How to leave the comfort zone… for a while at least.

slippers

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to work in another school, but just haven’t got the ‘oomph’ to move from your cosy, familiar surroundings?   Well, a secondment could be a great way to ease you into looking further afield.

Last September, another executive head in our borough approached me and asked if I’d be interested in a secondment at one of his schools for six months. The school has a very different context than my school, a completely different demographic; it also had a cohort in one year group whose behaviour was so testing that they had got through a handful of teachers just in one term and were now taught by supplies.  Would I like to experience this context and try and sort this class out?

At first, I assumed the executive head at my school would simply say no. I’d never really heard about ‘borrowing’ teachers like this and I had some important responsibilities at my school as a member of the SLT. In fact, I was sure he’d say no, so to be polite, I said I’d do it if my head agreed. Off I went back to the comfort and familiarity of my ten year post at my school. When I say ‘my school’ I really mean my school as it was my primary school in the late ‘ehem’…70s and also my own children’s school. My school is like a second home to me and my family are part of its community, although my children are older now, at university or globetrotting somewhere, their friendships are still with ex pupils from families that all live in and around the school.

In one way or another, I’ve been in and out of the school since I was six years old and have experienced it from all the angles possible: pupil, parent and teacher. It’s not always easy thinking about moving when you have links like I do with a place. However, there is always a danger of becoming stale as a teacher in a ‘long haul post’, but I’ve been fortunate to have worked with leaders who have never allowed that to happen. It’s just not the type of school where anyone can get musty because reflection and development are literally part of the foundations of the place. After all these years, it’s stayed the same in so many ways, but managed to update itself in just the right ways and in just the right places.

In recently years, as I progressed to SLT level, I’ve had a few offers from other leaders to go and work for them. I’ve never fancied headship, but being a second in command leading things has always appealed. Some jobs have looked very tempting and others frightened the life out of me. I’ve filled out job applications a number of times and always have my CV updated each year, but somehow, I’ve never seemed to be able to post that letter. The grass has always been rich and green on my side. So when my head appeared in my classroom a few days later, with that ‘time you challenged yourself again’ look on his face, I knew I had to go. Challenge and update time.

I was apprehensive about the move, but also excited and yes, completely comforted by the fact that come the next September, I could walk back into my old lodgings. The secondment school was in the same borough yet it had an almost 90% ethnic minority cohort, polar opposite to my school, but I still knew the area very well, both schools only five minutes drive from my home; that’s London, turn a corner and there’s a different story. I also knew that if I was going to move permanently, which was a possible outcome, then this was probably the only way it would happen, with a great big safety net to flop into at the end, should I need it.

Well, it was challenging and the change confronted me as a teacher in so many ways, but looking back, all for the good. I’d visited lots of other schools before in my role advising schools on primary science and also as a Challenge Partner reviewer. Like this, I’d seen how other schools work, but there is nothing like experiencing another school at that daily operational level and with very different approaches required for such a diverse context.

Setting aside the change in dealing with perhaps not just one or two difficult pupils in a class, but coping with as many as twelve very volatile, challenging children, the change in leadership strategy was also enlightening.  I had a lot of experience, but not this experience so all I could do was learn.  All the usual expectations of learning and progress had to change because sometimes progress meant simply getting a child through the day without them hurting someone; other times, it was progress if a child got through a single  lesson. If I’m honest, there were days (quite a few if I’m truthful) when I thought I’d never get to July at all. Yet I survived by being around really positive people and learnt that the more children know you care about them, the more they give back. Most days, I felt mentally and physically exhausted, but I always got through by trying my darn hardest to be completely optimistic with the children, even on the worse days, with tables turned over and all sorts flying round the room, I tried to stay calm, smile and move on because that’s what the children needed most: a consistent person who wasn’t going to run.

After a while, I learnt all manner of distraction techniques and ways to deescalate situations; I learnt that consequences for some of the most challenging behaviour I think I’ll ever see  from primary pupils can wait, but rooting yourself to the floor, staying calm and showing you care mean everything. Some of the children I met there were the most grateful, caring children I think I’ll ever meet, and were often coping with things outside school no child should ever have to cope with. Forget about ‘expected this’ and ‘greater depth that,’ many of these children needed medals just for putting up with what life was throwing at them.  This is why I will always wonder why school performance is judged using the same measures for all schools. If that school was measured on the progress children made in the important things in life, like sharing, respect, patience, thoughtfulness, then the measures would go off the dial. One thing we know is that children need to be in a certain place to learn well, and getting them to that place is a journey in itself. Why isn’t this kind of progress recognised formally?

This school had previously been judged as requires improvement by Ofsted and they were due any minute, another reason why they needed that class sorted out. Every day, every week there was some improvement, and yes, there were days when it all went backwards, but you got back on with it the next day and learnt a bit more. We waited and waited for the call. When it got to two weeks before the summer holidays, the class were settled, they’d made good progress, and not only in behaviour, but academically as well. To their great credit, when they were ready to learn, they were thirsty to for it and worked and worked. These children really felt the value of learning. However, by then I was sure Ofsted wouldn’t come. Then on the last full week of the year on a warm, sunny Monday morning in July, we got the call.

Everyone had worked so hard to get the school into a steady place, and long before I’d arrived, but with all the assessment changes and demanding new curriculum the data didn’t look so rosy. It seemed so unfair that all that incredible commitment seemed not to show up on a spread sheet somewhere. When the inspectors came, the children were quite amazing. Many of them still had very difficult things going on in their lives, but they shined. My explosive little class suddenly seemed to have soaked up six months of learning and wanted to show it, and not just sums or sentences, but in solid behaviour for learning. On that last Thursday of the school year, they were judged as a ‘good school’ and there were wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

I didn’t stay at the school; it was time for me to go home then. I’d done what I’d set out to do which was to help pull that class together; it might have nearly killed me, but I did it. Another time, I might have stayed. But where could I have possibly got that experience if I’d not left the comfort of my school? We don’t have the behaviour challenges at my school, but I now appreciate the place at a much deeper level. Plus all those little things really are little now. Lost PPA? Double duty? Last minute assembly? No TA? Another meeting?  An extra deadline? ‘These things happen and if you think that’s hard work, let me tell you…’   One thing I also have now is complete admiration for the dedicated teachers back at that school; their resilience and commitment to the children was and is literally, dare I say it, outstanding.

And secondments? Well, I have no doubt too that there should be more. School leaders should perhaps consider this option rather than a long term supply for example, and in turn schools should consider lending out teachers who will gain great experience from it. It also gives old timers like me, with their feet firmly in the warm slippers of their cosy existence, a chance to run through the grass on the other side of the fence. And who knows, this might also be their route to their next post, a post they’d have never gone for without that safety net. It’s also a great way for schools to ‘try out’ people and give them back if they want. So here’s to secondments…

Anyone running a school in the Bahamas, need someone like me? Give me a call… there’s a chance I might stay too.

4 thoughts on “How to leave the comfort zone… for a while at least.

  1. jacquie Dearness

    Your blog is hugely inspirational and brutally honest about the reality of trying to get it ‘right’ in education. You may not remember me for the right reasons (I think I was your first nightmare student) but I really appreciate this blog and have found your features on assessment and PSQM particularly resonating. Congratulations on your successful secondment. It takes a lot to step away from the familiar and embrace the new.

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