On Saturday 13th July 2019 I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to speak at TEDxNorwichED. I was given a nine-minute slot, and the topic we had to base our presentations on was #LookAgain. I chose to focus on the subject of reflection, and ensuring we give ourselves, and others, credit for what has been achieved in the past and what could be accomplished in the future. This is the script I planned, learnt and delivered.
“How do you find time to reflect in your life? Do you need to carve out more space for reflection, so that you consider what you have achieved, what more you may be capable of, and what those around you may be capable of? Can you take another look?
I’ve kept a diary every day since 1972 – that was the year that Alice Cooper’s ‘Schools Out’ made it to number one in the charts – I was 14 years old, at school studying for my ‘O’ levels. Today, now I am in my sixties (how did THAT happen?), having stepped away from full-time work, I’m still writing my diary. So every day, for 47 years, I’ve recorded what happened and how I felt about it, reflecting on and processing my experiences. It’s something I’ve always found therapeutic and satisfying.
It’s also interesting to look back and reread diary entries from years gone by. To discover, actually, how unreliable memory can be – I find that, often, what I think I remember isn’t quite accurate when I read what I recorded at the time. And it makes me think about the passage of time, and my own personal growth.
My husband has been in my life for 45 of those 47 years so I am recording our shared history. When I read to him past diary entries it often leads to interesting reminiscences and discussion. And it makes us laugh! One day in March 1979 I wrote: ‘Emptied my loose change pot today. There was £3 in it. So I bought a pair of earrings and a teak chopping board.’
A few years ago I decided to reread ‘this day in history’ from 20 years before, 30 years before and 40 years before, after I’d written my diary entry for each day.
20 years ago, in 1999, I was a deputy head applying for headships, and in June of that year I actually succeeded in the headship selection process.
30 years ago, in 1989, I was second in English in my second school in the north west, newly married, and after two years of applications and eight interviews I’d finally secured my Head of English post. I was thrilled!
40 years ago, in 1979, I was in my last year at Manchester University, having just completed my finals, and looking forward to starting my PGCE at Edge Hill College in Ormskirk.
I had a great career in teaching – 7 different jobs across 6 different schools over 30 years. But one of the things I have realised as I reread my diary entries is that some schools, and some leaders, were much better than others at recognising my potential, encouraging me, giving me opportunities to challenge myself, take on new responsibilities and to grow as a teacher and as a leader.
Other schools, and other leaders, seemed determined to keep me in a box, to restrict and even stifle me. I remember someone saying: “That isn’t your job. Why are you even talking about that?” and I understand now – better than I ever did at the time – how those schools and those leaders failed to get the best from me.
I believe that throughout our careers we learn a great deal from positive role models – excellent, committed teachers; skilful, empowering leaders. They show us what might be possible – what we could be capable of with support and challenge, encouragement and trust.
But we also learn a huge amount from negative role models, from teachers and leaders whose practice we observe and we find ourselves thinking: ‘I wouldn’t have done that. I wouldn’t have said that. I wouldn’t have treated him/her that way.’ In the process we are, in fact, refining our vision of the teacher and leader we could one day be.
So rereading my diary entries over the decades has encouraged me to look again – to revisit and reflect on how I developed as a teacher and a leader and as a person. How I used the lessons of my early career and how I was treated then to inform and strengthen my own leadership practice later on – as a Head of Department, a Head of Sixth Form, a deputy head and then a head for ten joyful and fulfilling years.
I also recognise that my own experience of working alongside colleagues who saw and nurtured my potential, and working with those who clearly didn’t, has helped me in my current professional life: talking about leadership, writing about leadership, and supporting aspiring and serving leaders at all levels. And I realise I was very fortunate to have a partner, a family and friends who always said: “Of course you can!” rather than, “Are you sure you can?”
So I have two messages I’d like to share with you today.
The first is this:
LOOK AGAIN at what you may be capable of. Give yourself credit for what you have achieved, and what you have learnt, so far. What more could you go on to accomplish – personally or professionally? What skills do you have and how could you make the most of them? What strengths are you developing and how could you use those strengths to make the most positive contribution – to live your life well?
I’m a great fan of Appreciative Inquiry: a credit, rather than a deficit, model of improvement which says: Rather than fixating on what’s broken and how we can repair it, we should spend more time thinking about what’s going well, and how we can do MORE of it. Find the bright spots. Where are the bright spots in your life? What do you feel good about? Don’t ever undervalue that.
And the second message is this:
We are all leaders – whether we are leading learning in our classrooms, leading outside the classroom, or leading our colleagues.
Cory Booker, an American Senator, said: ‘Leadership is not a position or a title. It is action and example.’
I recently read Iesha Small’s new book, ‘The Unexpected Leader’, in which she says: ‘Sometimes people think that leadership is about titles. ‘Head’ of this; ‘director’ of that. In those roles you are certainly paid to have influence. But true influence is about whose behaviour you can affect, not just what a plaque on an office door says’.
Think of all those whose behaviour you affect – at home, at work, in all spheres of your life. And consider how you can have the most positive effect.
LOOK AGAIN at what others may be capable of – children and adults. Can you show even greater faith in their capacity to become the best possible versions of themselves, as I hope others at different times have shown faith in you?
So what can we conclude from all this?
Our relationships, personal and professional, evolve over time because we all grow and change over time. My diaries certainly reinforce that for me! I recognise the girl and the young woman whose words I am reading, but she isn’t exactly the person I am today. Look afresh at yourself, and look afresh at others and at your relationship with them. Might you be failing to give yourself, and other people, credit for what COULD be done in the future because you can’t let go of what has happened in the past?
Take a second look – and you, and those you lead, could be happier, more effective and confident, and the world of education will certainly be better for it.
Thank you for listening.”
This is the link to the YouTube recording of my session, if you have ten minutes to spare and want to watch it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z5TAPmlVGfA
And many thanks to Rebecca Osborne for her graphic summary of the presentation:
Photo credit: John Berry – when I was in full flow!