Use Your Talents and Grow Your Strengths

A reason as to why this role of school improvement officer in Berkshire is a perfect fit for me

Why is the role feeling so perfect for me? Marie Huxtable asked me a series of questions that I aim to answer

What am I trying to find out about current practices and how my values lead to the impact that I have had and continue to have on others?

Why are you feeling it such a good fit - especially now? Marie –

Paula – After being made redundant in 2017 I found myself in a position where I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I had several choices, including retiring early.  However, I love my role as a school leader and knew that I was impacting positively in primary school communities. I also knew that as a black successful leader I had a skillset and knowledge which was rare and needed. Over the last 15 years attending conferences for BME educators I know that the BME school leadership journey to their white counterparts is different.  I have that knowledge and know how to succeed without compromising myself or that of the profession. I have both been inspired by many aspiring and successful BME leaders as well as inspiring others.  I am sure there are others out there, but I know of no other black primary school leader that has a similar track record of school improvement as I do.  Therefore, I sensed that I should continue to be inspired and inspire others. If I could find a role that suited me and where I could continue to build on my skills and knowledge, then I wanted to pursue that.  I was fortunate enough to be offered a role that did just that, suited me, and one where I could utilise my skills and build on them.

I am passionate about work life balance - I have realised both as a practitioner and as a leader that in order to be the best or to get the best out of your team, you have to be immersed in or design an environment that is nurturing of your values, forgiving of your forgivable foibles and allows you and all others to go in a direction that is fulfilling (mutually purposeful).

I recognise that my life operates in two halves and that those halves must, if I am to be successful, by design, complement each other. Indeed, the very essence of the meaning of complementary, I believe, describes how your job and home-life successfully create synergy.

I have been fortunate enough to have had a settled adult life, relatively free from drama or trauma. The only time I can see when my life was difficult at home, which may have impacted on work, was when I had two sons who were not doing particularly well at school as older teenagers and they needed more time with me and their dad than we were able to give. I failed to put in the time to support all adequately. It was like throwing them both into a swimming pool without teaching them to swim and watching the consequences from the poolside. I can laugh about it now as I am a very proud mother of a well rooted family, but at the time it was frustrating, feeling that my core purpose of being a supportive and strong parent was withering. Knowing that nurturing my life outside of work, ergo me, family and friends, is just as, if not on occasion, more important than work, then I must prevail to be in a position where I can do just that.

20 years of education with me and my youngest son settled and learning to be a successful adult, I took on a role that would need all of me. I committed to giving the role one year where I knew I would say no to my private life event offers often. I had to do this to help turn the misfortunes of an important community school which had been let sail on a sea of failure for far too long. If it was to be successful it was going to need someone with skill and commitment. That meant it needed a captain who didn’t have a family or another thing that might hinder it’s progress. I did say no to all invitations practically but promised myself 3 things if the school significantly improved:

  1. To say yes to offers of private life events after a year
  2. To take a three-month sabbatical after three years
  3. To offer me and my staff a work life balance package that would complement us and our commitments.

All three were realised and the school was judged by Ofsted as a good school, the first time since Ofsted’s inception in 1992, within 3 years under my leadership. With great anticipation, I planned my sabbatical for the autumn of 2015.

However, that has been the only role I took knowing that it would consume me for a specific time but in the mean-time I had agreed with governors and the local authority agents to timelines and planning spends to ensure that high quality work life balance package would ensue as a key school leadership tool in the near future.  These tools included:

  • Additional leave on request
  • Flexible working hours
  • Job shares as requested considered in all departments
  • Effective Keeping in Touch days - when staff were away for long periods
  • Keeping in touch partner – when staff were away for periods of more than a month an agreed partner who would act as a ‘friend and professional partner’
  • Sabbaticals
  • Designated leadership time – time away from school for leaders for ‘blue sky thinking’
  • Coaching and mentoring programmes - all leaders had one coaching session per term and more as needed
  • Overseas training/teaching opportunities – pursued for and funded by the school
  • Reduced costs for staff child care
  • Shared parental leave
  • Induction programmes with accountable measures
  • Leadership training – all leaders or aspiring leaders were offered leadership and graduate programmes including NPQH or masters etc.

All other roles I have taken I have considered carefully how my needs and the practicalities of fully delivering on the job description and serving my community effectively could be realised.

Nelson Mandela ‘I stand here before you not as a prophet, but as a humble servant of you, the people.’ .

This quote epitomises for me how I felt about the communities I served as a headteacher. I became a headteacher after 19 years as a classroom practitioner. I originally went into teaching because during my education in a rural town in Wiltshire in the 70s and early 80s I had experienced more inept teachers, who seemingly did not enjoy their role or indeed stand before me or any of my peers as our humble servant, than I had of teachers who went above and beyond their job title and did indeed serve their ‘people’. On an altruistic level, I wanted to rebalance the number of inept vs competent teacher and emulate the latter type of practitioner.

If the reality of the job has led me to negate my values over a long period or does not complement my vision of work life balance I have left, sometimes swiftly. As a leader, unless contracted to,  I have always stayed for 3 years, but have stayed in two roles for six years or more.

The need to feel connected to my family and friends and indeed to myself is strong. I have to follow a pathway that allows that energy to be created to feel fulfilled. So, work life balance is important. I have lived in London on and off since 2007 and I have lived in Bath as an adult since 1984. I attend regular events with friends in both places and thrive on creating memories.  I wanted to work either in or near London or in or near Bath or between the two. I was delighted that the role I have now is just that, between the two - 90 minutes door to door to my world that keeps me inspired. Equally I have rented an apartment in the town centre where I work meaning I can walk there in 10 minutes or cycle to most of my schools within 30.

I can also take advantage of the consequences of an agile and flexi time working pattern. I can, if I choose to, work from home or library etc and can work flexible hours. With a weekly timetable of up to 37 hours this means I can use my work time to complement my private time. I also get a lunch break. All other educational roles I have had I have rarely had a lunch break and worked a minimum work pattern of 8-430 with work to do during the evening and always at weekends. As a leader the hours were even worse, starting the commute at 7am and returning rarely before 6pm. My last headship was typical; I started work at 8 and finished at 5 with no obvious breaks. 45 hours a week, plus governors or the other events you have to attend. Now I start at whatever time my diary says, I am mainly in control of my own diary,  and work 37 hours on average a week. As I get to know the role better I will improve my speed to complete report writing for example, but at the moment some things take me longer than they will in the future, so occasionally I will work slightly longer, but then this heavy work pattern is offset by the quieter periods during the holidays and beginning of terms.

The town where I am now living also has lots of facilities that I enjoy :Bracknell, it has a community that is highly skilled,  but  Forest  state of the art cinema; lots of eateries and pubs; a music venue; quality library; indoor skiing; tennis; swimming pools and spas. It also has 150 green spaces, hundreds of safe cycleways, free parking and easy access to beaches and country sides. Interestingly, it is the first place I have lived as an adult, I have lived in ten different places, that is neither a tourist’s town nor has a university. Both those things bring to a city or town an optimism and diversity of people that is missing where I now am. It is palpable and I recognise it so strongly because the town where I grew up is similar and has similar traits. Many people have questioned why I would choose to live in Bracknell, given that Bath is ‘such a catch.’ If only they knew!

Being enabled by opportunity to return home to Bath regularly and indulge in friendships and memory making and to indulge in the recreations I find so exhilarating like tennis, swimming, cycling and soon to learn to become better at skiing inspire me. It may sound selfish, but I have found that if I am unable to be me well, I am unable to do my job well.

The other key aspect of why it is such a good fit now is because I have the built up the skill set that is necessary to effectively facilitate the role of headteachers and their leaders to improve outcomes for their community. My role is to work alongside primary Headteachers and leaders, including governors to quality assure and help shape their roles and responsibilities. Having been a headteacher in six different primary schools in different contexts I have deep pedagogical knowledge on the mechanics of teaching and learning, an understanding of the necessary school leadership qualities as well as a keen understanding of the climate of education today globally. This places me in a good position to challenge and support the leaders as necessary. I have a bonus of the responsibility of leading on early years, an area of education I feel passionate about - believing if we get it right in early education then we get it right for life. I intend to work with a multi-agency approach, that I am beginning to broker. The town’s commitment to EYFS is obvious, EYFS is a key aspect within the local authority’s manifesto, I have a strategic role and children’s services have a department which I will work alongside to affect EYFS.

Equally the LA is a forward-thinking one, that allows its staff to seemingly grow in a direction that is both purposeful and supportive to meet its core purpose. I am encouraged to study and reflect on my practice and encouraged to intelligently diarise my actions allowing time to reflect and strategise more effectively.

Moreover, although I have no official diagnosis of ADHD, have for more than a decade believed I have this condition. I have high sensitivity to caffeine, light and noise, have OCD elements, feel compelled to move a lot, am easily distracted, love change, huge difficulty in organising things, impulsive, take risks and since I can remember I have odd sleeping patterns. Hence why I chose not to pursue a career that involved working at night and indeed declined seeing through a career in nursing, which was my first love as my sleeping patterns were already erratic. However, I do not remember a time thinking that these traits were a disability of any kind. I believe I truly use them to my advantage. Because I have a propensity to be terribly disorganised, I am terribly organised. Every school I have had I have always ensured that the place was tidy and organised and had policies to secure this desire. I modelled how to organise diaries, desks spaces and displays. The reason I reference this is because with every policy or expectations of behaviour that you implement in schools there ideally needs to be an accountability measure to ensure consistency and application. This very action can be stressful. Now I am only responsible for my own organisation, my own behaviour and for my own space when I am using it; I hot desk, so have to clear the desk every time I leave it.  Hence, I am less stressed and if I don’t sleep well that night I can use my flexi time to overcome any deprivation the lack of sleep may have caused and hence give my full attention to the tasks in hand.

I have a monthly 1-1 with my line manager where I complete a form and outline what has gone well, what I am doing and what I might need some guidance with. This helps shapes the hour coaching conversation which determines my direction and allows us both to confirm the suitability of my actions. If I am to do better, then I have to be guided, one thing I know for sure is that I thrive under my own steam and that is created if together the synergy is there and is steeped in values. my own I thrive when I am directed, I thrive if you tell me my direction of travel is correct. I am like a thinking windup toy point me, and I will go.

For now this is the perfect fit - but why?

For now this is the perfect fit - but why?