Real Leadership in Teaching: Why Being Yourself Is Important

I have found myself in a strange situation with regard my career, one in which I have an overwhelming passion for education but now sit outside of the situation. Although now running Pupil Progress, an educational resource company, I am no longer on the front line, teaching, leading, helping pupils and my team develop.

This brings me to writing this series of blogs entitled Real Leadership. With this new journey, I find myself reflecting so much on my past experiences, and how much I learned as a middle leader and senior leader, that I wanted to share these experiences. This in the hope that my journey will resonate with any new or aspiring middle or senior leaders. 

I have found myself in a strange situation with regard my career, one in which I have an overwhelming passion for education but now sit outside of the situation. Although now running Pupil Progress, an educational resource company, I am no longer on the front line, teaching, leading, helping pupils and my team develop.


It was an extremely difficult decision to leave education as I had so much passion for my job. Over the 11 years that I taught, I learned some incredibly valuable lessons. Over the course of my teaching career I actually came to realise that although I did enjoy teaching, it wasn’t my strength. I mean I was a good teacher, but never had the passion and drive to be outstanding. I never enjoyed the planning, the assessment, the planning for assessment. I somehow felt it was superficial to what I really wanted to affect. I gradually came to understand that my passions lie with youth development and leadership of my team. It was this realisation that helped me make the decision to leave teaching. I wanted to spend more time focusing on what truly motivated me.


Sharing my personal journey


This brings me to writing this series of blogs entitled Real Leadership. With this new journey, I find myself reflecting so much on my past experiences, and how much I learned as a middle leader and senior leader, that I wanted to share these experiences. This in the hope that my journey will resonate with any new or aspiring middle or senior leaders. 


To be clear, this is not a “How To” guide. The aim is to share and evoke thought, share what I learned for myself and what worked best within my experience, and hope that this may resonate with many in the same position that I found myself in. I’m sure that there will either be reassurance, agreeance, or challenge. Either way, hopefully my sharing will provoke you into thought as to how you can be the best leader you can be. 


I have real concern with how the education sector is preparing and supporting middle and senior leaders. There is an alarming number of teachers leaving the profession, thus providing the opportunity to take on leadership responsibility while still adjusting to teaching itself. I was one of those individuals, hungry and ambitious. I became Head of PE just three years in to my teaching career. It was from this that I learned my most valuable and hardest lessons. My lack of skill and knowledge wasn’t with regard to the systems or processes that enabled the department to be ‘managed’, it was the neglect for the most important part of the role: knowing how to lead.


Being yourself


“You need to distance yourself from your team.” 

“Don’t be too friendly.” 

“Don’t get involved with the banter and the office jokes.” 

“You need to be in a place where you can hold your team to account.” 

“You can’t socialise with them.” 


I heard all of these when seeking advice and guidance when I was new to my role as a middle leader.


I had taken the role as a Head of Faculty from being a teacher, so I was really good friends with the team and those involved with the department before taking the role. Upon taking the role, I actioned the advice about distancing myself and reducing the times that I interacted with the team in situations that might encourage friendships. Leaving the pub early, not seeing them outside of school, not involving myself with any of the office humour or banter. I started to feel the distance increasing, and felt that the relationships had become much more professional and more focused, which must be a good thing right?


I was in a pretty unsettled place in my personal life, where friends and family were some distance away and not as accessible as I would have liked. I was also finding the role particularly tough, trying to be Head of Department, with all the responsibility that comes with it, as well as maintain my standard of teaching. I sometimes didn’t leave the school until gone 9pm. A combination of a poor work / life balance, not much of a social life, and feeling extremely isolated at work, I found myself in a pretty miserable place. I was tired, demotivated and most of all felt extremely lonely. This was strange for me, as I had never been lonely, nor ever felt detached from my surroundings. 


There was a moment when, on the train home, exhausted from the day, that it really hit home that I didn’t feel like me anymore. I hadn’t laughed in ages and couldn’t really remember the last time that I laughed at work. Where had the enjoyment gone? Put simply, I wasn’t being myself. I was being a person that someone else suggested I be, as that was something that they had adopted and had worked for them. What occurred to me is that I never questioned whether that style or approach would work for me. 


One of the most valuable things that I learned from this is that there is no one way to lead, no clear method or guide that can be read. At its essence, I have come to believe that good leadership is about being yourself. Like the notion that unhappy parents shouldn’t stay together for the kids, leaders shouldn’t pretend to be someone they aren’t to please the team. It will eventually come out in the wash. 


My understanding wasn’t as clear cut as this, however. There was no defining moment where I started to come in to work with a friendlier approach, or gradually reintegrate myself into the office banter. I simply stopped making the effort to be someone I wasn’t. This naturally lead to a happier me, and therefore a happier team. What I discovered, and later learned the theory behind, was that the team were feeding off my unhappiness as I simply wasn’t me. When I allowed myself to be me, the team were more relaxed. 


What about the professional relationship? What about the professional environment? These are good questions, but they were never lost. Like everything, there was a time and place for humour and fun, and times when the team needed to be professional. Being myself allowed the team to see when focus was needed, or when we could actually have some fun. I realised that I spent 85% of my life at work. If in this time I couldn’t have fun, couldn’t enjoy myself, or be involved with things that would make me laugh, then what was the point? I had grown the confidence to be myself, and I wanted to come to work as I enjoyed the job. For me, to enjoy the job, and the team to see me at my best, I needed to have fun


The message here is that I learned that value of being myself. There will be many who may read this and feel that they wouldn’t work well like this. And that is the point. Your team will trust that you are being you, and ultimately happier as they are able to trust your emotions. I always felt, when not being myself, that there as an unease around me at times. People felt that they couldn’t quite work me out. Once they came to know and trust the real me, the team became so much more relaxed and comfortable, helping them enjoy the working environment too.


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