Learning From Failure – Angela Schofield
Kindness – the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate. Never more needed than when things are going wrong. So today, I like to talk about the F word. Failure.
There are a lot of supportive conversations around failure, and I absolutely agree that failure is a learning moment. There’s also a lot of talk about resilience, and yes you need resilience to work in education. I think you need resilience to get through life at the minute. But sometimes you need more than just your resilience, and sometimes the reality is you did fail.
As a second career teacher, I was quite nervous starting teaching over the age of 40. I knew I had a lot to learn, and I worked harder and longer than I ever had before, but in my first term as an NQT, I felt overwhelmed and struggled to meet the expectations of my school. I put in my notice at the October half term, which I think shocked everybody. Still, my mum had just had a hip replacement, my son was going through an autism diagnosis, I had another child at home going through typical teenage years, and I could not do any more than I was already doing for my class.
At the end of the term, the comment on my NQT term report said, “Despite failing this term, Angela still wants to try and pursue a teaching career.”. The surprise on my mentor’s face when I told her I intended to continue teaching destroyed my last bit of confidence. There’s no nice way of putting it, I failed, and I failed completely.
I knew that I could teach for up to five years without completing my NQT and so I registered with the supply agency. I did a few days in a school and was asked to commit to five days a week for the rest of the academic year. Many teachers there told me I should try again to complete my NQT. I started to believe it was possible. Unfortunately, this was quite a troubled time for the school. In the summer term, the Trojan Horse scandal erupted; Ofsted visited and put the school into special measures. There were two consequences of this. Firstly, many outstanding teachers decided to leave. The school was in special measures for safeguarding and governance, not for teaching or outcomes, which were still outstanding. Outstanding teachers are in high demand; they do not need to put themselves through the pressure of termly Ofsted visits and rapid school improvement. Secondly, the school was told not to appoint any NQTs. They explained that it wouldn’t be possible for me to do my NQT there, but said they were very happy to give me an excellent reference to another school. If I’m honest, I was scared. I’d had such a terrible experience, and part of me thought that maybe I could only be successful in that school with those children and that staff team. However, a Trojan Horse special measures school wasn’t that appealing to many people, and they had very few applications. The week before transition day, I was asked to complete my NQT year through the school but on supply. While I was thrilled to be able to stay there, I knew I was only there because other people hadn’t applied. I still felt I wasn’t good enough.
So now to the most important bit of my story, which is about the women who picked me up and put me back on track; without these two women, I would not be here today talking about what I’m talking about, I wouldn’t have the role I have, and I wouldn’t have had the chance to do the things I’ve done.
A new Principal was appointed to the school when an Academy chain took it over. Wendy Baxter was simply the most inspiring and empowering woman I’d ever worked for. At the start of the spring term, the Head of Year left, and I was asked to take over for the remainder of the academic year. Wendy assured me, despite my protestations, that I was more than capable of doing this and that she would support me. Remember, this was a Trojan Horse special measures school, five form entries, and in my year group I was an NQT and three long-term supply teachers who changed on a regular basis. This was a steep learning curve. But I thrived. I learned a lot, and I made a lot of mistakes, but Wendy had a new approach. She had a mantra of fearlessly failing faster. When you fail, you learn; the more you fail, the more you learn, the quicker you fail, the quicker you learn. Failures were literally celebrated across the school. I don’t think anyone failed faster than me in those two terms, but I’ve realised that failing when you are supported and encouraged is very different from failing when you feel completely worthless.
I did ask her permission to mention her, and she said I’d made her day. But I’m really glad I have this chance to publicly thank her for what she did because there is no question I would not still be in teaching if I hadn’t met her.
The second person I need to thank is the force of nature that is Hazel Pulley, CEO of Excelsior MAT. I first met her when I moved to a new school as English Lead and Year Six teacher. She came in as Executive Head, and change was rapid. I was worried that the new plans I’d put into place would be thrown out of the window and something would be brought in from one of her trust schools. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I did my 10% braver, I knocked on her door and said,” Could I have a word, Hazel? I know you’re making many changes, but can I please have 5 minutes to discuss the reading? It’s taken me three years of research to put this together, and I just want the chance to tell you what it is before you change it.” She said absolutely. I rattled through all the research, why we were doing it, how it worked in the context, why the sequence is so important, and why I didn’t want to lose any element because all of them were active ingredients. After I’d spoken for 5 minutes (I can talk fast when I need to), there was probably a two-minute silence while Hazel looked at the notes she’d made. She said, “I love it!” and asked me to talk to the English lead from one of her other schools because they were struggling with reading, and she thought this could really help. I can’t tell you what it felt like to have this woman, who had a decades-long track record of improving schools, genuinely listening to my ideas but valuing them – that was huge. She was only with us as Executive Head for two terms, but her support powered me through the entire year. She is an inclusive leader; she treats everyone with respect. Your ideas are worth listening to; while she may not end up agreeing with you, she will listen to you, and she will ask the questions, so she understands very clearly what it is you’re proposing before she says yes or no.
In the autumn term of 2018, the Deputy Headship was advertised at Parkfield. Parkfield was the outstanding school, the flagship for her trust. I was in my fifth year of teaching, and I was genuinely scared to apply, but I felt the opportunity for learning that I would have there was too good not to try. Usually, I have to have everything on the person spec before applying, and I didn’t for this. I had all the essentials but very few desirables beyond an absolute passion for closing the disadvantage gap and research-informed school improvement. To my astonishment, I got the job. Now the impostor syndrome was in full force. I was a Deputy Head just 5 years after completing my NQT. I was terrified that I would be found out daily. I used to think what am I supposed to be doing here? Some of the staff had been teaching for 20 years, and this person is an expert, so why am I coaching them on anything? I found it really hard to get my head around that. But I sucked up every bit of learning that was available. The staff team there are wonderful, and I started to feel I belonged. I made mistakes, I make lots of mistakes, but Hazel had a very similar attitude to Wendy. I’m here to support you I don’t expect you to be perfect; I expect your intentions to be good and your commitment to be high, but you don’t have to be perfect.
I’m very fortunate that I’m line managed by Hazel, someone who gets me as a person, values my work and offers real support and challenge. Again, I am so pleased to have the chance to give her a shout-out because she is a shining example of compassionate leadership.
Now I’m an ECT mentor, I’m very conscious that I need to give them honest feedback because I would be doing them a disservice if they didn’t realise they needed to improve something. But I try to do the hard conversations in a very kind human way. What Wendy and Hazel have in common is that they would, and do, tell me very honestly when something wasn’t right, when it wasn’t good enough, but they wouldn’t broadcast that to everybody else. I didn’t feel everybody else knew, whereas in my first school, people did know; they’d come and talk to me about it, and that was just horrendous. So, I’m ending with a bit of a cliché. If you are line managing anybody, if you are mentoring or coaching an ECT, if you are supporting a teacher who is struggling, aim for (and we don’t always get it right) aim to be the person who fixes someone’s crown without telling anyone else that it was crooked.
And that, to me, is kindness.
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