Find Your Space; Own your space!

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To be effective and happy, we need to be ourselves.

The start of a new year, a big term ahead, it’s reflection time.  My message to teachers and leaders is to navigate the turbulence and try to do what you can to make your job your own; to carve out a way of working that gives you maximum space to be yourself, to express yourself, to do the things you love and care about the most.

This isn’t the same as ‘do whatever you like’ in an evidence-free vacuum. It’s not ‘do as little as possible’ or ‘keep doing the same stuff you’ve always done’.  No – that’s not a professional culture I’d support .  But I am talking about managing the boundaries of your professional space so you can retain maximum control of your work, engaging in professional learning in the way that makes sense to you, focusing your efforts where you judge they’ll have greatest impact, making sure you keep time and effort in perspective with all your personal/family needs.

I’m not going to hide the fact that, now coming up to two years out of the system, living blissfully boss-less and self-directed, I’m super happy.  I’ve never been good with unintelligent accountability, data machines or paper-pushing meetings –  or doing what I’m told by people unless I really truly trust and respect them.  It’s a joy to feel unconstrained.  But actually, this isn’t new to me: most of the time during my career in schools,  I had that feeling.  One of the things that I’ve always loved about being a teacher and school leader is that, whilst recognising the obligations that come with teamwork and professional duty,  I’ve mostly managed to do what I’ve wanted to.  Not always – but enough to make me feel like I owned the space; that I’ve been in control.  I’d say that’s the secret to a long career (hint-hint – it’s also the secret to keeping teachers in teaching.)  Where things haven’t worked out, it’s usually where there’s been a mismatch between what was expected of me and my sense of being able to be myself.

How do you create your own space when you’re part of a big organisation; a team of colleagues; when you have unavoidable professional duties to fulfil? I think there are many ways:

Make your classroom a place you love to be!

That means you establish routines that make lessons work the way you want them to.  It means you have a strong sense of, “Welcome to my world, this is what goes in my classroom.” In my experience there is always ample space for doing this within existing school structures.  Teach your socks off; express yourself.

Indulge in the depth and breadth of your subject.

Teach all the best, most interesting stuff, tell all the stories you want to tell; go off piste when if feels right without asking permission, throw in the anecdotes and examples that gave you the bug for loving your subject in the first place.  Sure, you’ve got a syllabus  – but don’t let that be some kind of prison. It’s not. What do you want to teach that’s not in there? Well – do it anyway; give the kids a taste of it. Just do it. Own it.

Be solutions focused – always on the front foot.

Suggest things; test things; share things… If you are continually helping to drive a can-do agenda, then the team agenda starts looking like your own. If you have an idea, do it. You’re a professional – you have a duty to be as effective as you can be so try it.. and then make a case for it.  Don’t wait to be told or to be given permission.

Together with colleagues, make sure you own your time.

This is what we want to do on the INSET day, this is our marking and feedback policy, this is our meeting agenda, this is what we’re doing for the research project, this is how we’re going to record the data; this is what we think great teaching looks like in our area and so this is what we’d like feedback on in the learning walks.  Don’t wait to be told – get your ideas in first! Own it!

Drop things you know don’t matter or don’t work. 

Ideally, be open about this, but, if necessary, some passive resistance might be needed.  (When the National Curriculum Science had 17 attainment targets and we were given a spectrum of 17 coloured tracking sheets to fill in,  not one of us in the team did it… we voted with our inertia which was justified as it was the worst idea ever. )  If you have to, pay lip-service to excessive data-drop crap but don’t waste time; rapid-fill the blanks with something plausible – only takes a minute;  nobody will notice. Give it short shrift and then focus on the information you need for your own purposes.

Press Re-set whenever you need to

If it all builds up, bin the marking, forget the minutes, let the email backlog go, ditch the policy document that takes hours but hardly anyone will ever read: start fresh.  Life’s too short.  If your head isn’t above water, that’s no life.. so just take control.  Say no and move on.  It’ll be fine.

It’s my firm belief that in many schools the teachers who make the biggest difference are the ones that stick around; they commit to the school; to their professional learning; they invest in the school culture and form key pillars in the social structure that makes any great school a great school.  A bit of staff turnover is natural and healthy but you need a core of effective, mature people  – people who believe in the school and the kids  – to stay; to stick at it. Leaders should recognise that giving teachers the space to be the teachers they want to be is so important.   It’s still possible to influence, guide, collaborate, challenge and even direct from time to time – but it’s so important not to stifle or confine teachers who are trying to find their space.

In any role, if it comes to it, if you feel you can’t be yourself where you are, it might be that the school isn’t the right match for you.  It’s worth considering.  Life’s not a race or a ladder… it can be a series of interesting rewarding experiences and challenges of different kinds.  A sideways move, a change of scene, a different school context – it could be that you just need to sample life elsewhere.  Find a new space!

Good luck in 2019.  Make it your own.

This article was originally published on TeacherHead.