Difficult situations

First thing this morning I managed to catch up with most of my teachers, a quick chat with them each before the children came in. This time touching base with them is so important. It gives me the chance to make sure they are ok. Some of my staff have very difficult things going on at home. It also gives them a chance to get stuff of their chests. In order to be able to be the best they can for the children, they need to be feeling strong and confident in themselves. The time is also spent discussing children we are concerned about. I can also deal with any little ‘niggles’ before they turn into real issues.

I had a multitude of tasks to complete. I sometimes find it hard to remember it all so I write everything down. I can walk out of my office to do one thing and be stopped five times on the way there by people all wanting an answer, or sharing information. At times there is just so much going on I can’t hold it all in my head without something leaking out.

I have learned over the last few years not to take on everyone’s problems and my staff know now to ‘come with a solution’ if they have an issue. This works well as they are generally in the best position to implement any solution and I act as a ‘sounding board’, helping them to think things through. They also feel empowered to change things. One of the few bits of advice about Leadership that has really stuck with me is the image of being handed lots of monkeys to look after and I try to ensure that I give everyone their monkey back! If I didn’t, I would not be able to do my job at all. As heads we can’t do everything and I don’t think we should try.

I did manage to achieve some of the more managerial stuff today – newsletter got written, SLT strategic day was planned, meeting was arranged with a local secondary head and Head teacher’s declaration form submitted for Y1 phonics screen to name but a few.

All this in what seemed a very ordinary day. And then, out of the blue…

I was in the reception area as a parent came into school for a meeting. She saw me and launched into a vitriolic attack. There are times when fulfilling our duty of care puts us in a very difficult position. As Heads we symbolise the establishment and any resentment people may have towards authority can be directed towards us. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. She didn’t really have anything to complain about and she has her own mental health issues which in turn create their own challenges in terms of how we work with and support her.

When something like that happens it is very difficult to remain unaffected. I was a picture of calm whilst in the situation but afterwards, as the the parent went on to her meeting I was left holding all her fury. I walked into my office. I shut the door. I locked the door. I burst into tears.

I am generally a resillient person but it is very difficult not to take things in when they are hurled at you with real ferocity. Crying enabled me to get rid of what she had dumped on me. Managing angry people is difficult. I am much better at it now than I used to be but sometimes it is hard to keep the anger out.

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Chasing Rainbows…

Things at school have been unbelievably busy it feels like I hardly have time to breathe. There are so many major things that I have to lead and manage or be part of on behalf of the school at the moment that I hardly know where to start half the time. I hate the way that these things pull me away from the learning and the children.

There is a lot of political maneuvering going on in my LA which feels very uncomfortable; there are exciting community initiatives led by us which are, however, very time consuming, and there is the challenge of getting my school performing at its very best. There is the nightmare of ensuring that I have enough teachers to teach the classes in September. Recruitment into schools like mine is very hard. People simply don’t want to work in a school that has so many challenges unless they are exceptional and sadly there don’t seem to be many of those locally.

Keeping me sane is the fact that I am having lunch with the children from the support group every day. They are delightful. One of them is having tempers as we have had to change the staffing in the group. He throws things and shouts and swears and is constantly saying ‘I don’t care’ to everything we say. I have a good relationship with this child and can usually lure him out of his strop by using humour and making him laugh. The other day he was stropping on the floor kicking his arms and legs around and being abusive so I got on the floor and copied him. He looked at me as if I was mad. I pointed out that he looked the same as me. He grinned and calmed immediately. The other two children in my office were laughing at the pair of us.

Later on I read him Pierre by Maurice Sendak. Pierre constantly shouts ‘I don’t care’ and ends up being eaten by a lion. He insisted on shouting all the ‘I don’t care’s’ and the next time he stropped and yelled that he didn’t care I called him Pierre and he stopped and grinned. This child is so fragile. He can’t bear to make mistakes. The emotional effort of writing is overwhelming for him. Yet he is making progress in his learning. We have to scaffold so precisely and one slight error of judgement on our part and he tumbles into an abyss. We then throw him a rope, which he tries to ignore but finds irresistible. He just wants to be contained, to feel safe, loved. We are, of course, working very closely with his parents but this is proving challenging.

Some of the children’s short lives are full of more horror and tragedy than most of us will ever experience. Sometimes more unbelievable than any film script. But they are very real, and we continue to work to support them.

There are tragedies waiting to unfold too. We have some very ill parents and carers. One we know will die; probably before the end of the year as she has a very aggressive cancer. When she does, her daughter who is six, will be orphaned.

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Returning from the Wilderness…

Over the last week or so I have sat down a number of times to write  this blog but have found myself without a voice.  I have been unable to articulate the conflict that has been raging in my head, keeping me awake at night and consuming my days.  There are times when I have been simply at a loss as to what to do next and feeling like I had exhausted all my creativity and lost my ability to think.  There have been children who I need to find different ways of supporting and there are staff that I need to challenge.

This is the stuff of my daily existence and usually I am able to think creatively, have the difficult conversations that I need to have and things move on but over the last few weeks I have felt decidedly stuck.

I have been trying to unpick what that ‘stuck’ feeling is all about.  It seems to be to have been a combination of exhaustion, frustration and an element of fear.  Exhaustion in that the issues that I face on a daily basis are so relentless, frustration that the system we are operating in can be so inflexible and fear of letting children and staff down, of not being my best and of not leading effectively.

This last point has been troubling me for a while.  Since my OFSTED inspection actually.  I have had the sense that school has been happening around me.  I have been trying to find the right kind of support, I have been thinking on levels that are so deep they are not conscious, more of a feeling my way around things.

In the last week or so things have become clear.  I know what I need to do and I know where I am going.  Somehow, I feel firm, solid, sure.  I have not arrived at this place alone, but have been privileged to have worked with and talked to a number of wonderful, inspirational people along the way.  I have had to be brutally honest with myself, acknowledging my mistakes, knowing that I had not been leading the school but just managing day to day.

Now, however, I am back in control, and stronger than before.  Looking back, I think I have been a re-evaluating what I am doing and why I am doing it.  A scrutiny of my moral purpose, my ability to face up to challenging people in very difficult situations because it is the right thing to do, and not avoiding things because I am fearful of the consequences.  I had lost touch with myself as a leader.  But now, I’m back!

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Mapping a clear course…

I know it’s an old cliche but being a Head Teacher really is rather like being the captain of a ship sent to explore distant lands.  Sailing on unpredictable waters which sometimes swell into giant storms, striving to steer a steady course towards calm seas and islands where we can learn new things.  And never knowing exactly what tomorrow is going to bring.

People come and go, and for the time they are with us, children, families, and staff, their lives and ours are closely intertwined.  We share their hopes and dreams.  We share their moments of sadness and desperation.  And all the while we hold onto the vision of creating better opportunities for the children that we teach and the families that we support.  We hope that our staff grow and develop so that they will, should they choose, find their own ship to sail and their own crew to develop.

As Head I have, at times, felt overwhelmed  with the journey ahead and sometimes I have lost my direction.  The fallout from Ofsted,  had a much bigger impact on me personally than I had realised and when I came back to work it was with a renewed determination to get the ship into peak sailing condition.  I am not someone who has great confidence in my own abilities and was very aware that I had lost something of my creativity.  One of the outcomes of the amount of emotional support that I have to provide is that I get very tired and lose my ability to think properly.  I had been looking for someone to support me in mapping out the course ahead and last week, by chance, I found them.

I had lots of ideas about what to do next and where we should be going but I was struggling with the details of how, exactly, to get there.  We know that our focus has to be continuing to improve teaching and learning and together with this person I was able to create a framework that pulled all my ideas together into a coherent course.  It is incredibly exciting.

The first week back after the Christmas holidays had its high crests and low troughs as the waves tossed us about.  On the whole, the children came back very calm and were clearly glad to be back.  Staff are rested and ready to get stuck in.  Assembly on the first day was an absolute delight, discussions of aspiration and hope for the future, children keen to learn and recognising that to get the futures that they dream of will involve hard work on their part as well as ours.  I have had lovely conversations with the children; about their holidays, about their learning, and have eavesdropped into their lunchtime chatter.

It is the quiet children that I have engaged more with this week, a child who is being overwhelmed by a sibling and who needs some space away from them, a child whose sibling may not live to the end of the month.  It’s so incredibly important to keep things ordinary for them and I have been chatting with them in the lunch hall most days.  We are going to set up a science club.  One  child said she likes explosions and wants to do chemistry.  I have a plan for this…

The children in the support group have come back lively and  unsettled.  So much challenging behaviour is driven by anxiety.  One of the children is always ‘showing off’ to who he sees as the dominant member of the group, desperate to be accepted, and therefore protected and kept safe as not a target of this child’s negative behaviours.  They are also having to get used to a change in staffing, which they have actually managed really well.

They are building lego mansions again.  With the usual bbq areas, swimming pools, garages and outdoor fridges.  They are also, very subtly, excluding one of the members of the group.  When he goes to play with the lego with them, they will give it a couple of minutes and move away.  The staff in the group are trying to address this.  It is a clear reflection, again, of the macho culture of the estate.  The excluded child is different from the others.  The ‘top dog’ was telling me about the fights he gets into outside school.  The other children behave in a way that they hope will gain his approval and if this means not engaging with one of the group, that’s what they will do.

I am going to be spending a lot more time with these children this term.  I am really looking forward to it!

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Tough Choices

My school has been eerily quiet this week. Children and staff have been suffering from a particularly virulent flu strain and many have been at home. Those that are in have been rather subdued. We have had to cancel performances due to lack of children to act in them. Sad really, in what should have been a lovely week of joint celebration. We have, however, had enough children to sing in our choir and today they were out and about on the estate singing to the local community who loved them.

When I was having lunch with the children one came up to me to tell me that another child was swearing at someone. I asked the child to come and sit next to me. He seemed so small and so lost, struggling to cut up his baked potato. He was holding the cutlery in such an awkward way that he couldn’t really manage. I showed him how to hold the knife to make it easier to cut with. He tried it, then gave up and reverted to what he had been doing before. I said that it was ok and that it probably felt strange holding it a different way. He said nothing but looked at me with a strange smile. I noticed a few moments later that he had swapped hands again and was trying, and succeeding, to use the knife the way I had shown him. He persevered and grew in confidence. I commented that he seemed hungry. He nodded. I asked him if he had had any breakfast. He shook his head. I asked him if he would like me to talk to his mum about breakfast club. He nodded. I talked to him about the things that he had been saying to the other child. He seemed genuinely sorry and so I sent him out to play.

At the end of lunch I walked into our medical room and saw a quite distressed child sat there with a Lunchtime Play Supervisor trying to get him to tell her what had happened. It transpired that the child I had had lunch with had thrown him on the ground and tried to strangle him. I sent someone to bring the child up to me and the two boys accompanied me to my office.

When dealing with this sort of incident each child has a chance to tell their version of events and I usually start by asking them what rights have been denied. My children are used to the language of Rights Respecting and so are able to say straight away what rights they have denied and how. It makes it very straightforward to sort things out. The child admitted that he had hurt the other one and the two of them resolved the issue between them. I sent the hurt child back to class but kept the other one behind. There was such sadness in his eyes. I asked him if he was ok. He nodded. I said that I was worried about him as he was hurting others and happy children didn’t usually do that. He started to cry. He sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. Deep from inside his soul. I was aware that his parents have separated and that there are some issues around this. He wants to live with his dad. I talked a bit about how hard it was to make choices when we love both parents and that it was ok for him to want to live with his dad and it didn’t mean that he didn’t love his mum.

The impending holiday has brought this dilemma into sharp relief for this child and he simply can’t manage it and so is getting it out of his system by hurting others. I didn’t take him back to class. Instead he went to help with the Nursery Christmas party, which he loved. He seemed a bit lighter as we left my office and had stopped crying. He even gave me a smile as we chatted.

Once I had delivered him to Nursery I went to talk to my Pupil and Family Support worker. We added him to the list of children for her to support on a 1:1 basis after the holiday.

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Frayed around the edges

Apart from all the obvious strategic leadership and managerial stuff that we do as Head Teachers our other main role is to hold the organisation together emotionally. At times of the year when staff and families are under stress this can be very hard. The build up to Christmas brings with it the excitement of the children and unrealistic expectations that the parents and carers try desperately to meet, often through the use of doorstep loans and other dubious means. The short-term lift that these provide brings with it underlying ever-increasing stress which in turn means that relationships in the home become more fraught and it is the children who seem to bear the brunt. Not that adults are deliberately acting to take things out on the children but the children soak up all the anxiety, see or hear the arguments, drunk adults or those who seek solace in drugs. There are also parents and carers in my school who have recently lost their jobs, or had their hours reduced to zero so there is no money coming in. The local food bank is very busy.

Staff also have families to support and Christmas can be a tough time for them too. They too have to deal with the whole range of human issues, from difficult children to failing marriages or partners who are very ill. Many of my staff are from the local community and have family members who are finding things difficult.

As Head it is my job, with the support of my Senior Leadership Team, to hold all these people together so that they are the best they can be for the children that they teach. At times of stress this is as time consuming as it is necessary, and at this time of year I find myself more and more taken up with this kind of support. My own paperwork just has to wait. I have to soothe anxieties and smooth over petty squabbles, for both adults and children who are all over tired and over excited. I spend a lot of time just listening to people and giving them space to talk.

The children in the support group are struggling more than usual at the moment. Lunch with them today, however, was lovely and they were surprisingly calm and chatty. I was particularly aware today of how they were competing for attention from the adults in the room. As I turned to talk to one of them, the one I was sitting next to actually said ‘OI!’ and grinned at me when I turned round. I grinned back.

I have managed to find a positive solution for our challenging EYFS child which works for everyone. I am increasingly grateful to my wonderfully flexible support staff, without whom, at times, I would be totally stuck. They rise to every challenge.

While there are difficult things to manage there are also ordinary things happening, and good things to enjoy and celebrate too. There are Governors meetings, performance management meetings, Team Around the Child meetings. Our Foundation Stage Nativity play was lovely, reducing many of the parents, carers and staff to tears. Choir and KS2 production rehearsals are nearly complete and children and staff are excited about their performances next week. Staff have worked amazingly hard to prepare and support the children to perform at their best.

When one of the reception children first saw our Christmas Tree he said ‘WOW! That’s amazing!’ This made me smile. I have been to post letters to Santa in our local post box with our Nurture Group children, who were lovely and chatty and asking questions all the way to the post box. Today I also saw the best piece of writing from a Y1 child that I have ever seen. A brilliant re-telling of a traditional tale, with lovely vocabulary, proper sentence construction and perfect spelling. She had even put an apostrophe in the right place! These things are my nourishment, my soul food. These are the things that enable me to do my job.

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Holding the line…

Working with very challenging children day in, day out, is exhausting both physically and emotionally, and you have to be very resilient to be able to manage it without falling into a state of collapse yourself. This kind of work is not for everyone. I can tell when staff are getting close to their limit as certain things start to happen.

There have been two members of our support staff who have now had enough and I am trying to find ways to support them. They both do an amazing job but, understandably, when you are having difficult emotional stuff thrown at you there comes a point where you are simply too full up to be able to take any more in. They have been hit, bitten and spat at. One of these children is in our EYFS and is causing a dilemma for me. They have also hurt other children, and the incidents are becoming more serious. I could exclude the child for being a danger to themselves and others, or I could put them into the support group. My problem is that the other children in the support group are all considerably older, and not exactly good role models for a very young child. I am loathe to exclude as the child is only little. We are putting things in motion to lead to a statement which the child will definitely need, but it’s what we do to support and contain them in the meantime whilst ensuring that everyone is safe. That’s my bottom line, safety. And in the meantime I need also to support the staff members who are in turn supporting the children. I am doing this with a combination of further training and also being there for them to ‘off load’ to. This is really important as I am then able to take the load off them, reassure them that they are doing a good job and not doing anything wrong. These are very damaged children and no, they can’t fix them, however much they would like to, and no, that doesn’t mean that they are failures.

These very damaged children are so hard to manage in a mainstream setting, not just because of their physical behaviour, but because of the emotional impact they have on the people around them. They are spilling out all over the place in all sorts of ways and the adults around can end up mopping this up and if they’re not careful, taking it all in. It can be very frustrating to have your best attempts at coaxing or being patient thrown right back in your face. Frustration can lead to anger and you can end up getting cross with the child when that is the last thing either of you need. It takes a very experienced adult to be able to manage this all the time.

The children in the support group are particularly lively at the moment. When I have been in there recently I have watched them literally spin into a frenzy that they then find it hard to get themselves out of. It can be over a car, a picture, a pencil. For one of them it is as if the food offered isn’t good enough. This can trigger the most enormous of outbursts that involve furniture flying and displays being ripped off the walls. This response to being offered what is perceived as ‘bad food’ is interesting really and is rather like a tiny baby rejecting the bottle or breast or the toddler pushing a spoon away in disgust. Some of these children seem to be stuck emotionally as very small children. They play with cars a lot at the moment and I have watched them switch from playing intensively, talking to each other about where the ‘garage’ is and who is going where and why, to suddenly, en mass, standing up and kicking the cars across the room, full of anxiety and excitation.

It is then hard for the staff to bring them back down again, and we find ourselves trying all sorts of distraction techniques whilst trying to pick up the cars before they are kicked again, having tried and failed to anticipate this to prevent it happening in the first place. This is hard as the children then start jostling to impress the ‘top dog’ in the group, it is ‘cooler’ to ignore the adults and continue to kick the cars, or roll over the tabletop laughing in a forced hysterical way. Eventually we do get them calm again.

I think that there are two main reasons the children are so high at the moment. The obvious one is the impending holiday. The fact that it’s Christmas adds to the level of excitation but it’s really the break from the routine and safety of school that I think causes them the anxiety, and the worry that the adults they work with on a daily basis will forget about them and will drop them from their minds. This holiday this is exacerbated by the fact that one of the long-term members of the group has now moved school and I think that the others are worried that we might be ‘getting rid’ of them too.

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A Perfect Storm…

Vulnerable chilren around the school are starting to be more notieable as the holiday approaches. Children who have been well managed and contained and learning well are struggling to stay in class, are refusing to learn, are showing us how anxious they are. Staff are tired, the dark mornings, long days and dark evenings are starting to take their toll.

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This last few days my SLT and I have been ‘scooping up’ anxious children and trying to soothe exhausted staff, and we still have two weeks to go.

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My PFSW and I met with the mum who I blogged about on Friday. She just about managed to accept that the presence of the new baby has created a new order in the house and that her daughter is struggling with this. We will see what happens and will keep an eye on things here.

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Parents are getting tired. Yesterday one stormed into a classroom at the end of the day and shouted at a child who they thought had ‘bullied’ their child. All over a small toy. There was no bullying by any of the children, but there was unacceptable adult behaviour towards a child. I have said before that there seems to be no differentiation on the estate between adults and children so they don’t realise that actually it is not acceptable for them to shout at someone else’s child. Indeed, if someone else shouted at theirs they would probably come to blows.

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I spoke to the parent and to be fair, they apologised to the child before they came to see me and did realise that they had not behaved appropriately. What was interesting was that their partner was attempting to fuel the situation by making negative comments about other parents. I realised that more often than not there is someone standing behind, loading the gun.

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A perfect storm is brewing. There is a holiday coming and our children don’t manage breaks. Children who are most emotionally unstable manage them even less well. The children in the support group are starting to anticipate the separation that is the Christmas holiday. They are more anxious, more edgy, quicker to fly off the handle and more violent. This is very difficult for the staff to manage without feeling totally drained and anxious themselves. Added to this one of the group has now moved school. The children left behind seem to be wondering if they will be ‘got rid of’ next. More anxiety.

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One child in particular is having a difficult time at the moment and we’re not really sure why. He has had a very successful reintegration in to his class for most of this term but in the last couple of weeks he has not been managing very well at all and is now back in the group. It is as if he has no skin to keep things out at the moment. If there is even the mere hint of a negative of any kind he completely flies off the handle. This afternoon he was rampaging around the school, I was ‘following’ at a distance and eventually I managed to corral him in our sports equipment store. His face was full of fury and frustration but I detected something else too. As he was throwing things around I began, very quietly to talk to him about the things in the store, and what might be hung on this hook or that peg and so on. Eventually he began to engage with me. I told him that I wasn’t angry with him but rather that I was sad that he wasn’t able to manage in class at the moment. I then realised what the other emotion was that I could see in his face. I told him that it felt to me as if he was sad about something too. As I said this he visibly relaxed. I didn’t ask him what he was sad about. I said that I was cold, and did he want to come to my office now? No, he said, ‘I’m ready to go back to class’. And he did.

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