Singing in a choir, Difficult decisions, and more. In this episode, Andy, Robin and Adam discuss leadership challenges with special guest Emma Potter, Director of Maths at Leo Academies and Vice Principal and Teaching & Learning Lead at Cheam Park Farm in Sutton, England. Are leaders simply more smart than everyone else? What skills does a good leader need? Plus, hear why training is so important, even for leaders.
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Hi, I'm Andy Psarianos.
Hi, I'm Robin Potter.
Hi, I'm Adam Gifford.
This is the School of School Podcast. Welcome to the School of School Podcast.
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Welcome back everyone to another episode of the School of School Podcast, and really fortunate again today. I know we get a lot of great guests on here, but today we've got an extra great guest, one of my favourite people in the whole world, Emma Potter. So Emma, say hi and tell us what you do.
Hello everyone. So I'm Emma Potter and I am first and foremost, a year 6 teacher at a school called Cheam Park Farm, where I am also the vice principal. And then that is part of the Leo Academy Trust. So for the trust I work as a maths director and I support school improvement across our trust in maths first and foremost, but also in teaching and learning as well, because that's something that I'm really passionate about. Just supporting schools in their journey to improve everything for children.
So Emma, clearly, you're really passionate about what you do and I know you love what you do. And one of the big parts of your... Well, one of the big responsibilities that you carry is a leadership role within your school and within your Academy Trust. Can you tell us a little bit about what that role is and what it looks like and just enlighten us all?
So my role within my school is, so we have different levels of leadership, so I am the year 6 leader. And so just on that first level, I support the day to day running of year 6. We're a four form entry primary school. And so, I support just with what the planning that's happening for those year 6 classes. Currently, I teach one of those year 6 classes. So I'm able to see everything that's happening on the ground, but I also then support with assessment within that year group, especially as it's an end of key stage year group, but all our year leaders support with the assessment. And one of my main jobs is about pupil progress and to support that throughout the whole year group, not just my own class. So that's, sort of the first leadership position that I hold within the school.
And then I also am vice principal. So that is essentially a snazzy name in the UK for deputy head. And so I support the day to day running of the school. I support with the teaching and learning, that's my area that I lead on. And so I'm in charge of things like monitoring and about supporting teachers with their teaching. And I also work with the curriculum leads to sort of work on that. So they deal with what we teach and I sort of look at how we teach it. And then I also support the principal in the day to day running of the school. And then, anything that he needs support with as well.
And then my next level of leadership is as a director of maths. So that means that I go into schools and I look at the strategic vision for the school, especially for maths and then support with that. So mainly my role is about leading by example and making sure that I practise what I preach as well. That's something that is really key to me because I feel like if you are not able to do it, if you're not able to show it, then why should anyone listen to what you've got to say about it? And I think that's really important. So they're just the different roles that I hold and that I do on a daily basis.
That's a tremendous amount of responsibility by the way, Emma, I think. Hey Adam, like you've been in these leadership roles as well. I mean, what's your take on leadership? What's the ultimate responsibility or what are some of the things that leaders need to be mindful of regardless of what the title is. What makes a good leader?
I think you've got to show that you're willing to learn. Because what I found is, as I progressed through leadership, it became more and more difficult for me to access support for learning. So if you're in NQT, there were lots of courses. There were regular courses, there were structures, things were set up. When I became a head teacher, I was looking all over the place for things because I needed help. Like I'd never been a head teacher before, right. It was my first day in the chair and Jeepers Creepers. Do you feel a responsibility? You know, because it's real. And so for me, I think the most important thing is that I tried to be honest, I tried to be consistent and I tried to be fair. And I think the other thing too, is that I think for me, a really big thing that I'd seen, not just in my school, but I think in education is that there was, you go through periods of rapid change and that's really hard.
It's like change fatigue. You know, it's really tough to manage that. And I think it's one of the things that I found. Well, I hope it worked. I mean, I might have staff come out, tell me that this is my ego talking. Is making sure that you reassured staff that there was time to make things change. If we decided that change was going to take place, that they'd be supported throughout that. And it wasn't just like a dictate from the top, just to say, "right, we're all doing this, now." "You guys are all doing maths mastery, so get on with it." But I think that sometimes that does exist in education, because I think it's usually governed.
I think it usually comes from a place of just being worried, that level of accountability being scared, oh my God, everyone's doing this maths mastery, quick. Right guys, half hour team meeting you know, staff meeting, right. There you go, you've had the slides, boom, now, go and do it. And then kind of that's it. So I don't know if I've answered your question, Andy. But I think I've sort of, I don't know, dance around different places. You don't lose your empathy and you don't forget what it's like to be in the classroom.
I think that's gives you your credibility as well. The fact that if you are still teaching it, even if, you obviously wouldn't have a class necessarily, but actually, you are still in the classroom, you will still try things out. And if there's something you want to introduce, I think it's really important that you are seen doing it as well. Because also, how will you know whether it's manageable for staff, if you are not able to actually then do it yourself? Because, we're always expecting teachers to do one more thing. And they've got a lot of plates that they're spinning and actually your one more thing might be not manageable for them. And you don't know that necessarily because you are spinning different plates.
And I think everybody's busy in education. Everyone's got a lot that they are doing, but actually you have to have as a leader that reflective nature that actually this is going to work because, or this is why we're doing it. But you've got to always go back to the teachers that, the teachers have to have a voice and they have to say, actually, this isn't manageable. And I think you can only know that if you go into classrooms regularly and not just be shut away in an office away from everything else.
There's one more thing I'd add to that, because I'd echo that. I think that is a hugely important, and for the vast majority of us, we come into that leadership position as teachers. But what I found out rapidly is that, it didn't matter how good I was in the classroom or how much experience I had in the classroom, leading an organisation that there's some parts that held you good stead. So you might be respected as a teacher and those sorts of things. But I knew I was at a massive deficit with some leadership skills, just simple leadership skills. And I think that's where I realised the importance in my case anyway, of having an incredible group of governors. And when there was a time to select governors because I could get all the assistance in the world to be a good teacher.
And yes, of course I had wonderful head teaching colleagues who helped me massively. But I think also, the governing body and the skillset within my governing body, I was very fortunate, I think, were very talented. And a very skilled group because I realised very quickly that those sort of leadership skills, leading adults was something that from just being honest, my teaching didn't prepare me for. And actually being right as a head teacher for me, I think I picked up some of that and other leadership positions I held. But when you are ultimately accountable, I think that's when I realised I needed a lot of support and assistance with those leadership skills that are learned skills, they are learned skills.
I suppose, it's always being open to training, even as a leader. It's not thinking that you are the finished article. So I've been quite fortunate at Leo, we have lots of different training opportunities for different levels. And even as a leader, there is still training for you to do and actually to meet with other leaders as well, to have that community together, because it can be really lonely as a leader, especially if you've grown through the school. And you've been the teacher, the year leader, and now you are a bit out on a limb on your own because people do view you differently. They can't let off steam in the same way as they might have done before. And sometimes as a leader, it can be really lonely. And I just feel like at Leo, especially, but in other different organisations, it's just important to have that sharing of that collaborative nature, even though you are not necessarily in the same school. Because, no one wants to be left on their own, doing anything.
You always want to talk something through. It's very rare that you just make a decision on your own. So I think that for me is really important and always having that training opportunity. And I've been very fortunate, I've been offered those opportunities. And I would just say it to any other leaders out there that have perhaps thinking about, "oh no, I'm feeling very much on my own" is actually, look out for those opportunities that you can then go and just to progress your skills as well. Because like you say, just because you're a really great teacher, doesn't mean you're necessarily going to be a really great leader. And I think it's being open to actually finding out new things to support you as well. Because as a teacher, like you say, we're always giving them ideas and how to improve and develop. So why not the same for leaders as well?
I think you just saying, talking about the fact that you aren't necessarily an automatically fantastic leader, just because you are a really fantastic teacher. And you could look at that in other avenues like sports and, you could be a great player, but not necessarily a great coach. So, leaning on others in different ways and listening to what other people have to say. Like Emma, you were just talking about getting the feedback from the teachers and then getting feedback from your colleagues, or senior team executives and being able to say, "I don't know it all, like I just showed up here. I just arrived." Adam just gets thrown into this leadership role. And he has to have a really good group around him who can also support him and who he can support. So, I'm hearing some really valuable points that you're both making and I can tell Andy's chomping at the bit to also make it.
Well, I think leadership skills are something that we often don't think enough about. And all too often, people think it's about being better than everybody else at whatever it is that they, so that you can, and it's very rarely as it that. It's quite often more about being really good communicator, about what the mission, what the values are of the organisation or the movement or whatever it is, and just to bring it back to that all the time. In some kind of affiliated group, call it a school where you've got a bunch of people, they're stakeholders. There are obviously people who are involved in the organisation for getting the work done. There are people who are recipients of whatever it is that you're doing, AKA students or pupils. In the end, you need to have some kind of vision.
You got to say, okay, well as a school, this is really what we believe in, and this is what we're aiming to do. And the leader needs to be able to bring it back to that all the time. Because at some point, you have to make decisions, and it's about being clear about what those decisions are. So let me give you an example, at Maths — No Problem! One of our explicate values as an organisation is that, whenever there's a conflict between the teacher and the student. So when we do something and at some point you're faced with, if we do it this way, it's better for the teacher. If we do it this way, it's better for the student, right. Which carries more weight? Because though you're faced with small micro decisions like that all the time, is it what's better for the teacher that's more important or is it what's better for the student?
Well, at Maths — No Problem! We know that when we're faced with that problem, the answer is always, what's better for the student, right? Because the end result of what we're trying to do is to give children, every child, every opportunity that they deserve, that's really what we're setting out to do. So at some point, we need to make that decision and you're faced with decisions like that. So the leadership comes in, becomes very important in places like that, because it's about reminding people to make the right decisions for the right reasons. And the other thing that's important about leadership is that, you need to be able to communicate that in such a way that people will follow you. Because leadership is about people following you, right. It's got very little to do with rank.
So, the fact that you've got a badge or accolades on your jacket that say, you're the five star general or whatever, it's got nothing to do with leadership. That's not leadership, that's rank. If you a true leader, people will follow because they know what they stand for. They're passionate about it. And people want to follow them because they can set a path through the chaos, because they have that clarity of what the vision is, what it is that we're aiming to do. So if we're aiming to teach children mathematics, you got to bring it back down to that all the time and say, "okay, well, this is the best thing." This is like we forget, let's just remove all the noise. What's the best thing for the pupil or if in your organisation is what's better for the teacher, then what's better for the teacher. But whatever it is, it's being able to break it down to that level and articulate those things and remind everyone why we go to work every day. It's not about the money. No, I don't know anybody who works for money.
Not in education, definitely.
Nobody who's happy.
Anyway, certainly in education, you don't work for money, right? I mean, everybody needs money. Money is a mechanism, it's one of the things that we have to address just like electricity in the building. But it's kind of, you're there because you're trying to make some kind of change. And leader's role is to just remind everybody that, that thing there, that's our next goal. So as an organisation, our big change right now in the next 12 months is to introduce, let's say, like Emma, like you've done in your school, we're introducing technology at this layer. You know, all the kids are going to get Chromebooks, from this age to this age.
That's a goal, so the leaders got to drive everyone to that goal. What does that mean? What does it mean for professional development? What does it mean for change management? What does it mean for the pupils? What are some of the challenges? What are the obstacles? How are we going to get over those things? How are we going to sell it into the parents? Da, da, da, da, the leaders got to always keep that end goal in mind and bring everybody towards there. That's the leader's responsibility.
And I think it also, something that you touched on earlier, it's not always having the answers because if I have all the answers, then what happens? Well, if something happens to me? Well, I think that's what sometimes happens is some leaders, they do it all. And then you have their staff feeling like, "well, I won't bother them because so and so will do it. And they'll probably do an all right job and I'll go home early. But actually, I think it's about empowering people as well. And it's about, I once on a maths leadership course that I've been doing this year, they said that the role of the leader should be that you actually become redundant at the end of it. Because you've empowered your staff to actually do something. And this is in terms of school improvement as a maths director, for example. Because eventually, you will have to walk away.
You'll have to have grown somebody to take your journey on, because you might have another place you're going, or another thing that actually you are driving. And if you are the only person that ever drives anything, then what happens if you walk away, if you leave the school, if you do something different, then, well, everything just stops. You can't have that, and you can't be the one that always has the answer. And I think a lot of people often come to the leader expecting an answer, and I feel quite passionate about that coaching model, actually encouraging people to go. And we can talk about it and I can give you some suggestions, but actually, what is it that you are going to do? And how are you going to grow through this to actually develop? And I think that's really important because everybody's replaceable, aren't they? So if the leader has to empower others to actually do that as they go through.
Yeah. And the coach-
And sometimes that's sad.
The coach is the perfect analogy. Because the coach doesn't get on the pitch and run up and down with the football, showing everybody how to score goals, right? That's not what the coach does.
No. And that, especially wouldn't be me. I would not be running up and down any kind of pitch. But, I think it's that real importance of actually like empowering someone else, because that's what we do to the children. We don't sit down at the end of the year and sit their end of key stage tests. So we don't go off to secondary school, they go. So it's the same sort of thing, we have to empower children with the knowledge and to learn, we have to do the same with teachers and with other leaders as well. So I think if you use that analogy, then you can't really go wrong as you go through.
Do you like being a leader, Emma?
Yes, I do. I love some aspects of leadership. I love that we're doing this together. We're driving something forward and we're going towards that shared goal, sometimes like I've said, leadership can be lonely and the buck stops with you. If people aren't happy, then they come to you and suddenly something you were all doing together becomes, "well, you made us do this." And actually it might have been born out of a completely different place to when things don't go well, it can become negative. But I think for me, the bit that I love as a leader is that improvement for children. And if you can get that at the heart of everything that you are doing, yes, some people will moan and they'll say, "you made us do this and we don't want to do it."
But now actually we can see that it works. And I think that for me, is the joy of being a leader that you can drive people in that direction to support children. But then also, you can drive anything. So anything that you lead. So I also lead an adult choir and they'll all tell you, none of them can sing. And every week they say, "oh, don't put me near the front, I can't sing." And I think, "well, you can because you're in a choir and we're doing this together." And it's my job to encourage them to draw upon my leadership skills from school, to actually into this different situation and actually empower them. Like I'm not going to sing, I conduct, so it's up to you. And I think that for them, they then at the end of, they go, "oh, we actually sounded really good."
And I think that's what teachers do as well. They go, actually, we did a really good job and I think, yes you did, and you did it. I helped support it. And we did it together and I drove you the way that I wanted you to go. But actually-
In the end you sang.
There's got to be yeah, you sang, I didn't sing.
And it doesn't matter if I'm a good singer, we're a choir. So I think that's where you can sort of share that kind of understanding of leadership. And I think if you've got those core values, like you're talking about then, and you go at it with enthusiasm. Because I think that's really important that you have to be enthusiastic as the leader. And sometimes there's things that come from above that actually, perhaps I'm not as passionate about, but as the leader, I have to be the one that takes on that enthusiasm, if it's for, towards where our trust values are. So I think that's also what you have to do as a leader, is be that enthusiasm that beats through everything that we do. Because actually, at the end of the day, it's going to support children's learning. So I think that's really crucial as well.
Incredibly valuable. Thank you so much, Emma.
No, I'm just pleased to be here.
And we're pleased to have you.
Thank you for joining us on the School of School Podcast.