I remember my first year in teaching very well indeed; it was filled with mistakes brought about by fear. I was a very worried fish out of water.
After my first term in a new role at College, those nervous gasps for air and flailing of my fins are once more, all too familiar for me.
The time has finally arrived for me to reflect on my difficult learning journey so far this academic year. I’ve been adding various leadership reflections in this draft over the last few months but I’ve been unable to drag them all into some semblance of sense until I had enough space to do so. In the void that exists between Christmas and New Year, this has finally become possible.
My new job title sits rather uneasily with me for a number of reasons.
Learning and Development Manager.
John Erskine said that, ‘In the simplest terms, a leader is one who knows where he wants to go, and gets up and goes’ (Erskine, 1943, The Complete Life).
If this is all leadership is then I should be far less concerned…or at least I would have been before I began my perplexing leadership journey began. I’m unsure if Erskine’s views of leadership can really be trusted either, but I like the words and the sentiment (although it really only works if others follow!)
Questions about my new role ring incessantly in my ears:
- What does it mean?
- What do I do?
- What am I in charge of?
- What can I achieve?
- Am I really a manager?
- What do others expect of me?
As I contemplate all of these questions, I should be filled with excitement at all that I might be able to achieve in this brand new, open to shaping, role at the College. The possibility of having a positive impact on such a large number of learners is so enormous and far more than the 1 learner I wanted to change the life of in my first ever teaching job interview.
And yet the absence of excitement is obvious to me (even if it isn’t to others). The possibility of my job is like an anchor that is preventing me from fulfilling my capabilities until I am able to fathom it all out.
Part of my struggle is to define exactly what belongs in my remit of responsibility before this grows completely beyond all control. I am being handed all manner of projects and each, as you can imagine, can easily be linked to learning and/or development- and the links aren’t even all that tenuous!
As part of my coaching I noted down everything that I currently do as part of my job.
This indicated to me that there are way too many avenues for my head to be looking down that I think I know why term 1 has been such a struggle.
The other closely linked part of my struggle is to understand others’ roles more fully so that I can delegate and collaborate more efficiently. As a more ‘introverted’ individual, this will be a bigger challenge than it might seem at first, as I throw myself into conversations and discussions with far more experienced and respected managers.
The final part of my struggle is that until I understand my own role, I cannot expect others to understand it and this poses great difficulty in building positive working relationships with all my colleagues.
Working out what my struggle is has been a major part of my journey this term and it’s pleasing to finally be able to define it. Even if I don’t have all the answers just yet.
Lots of other people have repeatedly made observations about my strong work ethic and dedication to my job. Some make these observations in more scathing ways than others…
Reflecting back on all the jobs I’ve ever done, I’ve shown a strong commitment to all of them- bar one.
Working in a Card Store
This was my first ever job- I loved being nice to people when serving them, I found it came naturally to me and it was particularly satisfying when we’d had a busy day over Christmas selling ornaments (especially the large dogs), helium balloons and various other trinkets I had to run down to the store for. Stocking the shelves again during the quiet periods was also satisfying. I left this job because of the low wage but mainly because of the STEPS album on repeat every single Saturday!
Working in a chocolate shop
Well, this was about as awesome as it sounds- we sold Belgian chocolates, ice-cream and sweets too! I wasn’t very good at packaging the chocolates neatly or at giving ice-cream without making a mess either! I was better at behaving like a Tasmanian devil (yes, my boss ACTUALLY called me that): dropping expensive chocolates (that my boss travelled to Belgium to collect) and leaving random puddles of ice-cream all over the store. This job sadly came to an inevitable end not so long after it began.
Working in a bookshop
This was a very quiet bookshop. I got lots of work and reading done for sixth form but I also had to cash-up and lock-up at the end of the day. This was stressful as my maths is terrible and there was a lot of responsibility involved in that! I moved on from this generally cushy job because I needed more hours (and cash) before Uni than my boss at this store was able to provide.
Working in a sports and school clothing store
The moments I remember the most in this job are idle Saturdays seeing the man who lived in a flat opposite drying his clothes- three sets of the same trousers and shirts…Although this was just mainly really weird! I also thoroughly enjoyed the summer months- especially during August- when I would receive hoards of families with lists of school clothes and uniforms they required. These times were extremely enjoyable because I was busy the WHOLE day (AND I didn’t have to watch the man’s clothes drying once all day!)
Working in an art gallery
In my first year at University, I went for my first real job interview. This was a job I will never forget for many reasons. There was a team of people who worked well together, enjoyed one another’s company and socialised outside of work too. The job itself offered so many opportunities; to work special events, meet artists and give tours. One thing I remember the most was that if you became part of the gallery tour team (which I did) then you were given time to research the exhibitions in the exclusive gallery library. This was such a privilege (yet really, if you think about it, an essential part of carrying out the role successfully). I got lots of great feedback from those I did tours for and other people being able to understand contemporary art (despite being total cynics to begin with) gave me a real buzz. Plus, I wouldn’t have met my partner if I wasn’t working here and that was a pretty awesome moment too!
Working in a restaurant
In my first year of University, I came home and worked for the summer in an Italian restaurant. The moments I remember from this are all the ones where I got great tips, including the old Geordie man and his wife who chatted to me about the boat nightclub in Newcastle. He had a huge table of friends and tipped me £20. Collecting my tips and the delicious takeaway spaghetti bolognese at the end of the night were definite highlights. As were the really funny Italian kitchen staff.
Working in a bookshop…again
I needed to earn some more cash after the end of Uni. I stayed working at the art gallery but I was trying to work full time. My art gallery contract had no guaranteed hours so it meant working a second job to make up the hours most weeks. This inevitably resulted in me working 7 days a week for about 3 months over the Christmas period. I then realised that the pay at the bookshop was so measly and I was getting taxed so ridiculously much on a second job that it really wasn’t worth it anymore. Plus, the bookshop had such a high turnover of staff that they couldn’t have cared less who I was or whether I was there or not. I did love books though and got discount on Christmas presents, which was a pretty fine perk!
Working in a nursery
After deciding that I couldn’t sit and stare at paintings all day, full-time, for the rest of my life, I took the plunge and signed-up with a temp agency. They got me work immediately. I didn’t even have a day’s rest between workplaces.
So this was the one job I hated. Like, really hated. I had to get a bus there and back very day (it took about 40 minutes each way and I get travel sick!) While there, I spent some time with small people (as in children), and that’s never nice- for me at least! I also spent most days sitting idly or filing things away in alphabetical order into lever arch folders. There were two of us temping at the time; neither of us had very much to do, and my finishing time couldn’t come by quickly enough.
Working in a College
This was the escape route I needed from my current position. It was a temporary position but one that interested me. I had decided I wanted to be involved in education somehow but I just wasn’t sure what this role might look like. I was now certain this wasn’t to be with small children (despite everyone telling me they could imagine me as a primary school teacher…really?…are you actually stupid?…I’d be like the wicked witch of the west to them!)
This was to be the opening door into the world of FE. It wasn’t at all like a school (which I had hated). It was a place where my temporary contract turned into a permanent one and I did any job I was given, as well as more besides. Answering the phones was painful at times with pointless questions being asked by seemingly ignorant people but working on reception and enrolment provided more challenge- especially on open evenings where students could come straight down to provisionally enrol on their course of choice. It lead to lots of very busy late nights but fish and chips was thoroughly enjoyed on the way home.
There was one day I remember in particular when I met a group of ‘NEET’ learners enrolling on a course and they were pleasant, funny and a bit cheeky but FE was giving them a chance to change their lives. This is what lead to my next step.
Working as a teacher
Initially, I applied for and enrolled on a full-time PGCE (PCET) at Sunderland University with a literacy specialism course alongside. But then I heard about my placement. It would be highly unlikely that I’d meet any of the cheeky individuals who had first made me apply for my PGCE; my placement would be teaching English (and maths?!) to hairdressers in Sunderland. I would be solely working with this one group of people. This didn’t exactly set my heart alight with enthusiasm. And then a job came up at the College I was working in. I went for it, got it, and changed my PGCE to a part-time one. The course was far cheaper and although it would take me 2 years rather than 1 year to complete, it would mean I could earn money the whole time too. You see, FE- The best thing ever, right?!
In my three years in my first teaching role I said yes to just about every opportunity I was posed with and it lead to some truly incredible experiences: NEET learners, beauticians, welders, engineers, sport, catering, health & social care…English, maths, ICT, GCSE, study skills, making an online module for University, adults, access to HE (health pathway) and HEFCs in English Literature and English Language.
A lot of these experiences were painful, namely my very first welding class (where two lecturers had been driven to leave prior to me). But they were also some of my most valuable learning experiences because I failed and I needed to work out how to not keep failing before I lost my mind entirely!
Well, from day one it’s been a challenge; there has been a constant need for me to learn, be creative and feel inspired. It’s been pretty awesome and I’ve been doing this job longer than any other so far!
Since I was old enough to work, I have. Without gap.
Clearly, I was motivated more by some roles over the years and some parts of jobs than others.
This activity has been unexpectedly useful. Looking back through all of these jobs in such detail has uncovered a few things in my mind:
- Getting things done and feeling challenged clearly affects my levels of motivation.
- Feeling valued and the amount of money I am paid do also contribute somewhat to my motivation levels.
- Quite surprisingly, I’ve been positively affected by many of the people I’ve come into contact with and some have had a really lasting effect on me.
I can also recall to mind some of the leaders in these roles I have been affected by.
The more successful ones have:
- Given me adequate training
- Expected great things from me
- Allowed me to be autonomous
- Trusted and respected me
- Given me room to grow and fly
But what kind of a manager am I? And how can I ensure that I give everyone the room to fly?
I expect I’ll be seeking the answers to these questions for the foreseeable future.
I have been helped on my journey so far through action learning sets with fellow managers, meetings and leadership training as well as coaching.
Wow, coaching! This has, by far, had the greatest impact on all that I do, think and feel. It is 90 minutes every month of reflection and discussion time; to share thoughts and difficulties and to resolve those just through talking. My coach seems like some kind of magician who just needs to pose certain questions or statements and I reach, not necessarily the full answers, but the truth of the situation. I emerge from my monthly ‘therapy’ session with far more direction about my role and also feeling far more happy, confident and restored to my former self!
So, as I move forward there are several challenges that confront me (beyond the fear issue):
- Managing the ever-swelling workload
- Defining my vision and purpose
- Figuring out how to lead a team I used to be a part of when I don’t see myself as a leader
I found this video, shared by my colleague, Paul Emberlin, incredibly relevant to my current experience. Meetings, meetings, meetings…
I have found recently that I’ve been in College but have barely been at my desk or done any work.
I had some advice that I should see people rather than email as I’ll make progress far more quickly. To a certain extent, I appreciated this advice. I did have some productive meetings in the early weeks and I made some progress with some of my projects that wouldn’t have been possible via email alone. On the other hand, I needed to speak to so many people right across the College that it meant this kind of activity was not sustainable for very long at all! It lead to me being in people’s offices all day and then never getting time to do what we’d spoken about.
I’ve spoken to my coach and have read lots of other things about workload and being more productive. I will be trying the following key things:
- Giving a holding response if I’m unsure I should be taking something on or not.
- Starting the day reviewing my to do list instead of checking emails.
- Ensuring my to do list has two main aims that are a MUST for that day.
- Leaving emails until two key points in the day- a scheduled time during each day and between Reading and Oxford on the way home. Anything outside of this just leads to procrastination and distraction!
- Blocking out time each day when I’m unavailable for anything. This will be vital for me getting my creative tasks done; those that require considerable thought and time (oh, all of them then!)
I’ll also try to read this book as it was recommended to me:
Defining the purpose of my role is something I realised needed to happen so that I could manage my workload but also so that I could maintain my motivation. I’d have a reminder what my drive was for placing myself in the foreign position of ‘manager’ in the first place.
This image, shared by Jeanette Alday, helped me to realise what a purpose should be:
As I wrote my #Nurture1415 post, it became apparent that ending with a purpose that would drive me in 2015 seemed appropriate.
I came up with:
‘My purpose is to support and challenge others so that they have great experiences, feel inspired and know that they are valued.’
I like it. I’m going to stick with it for now and see how I fare.
This image, shared by Stephen Logan, helped me to form the vision for ‘Pass It On CPD’ alongside the Pass It On Team.
A video is in the process of being created and will hopefully help with the third challenge too.
- Leading my team
This has emerged as perhaps my biggest challenge to face in the term to come.
After some reflection with my coach (one of those where I feel as though I came up with the answer except it was probably her idea)- I have determined to change the way we do meetings. I want the other team members to know that they’re all on the team because they’ve got great things to offer and I don’t want them just to listen to my ideas.
I have set a schedule for the first part of next term which will involve different pairs of team members chairing the meeting each week and we’ll be discussing a range of subjects where everyone is required to go away and do something and/or contribute their own ideas.
The other part of this is that to teach, I studied. Yes, some of it I just picked up over time, but a lot of it was gained through conversations with more experienced colleagues, lots of reading, lots of reflecting and lots of writing. I shouldn’t just expect to be able to ‘do’ leadership. I need to learn to do it.
Yes, the idea of leadership makes me uncomfortable. But so did teaching for at least the first year- there were tears, tantrums and thoughts of giving up. With more dedicated focus on my why and more dedicated reflection on the how then hopefully in a term’s time I’ll be feeling a whole lot more comfortable in my new role.
This is clearly my ultimate aim as a leader:
‘If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.’
John Quincy Adams
But for now, I’ll just hope someone’s following:
‘If you think you are leading and turn around to see no one following, then you are just taking a walk.’