Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Lessons From Leaving

Just seen that I didn't publish this before I left the UK!

As you no doubt know by now, I'm leaving the UK and have already left my job as a primary Headteacher of an inner city school. (If you didn't know this you can read some thoughts behind this decision here.)

I'm not going to bang on for long but through the slightly extrapolated process of saying goodbyes and actually leaving (I'm still in the UK as I write and still have another week to go...) something has dawned on me - I care much more than I realised about the people around me.

This might sound obvious and ridiculous but it wasn't until I was forced to face this fact that I actually realised it!  Previously I'd been fairly blasé about moving on; I care deeply about the children in my school and am concerned about their futures but I rationalised this by leaving them in the hands of the new head and moving on to care about my upcoming children.  But what of the adults? Here's a couple of thoughts:

In the day to day running of the school I thought they felt I valued them but... During a conversation about me leaving, a colleague told someone else that I didn't normally say nice things to them but what I'd written in the card I'd sent had really touched them!  This hit me hard - I thought I did say 'nice things'!  It's not that I go around grumping at people (I believe that no matter what the situation, a leader has to keep up the game face; how can you expect your staff to feel positive if they see you stomping around?) and I enjoy a laugh as much as the next man but maybe I'd assumed too much and missed the obvious.  On reflection I think my colleague was probably right, I don't think I did say enough 'nice things'.  For the sake of clarification I'm defining 'nice things' as professional qualities or performance, not new hair styles, successful fake tans or new car.

But why?  One possible explanation is one of the main reasons I'm leaving - the constant 'drive and strive' to be better. Nothing is ever good enough. I expect lots from my staff and I don't apologise for that and yes all schools can always do better before we get into some melodramatic debate about dumbing down schools. Given our friends at the DfE were knocking on the door on my first day, muttering something about my school being on 'the list', it was clear things were going to be tough. But maybe in all that franticness and to some extent hoop jumping, the simple act of saying 'nice things' was lost.  And maybe, ironically, recognising the 'nice things' would have brought about even greater improvement.

So what? I've learnt a couple of things, I think.  Firstly, recognise and credit the 'nice things' outside of the formal performance management or pupil progress type meetings. Secondly, and this makes me nervous, I'm going to front up and include a 360 review type activity about my leadership. Previously I've shied away from activities like this but I will do it.  (Somebody please email or tweet me in a year's time...!).

The other realisation is the impact that you can have as a leader. One card I received from a member of staff said 'I have completely changed as a teacher and you have really pushed me to think how and why I teach. I've really tried hard to be as good as you think I am' which I'm taking positively! The irony is that this card is from someone who easily ranks close to the top of my list of 'best teachers' I've worked with in the last 20 years.  I don't do this job for the glory, and I don't like to be in the limelight as I just see it as my job, but it does go to show the power of being a leader and moments like this make it all worthwhile.

Brunei high

I had one of those moments on Friday night that I'm sure we've all had. That moment when you realise that all your celestial objects are lined up, that euphoric rush of overwhelming positivity and happiness. You're on a high, at least cloud 9 and everything is right with the world.  Maybe it's a shakra thing, the position of the moon or some other universal force I'm unaware of. Or maybe it is the force! Oddly, no alcohol was involved.

Let me explain...

I was driving back from the Empire Club gym after another week at work (so possibly excess caffeine and post-exercise endorphins may be involved), the weather was comfortably warm (shocker!) and I'd had a remarkable afternoon. I'd been invited to attend the certificate presentation for the students 'graduating' from the Ugama school on the school site and, despite almost every single word of the ceremony being in Malay, the cultural experience was tremendous. I won't go into the detail but it was humbling to be so deeply involved in such an indigenous experience, although I did feel like an imposter; I couldn't have been made to feel more welcome but as a large white guy who merely works in the main school, I was slightly embarrassed by the VIP type attention I received. I guess I'm still not used to having 'status'! My congratulations go to all the students and teachers involved. Here's the original article from the Brunei Times.


The Empire Club gym facilities are, like the rest of the Empire Club, ridiculously luxurious. After a decent back and bi session I used the marble jacuzzi, sauna and even the plunge pool (although not for long, it was freezing!) and 'hit the (marble) showers'. Perfect for the end of week workout. 

I never fail to marvel at the Empire Club and its opulence and thoroughly enjoy spending time there; whether it's by the pools or lagoon, at the bowling alley, cinema, gym or impressive golf facilities. It is like being on holiday (and in some aspects even like being on honeymoon) but it's part of our everyday lives. Incredible.

But is a luxury gym all it takes for me to be happy? Despite what my wife thinks, there were more factors at play.  I've tried to unpick them and have listed them below (they're in no particular order):

1.  I suspect one of them is the acknowledgement that I actually had time to enjoy the Empire. My new job is frantically busy, as you would expect when leading a large part of a highly successful international school, but the sense of impending doom and pressure of a visit from OfSTED isn't there. Yes there are challenges, and every school can provide better education, but knowing that the phone isn't going to ring and someone who has already come to a data-based judgement isn't going to strut in and hammer us, makes resolving those challenges properly a distinct possibility! Given that I commit myself 100% to wherever I work, that means I don't have that acidic pit of the stomach feeling every day and therefore I have a much healthier work/life balance. I still work most evenings but at the moment I'm actually on top of things - long may it last.

2.  My Ugama afternoon experience was, as detailed above, awesome for the total immersion into the Brunei culture which was part of the decision for making the move out here.  I am well aware that I am a guest in this wonderful country and am keen to understand and absorb as much of the culture as possible.

3.  The constant warmth.  Stepping outside at night, when the temperature is comfortable, instantly revives those foreign holiday memories and the associated feelings - and this happens every single day!  I'm still not used to it so still get that rush of happiness and soul uplift. Long may this last too!

4.  Wonderful children. I have to admit to being a little nervous about how I'd cope with the extreme cultural difference of moving from a mostly white British working class estate school to a school that truly lives up to the label 'international', but there are plenty of characters, sparky and otherwise and, as hoped, the 'international' label is irrelevant!  There's the same banter, the usual abbreviation to 'Mr B' and all the other ups and downs of life with school children.  And I love it.

5.  Seeing how my family have settled. Yes, it's early days but both children are loving the school and the opportunities it brings. They've started music lessons, have specialist Science, D.T., Music, Art, Drama... and to see their love of learning reignited is inspiring. It was hard at first but that Friday had seen both of them have delightful children back to our house for a Friday afternoon play date. And my wife is working regularly in school and has applied for a full time post but she too has been enjoying the Empire, for once being a 'lady who coffees', shopping etc.  This is in part down to our 'amah' starting; the kids love her and her cooking and baking (and I'm thoroughly enjoying not having to iron shirts!).

The biggest downside of this whole thing for me is the time difference between here and the UK. Communication is easy but sometimes you can't just grab the phone and contact family; or you could, but they wouldn't be that pleased to talk to you as it would be some ungodly hour.

But at that precise moment, driving home on that Friday night, nothing was wrong with the world.

Edit: Since starting this post, my son suffered a displaced fracture of his thumb which required surgical intervention and I've had a migraine. But the medical facilities (below) are excellent and I can buy tablets so life is still amazing!