Name: Annemarie Williams
Region: East Mids
Years Served in Education: 20
Years Served as a Headteacher: 8
My journey into leadership has not been a straightforward or traditional one. From beginning my career as an NQT in quite a tough school in Leicester City, I moved to take on very challenging role quite early on in my career as head of teaching and learning at a school in Special Measures, for a 1 year secondment which ended up being 2. Looking back now I was young, naive and fairly new to the world of leadership, but completely passionate and committed to teaching and learning and I think that’s what saw me through two very demanding years.
From there I went to work for the local authority, initially as a Primary Literacy Consultant, a role which quickly became a teaching and learning consultant a short stint in Gifted and Talented and then on to two secondments supporting teaching, learning and leadership in schools in challenging circumstances. After a chance meeting at an event in London, I took up a once in lifetime offer and found myself working as Deputy Head in a brand new purpose built British Curriculum school in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam for a year, which was such a pivotal personal and professional journey and gave me the chance to step back, evaluate my career and think about what I really wanted and what I really missed and loved about working in schools in the UK. When a friend contacted me to say that a school in Leicester had gone into special measures and that they were looking for a head of leadership, teaching and learning, I flew home and somehow managed to convince the panel that I could do the job. That was nearly 10 years ago now, and I’m now Executive Head of the original school and its feeder infant school as well as CEO of the new trust we have just established.
I have been truly blessed in my career to work with some great people who have really believed in me and have encouraged me during the different stages of my journey.
Angela Kirk, who was one of my first head teachers and the youngest female head in primary in Leicester City at the time, showed me that barriers are really there to be broken. Pat Peel, a school improvement advisor who was my boss and partner in crime when I worked with some of the most challenging schools in Leicester City and also one of the wisest and most authentic female leaders I ever worked with. Hilary Foster, who took the brave move to hire me as a Primary Literacy Consultant and taught me so much about working creatively and not being afraid to follow your own path and who is one of the nicest and most emotionally literate leaders I know.
Phil Goulding, who I originally met as a Local Authority School Improvement Advisor, who I can admit now I used to be quite in awe of and slightly terrified by. When I was considering the people who would form the board of directors for the new trust, Phil was the first person I called. Since those early days in the LA, I have learned that Phil is not so scary at all and will do whatever is best for the children in the trust, regardless of what anyone else thinks.
More recently, I have worked with life coach and all round inspiration Nikki Armytage, whose daily mantra is to live what you believe in and to honour your authenticity and whose energy I am grateful for in my life. I’m at a stage in my career now where I’m looking much more holistically at leadership and Nikki has brought an alternative perspective from outside of the world of education which is as much about my personal vision and voice as my organisation.
Twitter Handle: @OdysseyTrust
Why did you become a leader?
I think I sort of fell into leadership in schools, although looking back, I was the child labelled either “bossy” or “chatterbox” at school (or both) and I was so passionate about teaching and learning early on in my career, that I think it was almost inevitable. When I took on my first significant leadership role at 28 I made the classic early leadership mistakes of thinking that leadership was all about having an action plan and “getting stuff done”. These days I rarely look at an action plan, and try to think more in terms of the direction of travel towards the overarching vision and building the relationships that I know will support that. However, the rationale for leadership remains the same, to make a difference, to lead with my values, to break down barriers in learning and personal growth, both for the children and staff in my care. I feel genuinely blessed and grateful every day to have the opportunities to lead such a dynamic organisation.
Why did you become a Headteacher?
For me personally, I had spent many years working in what I call the “incredible hulk” capacity. E.G schools in crisis in times of great stress and change, implementing some quite tough LA and nationally led programmes of support which didn’t always resonate with me personally. The contexts were varied but the general chain of events would be the same. Find the problem, fix the problem…. leave. Whilst I am grateful for the powerful lessons this taught me about change management, at the time I missed the feeling of seeing something through, taking time to build something lasting and sustainable, to see what I was really capable of over time. I was burnt out emotionally and it took a lost year in Vietnam to really crystalize the vision of what I wanted to achieve. I knew that Headship was the only way to really make a difference that was embedded and sustainable and so I made the commitment to stay. I remember telling the staff team back when we were in a very bad place, “If you come with me, I promise I will stay until this school is as amazing as I know it can be.” Thankfully, they agreed and I have loved every minute of it since.
How do you celebrate the teaching profession?
For me teaching has always been a creative and almost magical process. As teachers, we craft these experiences, these carefully designed opportunities in which learning is nurtured and lightbulbs light up! The excitement of being part of that process still feels as inspiring to me now as it did as an NQT. As a head teacher it is my job to celebrate and encourage the creative process of learning by allowing staff to experiment and try new strategies out without fear of failure. Our organisation works on the principles of a teacher designed curriculum which allows teachers to do what they do best, bringing the magic of learning to the classroom in ways that teachers know will engage students. I am constantly impressed by the skill and innovation staff bring to the classroom and I take every opportunity to celebrate this in school and beyond.
Social media is great way of saying “look how fantastic these teachers are” and for sharing examples of excellence. I think the job of teaching is harder than it has ever been with more scrutiny, less funding and more pressure than ever before. It’s important to be a champion of your staff wherever you go and as publically as possible, cakes, thank you notes, nights out, cheese and positive feedback all help although nothing takes the place of people feeling genuinely valued and “part of something”.
How do you talent spot/nurture aspiring leaders?
Having been given the breaks and opportunities that I was given so early on in my career convinced me that investing in the next generation of leaders has to be a school priority and that the ‘grow your own model’ often works best in an organisation. I have a clear succession plan and every new teacher, once they have passed their NQT year, is given a small scale leadership project to shape and develop with support from an established leader. Whilst it quickly becomes apparent that some staff have a natural flair for leadership, I believe strongly that everyone should be given the opportunity to lead and that good leadership skills can be developed with the right support. We review people’s leadership aspirations as part of performance management and make it a priority to ensure that people have a chance to express what it is they feel they need to develop as leaders. We are fortunate within the trust in that we are involved in so much outward facing work through offering external CPD programs, school to school support and consultancy packages, all of which are fantastic learning opportunities for staff. I have always maintained that apart from the ethical motivation to share skills and knowledge, there is no better development opportunity than in working with other schools as a learner and a coach. Being involved with organisations such as WomenEd has been enormously powerful for staff also, in that it has led to them presenting, leading workshops, networking and learning more about themselves and their own levels of confidence as leaders.
What myths would you like to debunk about being a Headteacher?
I suppose the myth that I would like to debunk the most is that head teachers in some way deliberately go out of their way to make decisions which cause upset. As a head you often make very difficult decisions, which you know are going to affect the lives of others, whether they are children, families or staff. There are times when this is a very difficult line to walk and unpopular decisions have to be made in the interests of the children and the organisation. I think that parents sometimes lose sight of this.
The other myth that I would like to debunk is some of the negativity surrounding the profession. Whilst the pressure is real and sometimes feels intense, the job is also a huge amount of FUN! Yes, fun! The children make me laugh every day, the banter in the staff room is better than the comedy festival and we eat a lot of cake and cheese. There is enormous positivity and optimism in the building and it really is pleasure to come to work.
On Friday I met with my girls’ leadership group. They could lift the mood of an elephant in January. They bring me such happiness and one day these young lionesses are going to take on the world. We were discussing the girl’s hopes and goals for the future, who they want to be when they grow up and what they dream about. I consider myself privileged to be party to this discussion with them. As each girl takes their turn to share their hopes and dreams for the future with the group, I turn to the last girl and ask her what she thinks she might aspire to be when she’s older. This particular 8-year-old ray of light looks me straight in the eyes and replies “The thing is Miss Williams, that I’m really a unicorn, I’m an undercover unicorn, so I’m just going to keep doing that.” And in one sentence she captured the whole joy of leadership for me. Find and nurture your undercover unicorns.
“Walk to the beat of your own drum”.
As someone whose ideas have always been a little outside the box at times, this really resonated with me. Find your own unique leadership voice and don’t feel that you need to conform to the stereotypes or to imitate other people’s leadership style. Of course you want to take people with you on the journey, but know who you are, know your vision and then live it and breathe it. The world needs a much more diverse view of leadership, not more of the same.
The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way. Whist I may not agree with some of the pedagogy, it is in an interesting read in terms of the strength and clarity of the vision and how feeds into every aspect of school life.
All six of Maya Angelou’s autobiographies (not at once!) which are a lesson in emotional resilience for all of us and a reminder that leadership is shaped though the richness of life’s experience, not through an online module or guidebook.
“Keep the energy high”.