Moving On

Two years ago I wrote a post with the very same title as this one. Although the content between this post and that are vastly different, the theme, however, is the same – change. As over the next few weeks and months, things will change for me in a number of different ways. I am not only moving house, I am also moving for work and to be in the same country and city with my partner of 18 months.

As I sit and write this post I am sat on my sofa occasionally glancing up from the laptop screen to take stock of the four walls around me. Above the TV on the opposite wall, there used to be a large map where I had placed stickers of the various countries that I have visited. Around this I had stuck photos and postcards from some of these travel destinations; some were of landscapes, and many contained images of family and friends.

Looking at it now the bare wall reminds me that I the life I currently lead is, and always has been temporary.

As I write those words, I feel a wave of sadness wash over me as if to encourage me to hide away, to try and pretend that things aren’t changing around me. But if there is one thing that I have learnt over the past three years it is this, although we may not have control over a lot of things that may happen, we do have some power over how we respond to the change. And at least for now, I want to face this change that conjures anxiety and uncertainty and try to embrace it.

Reflect, Review, Repeat

As we near the end of the summer term and with exams nearly over, attention has turned to staff appraisals. Unlike previous schools that I have worked in, where these are completed twice a year (at the beginning and around now), my current school requires us to complete these each term, with five in total.

The senior management feel that these regular appraisals with a nickname of RAG (for red, amber, green) provides us with meaningful reflection, where our performance (for instance in terms of examination results) and personal conduct is scrutinised each term and then colour-coded with a few comments thrown in for extra padding.

But I wonder, aside from the additional paperwork that this fairly repetitive task creates for me as a Head of Department as well as for my peers, are these RAGs actually worth the paper that they are written on*?

This is a tricky question to answer in relation to teaching and education generally. The role is incredibly varied and although we receive a lot of instructions and directions from sources above us, with the idea of us obviously following these, on a day-to-day basis we generally have a large amount of autonomy, primarily in our classroom.

But this question came to my mind for a number of reasons recently, firstly because I am currently in the process of writing up appraisal reports for my team as well as receiving my own, and also when I hit publish on my previous post it forced me to reflect on some of the reasons why I am happy about stepping down from a management role.

In my current school’s system, in theory, nobody should receive a ‘red’ unless something serious has happened as staff should have been made aware of any concerns before it got to the stage of having it included on their appraisal. And conversely, no one should be awarded a ‘green’ unless they have done something exceptionally good.

But this is where the water gets murky for my current school’s appraisal system, as some of the categories on which we are judged are suspect at best and in situations just bizarre; with things like ‘Behaviour as a role model’, ‘Appearance’ and ‘School ambassador’ included in the document alongside ‘Task completion’, ‘Attendance’ and ‘Relationships’.

In my first year, I was awarded amber for my ‘Appearance’ and I was fairly surprised. I have always thought that I dressed appropriately, comfortable and professional yet keeping within my own personal style. By my final appraisal and after receiving amber for the entire year, I queried this, how does one go about getting a green for appearance?

My line manager’s response was that he couldn’t give me many greens as it was only my first year and that ‘I needed something to work towards’. So I need to work towards wearing more professional clothes? But ultimately this told me that the rationale for the amber was less to do with my actual appearance and more to do with management not wanting the form to look too green, i.e., too positive!

Another example relates to a box entitled ‘Job fit’ where the same colour-coding system is used to establish whether you are effective as a worker, a manager and as a leader. The same line manager said that he felt that I was a good manager but ‘he couldn’t see me as a leader’. Again, I queried this, how would he identify a leader in an organisation? I was provided with a vague response about a leader having that special magical ingredient that sets them apart from just being a manager. His comment did make some sense, but in all honesty if that’s the case, I don’t see any of the management at the school as being leaders either.

Sigh…

In my current role, I have been required to issue a small number of reds on a couple of colleague’s RAGs. My line manager insists that these kinds of details are recorded on their appraisals and that it is discussed during our termly meetings. Sure, if something serious has happened then (if appropriate) immediate action may be required but in many incidences, the issues are rare and sometimes out of my colleague’s control (i.e., it’s not necessarily that they weren’t at fault, but other factors and other people were also involved).

It feels more like reflection just for the sake of reflection, without any clear guidance on genuine suggestions for improvements. The box can be ticked. Move on.

So it comes probably as no surprise but obviously with great sadness (!) that one of the aspects of my current role that I am not going to miss is related to what I feel is more like a pointless administrative task, which doesn’t actually provide sufficient support either to myself or to members of my team about their performance. I don’t know what to suggest as an alternative, but I know that colour-coding the negatives and positives doesn’t cut it.

* The short answer is no.

GOODBYE MIDDLE MANAGEMENT, AND GOOD RIDDANCE

Three years ago when I started working at my current school I was looking forward to stepping down from the ‘management plate’. I had had pretty much had my fill of working in the higher middle management echelons after working as Head of Key Stage 5 in my previous position. It hadn’t been all bad, I found that I was fairly effective at dealing with university applications and recruitment fairs as well as organising pastoral activities for tutors. And there were parts I thoroughly enjoyed and gained great satisfaction from, such as working with students to help them consider their options post school. But the shine had worn off quickly when I found myself repeatedly butting heads with a colleague working at a similar level to me over administrative tasks, she was constantly trying to pass additional work my way when this should have been shared evenly. Although the issues were minor in the grand scheme of things, it was like a drip-drip effect, somewhat like low-level disruption and it gradually wore me down.

Part of the appeal of the school I applied for three years ago (that is, my current school) was that I would return to being ‘just a teacher again’. I had been burnt in my previous position and aside from a desire to lick my wounds for a period of time, I was lacking confidence in my own ability. I was ready to focus on teaching again after putting this largely on the backburner for a little over a year. I had still been teaching whilst holding the Head of Key Stage 5 position, but in reality, the demands of the management role superseded my teaching and it had suffered as a result.

After a few days into my new role three years ago I was approached about taking on some additional responsibility as a Head of Department. Shocked and surprised didn’t even cut it. Gobsmacked more like. I had only been there a matter of days and was still feeling some of the effects of jetlag, and so I knew that I wasn’t thinking straight when the headteacher asked to speak to me in his office.

It transpired that a colleague was stepping down due to illness; it would only be for a year he said, there’d be plenty of support he said, and don’t worry he added. A people pleaser through and through and having my ego stroked (including the prospect of an additional monthly financial incentive) cemented my acceptance of the role with little real thought at the time of what the role would entail. I even glibly ignored the fact that the headteacher had said during this meeting that one of the reasons they were considering me was because I had no ‘ties’, i.e., no kids and having my then partner based in another country meant that I had no distractions. I would focus on the job at hand. Why the hell I didn’t walk out the door at that point I have no idea, but then that could have been the people pleaser in me. But then, he was right, I was in that position. However, knowing the headteacher as I know him now, I am well aware that the issue of ‘ties’ would never have been raised with a male colleague in a similar position.

Three years on and I am still in the role of Head of Department, although I will be stepping down once more when I leave in a few weeks time. To say that I am excited would be an understatement, I am ecstatic. And to illustrate how happy I am about relinquishing the role, when I was being interviewed for my new position the headteacher asked me for my feelings on this, i.e., would I be comfortable in going back to being ‘just a teacher?’

My response?

A huge smile lit up my face.

THE COMPARISON GAME

It’s that time of year again.

Study leave for examination students.

During this summer term I have been in the fortunate position of having a lighter teaching timetable and so it has meant that I have been able to get on with some planning for my new position that begins this summer, as well as have a general tidy up of existing planning and resources. Due to my management position also, I have been required to organise relevant documentation in order to pass onto ‘the new me’, so apart from a few slightly extended lunches since we returned to work after the Easter break I have been productive with my gained time.

However, not everyone in my school is happy with a section of the teaching body getting ‘all this free time’ with the majority of grumbles coming from the primary section. Unlike the schools, I worked at in the UK where primary and secondary schools are predominately separate in terms of geography, in the two international schools I have worked in so far their primary and secondary schools have been located on the same site.

A close friend made these familiar-sounding grumbles recently where, during dinner with a group after work, she proceeded to compare her working hours as a primary teacher to that of an ‘average secondary teacher’. I tried to maintain a cool and calm exterior whilst she berated the ‘average secondary teacher’, arguing that our work was easy in comparison, particularly at this time of year. Perhaps understandably I felt myself become defensive in response to some of her remarks. Of course whilst there will always be some teachers who kick back during this time, they are in the minority. It is in fact during this time when most secondary teachers are catching up on planning and resourcing for new courses or updating what currently exists, and that’s if they don’t still have a heavy teaching timetable (for instance with KS3) or, if they are working in a school that doesn’t offer their students study leave.

But at the time I didn’t say any of this out loud at the time, as we would have ended up going around in circles as well as probably ending the evening by falling out. Plus, I have heard it all before, from her in particular and when I have tried to provide some balance it has fallen on deaf ears. It’s like comparing apples and oranges I reminded myself and that there are some comparison games that are simply pointless in playing.

But what would be nice is that rather than working against one another and seeing ourselves in a perpetual state of competition over our hours, our tasks and even our status within teaching, couldn’t we try and be a little bit more supportive?

HELLO, WAS IT ME YOU WERE LOOKING FOR?

I hope so, but even if you are a subscriber or just so happened to have stumbled across this post and my blog; good morning, good afternoon or evening wherever you are in the world.

Has it really been nearly a month since my last post?

Yes, sure enough it’s there in black and white, 10th May was when I last hit publish.

Over the last few weeks I got all kinds of caught up in work; including making a start with planning for my new teaching job that starts this summer, I guess I didn’t quite realise how caught up I would be with it, as well as doing a bit of travel that was also for work.

I have a few posts in the pipeline so I hope to be back writing more very soon.

SWITCHING OFF FROM SWITCHING ON

Things have been quiet on the site for a little over a week as I have been away on holiday. The break provided me with what might seem like one of the latest Windows updates, including the swirling circle indicating ‘come back later’ and also having no clue of a definitive timescale of when the update will be complete. However, I now feel as though I am rebooting back to someone I vaguely know. I feel awake for a start.

A number of things take a hit when I experience periods of chronic fatigue; I skip the gym, my diet switches to dishes that require little thought or preparation on my part (so mostly fast food then) and I don’t have the mental energy to even think about writing. There were various moments last week where I felt as though I was having out of body experiences as I was struggling to focus or build enthusiasm for many tasks outside of day-to-day teaching. All in all, I was ready for some time out.

However, one of the things that I noticed over the course of the weekend was that I was still struggling to switch off. For example, one of my first thoughts on Saturday morning was that I needed to check my inbox… I didn’t as my partner wanted to head out for an early morning walk. A strategic diversion on his part? Not quite, more of a well-timed walk along the beach to watch the sunrise.

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I have a few more days before I head back to work and so I hoping to use the time to catch up with friends, get to the gym and to do something that I have missed dearly in this relatively short period, writing.

A NEW OPPORTUNITY

A few weeks ago I signed myself up for the ‘Blogging Fundamentals’ course, part of WordPress University. I was really excited from the off as I was hoping to spend time working on my writing muscles and also engage with fellow bloggers.

I have a tendency to be pretty hard on myself when it comes to ‘getting shit done’, believing that there is always more that I could be doing. But I have been trying to stick to my commitment, that is, of posting at least once a week.

That was until this past week or so because work happened… Well, to be more specific, a new job happened.

As I mentioned in some of my earlier posts I have been torn for some time between whether to remain in teaching or not (I am talking at least five years). It is the only profession I have known apart from stints of working in various retail outlets and then a waitress when I was a student, and I can’t leave out the two years doing a newspaper round in the neighbourhood in which I grew up. But in the past few years I have been toying with the idea of leaving to do something different, either still within the field of education or breaking away entirely.

The idea of toying of leaving was very nearly going to become my reality when, after some months I was unable to find another teaching job. I work in the international circuit having left the UK five years ago and, unlike three years ago when I first moved to SE Asia, this time it was going to be much more difficult. In the first instance, my search area was restricted due to a move to be with my partner and also because the teaching market where he is based is incredibly competitive. Most, but certainly not all, international schools have many of their positions filled by Christmas with some advertising as early as September/October for the following academic year. By March, I was resigned to the fact that I would be moving without a job and would be living off some of my savings for an indefinite period of time.

But then a job came up and despite some mixed feelings about applying for it; primarily due to the resigned feeling and wondering whether I still want to teach, I put in an application. And things went from there.

I had an interview and received an offer a little over a week ago.

And the best thing? I am really excited about it!

TAKING THE TIME TO LISTEN

It is Friday afternoon and lessons for the week have just finished; students are heading home along with some of my colleagues. I don’t like to hang around too late on a Friday either, but I have set of test papers to mark that I would prefer to do from the relative comforts of a quiet classroom rather than in the real comforts of home. Besides, I have already allocated some of my Sunday to prepping for the following week, the test papers would just add to that load.

Then my door opens.

It is a colleague whose classroom is adjacent to mine coming in for a chat. But when I say ‘chat’ as that would presume that that there were two people involved in the conversation, it’s more like being spoken at about his day.

I put my pen and the exam paper down and listen to his frustrations; the students who haven’t quite registered that their final exams are in a few months time, the ones who have failed to hand in homework, and the ones who promised that they would turn up for the revision classes but didn’t. I listen and attempt to offer support and advice where I can, we are colleagues and part of the same team. I am also the Head of Department.

After he has left, I settle back into marking the papers. It’s a significant pile and I really don’t want to have to take them all home this weekend. Last weekend was spent proof-reading student subject reports for the department, I could barely see straight after I had finished.

Then my door opens.

It’s another member of the team, she’s relatively new and still working her way around the school and its quirks. I try to give her as much time as I can as I have heard on the teacher grapevine that she has already thrown around some flippant remarks about leaving before the end of the academic year due to the ‘unreasonable workload’. Much like a few minutes before, I am blasted with information and updates on her day. I sit and listen patiently with a set smile on my face, but in the back of my mind I am thinking about those unmarked test papers, about the data that it will then probably take another 30 minutes or so to input onto the school system, the emails I need to reply to, and the fact that I haven’t had chance all day to go the office to photocopy my resources for Monday.

After she leaves something strikes me as I am trying to get my head back into marking mode, I very rarely get asked about how I am by members of the team. Perhaps they think that I am fine because of the persona that I carry off (very successfully, if I say so myself) day to day. None of them is aware of the challenges I sometimes have just to get up in a morning and get to work, but then, why should they need to know? Or perhaps the reason I don’t get asked is because I am a member of management and there is a ‘them and us’ mindset to it. Sometimes people just need to vent and I do feel that part of my role is to cushion some of the blows or at least act as a sponge.

In this time-pressed profession, I would love to sit down and have more conversations with my team and other colleagues, perhaps about things going outside of the classroom and outside of the school. But I don’t see that happening in the near future, particularly as exam season approaches.

I admit my management style may have contributed towards this situation. Despite the seemingly constant curriculum changes and ever evolving school diktats, I try to manage with a democratic approach inasmuch as I can; concerns are discussed openly in meetings and if an issue affects someone directly, I will do my best to help. They are an amazingly hard-working bunch whose support I value every single day.

But it would be nice sometimes for one of them to ask how I am and pause for an answer.

SO I DIDN’T GET THE JOB, WHAT NEXT?

Following my last post about an unsuccessful application and subsequent interview at an international school, it got me thinking about my next steps. Well, I have to really… a job isn’t going to find me and beat me round the head until I accept after all.

And what I found myself really focusing upon was, what next? Where do I go from here? So I felt that the next logical step was to break my thinking down:

  • ASK FOR FEEDBACK

As soon as I had overcome some of the feelings of rejection, I emailed the school and asked for some feedback. I am still waiting for a response but I would like to know, and subsequently examine, their impressions of both my application and how I interviewed. Warts and all. Whether I stay in teaching or not, this information will be valuable for my own professional development in any field. In a broader sense, it also demonstrates that a candidate wasn’t necessarily just applying for a job on a whim, they genuinely want to understand the application process.

  • ASSESS MY REASONS FOR APPLYING FOR THE JOB IN THE FIRST PLACE

This was one of the first questions that I was asked in the interview, ‘Why do you want to work at this school?’ And in all honestly, I was completely thrown by it. Nerves had kicked in and my mind went blank, why did I want to work at the school? At the time, I recall rambling something about the school’s ethos but can remember little else. I was, and still am a little embarrassed by my response, it was weak. And in actual fact, I had had a week to prepare for the interview and I know that I hadn’t wasted my time. I prepped the shit out of it! I analysed the school website to see what courses were offered aside from what I was applying for, researched the school motto, and the school’s aims to gauge a ‘feeling’ of the place and tried to establish if the school was somewhere where I wanted to work.

Looking back now, I realise that although it made sense to apply for the position (as it fitted my teaching skills and experience) when it came down to it, I have realised that my heart wasn’t entirely in it. Nerves aside, the fact that I couldn’t articulate the reasons why I wanted the job hindered my interview and perhaps allowed the interviewers to see the real me. Having been on the other side of the interview process myself for the past few years, you can spot when someone is not being entirely honest with you or with themselves.

  • GET NETWORKING AND LOOK FOR OTHER OPPORTUNITIES

One of the next steps I took was to reconnect with the group I worked with when I completed the careers course late last year. It does appears a little superficial to have not made contact with the group for some months and then only to reach out when I have been unsuccessful. And perhaps that’s where I have been going ‘wrong’ in some ways, that I haven’t made more of an effort during the better times, such as getting an interview offer in the first place. I certainly found myself genuinely surprised at how long it had been since I last made contact, but what struck me was how wonderfully supportive the group are. There are a few hundred people now, all in differing stages of shifting in their careers – whether it’s moving on to something entirely different or within the same field, everyone has their own story to share. And it’s these stories that help you to keep on moving, to force yourself to put one foot after the other and not to give up with whatever the aim.

For me, it is about getting back on the saddle and moving on. I have caught myself feeling terribly weary and worrying about what the future will hold. I don’t have a crystal ball and strangely, I don’t want one. Where would the excitement be in that?!

NEXT STEPS…

There is a funny kind of irony in that my last post was about accepting rejection and I have experienced a big fat dollop of it this week.

Shortly after Christmas, I applied for a teaching position in another international school. On paper (or the website) the school looked ideal; amazing location both in terms of its place in the world (Hong Kong – where my partner is also based) and literally in terms of bricks and mortar, built into the hills of Hong Kong island overlooking the sea. The school achieves fantastic results and the building facilities looked incredible. I felt as though my application was strong and having spoken to management at my current school, who would ultimately be writing my references, they felt that I stood a good chance.

However, I did experience some serious doubts. Putting yourself through any application and interview process is scary as hell, you are pretty much laying a part of yourself bare for others to stare at and scrutinise. What has compounded matters also is that part of me has reached ‘panic stage’ in terms of my next career steps. Three years ago I was secure in the knowledge that I already had a (teaching) job lined up for the next academic year, which is where I am currently working. Three years later and another three months on… I have nothing.

So following a few tense weeks from submitting my application I was invited for a final interview with three members of the management team including the headteacher. After a shaky start where I was asked some questions related to my reasons for considering Hong Kong and the school itself (I was incredibly but understandably nervous, so I rambled), I got into my stride and felt a little more comfortable with the process. Questions ranged from how I would encourage independent and critical thinking from students, what additional activities and support could I offer to the school and also how I deal with stress. There is another funny kind of irony here when as part of the psychology course that I deliver involves teaching students about the physiological function of stress and how to combat it, yet I struggle with handling stress myself…

The interview lasted around 40 minutes and I breathed a huge sigh of relief when it was over. So much so that with the adrenaline that was coursing through my body I had to go out for a walk to help myself calm down.

Two days passed before I heard back. Two. Long. Days.

The email was complimentary but to the point: There was a strong list of candidates… the choice wasn’t easy… but there were others who provided a closer fit…

I did become a little upset at reading it and I was disheartened at the rather generic response, but really who am I to complain? There could have been a number of candidates interviewed for a variety of positions and I am sure that the administrative team simply weren’t able to send out personalised responses to all of those who were unsuccessful.

So I guess it’s onwards and upwards… and back to the drawing board in terms of next the next steps in my career.