The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Ashmi Morjaria

School leadership: for better for worse, till death do us part

I often hear colleagues talk about being 'married' to teaching. But what happens when matrimony becomes acrimony, and who can prevent it?

For almost a third of teachers, the profession is a turbulent union that will end in divorce within the first five years

Relationship breakdown

Back in 2010, after getting married and moving back to London, I started to teach in a junior school. The school itself was lovely. Most pupils came from the same background as my own – English as an additional language, immigrant parents who were working night and day in the hope of securing a happy future for their children.

All things considered, it should have been a marriage made in heaven.

Unfortunately, I became the victim of workplace bullying. It was awful. With hindsight, I can say that the insecurities of my year leader at the time had made me a target. Planning and resources were kept from me and meetings took place in secret. She would keep dropping into my classroom, picking up my files, my books, even my diary.

Once she came into my classroom eight times, staring silently at me each time – it was madness!

Any time someone walked past my classroom, I would recoil in fear. I was no longer the passionate, enthusiastic, ‘outstanding’ teacher – I doubted every bit of myself. My marriage to teaching was in ruin. I had to move on.

Planning and resources were kept from me and meetings took place in secret

In 2011, I started a job at another school. Haunted by past experiences, my confidence had reached its lowest. I remember my first observation and the flashbacks I had to that year leader. I simply froze in place.

Fortunately, none of this went unnoticed by Karen Tighe, the assistant headteacher. I eventually poured my heart out to her, and she gave me her time. She coached me through the term and believed in me.

Super-leader

As I got to know Karen, it became clear that there was more to her leadership than her enthusiasm and willingness to listen. She was fluent in adopting different leadership styles, each one underscored by a genuine passion for teaching.

For her there were no ceilings; she was constantly looking to improve her own practice and to inspire you to do the same. Whereas the previous year leader had her way or the highway, Karen’s growth mindset led her to take risks and celebrate mistakes.

Nobody is born a great leader – understanding the theory of great leadership is the first step to becoming an inspiration. Karen prided herself in reading about different leadership styles before applying them. She would hold an open dialogue and knew exactly which style to use, when and with whom.

For her there were no ceilings; she was constantly looking to improve her own practice and to inspire you to do the same

I’d like to think that, had my previous leader moved beyond her narrow and ineffective style of leadership, she wouldn’t have lost all three teachers in her year group. 

Karen lived for teaching and learning at all levels. Sadly, it was also what she died for. She lost her battle to cancer in July this year, but even in death she was dedicated to teaching. She donated her body to science. Every fibre of her being wanted to teach, to help young people learn and succeed. Her passion was simply infectious.

Leaving my previous post and moving on was the bravest but ultimately the best decision I have ever made. In Karen, I discovered the true meaning of leadership.

What makes an inspirational leader?

In my opinion, inspirational school leaders are like marriage counsellors - they have the power to save a marriage in turmoil; not by giving you the answers, but helping you find them yourself. They provide the flame to relight the fire.

A good school leader will give you a space you can trust, conversations without judgement and the most precious gift of all: time. 

More from Optimus

Leadership shorts: holding honest conversations as an executive headteacher

Staff retention means keeping the right people on the bus

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