But I haven’t worked hard enough to deserve this…and other fallacies.

I am not sure that holding a leadership role needs to lead to being struck by the impostor syndrome, but the relationship between the two does fascinate me. I have felt the impostor syndrome creep up at times over the years. Some of the reason for this is that I habitually downplay my abilities but some of it, I believe, has to do with the way in which teachers have become accustomed to working

It seems that most teachers have a high tolerance to hard and relentless work. Early mornings begin frenetic days during which we may cross paths with as many as 6 classes of 30 children. Break duties and the other roles that we play within the school community mean that we are engaged in 100s of human interactions every day — each one trying to be positive, each one trying to be meaningful.

We manage teams, we attend regular staff meetings and we connect with our colleagues over emotive issues. We continue into our early evenings making parent phone calls during which we may engage in sensitive or highly charged issues. Then we shift gears and focus as go home to cook, to see our own families, to plan our work for the next day, to mark our books and catch up on emails.

I will say it again, teachers have a high tolerance to hard and relentless work.

When, after a few years of working in this way, I got to the point of seeking promotion, I realised there was a peculiar irregularity in my response to the process.

When it came to the task of filling in an application form, it felt far from taxing. In fact, dare I say it, the process felt enjoyable and actually quite easy. Yes, of course, it took some time, some refinement, some redrafting but it was the kind of time that we rarely allow ourselves in education. Frenetic as we all are, the time to clarify, to synthesise, to review, to reorganise and to polish is scant. Our work is often precised, is hurried and is usually the best we can do in the time available. This, on the other hand, was a luxury, a moment to expand, think creatively and draw breath.

And there it began, the kernel of the idea that for me promotion was somehow easy and that, perhaps, because of this, in any job I subsequently earned out of this process, I would surely be an impostor.

The feeling popped up every now and then through the course of my gaining steady promotion over time. My first successful leadership interview was another example.

Like most leadership interviews this one took place over two days. I had already been through the process a couple of times and been unsuccessful. In a strange way I found the occasion of this interview challenging but not gruelling in the way that my frenetically paced day job was. Indeed, the two days spent reflecting on and talking about education — proving myself and my ideas, were stretching but utterly rewarding, tiring but not stressful.

When, at the end of the process, I was rewarded with the offer of a new job, my elation was short lived and my bubble burst with a feeling that this had not been earned. Here I was again, the impostor.

More recently I have been looking at working practices that nourish me and I have been questioning the notion that I have harboured for so long that for it to be deserved, I need to work myself into the ground. I have been challenging myself to feel deserving of lightly earned recognition.

As we enter another working week I’d like to pose a question to you. How hard do you feel you need to work in order for your recognition to feel deserved?

What to do when you are not doing enough

This week I had a major ‘you are not doing enough’ moment or rather series of moments. The voice just kept coming, loud and true, ‘you not doing enough’ ‘and more to the point, you are not enough’.

It started on Monday evening as I was trying to get my toddler to bed. Monday is a rush job and if one thing comes from last week maybe it should be that Mondays just need to slow the bobbins down. Every Monday is busy at work. The cycle of life of a school Principal seems to start with good and busy intentions on a Monday, seems to have reached a frenetic urgency by hump day and by Friday I am winding down with all the good intentions that a weekend of work and a new week ahead will surely clear the back log.

We have a Monday staff meeting every week. It’s a good moment to capture the needs and desires of the staff for the week ahead and to make collective plans to get things into motion. It is my job to make sure that everybody feels they have had time to speak and to make sure that folk feel listened to. It is also my job to make sure that the business of the day gets attended to.

Unfortunately Mondays are also one of two days that my little boy attends childcare outside of our home. This means that by 5.00pm I am feeling anxious about his tiredness levels, knowing that he is ready to be picked up by his Mama and taken home. It’s an intense feeling and I need to focus all my energies on being there for my staff in this last half an hour of the school day.

Last Monday was like all others in this regard. I headed to the childminder at 5.30pm to pick up the little boy, had a chat with her so as not to make him feel that everything we do together must be at a frenetic pace and then headed home with him. Once home we made dinner and I got to work on the order of the evening.

The evening procedure usually consists of some moments of play before we head upstairs. Some more play ensues while the bath is running. We then have a bath and a laugh together before Dad gets home, there’s then some more play before getting ready for bed, reading a book, a bottle and so to bed.

Sometimes it goes to plan and sometimes the little one is too excited for the ‘and so to bed’ moment, so a few moments of reading become a few hours of chatting! On Monday evening my one minute on form toddler became quite suddenly, in the next moment, rather unwell. He’d clearly caught a stomach bug and four changes of bedding later, in the wee small hours, I realised that there would be no going to work for me that day.

And then the guilt started. I felt guilty because if I were a really good Mum my first and last thoughts on the matter of the little one’s illness would have been; ‘He’s ill and he needs me’. Unfortunately my internal dialogue ran a little more along the lines of; ‘He’s ill, he needs me but I should be at work, but he’s ill, but what will work say’. I felt at once the longing to care for my child and the pressure of the mantle I have assumed as a school leader. The conflicting voices raged on for a few hours and for a moment I was caught in the grip of the realisation that I was not good enough, for if I were then…hmmm oh yes, if I were then my child wouldn’t be ill. And suddenly it didn’t make sense.

So what do you do when you are not doing enough?

1. Write a list of what ‘enough’ looks like in this situation. Sometimes when you demarcate what ‘enough’ is you realise that the expectations you have of yourself are cripplingly high.

Doing enough for my boy when he was poorly included stocking the house with all the nourishing things we needed to get him well. Heading up to the allopathic pharmacy and talking to the doctors. Washing all the sheets and towels and clothes and getting our environment spick and span in the wake of his nasty illness. Finding books and songs and games to play with him to cheer him up. Soothing and calming him by napping with him or holding him while he napped. Lightening up so he felt he had the space to be looked after. Being 100% there for him for this childhood is short and he is precious.
Note, there is nothing on my ‘enough’ list that refers to work, school leadership or the world of education.
Further note, I did actually manage to do all of the above and keep up with emails and keep in constant touch with the school by phone. Giving myself permission to achieve my ‘enough’ list allowed time for this.

2. Tick off each of the things that you are doing from your ‘enough’ list.This just helps you keep focused on the things that really matter and, let’s face it, if only half of your list gets ticked off — this is progress. In the example I give below, laundering a huge pile of towels and bedding might be a forgotten task but this was an important and time consuming part of what needed doing

3. Note the difference between what you are not fully able to do and what you can contribute a little towards. As I said above, I was able to keep the school ticking over (with amazing support from my senior leadership team). Thus, while I didn’t get loads of work done I made a good stab at keeping involved in what was going on at work. This shifts all that you are not doing into bonus tasks that you have partially achieved.

4. Explain to yourself why you are not able to do it all. It’s sometimes good to have this conversation with yourself out loud. ‘ I can’t do everything because my expectations of myself are overly ambitious. Right now I need to focus on the following things … these things are enough given the circumstances and I can’t do anything more as I don’t have [time], [emotional resources], [energy] etc. This narrative forms a useful anchor when facing what you imagine to be the potential criticisms of others.

5. Be kind to yourself and remember ‘this will pass’. ‘Not enough’ is a fleeting thought about yourself and need not be a perpetual voice in the head. Remember it will pass and please notice and realise that it has when it does!

How to sustain a relationship and be a teacher

Most teachers live and breathe teaching. We wake up thinking about our classes, go to bed thinking and dreaming about our classes and the children that we have worked with that day. We talk about teaching endlessly. So, with this in mind, just how do we look after and sustain our close relationships?

Schools can be all consuming places. The patterns of the school year are strongly held by teachers, the regular schedule of events across school terms and the emotional rise and fall of the teaching week all drum out a familiar and regular beat to those who work within a school. Late summer typically marks the beginning of the new school year and we start with good intentions and high hopes. By the time early winter arrives many of us, a little jaded from trying to teach during the high winds of a Thursday afternoons and the endless wet breaks, have had moments during which we’ve considered leaving our jobs. Exam pressure ramps up through the Spring and Summer terms and then the final moments of the school year bring a chance for reflection, celebration and letting go.

Against the intensity of that backdrop and the pull of the school tides I have needed to work very hard at sustaining healthy relationships. During my teacher training the course was demanding and my placement far away from my hometown. My partner at the time knew nothing about the teaching profession and to be honest neither did I. I had no idea how much work would be involved in training to be a secondary school teacher. More importantly I had no idea of my capacity for hard work and my enjoyment of intense periods of work was just rearing its head. My old self had gone and with it our fancy-free, time rich relationship.

It was during my first proper teaching job that I started a relationship with another teacher and in many ways this seemed to have the makings of a successful relationship. It was marginally difficult to manage the privacy element at first and to keep boundaries robust given that the children and parents knew we that we lived together but over time that subsided.

What seemed great was that there was a shorthand to communicating about work. Thus without preamble we knew the context of each other’s day or situation. Although our paths rarely crossed in school we both knew when something major had happened that day. We knew what it meant to have had a gutful of talking about a work situation but also knew when the other needed to talk through to the wee small hours and to dream on what it would take to make our school outstanding.

Of course what our relationship didn’t require of us was necessity to ever think about what we bought home with us. It didn’t push me to consider what ‘stuff’ was the schools and belonged squarely in the school and what baggage was mine and of our relationship. Stress frequently spilled over into the relationship and it was easy to assume that it was the relationship that was at fault and not the porous boundaries between our work and our personal life.

Encompassing a relationship within the realm of work enabled my workaholism. Indeed, the desire to ensure that my workaholic status remained unchallenged becomes evident when I look back on that period and examine my wider world. My best friends worked at the school, our drinking spots and eating out joints were local to the school. Because of the nature of our connection our topics of conversation revolved around school. Our vision was to change the world one pupil at a time and hours spent working on the vision were unhampered by anyone who wanted or needed me to show up as anyone other than a teacher.

I hope I learned that…

Relationships are all about the efforts you make to bridge the gaps. While a shorthand might feel comfortable and easy it can lead to laziness. If you want to talk about your work you should recognise that this is what you need and delineate the space to have the conversation.

Relationships should never be appendages to work. Relationships with friends, family and partners are everything. They help you sustain your ability to work and they deserve the lion’s share of your time, investment and effort.

The moral conviction you hold about your work should find its true expression in the microcosm of your close relationships. If you believe, as I do, that every child deserves the attention and engagement of caring adult, that every child’s voice deserves to be heard, that every child should be seen for who they really are then this belief must be manifest every day and show itself within your close relationships.

You can’t make it up to people during your school holidays. Being present does not serve at the pleasure of the school cycle. Being present is a daily task. Your partners, friends and family should not have to wait until the summer holidays to get the version of you they recognise. A moment of you every day will do very nicely!