How many of us have heard colleagues offer help with the phrase “if there’s anything I can do, just ask”? How many of us actually do? So today I am going to talk about ASK but this time it is an acronym for my priorities as an educator.
A is for authenticity. I have struggled with this for many years. It is hard to be authentic when you have been shaped by a system and still have to work within the remit of that system. I know I won’t be the only person here who has, at times, felt like they were not being true to themselves at work. I also know that there are many of us here who have suffered with Imposter Syndrome and the terrifying thought that one day someone will discover that we are mainly making it up and hoping for the best! To all of you, I say this. That is ok. The headteacher confidently walking the halls still has moments where he or she looks around and thinks “hang on a minute…am I really in charge?”. I had a wonderful moment last year at a conference. We had finished the day and were sat in the sunshine enjoying a drink when I spotted a lovely lady wearing the same dress as me. Of course, I had to introduce myself and we giggled and laughed as we chatted and queued for the bar. Eventually discussion got around to shop talk (doesn’t it always?) and I asked her what her role was. She told me she was a headteacher. My first response was “but you are so like ME!!” She laughed and asked why that was something that would mean she couldn’t be a head. I looked baffled. I didn’t want to insult her but at the same time I was thinking “There is no WAY I am grown up enough to be a headteacher”. Eventually I told her this and she looked at me thoughtfully. “Do you care about the kids? And your colleagues?” I nodded. “Do you want to improve education for the better?” again, yes. “It isn’t about being serious and wearing a suit” she said. “It’s about being YOU and bringing your very best skills to the job each day, finding the best in others and doing your best for those learners”.
I realised that what had been standing in the way of my career development for the last ten years was actually ME. My perception of myself. My perception of what a leader should look and behave like. When I was at school, leaders were these enigmas. They turned up at school events and award ceremonies but the rest of the time they were shut away in an office far from the bedlam that was actual children. They wore distinguished suits and had polished shoes and shook hands with people. I could never be a head because I sing and am silly and skip down corridors. I have a tendency to hug people and crack jokes to put people at ease. In my mind I have always been the antithesis of leadership material. Twitter has been the best cure for this misconception. Meeting the CEO who had his swivel chair confiscated because kept using the air propulsion settings and spinning to the point of almost self harm. Meeting the fabulous head who danced barefoot with me outside a teepee in Cambridge. Meeting the head of one of the happiest schools I have EVER been to and being embraced by him and watching him laugh, tell jokes and high five his learners. There is a place for leaders like me. And, whether you are similar to me or not, there is a place for you too. Because we all have something worthwhile to give. Authenticity isn’t about being a paragon of perfection. It is about being YOU in all your glory. Your strength and areas for development. It is about allowing yourself to be a little vulnerable at times. Only when we are truly honest and open will we be able to confidently ASK for the help when we need it.
S is for Self Care. Now this is something I have been truly shocking at. I am GREAT at giving advice and not so hot at taking it myself! I used to think self care was mani-pedis, bubble baths and massages. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes it is. But only if that is what you actually need. I have come to realise that self-care can be anything from leaving work in daylight to saying no to that thing that might just push you beyond your limit. It is having a weekend that is free from everything school related. It is switching off your emails and not responding until 8am Monday. It took for me to fall apart catastrophically to realise that no one would die if I didn’t email back immediately but that, actually, there was a very real chance of me becoming extremely unwell if I didn’t impose boundaries that allowed me to be healthy. My out of office is now switched on at 4.30pm every day and on again at 8am. It is on from Friday 4.30 – Monday 8.am. It politely lets people know that I do not work beyond these hours but that I will endeavour to respond once I am back in school.
Self care is also knowing when to stop. And no…this isn’t when the doctor refuses to allow you near others for fear of contagion. No…it isn’t once you have been sent home from work for being sick in your own waste paper bin. It is about listening to your own mind and body, recognising the signs of ill health (mentally and physically) and taking that time BEFORE you hit the wall. The temptation to “push on through” is ingrained in teachers. My parents were teachers! As kids we were never allowed time off!! My brother once performed an entire concert with a grumbling appendix, I was sent to school during A levels with Glandular Fever. Not because mum and dad don’t care. They are amazingly caring parents. But the teacher mentality is that you keep going. You give it a try. You do your best. Which is a great ethos – unless you take it too far and make yourself unwell.
Side note – I STILL managed to teach the day before and the week after my appendix burst in Beijing. See? Told you I was still getting to grips with the self care. The truth of it is though… no one can help you if you aren’t ready to help yourself. So ASK yourself for permission to slow down, look after yourself and prioritise you.
K is for Kindness. I often make the naïve assumption that everyone WANTS to be kind. And, perhaps an even more naïve assumption that everyone is capable of kindness. I know, through bitter experiences that this is not always the case BUT I am an optimist and I still believe that, by and large, the people that work in Education are of a compassionate and caring nature and this predisposes them to more kindness than the average profession. So maybe we just need to highlight it. Magnify it. Multiply it. Look for kindness within ourselves and our communities. Reward it, share it, pay it forward and make it the currency of our schools. I write about kindness in all forms. It sustains me and gives me hope and strength when I feel like I am on a never ending stretch. Kindness is palpable all around us. I can see people tweeting encouragingly, I am aware of my followers and their endless support of me. I can see people I care about willing me to do well. I can also see wonderful, talented and compassionate people who have dedicated their lives to improving the chances for young people across the country. You are the kindest of kind. So don’t let that stuff go unrecognised! Yell it from the rooftops. Tell your learners about it. Let them see and feel how important it is to be kind.
Because kindness can heal and strengthen. It can eliminate fear and anxiety. A culture of kindness breeds trust, community spirit and a shared sense of responsibility. When kindness is present ASKing for help is easy. You won’t be judged. You won’t be left to struggle. Because kindness will cushion you from all of that.
So, whilst I am aware that my ASK acronym might be over simplistic it really is a great place to start. It has certainly led to me being a more focused, healthy and caring teacher and person. I feel now that I am more of a role model than the hassled, exhausted slightly fractious example I was 5 years ago. It hasn’t been a quick process and, those of you who know me will know that I am still open and authentic about my struggles. I still forget to put my own needs first at times and I am sometimes unkind (although I really REALLY try on that point not to be a hypocrite!). No one is perfect. Everyone is perfectly wonderful. Thank you for shaping the future generations. Thank you for giving so much when it seems that sometimes we gain so little. Thank you for being you. The amazing, diverse, inspiring force that work on the chalkface everyday.