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You win.⤴

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Ok. You win.

I have fought and fought for years now.

I thought that what I was fighting for was integrity.

And love.

And justice.

 But clearly I was wrong.

About so many things.

I have spent my time apologising

Trying to do better 

To appease and improve and make amends.

But over and over I have failed.

Because the thing that is wrong

Is me.

And because of that

You win.

Less but better?⤴

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There are four full weeks of term left until our holidays. Having just entered level 4 of Covid restrictions in our local authority, these next few weeks won’t have quite the same feeling which the usual run-up to Christmas normally has. No frantic late night Christmas shopping. No Christmas coffee mornings or craft fayres. No Christmas dance or parties. No school nativity or church carol service.

Whilst there is undoubtedly some sadness around the cancellation of all of these forbidden annual celebrations, there is a small part of me that in some ways is quite glad that all the ‘stuff’ has been stripped away, and instead I can focus on quality time with my immediate family and what’s really important to me. Do we really need the vast commercialisation of Christmas? I’m trying to find positives in the challenges we are all facing instead of moaning about being unable to celebrate in ‘the way we’ve always done it.’

It got me thinking about how Covid could help us to see education in a similar way. It seems to me that in many ways the pandemic gives us a chance to really question why we’ve always done things this way. And whether, if by stripping away the ‘stuff’ we could impact more positively on the lives of our young people.

We’ve now survived nearly 4 months of teaching in this new normal. For me, it’s meant a fresh focus on pedagogy. It has involved slowing down to go faster. It has resulted in me seriously improving my digital skills. It’s definitely not been easy and I’m very aware of the huge pressure we are all under. But it has also been refreshing to be forced into discovering new and sometimes better, ways of working.

So therein lies the question. What’s important and what’s not? To answer this we firstly need to ask ourselves what the purpose of education is. If we consider this important point it perhaps gives us some clarity around what is central to our learning and teaching. For me, education is important to instil a love of learning, to teach our young people how to learn, and to inspire them to keep on learning. To give them confidence in their individual skills and knowledge as well as allowing them to find their voice in the world. So it’s important for me to consider what I feel contributes to providing the learning environments where this can happen. And question if it’s really effective just because it’s the way

There are many aspects of school life which look quite different to how they looked this time last year. It’s debatable whether these changes are impacting positively, but it’s an important debate to have. This disruption to normality and our assumptions is a real opportunity for conversations and questioning in education. I hope it’s a Chance for us to think differently about how we ensure the best for our young people.

Despite the many frustrations around the delay in relaying information about exam requirements in 2021, in contrast this has for me, been encouraging. I have instead, seen and heard teachers teaching to learn, not just teaching to an exam. I hope this has helped teachers to grow in confidence as they are reminded of the key concepts and learning in their subject instead of perhaps falling into the trap of teaching formulaic responses to exam questions. By focussing on the knowledge needed to confidently demonstrate the skills assessed, I hope our learners will be more prepared to approach whatever form of assessment they face. And perhaps cope better with further and higher education as a result.

In addition to this, in Art and design there has been a real shift of mindset to focus on quality not quantity of work. Rather than our young people churning out various similar pieces of art work – spending hours in class, after school and at home – to fill space on a sheet, we are instead encouraged to do less but focus on quality. For some of our learners, especial slow, careful workers, this shift is really advantageous. It allows their high quality work to shine without them being put off by the amount of work required. Many pupils have previously been turned off our subject by the sheer time it takes to complete folio work. Rather than the calming, creative outlet for young people which art and design should provide, it sometimes becomes a rushed dash to tick folio items off a list with teachers and young people both becoming stressed and anxious. I would welcome more discussion around how we help young people to capture and showcase their best learning. Let’s think about how we can best assess what we value.

Another consideration which I feel it would be useful to discuss is the structure and systems in place within schools. Do we need young people in the secondary building 5 full days? Do we need staff in School or could this open up opportunities for greater flexible working? Would later start times help young people to be less tired during the day? Can we learn lessons from the remote/blended learning timetable models many schools developed during lockdown, and which many young people thrives under? I know in art and design we were very excited by the possibility of seeing seniors for fewer but longer periods of time. In a practical subject this would be hugely beneficial. We saw the benefits this would have in terms of relationship building with pupils but also in terms of encouraging independent learning. There are so many questions which can be extremely unsettling and frustrating for staff, but yet it welcomes the possibility of a new normal.

Perhaps controversially, there are many other aspects which indeed contribute to a healthy school experience for learners but have had to be adapted. We must ask ourselves if these are essential or if there is another way we can give pupils these experiences.

I suppose it’s important to finally point out that every single person I know in education is currently working flat out in the strangest of situations to ensure the very best for our learners. School and senior leaders are under a huge amount of pressure at the moment, and I am personally in awe of how they are coping. The situation we find ourselves in in school is hugely challenging but it is no surprise that our amazing teachers are rising to the challenge. Right now might not be the right time to implement huge change. Capacity amongst staff is limited during current times. But I do think it’s important to debate the status quo. If we fail to have these conversations now, and go back to doing things the way we’ve always done them then nothing will change.

When things get tough this week remember that being positive is not pretending that everything is good, it is trying to see the good in every situation.

As always, it would be useful to hear your thoughts. Have a good week everyone!

We all have to start somewhere…⤴

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For the last two weeks, we have had the privilege of having a PGDE student teacher on placement in our department. I’d like to think that this has been not only a learning opportunity for her, but also a chance for each of us in the department to reflect on our own learning and teaching in order that we demonstrate the highest quality lessons. It has prompted me to consider some of the most important aspects of our practice in this blog post and the valuable pieces of advice which might help new student teachers as they approach the midpoint of their first placement. I hope it might be useful for student teachers and NQT’s, but sometimes we all need a reminder, regardless of the length of our experience.

Remembering back to my own early student teacher days, I am constantly reminded of just how tough it was as a student teacher. I had a brilliant first placement but even so, there was So much to learn, so much to remember, so many new people and not enough hours in the day. Not to mention how exhausting it all

was. Then of course there’s the small issue which our current student teachers face: learning how to be a teacher during a pandemic. With this in mind, I hope this post will encourage and inspire our student teachers, yet remind more experienced teachers of the challenges those new to the profession are facing so they may act with compassion and empathy. Yes it is tough. Yes it is challenging. Yes there are lessons which don’t go as well as others. But it’s also the best job in the world and an absolute privilege for us to play such an important part in the lives of young people. Hang onto the good moments. See the positive. Remember the difference you are making.

Something that we as teachers perhaps don’t admit as often as we should: Everyone has bad lessons. Things don’t always go to plan. Sometimes learners just don’t get it, no matter how much time we’ve spent preparing. There are times we overestimate how much we’ll get through in a lesson. There are occasions when a disruption to the lesson makes it really difficult to get back on track. We have all experienced it. Student teachers shouldn’t think that after so many years, teachers magically become perfection personified, and don’t encounter these trying instances anymore. And it’s equally as important for us as supporters and mentors to remember this too – so we are able to empathise and relate to the difficulties faced in a way which supports and helps move forward. A bad lesson doesn’t make you a bad teacher. It is how you use the experience to shape you as a teacher.

A really important quality which I think is integral to the success of any teacher, is the ability to self-reflect. It’s so important to be able to look back honestly at lessons and pick out the areas of strength and areas of development. I believe this is one of the key areas which will help any teacher to get better. And although reflection can be something which slips down the priority list when demands on our time become pressured, it’s so important to help us identify where to turn our attention to in order to further improve. Many teachers become so experienced at this, that they do it almost without realising. Were we clear enough on what it was we wanted the young people to learn? Did we communicate this clearly? Did we model our expectations? How did our questioning help to make students think? How could we do it differently next time? Often these questions subconsciously fuel the planning of our next lesson. But early on in our careers it can be more useful to dedicate time for this and make a conscious effort to consider how it could be better. Striving to continually develop and become the best you can be is a quality which will ensure you are an excellent practioner, long after your student placement.

I do fear that with experience and a lack of self awareness, it can sometimes be tempting to look less at our own part in the lesson, and instead blame the young people. This is sometimes easier to do than admit we ourselves might be able to make changes to improve learning. The pressure to get through courses, stick to plans and plough onwards despite issues can sometimes seem more important than slowing down and stopping to reflect. By unpicking the pedagogy and content of the lesson, it can help us to see things through a different lense, giving us alternative strategies to try. The aspiration to become better and better at what we do is a very visible and very desirable quality. It will take time. But the desire to want to be better is the first step in getting there.

Becoming a better teacher however, doesn’t always mean having the flashiest lesson with the best resources or an activity which encourages the most engagement. Remember that sometimes these tasks can actually distract from the knowledge you want the learners to retain. Your time as a student teacher, and indeed an experienced teacher is finite. You can’t possibly create elaborate, handmade resources for every lesson. So concentrate on the learning, not on the activities. Start small. Think about what will have the biggest impact on the learning. Your presence, your voice, your words, your pedagogy, your modelling, your relationships, and your encouragement in the classroom will all be far more powerful, and sustainable, in the longer term.

A fairly new development in the world of teaching and is Edu-twitter. Twitter is a place of huge encouragement, support and connection for teachers. Like me, you may already use it to share ideas and approaches, connecting with others to adapt ideas and ask questions. But like all social media, there are downsides. It’s important to acknowledge that often teachers only post the best bits of their practice, which can sometimes create a false illusion of the reality of the classroom. It’s important not to be drawn in to comparing ourselves to other teachers. Yes, use social media to reach out to others and create your own important professional learning network. For me, it’s been invaluable. But beware of the curse of becoming obsessed with creating lessons solely to share on twitter. And don’t be disheartened when you see examples of amazing practice – remember this is just a snapshot of the best bits! We don’t see many posts from teachers of the chaotic tidying up routine, or the mess left over at the end of the day! Focus on the learning and everything else will fall into place.

Remember, It’s a huge learning curve. You are doing brilliantly. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Celebrate every small success. And reach out to others – conversation always helps! Have realistic expectations of your progress and take it a lesson at a time.

I hope this post has been helpful. If any of it has been useful, please feel free to connect – I am always happy to chat further.

Have a great week.

Gentle and strong⤴

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When I consider my own personal character, as both a mummy and as a leader, strength is not one of the first words I would probably associate with myself. I’m extremely driven, but despite this, I doubt most of the things I do, and am highly self-critical of my actions, thoughts and judgements.  I’m a very emotional person. I cry easily.  As a reaction to both good and bad situations.  I get overwhelmed.  I’ve been criticised as a leader for being ‘too nice’ by a former colleague.  My body is fairly strong, but recently has been exhausted and prone to illness.  So, if we are measuring strength on emotional and physical qualities, I would say I don’t feel particularly strong at the moment.

But then I found this quote:

‘There are two ways of exerting one’s strength – one is pushing down, the other is pulling up.’

I really liked the sentiment of this and agree wholeheartedly.  In fact, in the context of leadership, I think it is a very powerful analogy. 

I’m sure we can all think of strong leaders.  Now consider whether their strength was used to push down on their teams to influence and control them.  Or whether they used their strength to pull up those below them, empowering teams by modelling resilience, compassion and integrity. 

Thinking of leadership through this lens, perhaps helps me to unpick some of the qualities I may have doubted, and frame them in a more positive light to help me celebrate my own remarkable strength. 

It’s taken me a while to realise, but strength doesn’t have to be the loud, confident voice.  Strength isn’t always about having all the answers.  Strength is rarely about using your power to force your views on others.  And strength is never aggressive behaviour used to control others or make them feel inferior.  Leadership in this style creates insecurities which breed fear, alienation and lack of ownership.  Unfortunately this toxic concept of strength, is prevalent in many organisations.  But there is another way.  Strength can be about more than power.  Being both soft and strong is a combination very few have mastered. 

Strength can, and does come from setbacks, struggles and challenges.  It is characterised by perseverance and determination.  It often grows from a quiet voice inside which keeps reminding the self to keep going, and try again tomorrow.  Strength is being human, and admitting when you are vulnerable.  Strength is carrying the burdens of others, alongside your own.  Strength is encouragement which builds other up. 

I would like to think I model all of these.  When I’m overwhelmed, I hope I can learn from the feeling.  I hope it helps me be more empathetic to others, and aware of the challenges they face.  I hope the pride I feel from recovering from hard times, is able to inspire and encourage others.  I hope that I can make a difference through the thoughtful, persistence of my vision, and the strength of my values, not necessarily the volume of my voice or the power to dominate others.  When I express emotion and display my vulnerability, I hope others recognise that I am human and it is ok for them to do the same because I will understand.  These qualities all show strength but perhaps not what others might initially consider as strong.

This does not mean I don’t have difficult conversations.  Or challenge poor decisions, actions or incidents. But I do so with quiet confidence and strength in the belief that by leading by my values, I will be strong enough to take others with me, instead of dragging, pushing or forcing them.   Building others up, making connections and helping people feel valued, encourages them to be the best they can be. To feel stronger together.

Like one of my most inspirational leadership heroes, Jacinda Arden  ‘I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong.’

Thanks for reading.

The pedagogy of Zog⤴

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Nearly every night this week, I’ve read my littlest his current favourite story at bedtime. ‘Zog’ by Julia Donaldson. Every time I’ve read it, Madam Dragon’s pedagogy has struck me. For those of you who, unlike me, don’t know it off by heart, here’s her repeated classroom phrase…

‘Now that you’ve been shown, you can practise on your own. And you all be expert fliers by the time you’re fully grown.’

Madam Dragon, the expert, demonstrates the skill to the novices. Then she gives the learners time to practise. They learn how to fly, how to breathe fire and finally how to capture a princess. None of this is easy. These are seriously tough dragon skills. But her pedagogy is sound. Throughout this ‘I do, you do’ process they become confident in their learning.

I think in Art and Design we are pretty skilled at this. Modelling has always been vital to allow our learners to think and work through the creative process. I do worry however that sometimes, we can be guilty of simplifying the task rather than encouraging the learners to persevere, think hard and practise the tough stuff. Lessons usually start with the imparting of knowledge needed. They normally feature at least one or two demonstrations, where pupils gather around the teacher, get close to the art work and watch the technique or skill being demonstrated by the teacher. This might be broken down into steps to allow pupils to build confidence. Before finally encouraging pupils to return to their own desks and practise. In pandemic times, demonstration is no less important, but how we go about this has other challenges. I would however argue that the health and safety restrictions imposed upon us as a result of covid, can provide valuable opportunities for us to really focus on the pedagogy of modelling throughout the lesson, supporting teachers to improve their practice and in turn the learning opportunities for our young people.

I wonder how often we have been guilty of getting learners to guess how to do something we haven’t yet shown them? Or encouraged them to try something out without ever explicitly teaching them the process. Then wonder why their results weren’t as we had hoped. I know as I reflect upon my own teaching there have been many lessons, especially early on in my career, which would have been far more productive if I had just given pupils more direct, specific instruction. Of course there are times, especially in art and design when learners are encouraged to experiment. Indeed they require to work independently and creatively especially as they move up the school. However, in order that they are confident to do this successfully, it is vital that they have learned the important foundational knowledge as well as having had time to practise in order to develop their confidence. This is what allows them to move from the beginning of the learning cycle to the more advanced stages as they become more accomplished.

The ‘I do, we do, you do…’ technique has been really helpful for me when considering modelling. Similar to the way in which Madam Dragon herself first shows the dragons how to fly, we cannot expect our learners to know how to do something without first being shown. When planning lessons, it helps me to clarify what exactly I want the learners to know and be able to demonstrate by the end of the lesson. If I’m clear on the learning intention, then I am in a better position to make this clear to young people. Using a visualiser or my usual iPad set-up allows me adapt my normal demonstration so that pupils can see me working on the projector screen. I can model the use of watercolour. How to draw something to scale. Or even how to structure a written response. In some ways I think it is actually more powerful than a time-limited, round the table demo. The modelling can be continued throughout the lesson, and allows the ‘we do’ stage to take place very easily. Pupils can join in with me and take part in the practical task, still glancing at the screen to build confidence and learn from the expert whilst thinking hard. I can direct learners to watch again if necessary, and I can re-model tricky aspects if need be. In doing this, they are preparing to move to the ‘you do’ stage, which allows them to demonstrate their learning independently. Of course, the beauty is that learners don’t all necessarily need to move to this next stage at the same time. But when they do, they have the experience and knowledge to apply the learning effectively, with hopefully pleasing results. This accomplishment and success, is what I believe provides the biggest sense of achievement and motivation for our young people.

There is nothing greater than seeing your pupils finally grasp that which you have taught and their visible confidence, sometimes even enjoyment, in relishing the challenge and being successful. Just like Madam Dragon proudly watched her protégés fly off into the sky having learned all they needed to become successful, so too should we enjoy the privilege of being able model our knowledge and experience. Not just in the classroom under the visualiser. But in all we do as humans.

Thanks for reading my ramblings. Have a good week.

Botheredness⤴

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One of the best bits of this week for me, was a visit from a smiley S2 boy asking me if I would like to visit his class. This is a fairly regular occurrence in our department, but nonetheless it always causes me to drop whatever I am doing and instantly make a fuss of the pupil as I go with them. I am regularly in and out of classrooms to build relationships with pupils and support staff, but there is something special when a pupil asks you to visit. What I find on entering this particular class, is a room full of engaged young people who are all extremely pleased with themselves, working hard on pop art ketchup bottles! It’s an absolute joy!

I’m going to pause here and think about this small interaction. Because sometimes it’s the little things that are the big things.

In so many ways this tiny moment, encapsulates so much about learning, teaching and relationships. The pupil was clearly proud of his achievements and wanted to share this with someone. It was important for me to realise the scale of this in his mind. Sometimes what’s important for a young person, can seem miniscule to a grown up. But we need to try to see it from their perspective. And not pass it off as being unimportant within our adult world of priorities and responsibilities. And it was an opportunity for me to celebrate his success. Appreciate this effort… and notice. Because if as an adult who cares about his learning and development can’t take time to do this, then who will? It’s what Hywel Roberts might refer to as ‘botheredness.’

It’s easy for us as teachers to be dragged down by pupils who aren’t focussed, who aren’t doing as you’ve asked and to see the learning and teaching through a lense of us being the one to put the wrong things right. It’s also extremely tiresome, not to mention exhausting and draining to be immersed your own thoughts, where it’s difficult to see anything other than the negative. I’ve often heard it said that we can’t change the event itself but we can choose our response to it. It’s very difficult for us as teachers to control the actions of our young people. But we can choose how we respond to their behaviour.

I’ll be the first to admit that amidst the stress of teaching in a busy classroom; with the register to complete, phone ringing, coursework deadlines, absent pupils, assessments to mark, more coursework to get through and reports to write, it can be extremely frustrating to have to go slower. Either to interact with those holding the learning back for others or pause to notice the good. It’s often easier to let stress and the feeling of being overwhelmed allow us be consumed and drawn into conversations or interactions which instead escalate the situation.

But here’s the thing. I’m the adult in the room. I’m the grown up who has more experience of regulating my behaviour. Thats not to say I don’t feel annoyed or frustrated. But it’s not personal. I can choose the way in which I respond.

I love this quote.

‘I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.’ Haim Ginott

By consciously choosing not to join their chaos, we can instead try to be the calm in their storm.

Admittedly, it’s not as easy to flip our mindset so that our attention is first drawn to best conduct. But with a bit of work, it can be done. And I would suggest that it creates huge positives for both the learners and the teacher. By making a conscious decision to do so, I am more inclined to notice positive things which I may have otherwise missed while my attention was occupied with negative interactions. It might not stop the undesirable behaviour but it focusses my attention on the desirable behaviours. And that can only be good for my own job satisfaction, stress levels and wellbeing.

But sometimes, changing our filter, and looking for the good not only impacts on our own perceptions within the classroom, it also impacts positively on the young people.

But wearing this filter in the classroom is only possible when we ourselves are rested, able to have perspective and control our own emotional reactions. So I would encourage all teachers to focus on your own wellbeing this October break. Take time to relax and recharge. Do things which make you happy and fill you with positive energy. Our young people need us to celebrate their successes. We need to be the ones who build them up, as there are often many other things fighting to tear them down. Catch them being good. See the positive. Appreciate small progress. Because if we model this, then someday they might look back and realise how our actions made them feel.

The real story of my meeting with the DFM⤴

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On Wednesday, I had the tremendous good fortune to speak with the  Depute First Minister John Swinney about the work that Scotland is doing in relation to supporting children who have experienced trauma and the opportunities and challenges facing education within this.

It was certainly one of those once in a lifetime opportunities.

I know that lots of people are really pleased for me. They know that this opportunity is one that I have been striving to get for many years: the chance to speak truth to power; the opportunity to share my expertise and experience and the space in which to be listened to.

I also know that some people will be looking at me and thinking “who on earth is she to think that she has anything worth saying? She is not an expert in trauma, she is just a teacher and not even properly that any more.”

I know that some people have those thoughts and feelings because in the past, when I have written about my views on matters relating to trauma and education, in the Times Educational Supplement, for example, those are some of the responses I have had. And worse. 

The thing is that I don’t pretend to be anything other than I am. I am just a person with a combination of experiences, skills and knowledge that have led me to want to try and make things better for children and families. But also, there is no denying, better for myself and for others like me, who have struggled and continue to struggle with bouts of mental ill-health or, what I have sometimes referred to as “mental snot”.

The professional views I shared with the DFM are no different to what I have written or spoken about previously and you can find those in previous blog posts, particularly this one. (It was the one that upset quite a few people). https://lenabellina.wordpress.com/2019/07/12/the-mental-health-of-our-schools/
I am not going to write a post about the content of the conversation.

But as it is World Mental Health Day this week, I thought that it might be useful/entertaining to break the bubble of that momentous meeting by sharing with you some of the mental snot that was generated by the anticipation of it. Because, as many of us who have experienced childhood trauma and still struggle, well into adulthood, with self-sabotaging tendencies, feelings of worthlessness and physiologically embedded shame, life events like this aren’t quite always as they seem.

If you read my writing and tweets or other social media posts, you will know that I very rarely use expletives. In fact, there is probably a sum total of about 3 swears in amongst everything I have ever written.

But the negative, sabotaging voices inside my head are very fond of expletives, particularly when they are trying to undermine or de-rail me.

So in the story below, the word chuffing will be used to denote more colourful, expressive and aggressive terms; please use your imagination but be guided by knowing that the voices are particularly fond of a word that begins with the letter ‘f’. I do not write these words with any intention to be disrespectful to anyone who reads this, or to cause anyone offence but simply to highlight that the shaming voices are never at pains to avoid offence; in fact, they feed on it.

The real story of my audience with John.

So, to start at the very beginning, let’s rewind in time a bit to the meeting of our authority trauma training steering group last month, in which a social work colleague announced that he had been asked to present to the Scottish Government Trauma Training Group and DFM John Swinney on the progress made in our local authority.

“That is amazing! Well done you!” I said out loud.

Inside: What the actual CHUFF! John Swinney! How many years have you been trying to get a place at his table? How many times have you retweeted the open letter and shared blog posts with him! An open letter to Mr John Swinney | lenabellina But obviously THEIR ideas are good enough and mine aren’t….. aaaaaahhhhhhhh!!!

And then, from the meeting, a suggestion that someone else should be part of the presentation.

“Well, I absolutely think it should be her, as she will be able to provide an educational perspective but also be the voice of a psychologist who has been training staff around trauma and nurture for years” I say out loud.

Inside: Don’t even dare to think that it might be you. Who are you after all? Just some out of the classroom teacher who is a jack of all trades and master of none.

And then I hear: “so we all think that it should absolutely be you Lena.”

A pause. A moment. An inability to accept what I have heard and then an

“Oh, gosh, thank you, I’d love to.”

Following that came a bit more discussion around the fact that it was sharing my “lived experience” which would be a particularly welcome part of what I might offer to the presentation (as I had the previous year at a couple of conferences) and questions about how I’d feel about talking about that.

“That’s fine, sure, I have no problem with that. That is, after all, what this work is REALLY about. So yes, fine”. I said.

Inside: Ah, and there we have it. Tokenism. You are just going to be there for your “lived experience” and not because you are a respected educationalist whose views they want….

And then, another voice inside who, little by little is getting stronger, with the help of therapy and friends and supportive colleagues:

Shut up. This is going to be the time you get to talk about the thing you REALLY know and believe in. And embody. Courageous Leadership as a Professional Human. 

And so we planned the presentation, over email and Skype. There were some amicable disagreements and some moments where I wondered if I was barking up completely the wrong tree and wanted not to do it after all. 

We sent off our slides and they were circulated to the group, with one that had almost been cut, but put back at my gentle insistence.

A picture of me, aged 7, at the age when things had changed for me and triggered my strategies for coping in a world that no longer felt safe.

Without that picture there, I might have been able to back out on the day, not talk about the thing that I needed to and just waffle on about the number of training units delivered and hits on a website.

And so, the day of the presentation drew closer.

Inside, the voices were at their most mischievous:

This will be the end of whatever career you have left. What the CHUFF do you think you are playing at? Do you really want the Government to know how broken you are? It probably won’t happen anyway.

And then, on the day of the presentation, the email that appeared at 10am played right into their cognitively biased little hands.

Mr Swinney was only going to be able to stay for half the meeting and would leave before our presentation.

Of course he would. Why wouldn’t he?

The meeting went ahead. Mr Swinney was there for the first part and came across as genuinely supportive of and committed to the agenda of making Scotland a trauma responsive country.

He left and then we were on. I managed my disappointment and reminded myself of how honoured I was to have the attention of those present. And then I remembered my friends Shumela and Alex in the room, as well as every child who needs to be seen and heard and told that abuse is never their fault… and I told my story of courageous leadership.

At the end, silence.

Inside: You see, you absolute idiot. They have turned you off. You overstepped the mark. You went too far. You are a disgrace. They know it. And now it’s too late.

And I hear myself say: “oh sorry, have I sent you to sleep? Are you still there? Have I gone on for too long?”

And then, some re-assurance and thanks and a sense that maybe it been ok after all.

I felt proud. I allowed myself to feel proud. 

Some lovely things were said on Twitter and in emails. 

And so, that night, I wrote a blogpost:

My almost moment | lenabellina

I shared it on Twitter and tagged the DFM, never expecting that he might see it.

As usual, after I post a blog, I kept an anxious eye on the likes and comments and several times considered deleting it.

But on the Wednesday, I was absolutely bowled over by a response to my tweet sharing my post:

“Hi, I am very sorry I had to leave the discussion yesterday before you spoke. I have now read what you said. I cannot imagine how difficult it is to share such a painful perspective but so deeply grateful to you for helping to improve the lives of others. Kind regards. John”

For a while, I felt a kind of pride, joy and acceptance that I can’t remember feeling for a long time.

And then, the next day, this was added to by an email stating that Mr Swinney wanted the opportunity to speak further with me about my ideas.

Unbelievable. A moment of feeling that I had finally achieved something.

And then, of course, the voices:

Chuffing hell! That’s you going to get a telling off, then! What WERE you thinking, assuming that you could try and get to someone as important as him through a pathetic blog post. That’ll teach you to know your place.

I even rang the Government officer who sent the email to double check whether I was in trouble. Her gently laughing re-assurance that I wasn’t was such a relief.

And so, a date and time were set.

Given that these ended up being on the same day that the DFM addressed the Scottish Parliament about this year’s exams in the light of COVID … and in fact, just about an hour before he was due in the chamber, it is a miracle that he managed to honour his commitment to me. I am hugely grateful and indebted to him for not breaking this commitment. It really, really means a lot.

When he appeared in the meeting room, admitting that he was feeling under pressure, the voices were jumping backflips:

How DARE you take up his time when he has IMPORTANT things to do! Why don’t you just let him go and do things that MATTER? WHO THE CHUFF DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?

But the other, small voice, there, quietly:

Or maybe this is just what he needs in this moment. Some calm, eloquent and honest discussion about what we might need, more than ever, to heal the world right now.

And then, a conversation that might just make a difference.

An honest exchange. The voices of two knowledgeable and caring adults who want to help all the children in Scotland thrive and overcome the challenges that face them.

And one also sharing a bit of the voice of a little girl who was nearly destroyed by her challenges.

I don’t feel ashamed talking about what happened to me. I don’t feel ashamed talking about the fact that it made me very ill.

I do feel sorry that I still can’t seem to shake off the voices in my head and the embodied shame that means that even a massive achievement doesn’t feel like one.

I am sorry that I often feel resentful, jealous and sad, even though you probably would never see those feelings. 

I am sorry that, at 51, I still take two steps back for every one forward.

But for those of you who continue to love me, re-assure me and understand that understanding trauma is partly about understanding people like me, I am hugely grateful.

This is what will genuinely help the children who are the adults of the future.

The art of conversation⤴

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This week I posted a tweet about ‘conversation.’ Conversation provides an important opportunity to reflect. A chance to share. Time to grow. There’s no denying that conversation can sometimes be difficult. It can often challenge our thinking. Or touch on sensitive issues. But mostly it can support. It means we have to pause. And listen. It’s not monologue. It’s dialogue – a two way process. And I think there-in lies its value.

Each week I love making time to listen to the ‘Changing conversations’ podcast. I always feel inspired, calm and clearer about my purpose, after tuning in to the conversations which Sarah and Billy facilitate. But I also love the words of the introduction because they completely encapsulate for me what conversation is about.

Conversation is one of the oldest ways to nurture the conditions for growth and nurture. When we talk about what matters, we come alive, and conversation has the power to guide us to new and different actions that offer the potential for great things.

And so it makes me consider the part conversation plays in my own life.

The last few months have really tested our human need for connection. And whilst we weren’t able to meet each other for face to face conversation for much of lockdown, many of us improvised to encourage the conversation we craved. Zoom calls, FaceTime and teams meetings all allowed us to talk to each other and listen by reading facial expressions and gestures. We could connect in a way that emails or text messages simply didn’t allow. So when we returned to school in August, it was with a renewed sense of purpose that I wanted to make sure that conversation featured as a higher priority in my day, than emails or admin.

Conversation makes most things better. The personal connection, the tone of voice, the facial expression, the botheredness and time to pause, are all worth taking a few extra steps to speak to the person face to face. There’s no misunderstanding, no confusion and no interpreting a tone based on how the reader is feeling, rather than that intentioned by the sender. So I’m trying hard to send less emails, and go for a walk, to talk instead.

I’m a worrier. There have been many situations which I’ve worried about, been scared of or dreaded because I was unsure of the outcome. It is no good for someone to tell me not to worry, I can’t help it. But talking through my worries has always helped. And I suppose it’s no surprise then, that talking therapies are a common treatment for mental health concerns. I’ve seen a counsellor twice in my life – whilst going through a tough time in third year at art school and after the birth of my second son. Both experiences were hugely draining, exhausting, tearful and emotional. I dreaded the sessions, but almost always, did feel better afterwards. Because sometimes someone else can help us to see a different perspective. And chatting through an issue sometimes helps us to clarify and understand our own thought process.

I’ve sometimes found myself at the end of a tough day wandering the school corridor looking for someone whom I know will share a conversation which will make me feel better. Laughing, joking and putting things into perspective are all healthy by-products of a good chinwag. It’s so important to find your tribe who are there to share your thoughts and remind you of your worth.

When I first started as a Principal Teacher, I often worried before department meetings that I needed to have all the answers. I’m now more aware that my team collaboratively have the best answers. By building a climate of trust, where staff feel empowered, we are able to share honest conversation which shapes us all, and our individual thinking by learning from others.

I also love the opportunity to really converse with the young people I work with. I find that speaking honestly and sincerely to a young person can really help get to the root of any issues they are facing in class. Again, by building positive relationships in which learners trust you, they are more likely to share their experiences and allow you to listen, non-judgementally. By talking through empathetically and sharing our own stories, we can work together to make things better. Yes, this takes time. And yes it’s not always possible for many reasons. However, it is worth it in my opinion.

Conversation also has the power to challenge our thinking. That might be calling out something which is wrong or that you don’t feel necessarily aligns with your own values. Again, I find this is much more worthwhile to do in a personal, face to face opportunity. In many situations, this conversation allows both sides to learn from each other and consider another point of view.

Now more than ever we also need to be brave enough to have courageous conversations. The elephant in the room, will almost always provide the biggest opportunity for challenge and growth. Yes, these conversations may be difficult but we can’t shy away from them for that reason alone. Challenging the status quo, rethinking how issues align with our values and considering if there is a better way can often lead to those within the conversation taking greater ownership of the issue and buying into moving forward positively together to improve.

So then, I would urge you to notice your conversations this week and encourage you to be mindful of the positive impact they might be having on you or indeed, others.

Have a great week.

My almost moment⤴

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Today I had a chance to be part of a presentation on Scotland’s approach to developing awareness of trauma in Scotland. Deputy First Minister John Swinney was due to be there, along with Clare Haughey, Minister for Mental Health.

It turned out to be what I refer to as a Mike Wazawlski moment.

I didn’t quite make it into Mr Swinney’s or Ms Haughey’s field of vision as they had to leave the meeting before I was on.

Nevertheless, I got to talk to a group of wonderful people about my take on courageous leadership, as part of sharing what we have been doing in our authority over the past year.

Here’s pretty much what I said:

I am absolutely delighted to have been asked to join Mark today to add a little bit about my own experience of courageous leadership in relation to our trauma work.

As you may know, I am a respected teacher and education leader with many years of experience. I have worked in a number of countries and schools throughout my career and I have a reputation for speaking and writing on a number of educational issues including leadership, inclusion, curriculum design and pedagogy.

When we had both the Head Teacher conference and the trauma project launch conference back almost a year ago, many of my colleagues knew me as those things. But they didn’t necessarily know some of the other reasons that I feel so passionate about this project and this work. But as part of modelling courageous and trauma-sensitive practice, I decided to tell them.

When I was 7 years old (and yes, I both love and hate that Lukas Graham song), I was abused by someone whom my parents had entrusted to look after me. 

I told no one. 

I lived for years with the absolute sense that it had been my fault and that I was bad. 

I embodied shame.

And I developed coping strategies and behaviours to help me survive in a world that I saw as unsafe, scary and sad.

At that time, none of the adults in my life looked at those behaviours and saw them for what they were. No one was curious because we didn’t have the science, the knowledge and the language that we have today to see that the behaviours of some children are telling us things about which we need to be curious. I don’t blame them because I know that they were doing the best with the knowledge they had at the time. 

I know first hand that, as adults working with children we need to take time to read the things that people and children can’t or don’t verbalise but show in other ways. 

I can say without doubt that if the adults in my life had had the science and knowledge to read my behaviours better and to help me understand my feelings, then I wouldn’t have gone on to develop anorexia or to spend years trying to unlearn my unhelpful defencemechanisms. Without being overdramatic, I’m lucky to be alive, as anorexia is the mental health condition in which death is most prevalent, either due to starvation or to suicide. 

I had written about these experiences in a book. I first wrote that book four years ago under a pen name but have gradually been sharing it as me over the last year because I have a strong belief that my authenticity as a leader is what might help change things for others. 

I know I have taken a big risk in doing this. I know my bosses and my colleagues will never see me in the same way again. Maybe that will have negative consequences for my career but I feel strongly that it was necessary for me to take that risk.
I know that, on the whole, people are “either” an “education professional” or an “inspirational speaker on trauma with lived experience” but what I have tried to show that it is possible to be a hybrid, a professional human and simultaneously outstanding and flawed.

It’s not “me over here in my comfortable world as a leader” and “you over there In your family with your trauma and mess”. It’s us, in the middle.