Reflecting on interviews

In the last few years, I’ve become  a bit of an interview veteran and come out variously surprised and triumphant, quietly victorious, and bitterly disappointed. Viewed from afar, it’s quite fascinating how different school approach the process. On the front line, as a candidate, the experience, whether successful or unsuccessful, has the potential to be enriching and empowering or entirely frustrating and bruising. The words used in feedback can stay with the candidate forever. ‘I was told I was too driven for the school’, a friend said she was told once.

It occurs to me that little is written on the subject, and there are probably good reasons why. Broadcasting an unsuccessful application isn’t likely to appeal to many people, whilst boasting our successes just isn’t very British – and there’s also the survivors’ guilt to consider. But it’s peak interview season, and I think it’s a subject worth exploring – from the applicant’s perspective and in terms of what it says about a school.

Below, I’ve reflected on some of the best and worst elements of interviews – of course many, if not all, of these have existed within the same process. Some of the best elements have been within interviews where I haven’t got the job – but have left feeling stronger – and the worse for jobs where I’ve been successful. I’ve chosen my words carefully – ‘difficult’ and ‘gruelling’ aren’t necessarily negative things – an interview should really test and candidate’s metal.

Clear success criteria, clear vision

Absolute transparency around school’s vision and ethos and the kind of candidate they’re seeking really helps us to know if we’re matched properly to the school. Knowing that the process is fair and challenging is good – knowing how you’ll be judged and on which criteria, for each activity is great too.

The forms, the forms: is there another way?

School application forms: they take HOURS! And they seem to be arranged in entirely different format every time, necessitating hours of intricate cutting and pasting. Some give blank sheets for statements, others prescribe headings. Whilst I understand schools pride themselves on their individual identity, surely there’s a way these could be standardised?

To tell or not to tell?

It reminds me a bit of the first three months of pregnancy. I’m all for open communication and transparency, but having to track back through fifteen people to tell them you didn’t get it, but you’re ok, honestly, is a little difficult…

Where are the not-outstanding schools?

Not all of us want to work in outstanding schools, and yet these seem to account for 90% of those in the TES at the moment in the role I’m applying for. Genuine question – where are the rest?!

Making an impression

Many years ago, my HT started a conversation about ‘how I was perceived’. I found this conversation really unnerving. How, I asked my line-manager, do I control perceptions? ‘Do your job, and do it well’, was his excellent advice. But at an interview, it’s much harder.

To fraternise with the other candidates or not to? I can’t stand the tumbleweed silence (and am generally rather curious about people) so tend to chatter and joke and bond, but am never sure whether this is a good idea…

Enthusiastic or annoying?

Articulate or verbose?

Witty or crass?

Ambitious or arrogant?

Energetic or nervy?

And was it the dress that went against me?

I spend a bit too long wondering about these things, especially after unsuccessful experiences…

The interview day

The best interview days have left me feeling that I’ve had the best possibly opportunity to demonstrate an range of skills and really communicate my values and experience and my potential unique contribution to a school. Of course, some tasks come more easily than others – the letter to a parent over the data analysis, for example, but I fully appreciate the need to do them all.

The best experiences always include teaching – regardless of the level of the role. They include copious contact with non-hand-picked student who will always tell you how it is. They include a chance to meet lots of staff, including LSAs, canteen staff and caretakers.

The most frustrating have included lots of unstructured time, waiting around, and being placed on more than one occasion for undefined amounts of time in rooms without daylight. Recently, having committed the whole day, at great cost to my own school, the activities on which we were, apparently, judged amounted to less than an hour of the day.

The best have included opportunities to muck in and help out, to be part of the hurly burly of what we know are days no-less-challenging for there being interviews on.

Feedback, feedback, feedback

We know this, as teachers – we know how important this is. The Sutton Trust has told us. Most importantly, our students have told us. After the best interview experiences, I have left with a clearer understanding of myself, my values and how best to communicate them, and have gone into the next phase with confidence and a steady hand. In these situations, the HT has personally taken to the time to talk me through the process honestly and be very clear about ways forward.

Once, a year ago, I came second for a post. It was one I was very excited about, I really felt my values aligned with that of the school. Coming second wasn’t bad going – it went to an internal. I never did receive any feedback at all despite repeated requests. It still kind of haunts me, especially after another unsuccesful experience yesterday. It is, a my friend pointed out, a bit like being dumped by a boyfriend without knowing why…

I found myself wondering after my recent experience whether my scarified family-time, my hours of deliberation and effort and research, my emotional investment of my very self had registered as more than a slight blip in the day of the people who interviewed me. I’m old and ugly and resilient enough to know it’s for the best and that I’ll survive and flourish somewhere else, but to schools, I’d say:

Value your interview candidates as much as you would your own staff. Appreciate how much they’ve invested in choosing your school and what they’ve put on the line to apply, from their pride and self-esteem to the time sacrificed at their own schools. Don’t make them wait in dark cupboards. Expose them to as much of the school community as possible – and ask others for their impressions. Keep them busy with tasks – they may even be helpful! And give them feedback. In person if possible. Be totally honest. They deserve it, even if they weren’t right for your school at the time.

My key question now is, would I apply again to a school where I’d been unsuccessful if a similar post comes up? I hovered over the school with no feedback where I’d genuinely felt I could make a difference to young people, and decided, no. But there will be yeses out there. Stubborn optimism. As ever.

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When people mess up…

I’m retreating to my alter-ego for this blog, and possibly the next couple. There’s nothing scathing here, but it’s not quite as gushingly loving of my current context as previous blog posts have been.

Recently, my department, of which I am head, made some mistakes with some coursework for our practical exam. We messed up quite badly. When I say, ‘we’, it was no single individual, but a combination of minor mistakes which combined into the most godforsaken mess which left SLT is a furious whirl of a witchhunt and the dept bruised and increasingly exhausted. As an ‘optional’ subject, we have lots to prove already, with the core being the permanent focus. We pulled it together, but it’s got me thinking.

An admired friend and mentor said the other day that it’s the way we respond to mistakes that define us. And we got through. People stepped up. We drew on reserves of energy and faith in one another, we worked many, many extra hours, and we sorted the mess – I can confidently state that It Won’t Happen Again. People noticed others struggling and stayed behind late to help out with classes that weren’t their own. People offered to help out with extra marking and shared extra resources. People made cups of tea and delivered cake and made ridiculous jokes to make us laugh when really, we wanted to howl in corners.

I’ve always subscribed to the policy that People Mess Up For A Reason. I have met a tiny minority of teachers in it for the holidays or an easy life, and they never lasted more than a couple of terms. The rest of us are here to Make A Difference to children. Nobody I work with is in it to do a bad job, to shirk responsibility or to palm off responsibility on someone else.

I have pledged to my department that I will trace it back and work out where balls were dropped, priorities ill-communicated and systems that weren’t up to standard. And I will. Frankly, they were and are blindly exhausted at the moment. The flurry of last-minute GCSE panic has reached a pitch I have never seen before, despite years of wondering if it could be done another way. People are looking paler by the day. People are starting to crack and fall ill and snipe.

And amidst the sniping, something more worrying has come out. Not everyone stepped up or pulled together. Today, I have found out that people finger-pointed and blamed others. For some, it was almost with glee that they identified in one they hadn’t ‘had much time for’ a scapegoat, and they shouted it across the office. Those who clearly weren’t too blame (the minority) have, in some cases, revelled in their guilt-free status and taken it upon themselves to judge others. There has been an absence of humility in some corners. Worse, there has been cruelty.

Tonight, I am angry. People mess up for a reason and can be forgiven for it when they apologise, put it right, and move on. But there is never, in my book, a reason for belittling and singling out… there’s a word for that. And if I use it and put it in writing, it could go nuclear. I’m protective of my department. I want to deal with it myself – in the first instance at least. I have some idea of how to go about it, but would welcome some guidance. Thank you in advance.

 

Consult me, advise me…

I’ve retreated to my alter-ego for this blog, for reasons that will become obvious.

Being open to advice has always been a strength. I love learning from others and being inspired by others. I’m constantly seeking tips and wisdom. It’s the main reason I love Twitter so much.

Consultants and advisors in schools don’t have an enviable starting point. Teachers are notoriously hard to win over for someone who has actively chosen to spend a significant chunk – or indeed all – of their time away from the classroom. And, in order to pay their mortgages, they have to constantly prove they are having an impact and that there is a continued need for them (hold that thought).

I’m sure there are brilliant ones out there. I can think of dozens of my Twitter inspirations who would and do make great consultants in schools. Only I suppose the key difference with them is that they willingly dispense their wisdom for free every day on here.

My current school is both anxiously awaiting and passionately dreading Ofsted. It had a dip before the last one and has a rating far less than the one it deserves for the work it’s doing. It’s aware of its supposed deficiencies and relies heavily on advisors to come and help plug the holes.

As a senior leader line-managing of one of the subjects that was highlighted by Ofsted as Requiring Improvement, this subject receives regular external support. I have been open to it and encouraged my department to do the same. We are sponges, we said. However you can help us, we are grateful.

The thing is that, six months down the line, I am increasingly aware that these particular people, far from moving us on, are sapping, rather than building, our capacity and effectively creating extra work. From having to think up tasks for them to do during their long non-teaching days in the building to dealing with upset caused to my already worked-to-the-bone staff. Misconceptions about our context, misunderstandings about our approaches and huge gaps in knowledge (not surprising, given the infrequent periods in the building) have led to an increasing amount of conflict, and most recently, to a perfect storm of the most ridiculous but terribly upsetting – and time-wasting – toxic politics for a number of people in the school.

OK, we can be defensive as teachers. It matters to us; our classroom is our domain. But I’ve always been an open-door and open-mind kind of a leader and have strongly modelled this for others. And at a time of (lalalalala – ostrich impressions all round) budget slashes, they must be costing the school tens of thousands of pounds. And when I ask, what have we learned or developed that we couldn’t have done by observing one another, doing our research, sharing it and asking on Twitter, the answer is extremely little.

And the reality is that now I’m in a position where I find myself actively shielding my team from the advisors. Typing this, I see how RUBBISH it looks, but it’s true. I can’t have a risk that people will be unjustifiably upset. I can’t ask people to repeat work they’ve already done so the advisor can prove impact or have them explain – again – how our schemes of work are structure when they have 300 Year 11 papers to mark. The reality is that for the last three working days, our advisor has effectively doing paperwork. At, what, in excess of £700 a day?

Back to the starting point of the advisor: to constantly prove they are having an impact and that there is a continued need for them. In other words, if they can demonstrate the we’re all a bit shit or incompetent, they still have a job?

This is unusually cynical for me but it’s a thought I can’t escape. Challenge me, of course. Tell me we’ve been unlucky. I’d love you to…

Moments of weariness

I wasn’t sure I’d return to this blog, but something is drawing me in. Not, this time, to complain about a toxic working environment, but to explore some of the darker and trickier elements of teaching as a vocation.

Things are SO much better, work-wise, and I’ve got lots else on, with many things to be proud of and happy about, including a healthy family and a new lease of life for my writing.

I’ve never had much patience with those who bemoan getting older and refuse to celebrate birthdays, but lately something has been taking its toll, and thought I’m only in my early 40s, I veer between former ambitious zeal and feeling deeply weary.

Yesterday, I learned of the death, at his own hand, of a former student. That uniquely sickening despair really deserves its own language. I started to count the students I’d known, lost to murder, suicide or other tragedies and almost got into double figures. And suddenly, I felt sad, and so very, very tired.

We are relentless, we teachers, particularly those of us in our Twitter network, in our energy and optimism and drive to make a difference. But suddenly, I wanted to curl up in a ball and just to be quiet.

Noise has been bothering me more recently. Sometimes, in the classroom, when dealing with situations I’ve dealt with a thousand times before, I find myself sitting and considering giving up, walking out. I wonder if I have the energy. Before, seconds later, I find it again. Sometimes I stampede through school with endless ‘things to do’ buzzing around my head and find myself thinking, ‘I can’t do this anymore’. ‘I can’t cope’ pops into my head unexpectedly, before I get back to coping again, but my resilience has taken a hit.

This could be for a number of reasons. A recent introduction to Mindfulness made me realise that, if I ever had it, I’ve entirely lost the ability to relax without a glass of wine and/or retreating to the bath. Twenty plus years of head-buzzing and being busy and doing Stuff seems to be taking its toll. More likely the fifteen months spent at  my previous school (which I’m actually so glad I documented here) hit more deeply and more profoundly and more lastingly than I might have imagined. They sapped my energy, but more importantly, they called – and continue, sometimes, to call – my vocational zeal into question. And sometimes, on a Monday morning, all the running and solving and ticking and achieving all seem a little bit pointless.

A lot of the work I’ve been doing is around teacher well-being, so it’s perhaps unsurprisingly that an awareness of issues of burnout and breakdown translates occasionally into direct empathy. I won’t hit burnout, and I won’t give up hope, but for the first time, I truly do understand how some people do, and I feel sympathetic and sad and rather angry at the leaders and the institutions who allow this to happen.

As at every stage of the journey, these moments make us stronger and wiser and add to our armoury of anecdotes and our repertoire for empathy. I’ll come out of this phase stronger, of course, but in the meantime, I may just need to retreat to the bath and remember happier days with departed students to whom we couldn’t, in the end, make a difference, and invent new ways of inspiring the ones who are still here, and still need us.

Discombobulation, and the final pages…

I think – and in many ways hope – that this will be one of my last blogs in my current incarnation, before I return to my usual Twitter identity. This chapter is gradually coming to an end, and the final pages are in part tortuous and slow, and in other respects rejuvenating and refreshing.

I am leaving my current role in SLT. I don’t know exactly what I’m going to from September. I’ve always prided myself on being able to turn setbacks into opportunities (Carol Dweck would be proud), and so, after several knocks, I have a set of possibilities for September which are really exciting. They involve the potential for some part-time middle leadership work, some freelance writing, some supporting of teachers, and a return to my studies. Even if only half of the possibilities come off, it will make for a package for the Autumn term which should be fulfilling and enjoyable, if a little less lucrative than I’ve become used to. It should give me a chance to fully celebrate being part of a bigger educational community – a community into which Twitter launched me, and to which I feel extremely proud to belong.

Most importantly, I’m stepping back  for a bit, taking myself off the treadmill, having always followed a path that seemed to be ‘expected’ and predictable, to work out what I really want, where I can honestly and significantly contribute, and what will be best both in terms of my role in education and, most importantly, for my own family and my own well-being.

I have benefitted from a huge amount of support and expertise, and I’m fizzing with the words of wisdom I’ve heard. I’ve learned that I’m a leader with a moral purpose and a clear educational philosophy – interestingly, I didn’t realise this until it was challenged. I’ve learned that, at SLT level, I need to be somewhere which reflects this – that, or develop a rhinoceros skin. I’d assumed I was in the majority, and that most schools were like my previous one (oh, the benefit of hindsight, to realise how lucky we were!), but I realise now that this may not be the case. And this actually really hurts. Amidst the feelings of excitement, proud rebellion and optimism, there is a deep sadness and concern. I worry that the job to which I have committed myself for almost twenty years isn’t what I thought it was.  I’ve had periods of being open to the charge of naivety, and I worry it’s come back to bite me. More profoundly, I fear that the profession I adore is heading headlong into a genuine crisis of recruitment and retention, that it is in serious danger of losing its sense of moral purpose, that we have forgotten what’s important – or somebody has…

maze

And then, at the end of another fourteen hour day and a two hour session on compliance and policies and procedures, I pour a glass of wine and log into my computer, and I see the people who surround me on Twitter. People who are actively making the difference. People for whom the main thing will always be the main thing. Kind people, generous people, experienced people, wise people who are still trucking, still smiling, still sharing and still supporting. And I can’t imagine ever not wanting to be a part of that. And I’m a little bit proud of myself, because at least I still have my integrity. And although it teetered, my well-being is just about intact, and I’m not going to fall into the trap of colleagues three or five or ten years down the line who are genuinely frayed and broken and bitter. And I look around at all those who’ve supported me, and believed in me, and in the bittersweet moments of starting to say goodbye to valued colleagues, I realise that, after all, I’m still standing and I’m still extremely blessed and extremely lucky.

Here’s to the next chapter. And thank you for helping me keep my moral compass intact.

compass

Crossroads

It won’t be too hugely long before I’m able to migrate back to my original Twitter – my husband has convinced me that I’ve worked too hard to build up the networks and friends on there to abandon it. But, in the meantime, I’m still a bit of a ‘divided self’.

It won’t be too long, because I’ve resigned from my current Assistant Head post, effective end of August. The people I worked for struggled with my Twitter presence – sometimes with reason – and it was this, and other issues which I’ve describe, that led me to finally take the plunge.

For the first time since the age of five, I have absolutely no idea what I’m going to be doing in September… I’m veering between terror and excitement, between exuberance and wanting to curl up and sleep and speak to nobody for a week or so.

foggy crossroads

I did have an interview recently, and I had fairly high hopes, but it wasn’t successful. I’m now old and ugly enough to know that if it wasn’t right for them, it wouldn’t have been right for me, but it’s still bruising, and exhausting…

So, I’m at a bit of a crossroads. The obvious option is to finish my studies, to which I’ve devoted five years. But money worries are already gnawing at me (together with a realisation of how blessed I am to have had so much financial security in a two-income family, for so long…). There’s an agency which is interested in me – a bit of supply? Some SLT supply? I’ve recently learned there is such a thing. A bit of consultancy, perhaps, could be chucked my way, but I don’t know what to expect or what kind of security might be involved. Maybe opportunities will come up for September still, but I need a narrative for why I’m available, and more than ever, to choose carefully. I’ve realised that I’m someone for whom it is essential to share in my school’s vision and ethos.

So it’s mainly about possibility, but there’s also a distinct and nagging fear that I’ve blown my SLT chances. Which is followed by a series of questions as to why I really want it at all. Which is followed by a, ‘but what’ all this been for?’ I do know the answers to both of these, but as I failed to articulate them properly in interview, I can’t articulate them just now. And until I can, perhaps it’s best to pause for a while.

It does feel like emerging from a difficult and painful relationships – one for which I initially had very high hopes, and to which I clung on, trying to ‘make it right’ by alternately changing myself and asserting myself without much success. But ultimately, I can still say I held my moral compass. And at heart, I’m quite proud of that.

So, yes, I’m basically tired. And finding it all quite hard to talk about. Because I don’t have the words I usually do. So I’m chucking the bottle into the Twitter sea in the comfort that it will be read, and maybe understood, and that maybe someone will have some words of wisdom – practical or emotional – that will help see me through.

And I’m spending LOTS of time on child-cuddles.

Fit to explode. Capturing the moment.

I am so angry that I’m flushed, physically shaking, and feeling nauseous.

anger

In an exchange with a Twitter colleague the other day, I explained that my alter-ego, tell-it-how-it-is-warts-and-all Twitter account hadn’t really worked out, because sounding negative didn’t suit me. And it doesn’t. It’s not comfortable and it’s not pretty. The writing doesn’t flow in the same way as on my other blog. It doesn’t feel like ‘me’. But this isn’t the first time I’ve felt like this after a day at work – far from it. And it seems important – really important – that I capture this, in order to remember, to learn, to come back to it and – somehow – to make things better.

By now, many people who follow me here (carefully monitored and vetted to ensure there are no immediate colleagues who might know the school directly) will know who I ‘really’ am. I am, nevertheless, still obliged to keep some of the details vague.

I’m not sure whether I’m more furious, frustrated and, yes, upset, with myself or with my bosses. With myself for actually starting another new term with a fragment of hope that things might actually be different. That my enthusiasm, my experience, my research and my positive relationships with staff might have gained me some credibility. That my carefully planned words and plans might finally be considered. That I might be able to lead with some integrity and known I’m trusted.

And realising, in the course of the day, that my area for responsibility continues to be consistently taken out of my hands. That my projects and plans are repeatedly duplicated and contradicted. That hours of work might just as well have gone straight into the shredding bin. That my professional judgement is overridden and undermined on a whim. That the ‘agreements’ we  have made are news to me, and that the conclusions of heartfelt discussions have been disregarded. That I haven’t been consulted about people and situations I know better than anyone around the table. That if it’s not countable, it’s not worth anything. That chewing gum is easier to measure than engagement in learning. That any document I produce or communication I plan in my ‘leadership’ role has to be checked and rewritten multiple times before I’m ‘allowed’ to proceed. That any attempt to use initiative results in a slapping down. That I haven’t actually made a real decision in months.

That the people I work for and with fall far down the agenda. That their stresses and illnesses and personal and professional challenges are at best dismissed and at worse openly scorned. That discussions are dominated by negativity, misdemeanours and non-compliance in a way that borders on relish. That praise of others’ talents and efforts, unless directly witnessed by the highest powers, is greeted with cynicism and an assurance that this much be ‘verified’. That well-being is a foreign and quaint concept and that emotional intelligence is the least valued skill of all.

That this attitude pervades, even amongst people I think are fundamentally decent – impatience, intolerance of people who dare to leave school in daylight hours or leave their classroom to mop their child’s vomit or have a lesson that doesn’t go according to plan.

I’m angry and I’m sad. And I’m frustrated. SO frustrated. But beneath this is an acknowledgement that I’m GLAD I’m frustrated and GLAD I say ‘no’ to this. I’m frustrated that I’m not heard, of course, and that I can’t or won’t articulate myself well enough – or in the right language – to be heard, but it will be a much sadder day when I too regard others as fundamentally inferior to the team of leaders, as needing to be constantly checked, monitored and scolded. Because it means I still have faith in my profession, I still know what I privilege it is to do this job. I still know that the vast majority of teachers are in it to make a difference and passionately want to be the best they can. And if I ever – EVER – stop believing this, it will be time to find a new vocation. So maybe it’s not all quite so bleak after all.

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