Perspectives #11 - "Age is Just a Number"
"Perspectives" is a series of blog posts written by people different to James, the usual writer of this blog: a white heterosexual non-disabled male. However, this post actually is written by James! I didn't think I had anything to add to this conversation, and in many areas it's been so helpful for me to sit back, listen, and learn, but something happened recently that reminded me that actually I have something worth sharing in this series.
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At the end of June, we hired a new staff member for our team: we're very excited to have them on board, but in terms of my role at Headteacher, hiring someone felt like nothing unusual. That evening though, reflecting on the great hiring decision we had made, I realised that this was actually a milestone of sorts in my leadership journey; it was the first time I would be leading someone younger than me...
I'm used to being the youngest in a group of people; I started secondary school aged 10, finished school at 15, left college at 17, left university and became a teacher at 20, and became a Headteacher at 22. "How can that be?" I hear you ask. Well, I was moved up a year in primary school, something that I don't often tell people as I'm nervous that they would prejudge me and draw conclusions that simply aren't true.
As this statement itself hints at, there is still an element of insecurity about my age that comes out at different times. For instance, when I began Teach First's Leadership Development Programme as a Year 3 classroom teacher aged 20, I intentionally grew a beard so that I would look younger to the children, their parents, and my colleagues. I thought this would make me feel more like an authority in the classroom and that I genuinely belonged there amongst more experienced staff. And when I first stepped into line management aged 22, I still had lots of people-pleasing traits, shying away from conflict and being afraid to confront difficult issues or stand up for my point of view in the face of opposition. This is something I have improved lots at, but when I'm in a room with more senior colleagues, I do sometimes still have to intentionally remind myself of my value and what I bring to the table.
There are lots of things that have helped me on this journey. The most significant is having two amazing line managers in my roles as teacher and Headteacher; they both took risks hiring someone relatively inexperienced, but saw the potential in me, believed in me, and supported me to improve where needed. My current line manager provided me with some assertiveness training too, which has helped me in my professional and personal life, and she also gave me opportunity to observe more experienced colleagues who were stronger than me at leading meetings. Another factor is believing more and more that conducting yourself with maturity and having a high level of emotional intelligence influences much more how people perceive you than your chronological age does.
My top three attributes for school leaders to build a culture which supports the wellbeing of all, but especially that of young teachers and leaders, are:
Supportive line managers who see past someone's age/skin colour/gender/disability/sexuality/faith/physical appearance and instead focus on the person's attributes and potential for growth.
Colleagues who don't prejudge you for being too young - or too old - and instead are willing to learn from your strengths and support you in your weaknesses. This can take lots of humility, and it may not come easily to everyone; some may need more evidence of your abilities than others to be able to trust you, so be understanding with them as you journey together.
Have open and honest conversations where you are all happy to admit where you have fallen short or have an area of development, and where you can provide encouragement and constructive feedback; this is a big factor in reducing the prevalence of imposter syndrome. When this is embedded into the culture, you no longer have to strive for perfection, something which only causes anxiety and is never achievable, and you can collaborate with your team rather than competing with them.
And if you are a young teacher or leader, here are three tips to help you:
Be confident (not arrogant though). Someone once told me that the most truly confident people are those who feel the fear but push through and do it anyway. So, step out with courage; have that tough conversation even if you're feeling anxious; give your Teaching Assistant that feedback about how they can support you better; and over time you'll feel the fear less often, and hopefully achieve a higher level of performance too.
Be humble. You may have some brilliant new ideas and lots of energy and enthusiasm, and you'll certainly bring lots of value to your school and your team, but please don't think you're the expert yet. Seek the guidance of your more experienced colleagues and be keen to learn: it's not a sign of weakness to not know everything, but it is a sign of immature leadership to try and pretend that you do.
Be kind to yourself. You may look at others around you and see they are so much better at certain things than you are. That's ok! We're all at different stages in our career development and others will have had a lot longer to craft their practice than you have, and you'll get there too, with time. We all have different strengths, and it's far more productive to seek to learn from the strengths of others rather than being intimidated by them. *
* This comes with a caveat, though: just because someone else does something really well, doesn't mean you have to do it exactly like they do. For example, I once spent a day shadowing a more experienced Headteacher and observing how they ran their meetings. It was so valuable for my growth and development, but the key to it being productive was for me to identify which elements she did well that I could replicate, which elements I could adapt to fit my style, and which elements were good for her but not right for me.
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