘20 reasons to work here’ was actually real for staff. I asked them to rate the three reasons that were most resonant and the three that felt furthest away. I then gulped, and shared it with all the staff; one of my mantras being “no elephants in the room”. We then openly discussed the issues and what to do about them. Only when we were completely sure about them did I have them branded for our recruitment strategy.
I regularly review these 20 reasons to make sure the school has not drifted away from what we say we do. We place huge value on integrity and ensure it runs through every decision, every conversation. Holding ourselves and each other to account does not have to involve being needlessly brutal - when you do it with integrity and honesty suddenly, it is much more powerful and does not corrode trust.
Three years later the school was in a great place. Staff morale was high. We were ‘bringing ourselves to work’, another of our mantras; great banter and belly-laughter was encouraged; the hierarchy was flatter.
And this leads me to the second turning point, shortly before we broke up for summer holidays last year. Speaking to my coach, I realised something else was missing.
I was talking to her about how I hadn’t seen my kids for four days as I kept missing their bedtime, and that I was going to leave early that night at 5.30pm so I could see them for half an hour. But I was filled with anxiety about how I could make that happen and what example that set - would the staff think I was lazy and not earning my salary? My coach asked what time I'd arrived that morning: 7.30am. She asked me if I’d had a break: of course not, I’m SLT. Then she asked the killer question:
“At what point did working ten hours a day stop being enough?”
The penny dropped. And this might be controversial. You see, while I am indignant at successive governmental failures to recruit enough teachers, I do believe that too many schools have not done enough to ensure that teaching remains a fun and highly rewarding profession. Often, we’ve allowed ourselves to be bullied, to become scared of Ofsted and the DfE and bad press. It’s therefore totally understandable that, on occasion, we’ve wielded the sledgehammer approach for too long, too hard, too often, too carelessly.
Don’t get me wrong. Headteachers should hold people to account. Those who are completely incompetent should be drummed out of our proud profession by all of us. We should drive high standards for ourselves. We should expect the best for our children. They deserve the best. But we don’t have to run cultures of fear and we don’t have to break our staff.
It so happened that John Tomsett, a headteacher I very much admire, was getting some well-deserved attention for the great work his school was doing on addressing workload. I took his list of ways to reduce workload to my SLT and we realised that we were doing nearly everything on there, and more. Just not consistently or mindfully enough. So again, like we did with the ‘20 Reasons’, I now took the ‘40 ways we reduce workload’ to the staff to ensure they were resonant. I also set them the challenge for this year: “If you’re still here after 5.30pm, something in your own system, your department’s system or the school system has failed. Then let’s fix that.”
By being open and honest about the challenges we face, getting the systems right, being efficient and streamlined in our approach, we’ve been successful in changing the culture: the vast majority of staff in a recent survey said they had a healthy work/life balance.
So what needs to change across the school system to make our working lives more productive, more meaningful, less frustrating and less exhausting? Read our ‘40 ways we reduce workload’ and let me know what you think. Share your ideas to make them even better. We’re really trying to make it happen at Harris Academy Greenwich and I don’t believe our results will suffer.
It has been an eight year journey to lead the school to this point where the systems are tight, the staff are slick and well-trained, the school purrs. We have fun, we laugh, and we don’t break. Ever.
I love teaching. I love life. It’s possible to have both.
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