I’m a nervous flier. Always have been. I so want to enjoy it, the rush along the runway, the world zipping past in a blur as you are pressed back into your comfortable airline seat, that sudden jolt when you leave solid ground and incomprehensibly soar up into the big blue yonder.
But I don’t notice any of that, because I’m too busy freaking out. I am not looking up and forward, into the possibilities and magic that lie ahead, I am looking down and back, watching the safety of the terminal building disappear, the world I know and understand vanishing beneath me at an alarming rate.
And don’t even get me started on turbulence. I am attuned to every jiggle, every bump, always convinced the next wobble will signal the end of days. My mother told me once to watch the flight crew; you don’t really need to worry unless they look worried. Flight attendants are certainly reassuring people. Watching how they notice-don’t-notice the bumps and dips of flight, in the same way I would those on a car or bus journey, always lends a certain perspective to my panic. These are people who have learned to lean into turbulence, to accept the discomfort and move forward regardless, ending up in new places as a result.
Around a year ago, I started working towards the SCEL ‘Into Headship’ qualification, which is to become a pre-requisite for all new head teachers from 2019. I considered myself a pretty reasonable school leader. I had experience as a principal teacher and had just been appointed depute. My work life was inspiring, supportive and challenging and my personal life was reasonably settled. It seemed the right time to give it a go.
So I took off and straight away, I was catapulted at speed away from everything I thought I knew about leadership and education and launched into something new entirely. A place full of research, hard questions, policy analysis and some very, very long words. Oh and let’s not forget the anonymised responses from colleagues and family to some searching survey questions that laid bare my emotional and social competencies (or lack thereof). Every stage of the process brought more ‘new’. New thinking, new ideas. New conversations about old practices that made what I had always done suddenly look pretty shoddy.
I freaked out. I felt stressed, anxious, panicky. I began to wonder what on earth I had been thinking in signing up for this torture. I was fine the way I was.
Only I wasn’t, was I? Not really. And anyway, the deed was done. The genie was out of the bottle. The plane had taken off and there was no way back now. The only way was forward. So I took a deep breath and I opened my eyes.
And I started to learn.
I learned that to be a good leader you have to take people with you.
I learned that I needed to slow down and listen more.
I learned that my way is not always the best or only way.
I learned that it is not all about me.
And the really interesting thing is, if you’d asked me a year ago, I’d have told you I knew all of those things already.
But I didn’t really. I just thought I did. To really know these things, these essential, important and game-changing things, to understand their real value, I had to earn them. I needed to put in the hard work (and the even harder thinking and reflection) to earn the right to that knowledge.
And this meant working in a totally different way. A way where I wasn’t in charge all of the time. For a Little Miss ‘Make-The-Plan-Execute-The-Plan’, this was shockingly difficult. I couldn’t just burn through the work, get the job done the way I thought it should be and keep everybody right along the way. I had to be thoughtful. I had to stop and think and ask and question and consider and accommodate and listen.
And I had to do it properly too, not just play at it.
And what happens when you shake things up like that? Turbulence. Lots of it. I became attuned to every bump and dip. But, instead of panicking and fearing disaster, I learned to lean in. I got curious. I felt the discomfort of the new tugging against my old ways, but I kept going regardless. I kept breathing and I kept going.
Now, you don’t pull off something like that without a cracking flight crew. You need to be able to scan your surroundings and watch people who make it look easy, even when it’s far from it. You need those people to share with you how they do it and take you up to the cockpit and let you see how they fly the plane. Maybe even let you have a shot yourself, knowing they are right beside you if you need them. You need people who will explain to you that turbulence is perfectly normal, that to get to where you are going, it is a necessary process. And you need people who will pat your arm reassuringly, bring you a cup of tea or a stiff drink and tell you everything will be ok, just keep going.
I don’t know yet if I have passed or failed. And it actually doesn’t really matter, because what I do know is that Into Headship has made me better at what I do.
Was it easy? Hell, no. Could I have done it without the support, encouragement, patience and inexhaustible good temper of those around me? Not a chance.
It has been hard and it has been scary. But it has also changed everything.
And I’m not scared of turbulence any more.
At least not at work.