Talking Heads Blog #23: Stef Edwards

Leadership Biography

Name: Stefanie Edwards

Phase: Primary

Sector: Academies

Region: East Midlands

Years Served in Education: 32

Years Served as a Headteacher: 11

Leadership Journey: Class Teacher > English Coordinator > Leading Literacy Teacher > Primary Strategy Literacy Consultant > Headteacher > Local Leader of Education > National Leader of Education > MAT CEO

Leadership Coach/Mentor/Inspiration:

Inspired by Sue Sweet, Headteacher at Hallaton CE Primary School towards the end of the 90s – her leadership exemplified an open, authentic, authoritative, kind, human, collaborative, empathetic approach; and she knew her pedagogy. She was the first headteacher who made me think, ‘that’s the kind of leader I’d like to be one day, maybe…’.

Now, my mentor is our fabulous Chair of Trustees, Gill Weston – a calm, wise, reflective voice, gifted listener, talented coach. She just knows how to ask a tiny supplementary question that make you re-think, consider a slightly different perspective. And Professor David Pedder at the School of Education at Leicester – my EdD supervisor. He introduced me to the leadership and professional learning literature and made my brain hurt.

Twitter Handle: @stefguene

Blog: one day I might have time for a blog.

Leadership Reflections

Why do you teach?

I teach because I can’t help it. I think teaching is in my DNA. My mother was a teacher and on my father’s side I had two spinster great-aunts who ruled a small North East primary school with a rod of iron throughout the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. I did exam revision by teaching my friends, or my mother while she was ironing or cooking if there was no-one else around. I love teaching. I love seeing children grow and the tiniest of light bulb moments, or the sight of a child enjoying a sense of achievement about anything – from the penny dropping about phonics to the invisible child blowing the audience away in the Y6 summer performance. As a school leader, my ‘class’ is now mainly adults, but I get the same satisfaction from developing educators, by building collaborative cultures where people find their learning mojo, get excited about their own professional learning and growth.

Why did you become a Headteacher?

To be honest, I didn’t ever really want to be a headteacher. I didn’t plan to be one early in my career. To me it looked like a whole world of hard work and hassle. Who would want that? Life was too short. Then I spent a stint as a Primary Literacy Consultant, had a taste of working a bit more strategically on school improvement and I really enjoyed it. I was offered the opportunity to do the NPQH. I was working part-time at the time and I thought I may as well – I had the time, I might not always have the time, why not? Might be useful to have it in my back pocket. So I did it. Then a headship came up nearby that seemed too good to pass up – just right for a first post; great school; work to do; why not? I got it and I have loved it. I have loved working with some incredible people and having a role to play in influencing the quality of teaching and learning we offer – because I think education is fundamental to the life choices and chances available to our children. Education matters and it makes a difference.

How do you celebrate the teaching profession?

I try to celebrate the teaching profession by creating collaborative cultures which nurture professional learning. I want teachers to believe in themselves as members of a noble profession and to cherish the idea of career-long, life-long professional development and learning. The arrival of the Chartered College of Teaching was for me the culmination of a career-long wish for a professional body that would support teachers’ sense of professional identity. Recently, I heard Tim Brighouse say that teachers need a theoretical map. Members of any profession need a theoretical map – so the growth of the movement to increase research engagement and research-informed and engaged practice is so exciting. For so long, CPD has involved teachers being spoon-fed good ideas, tricks to keep children engaged and busy. Growing a theoretical map in collaboration with colleagues allows teachers to develop their own responsive strategies to improve pupil learning; adapt them to suit different contexts and pupils’ needs – because they understand the underpinning rationale. Supporting teachers to remain professionally curious and interested, to read, to question, reflect and learn. And giving them time to do that together. That’s how.

How do you talent spot/nurture aspiring leaders?

I have tried to create an expectation, a culture, I suppose, where all members of staff lead in some way, on some level.  Try to make sure that everyone understands the school improvement framework so that they learn how to plan and evaluate their actions and initiatives. I try to avoid saying no, if I can, if someone has an idea and wants to give something go. I try not to over-react if something doesn’t work and to avoid blaming people if something goes wrong. My hope has been that this way everyone, all members of staff, are practising leadership in some way and gaining experience. I try to play to people’s strengths, but maintain a balance by helping address weaknesses or gaps with further learning and support. Within our trust, the opportunities for system leadership development are growing. Lesson study provides contexts for teachers to lead research-informed projects collaboratively; coaching provides contexts for teacher leadership. Sir John Dunford talks about the ‘gold-dust’ waiting to be found throughout the organisation. It just needs a little shake to come to the top of the pan.

What is your vision for education?

  • Values-led leadership;
  • Learning is the main thing
  • Inclusive, hospitable, generous in spirit, wise, hard-working, kind;
  • Outward looking, research-informed;
  • Collaborative cultures of effective professional learning;
  • Flourishing people – adults and children valued equally;
  • Rich, rounded, rigorous curriculum and high achievement;
  • Integrity.

What makes you get out of bed every morning?

There’s just so much to do! Remaining optimistic (in the face of much challenge…) that this is the best job I could be doing. Wondering what will happen today…

Leadership Advice

From my dad. He said:

“When you’re dealing with challenging people, just shut up and listen.

Let the silence do the work”. (It’s so hard to shut up.)

And from my mum:

“When you’ve got a problem to solve or something’s worrying you – go and have your hair done. It makes you feel better and gives you time to think”.

These two pieces of wisdom have had a profound influence on me as a leader. I don’t always remember them until it’s too late, but silence is golden in tricky situations – it gives everyone time to think and hear what they are saying. But it is so hard for me because I’ve always talked too much. And I still do. And I don’t have enough hair to do my reflecting in the hairdressers that often, but taking time away for thinking is so important. Doing something, even if it’s ironing, knitting or gardening, that stills your mind, takes it away from the frenzy and just lets it tick, steadily, helps to light the road to wisdom, even if it still seems a long way off.

Leadership Inspiration

At the moment, I am mostly reading ‘Coherence’ by Fullan and Quinn and ‘Disrupting Thinking’ by Beers and Probst. I usually have something ‘leadership’ and something ‘pedagogy’ (and usually to do with English) on the go.

For shaping thinking about strategy and planning, I recommend ‘Coherence’ to all leaders – it’s brilliantly and deceptively simple (exemplifies simplexity) and helps many pennies to drop. And as usual with Fullan, it reminds you what you’re doing the job for. I love the work of Kylene Beers and Bob Probst. They move our thinking about reading comprehension on, from supporting children’s question-answering skills and into the realms of developing life-long critical ‘habits of mind’ that serve society and democracy. As a leader, this makes me think we must stop teaching our pupils to read to answer test questions and concentrate on creating fluent, passionate, committed and critical readers, who will be able, with a bit of practice, to answer test questions anyway.

Leadership Mantra

Keep the main thing, the main thing and do the right thing, the right way.


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