In March 2018 I began shadowing a colleague in readiness for stepping up into Deputy Headteacher role. A role for which I hadn’t initially expected to be available or considered stepping into so soon. My intended flight path, as set out in my previous post was to head into Early Years and take the helm in the Early Years classroom.
Upon reflecting on my readiness for the new role and the nature of developing the post further the time seemed right.
Even a flare-up of an ongoing condition as a result of an adverse reaction to food poisoning didn’t deter my (naive?) enthusiasm for stepping up into and shadowing the post; which for the first time included responsibility as a Designated Safeguarding Lead. During this Crohn’s flare, I was also unfortunate enough to faint/stumble in the night on the way to the bathroom, falling into a door frame and dislocating my shoulder. Easily done after years of abuse on the rugby pitch. And always resets itself with a bit of persuasion. However, a dislocated and then frozen shoulder is not helpful when you can’t move it for several days or risk going to A and E due to the untimely unpredictability of Crohn’s symptoms…There were several months of physiotherapy required to build the shoulder back up and restore the mobility and stability required for everyday normal use, let alone a golf swing or exercises down the gym.
One term shadowing was a good start to the Deputy Role and enabled a recuperation period to recover from the Crohn’s flare and shoulder problem. Taking the job on like this felt like learning to ride the bike with the stabilisers on. The support of the experienced colleague was called upon and guidance sought as it was readily available.
The stabilisers were taken off in April when the shadowing phase came to an end, my colleague took up their new role at another school. The remainder of the year saw me carry on my role as Deputy Headteacher and as a Key Stage Team Leader for Key Stage 1, juggling both roles and continuing to learn on the job. Carrying extra worries and baggage that came with managing the Pastoral Support Plans for children with more complex emotional and behavioural needs, as well as the concerns and worries of the open safeguarding cases and partnerships.
I was enjoying the challenges, enjoying the new learning and hadn’t really noticed what my body was also telling me. I was thriving on an adrenaline-like rush of the new post. Towards the end of the summer term, I started to become run down…coughs and summer colds, easily miss thought to be hayfever, and eczema; something I hadn’t suffered with before. Pompholyx is a form of eczema I had never heard of, long story short it causes very sore itchy blisters, in my case on the hands and feet. Annoying and quite hard to ignore … the type of itch you just have to scratch.
As we finished the year, steroid creams and ointments did their job. I started to reflect on what had gone well and what needed to be changed to support the most vulnerable pupils.
- Removal of a ‘workroom’ for Key Stage 1 pupils at lunchtimes.
- Removal of a ‘Reflection Room’ during the morning break.
- Reduction of sanctions from 15 and 30 minutes to 10 and 20 minutes (so that children still had time to ‘reset’ at break time and have a good run around)
- No children to be put into the workroom for homework.
But there was no time left to share with the staff in-depth and review together. I shared the confirmation of changes in the ‘Notes for September’ that all staff are given in their class packs so we all start the year on the same foot…and headed into the summer.
The summer should have been one to relax and enjoy…even this threw in its own share of challenges. Still recovering from this as my father-in-law had a stroke while we were away on holiday. Fortunately, he made a full recovery but it took several weeks for everything to return to normal for him. The worry and stress this caused obviously used more of the energy and resolve that was still recovering from the end of the summer term.
Not taking the time to share the reviews and the outcomes were my first failure of the new academic year before it had started. Although I had worked with the behaviour strategy group to identify next steps and changes to be made to support the pupils, I had assumed that the wider staff body would be supportive of the changes. This was an error on my part as the wider staff could not see the reasoning clearly behind the changes.
The changes were not received well by some established teachers and teaching assistants and I started September 2018 with foundations of change laid on quicksand…
This was easily evidenced, upon reflection as their performance management targets were worded and structured to identify reactive strategies to deal with non-compliance or lack of work, rather than identifying the reasons and the whys for those undesired behaviours.
I had started to gather evidence and data that confirmed my hypothesis that some of the most vulnerable pupils, with SEN, eligible for pupil premium or those from unsettled homes or families were the pupils who were receiving the most ‘sanctions’ and being kept in to complete work at lunchtimes in the workroom.
I was also aware that there were a core group of vulnerable pupils for whom there was no established regular support for SEMH interventions.
With the support of the pastoral team and SENCO, we began to identify interventions and provisions for pupils to build their resilience. These were timetabled to run at lunchtime and were run by carefully selected teaching assistants who had an interest in these areas.
I wanted to build a proactive culture that encouraged adults to understand the ‘Why’ and the reasons for the undesired behaviour. This would empower the teachers to foster more effective and positive relationships with the pupils at all levels from which their judgement lens, obscured by fascination and obsession with punishment and consequence could be set aside. Stepping back from the situation and observing from the outside it was clear that a majority of the staff could only see the symptoms and were not able to see through the behaviour as communication to identify the need of the pupil. They had a ‘must win at all costs’ mindset, they needed to be shown a different path.
By the start of November 2018, I already felt that I was going into battle at work. There were a handful, 1-2% of the pupils at our school that were taking up a disproportionate amount of my focus and time because the teachers dealing with that 1-2% were so focussed on academic outcomes as their only measure of progress and could not see an alternative approach to use other than a carrot and an even larger stick.
I started to research alternative provisions and interventions to support well-being and started to discuss my concerns and worries through my own personal coaching sessions. I’d come to realise that I no longer had a clear idea of where I could go next with our staff team. Or couldn’t see a way forward. The horse wasn’t willing to move towards the water, let alone drink it…
I visited a nurture provision in Sittingbourne and was blown away by their culture and ethos, I spent a few days working with the pupils and adults to understand how they were approaching their problems.
I knew that my position and that of my pastoral team, with some staff, had become one of a challenge to their own. They didn’t appreciate why when children needed time to de-escalate, that we would support them using Lego, drawing, reading a story…any form of distraction … they wanted to see a strict, firm sanction (some still want this). We were in effect sent to Coventry by some of the very teachers working with our most challenging and vulnerable pupils.
The early darkness of the winter term made the constant cycle of daily battle one very hard to find any light within. I had to deal with a safeguarding concern on the last day of the Christmas term, this case struck a nerve and stayed with me the entire holiday. In the quiet moments, it was just ‘there’ nibbling and tugging away at the back of my thoughts.
My bucket was starting to fill.
Then the worst news, my father, only retired for one year and has worked like a trooper for his whole adult life from 15 down the pit, to finally as an engineer on the trains was undergoing tests for symptoms amounting to re-flux and a sore throat and cough. The last week of term was one of professional doubt and personal family trauma, which on Christmas Eve became the worst moment. Dad was diagnosed with an advanced and aggressive cancer of the oesophagus and stomach…Christmas was hard.
The new year got harder with the beginning of the chemo cycles.
Living in three-week cycles of support at home for dad. Wearing a mask to hide how I was really feeling…with the culture at school feeling increasingly difficult to stomach as the voices of negativity towards the most vulnerable and the strategies put in place for them became loudest and staff huddled around the photocopier in whispered conferences, loud enough to hear, cutting enough to hurt.
Then another straw was put on my back, a routine check-up at the dentist closed with a discussion around the need for a referral to a specialist. I had some abnormal growths and the dentist wasn’t sure what they were…he couldn’t even have an educated guess. So started more months of doubt.
The bucket filled some more
The self-doubt at work continued: being passed over with trivial issues because they might need someone with ‘more authority’…with everything that was happening at school and home, I was becoming increasingly ‘numb’ and deflated.
I was being mentally and physically assaulted, literally on a daily basis. And couldn’t find an ‘out’.
The coaching sessions were helping me to see a long term goal but holding others and myself to account against a system they were never going to believe in seemed too big a challenge. I felt lost and didn’t know who I was. I didn’t have faith in myself anymore. I didn’t feel great either and had for several months got into a negative cycle of comfort eating in the evenings and snacking on chocolate at the end of the day at work. I was out of shape mentally and physically. At the time I didn’t recognise that I was mentally out of shape or that I felt ‘numb’ as I realise and do still at times now.
I cried at my mid-term appraisal, broke down, frustrated at the lack of control and impact that I was able to present on my targets. I was normally confident and able to present achievement towards goals, I felt like I’d gone backwards.
I wanted to take the staff forwards with me. But they weren’t ready to move still. We started using the Paul Dix book: “When the adults change, everything changes” to guide group coaching sessions and staff discussion. They agreed with some core principles such as the need for consistency but there was still a large influencing group who could not see past sanctions and punishment being the only solution.
A second family trauma rocked our home again, this time the passing of my wife’s Nan. She’d led a long happy life with a family that adored her. This was a time the mask was again put on to support my loved ones.
The emotion bucket was still filling up.
Then I started to work out down the gym with greater regularity…found a training buddy by chance and set myself a target.
Get fit. Lose weight. Get something I could control.
So I started de-stressing myself, getting some control in one element of my life I could control.
Following a careful meal plan, Weight Watchers has worked for me, regular High-Intensity Interval Training and a whole body callisthenics programme called Convict Conditioning.
At Easter, I weighed in at plus 15 stone. For a 5 foot 8 man this was too big and was now worried about long term health impact.
Getting back into shape became an obsession. My dad was always a fit man and he was being robbed of the years that were laid out in front with promise.
By the summer I had started the couch to 5k after attending a MAT alliance strategy group where David Didau had professed the beneficial impact the running could have and had had for him if he could do I could, the stubborn target was set.
Physically I was a lot stronger and I was in a much better place. By the end of the summer term, I knew I had ‘lost’ more ground at work. Frustrating as this was finding out that dad’s cancer was not reacting at all to the chemo paled all the work worries into insignificance. However, there were still days when the mask was being worn to the detriment of my well-being.
As a senior team, we started to present the proposal for a nurture provision for the school. I did the presentation the morning after having the biopsies in my mouth, speech and presentation impeded by the stitches in my tongue. There was a clear consensus that the teachers agreed we needed to provide an alternative.
So I went into the summer again hoping that the foundations were going to be stronger during 2019-2020.
We are not there yet, there are still things to learn and a punishment/sanction mindset to shift.
But running has helped me clear my head, it has provided me with a space. To run through tears, of frustration, doubt and anger.
I may not have succeeded yet in bringing everyone with me and moving to practise on as a whole but I am determined to be resilient, something that running has certainly helped with. I can confidently complete 5k and have dropped my weight down to 12 stone 4 pounds, give or take. But I feel stronger, quicker more agile, fitter than my late teen years. Without that outlet, I don’t know how I would have got through the challenges. Adding a new family member, Jasper our puppy has certainly helped. The early morning and late evening walks are ‘our time’ my wife knows I’ve needed it and has been there to scoop me up as I come through the door.
I sit writing this whilst being off work today with a stomach bug, unable to go and see my dad, who has spent the last 5 days in the hospital. We’ve just been told he only has ‘weeks’ left. A message that dad gave me over the phone because I can’t risk giving him this bug.
The mask will have to go firmly back on as needed, the children and my children need that much.