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