This How We Look When We Lead

When I made my decision to leave headship and become an Independent Consultant, I worked with Marianne Hartley, on how best to brand myself. Her response amazed me. “I can design something for you but you already have your own brand, your look. Your hair.” How could the one thing that’s been the source of so much negativity in my life be my ‘brand’?

My birth certificate labels me as ‘Cape Coloured’, a label invented by colonialists during the pre-apartheid regime. We were a group who were not white enough to be white and not black enough to be black, in a culture where whiteness guaranteed a life of privilege. As a child, growing up in a violent and toxic culture of apartheid, where everyone strived for a better life, having skin that was not too dark and hair that was not ‘too naughty’ impacted on the type of life you lived. Looking ‘almost white’ could open doors to opportunity, education, work, as opposed to a life of poverty and oppression. It was also an external reflection – the elephant in the room – of the ultimate taboo – interracial relationships. As a child I wore my hair mainly long in two tidy plaits and as a young adult I kept it short as way of controlling it’s unruliness. And then I had a ‘my hair doesn’t define me’ moment. I hated the time and what felt like an eternal battle to blow dry it into something it wasn’t. So I let it be. And opened the door to what often felt like judgement, disappointment and commentary.

One of my most vivid moments of my hair and my leadership came when I went for an interview for my first headship. I was advised to blow dry my hair and tie it up in a bun so that I could look more professional. And I did it. I arrived in a suit, straightened hair, scared as hell. I was the only woman out of 7 candidates, the only candidate who had not had headship experience, and only black person in the whole process. I felt utterly displaced, emotionally and physically uncomfortable. I did not feel like me and I asked myself over and over what the hell I was doing there. I did not belong. Each time I caught sight of myself I felt like I did not belong to me. We were told that 3 candidates would be asked back for Day 2 of interviews and when I was invited to report back the next day to do an unseen presentation and panel interview, I convinced myself that I was included for tokenistic reasons.

I spent that evening in floods of tears of rage and fear and rang my inner circle for support. I was being used, they knew who they wanted. And once I sobbed myself to the point of exhaustion I had another ‘I don’t give a damn moment’. If I was to go back there the next day then I needed to go as me and share my vision of what a school should look like. I went in the next day. No suit and I left my hair in it’s natural style. I knew I wouldn’t get the job, I had nothing to lose by going as me. But…. I got the job, my defining moment for making a promise to myself to always show up as me.

Throughout my leadership journey I became used to comments being made about my hair. I was brave, untidy, unruly, unconventional, sassy. I recall a TA telling me, after I’d lost some weight, that I looked great and if I just sorted out my mop, I’d look amazing. I rarely engaged, after all I had a promise to keep to me. To embrace and accept myself for all that I am. I understood that we become what we think.
Self-acceptance is a principle of leadership and of being human. It means accepting our imperfections and building on our strength. It means less time devoted to self doubt and changing how we look and how we lead to what others think leadership looks like and more time getting on with the job with the confidence and conviction that we look right, we do right.

Through my acceptance of self, came acceptance of others. It is truly liberating to accept people as they are. I don’t have any preconceived ideas of what a teacher looks like, or sounds like or presents as. I loved recruiting the best teachers who could teach from the soul, irrespective of how different they were to me. I have no preconceived ideas of what a successful pupil looks like, sounds like, presents as. I believe I am the truly lucky one because my self-acceptance gave me the opportunity to lead a truly diverse community of harmonious, successful people, who all had permission to be themselves and to accept each other. I modelled self-acceptance and I modelled what a leader looks like when they lead.

In words of India Arie
“I am not my hair
I am not this skin
I am not your expectations,
I am not my hair
I am not this skin
I am the soul that lives within”


Be You

I became an inner city teacher because I had dreams of making a difference. I wanted to be the teacher I never had. To be there for the ‘good’ girls, quiet and invisible – overshadowed by the boisterous boys; the naughty boys whose behaviour overshadowed their hidden talents; the children for whom there were limited opportunities.

I was born in South Africa. My birth certificate labelled me as ‘Cape Coloured’. It was there to define what I could and could not be in society, where I could and could not go. It was set to limit my aspirations. I did not belong to the superior group – the whites. We moved from country to country. I recall mimicking the accents of the children so that I didn’t stand out as being too different. More often than not, I was the only black child in the class, sometimes the school. Being quiet, shy and black was not the cool thing to be. I tried to break out of it, to fit in, but that just added to my awkwardness – my sense of not belonging. My parents told me that I must never allow myself to be defined by the labels put on me by others, to fight oppression and to be who I wanted to be. I simply did not want to cause ripples.
I was fortunate throughout my teaching career in having strong leaders who believed in me, valued my opinion and gave me opportunities to grow. As I stepped into leadership, education policy changed and a culture of fear of Ofsted and league tables became the driver in many schools. I had a successful first headship and was asked by my local authority to support a failing school. Everyone wanted the school to change but improvement was slow as no one wanted to change the way in which they worked and tensions were beginning to reach boiling point. I was just putting out fires, making the cosmetic changes that my Local Authority wanted to see as I was under heavy pressure to turn around the school. I found myself really implementing their vision rather than my own. Leadership was also at its most stressful and difficult, as I had allowed myself to doubt what I believed needed to be done rather than trusting in myself. I eventually ‘hit the wall’ and stress stood between me and my dreams of making a difference. I had become a victim of the system. I was reliable, a hard worker, ambitious, I delivered good statistical data. I was a thinker for the state rather than a thinker for myself. I was behaving as that little girl again, fearful of causing ripples.

It is very easy to lose our way in our education system, to follow a pattern, and eventually realise that we are surviving, and feel like we are barely making a difference rather than following our own visions.
What is your passion? Are you following your aims and ideals? Are you teaching from the soul? Is your job taking more from you than it is giving you? Has the fear of missing out become a guiding factor? Imagine how liberating it would feel if you give yourself permission to expect more. What will it do for your sense of self? What will it do for your wellbeing?

I had to learn the hard way to work differently, to find joy in my work. It meant finding the courage to lead authentically and to take up my authority to put my own vision in place. As soon as I started doing that, my wellbeing improved and I found a renewed passion for education. It took all of my courage to stand up against local policy but I became a stronger leader and my school went from strength to strength. I learned that headship can be managed and success can only be achieved by being authentic, believing in yourself and remaining true to your vision. Following the vision of others did not bring the success I enjoy. It takes courage and we have to give ourselves permission to lead authentically. When we are true to our vision it brings happiness and joy in what we do and it brings security to those around us.

“I believe that at the very root of our humanity is a passion to create value with heart, to work alongside others who care, and to make a difference. I believe that each of us has something of value to offer — all 7.5 billion of us. While not everyone will, anyone can.” ― Nilofer Merchant, The Power of Onlyness: Make Your Wild Ideas Mighty Enough to Dent the World

This is the very reason why many of us choose to teach. Are you waiting for that perfect moment to put your own vision into place? Now is the perfect time to set your own limits and be the person you really are. Yes it’s scary – but it’s hugely fulfilling and liberating. Do it for you, your peace of mind, and your wellbeing. Dare to be different. Dare to be you.

It’s 1st September, 2020, the start of a new school year ………Begin


‘Don’t prepare. Begin. Our enemy is not lack of preparation. The enemy is resistance, our chattering brain producing excuses. Start before you are ready.’ — Steven Pressfield