Personal and professional resilience

Sue Williamson, CEO, SSAT describes her life through education; not only as a former student, but also as a former leader.

I was asked by the Association of Education Advisers (AOEA) to speak at their annual conference on 9 July about personal and professional resilience.

Context is important – I was lucky, I had a happy loving home. My parents were working class and money was tight, but I never went hungry. There was lots of laughter and we had fun as a family. I thought that this was what everyone experienced, but I now know this was not the case. My happy family background gave me a great support. The first ‘blow’ I suffered was failing the 11+. I did not realise that many of my classmates were having lessons on a Saturday in how to pass the 11+. The first time I saw an 11+ paper was on the day of the examination. I failed and went to the local, girls secondary modern school.

Manorside Girls’ School was in Finchley, North London, and the local MP was Margaret Thatcher. She spoke at a Speech Day and advised us that we should seek employment as shop assistants, secretaries or nurses; save £100, and get married. At the time, I didn’t think going to the secondary modern was a problem. However, I didn’t behave very well in the first three years, and it was only the intervention of the head mistress that got me focused. I achieved 7 ‘O’ levels – some with the top grade- but I did not have confidence as a learner. Careers guidance was limited and staff did not encourage me when I said I wanted to be a teacher. I went to Kilburn Polytechnic and took the wrong 3 ‘A’ levels, and an OND in Business Studies. There was never any thought of going to university – I was not bright enough.

I became an administrator in the NHS and worked closely with doctors. They were always focused on improving their knowledge and skills. Researching, writing papers and speaking at conferences. They were very encouraging and urged me to do a degree. I worked part-time and studied part-time. I got my degree – a 2.1 and applied for a PGCE at the Institute of Education, London. I studied full-time and had the support of two outstanding lecturers and of my fellow students. For the first time I was immersed in learning. The doctors had been my mentors and gave me the courage to commit.

In my first teaching job, I was made head of history – after all, I was the mature applicant. I was on my own in the first year, but in the second year, I was joined by two NQTs. It was great we quickly became a close, effective team enjoying curriculum development and improving our pedagogy. This emphasised for me that a leader does not have to do everything on their own – teamwork is mutually beneficial.

In my third teaching job, I was head of sixth form and had to handle a year 12 student committing suicide. It was the hardest experience of my life. She was a sikh and I needed expert knowledge of how to approach the family and what to do. This was provided by the multi-cultural adviser at the local authority. I visited the family; agreed to speak at the funeral; and viewed her in her coffin dressed in a bridal outfit. Her fellow students were devastated and I had to help them with their grief. I was supported by an excellent deputy head and the rest of the staff. We employed a counsellor for the students, and it is something that I would do today if back in school.

When I became a headteacher, it was in Louth in Lincolnshire. There were three schools: a grammar school (14-18 years) and two 11-16 high schools. At 14 the students took the 14+ examination. I witnessed the results day in my first term as head. Students crying because they would not see their friends again. It brought back to me my failure at 11. My philosophy as a head was that every child can succeed. Monks’ Dyke was a comprehensive at Key Stage 3 and a secondary modern at Key Stage 4. The students thought that they were failures. Our results were low – 15% A*-C. I was determined that we would do better, and we did. We:

  • Achieved Technology College status – this was important as it gave me a network of like-minded school leaders. All were willing to share.
  • Appointed 7 NQTs in my second year and they boosted the quality of the teaching staff. The existing staff bought into the vision, and we had 11 advanced skills teachers.
  • Redesigned the curriculum, and built new buildings for rural science, art and science block and a new media centre.
  • Distributed leadership across the school, including the students.

Headship can be lonely but if you develop a good senior leadership team plus look outwards to see best practice and get support – you are not on your own. Our reward was that children decided not to go to the grammar school, so the Secretary of State, Gillian Shephard, allowed the grammar school to take students from 11. A blow, but it was softened by having a wonderfully supportive team.

Lessons Learnt

  • Context is important and we will build our resilience in different ways.
  • Everyone needs encouragement.
  • If you are in a leadership position, seek a mentor. Steve Munby recommends more than one – he had four.
  • Develop your teams – you do not have to do everything yourself.
  • Join a network like SSAT – you will meet like-minded people willing to share.

When I was presenting, my thoughts were on the resilience shown by school leaders and school staff in the last academic year. You have done a quite remarkable job but have been given little recognition. Everyone at SSAT says a big thank you for all your creativity, hard work and dedication to the young people in your care. You will each have your own story to tell. I hope you will always use SSAT to help you. We are always here for a chat and very happy to visit schools. Have a relaxing holiday – I have a feeling you will be facing many challenges in September.

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