Talking Heads Blog #32: Jo Lawrence

Leadership Biography

Name: Jo Lawrence

Phase: KS2-KS4 with some 17 year olds in medical provision

Sector: Alternative Provision/Specialist

Region: East of England – Suffolk

Years Served in Education: 12 years 8 months

Years Served as a Head teacher: 1 year, ½ term!

Leadership Journey:

Literacy Coordinator, Assistant SENCo, EAL Coordinator/Healthy Schools Coordinator and BME Lead, Assistant Vice Principal – Inclusion, Vice Principal – Behaviour for Learning, Associate Head teacher (Secondment) and Head teacher

Leadership Coach/Mentor/Inspiration:

Lots along the way. Lorraine Peterson for igniting my passion for SEND at an amazing NASEN Conference when I first took the leap, David Bartram who supported me as an AVP and VP bringing two SEND departments into one and helping me to keep focused on my moral purpose, Malcolm Reeve for keeping me grounded and focused on SEND equality. 3 male head teachers who for different reasons supported me to realise my potential and provided me the opportunities to access the necessary CPD, absolute #heforshe advocates. Finally, and the one that got me to where I am now, the amazingly calm and collected Carol Hitchman at Suffolk County Council, who offered me that secondment at the right moment and coached me into applying for my substantive headship!

More recently #WomenEd…what an inspirational movement and fabulous ladies especially @TheHopefulHT

Twitter Handle: @JoCLawrence

Blog: On the to do list…maybe I’ll be 10% braver one of these days!

Leadership Reflections

Why did you become a Leader?

For as long as I can remember I knew I wanted to be a teacher and that was my life goal. My journey to that dream was hampered my obstacles and when I finally achieved my QTS at 23, I was absolutely adamant being in the classroom would be the only thing I would do. Why would I want to not be in the classroom? Why would I want to push paper in an office or sit in long meetings? However, very quickly within my NQT year I became increasingly passionate about working with those students who had prior lower attainment or an identified SEND need and the impact of my work seemed to agree. So like a turncoat I stepped up for the TLR focusing on the literacy curriculum for this cohort and also the transition process to support them and…I loved it! Leading a team of staff, working with colleagues outside of the school, gathering student voice…

By Year 3 I’d widened my focus to work alongside the SENCo as the Assistant and realised I had the bug to make a difference whole school for students with SEND and not just in my classroom. It was a transition I found natural and enjoyed the role of middle leadership. Linking with a range of people within the school and externally. I even got my first taste of leading CPD, working with the Local Authority on projects around using different mediums to deliver literacy and supporting the then SEN Audit process.

It was empowering to know that I could collaborate and share with others to ensure a wider impact for students.

Why did you become a Head teacher of you school?

By my 7th year of teaching, I made the leap from the school I had cut my teeth. I completed my final teaching practice there (I did the old BEd teacher training route that had 4 teaching practices) and had stayed! It was a huge wretch for me leaving my comfort zone, but I’d put my hat in the ring for an Assistant Vice Principal job and got it; much to the surprise of more senior colleagues who said I wouldn’t even get an interview! Someone was telling me the time was right and so I left for a new setting.

During my time there, I carved myself as a leader and delivered impact, resulting in quick promotion to Vice Principal. However, as time went on, I lost myself in the bureaucracy, league tables and worse still, I’d lost the authentic connection with the students and families that had driven me to want to go into the profession initially. This group of students who had ignited my passion and drive for leadership in my first years.

At the point of a difficult restructuring process which had left me lost in who I was and where I was heading next, a lady who I liken to my Guardian Angel (Carol) provided me the opportunity I needed to put my toe in the water and try Headship! I went on secondment for an initial term; but I think my Head and I both knew I wasn’t coming back. The secondment was within Alternative Provision and gave me everything I enjoyed about the profession. Students and families I felt passionate about making a difference with. The ability to be both strategic and operational every single day; which included giving students and staff, real time to listen and engage with them and build strong relationships. It was my perfect job. I stayed for 11 months and in my 10th one, I took the leap and applied for a Headship. After 3 applications and interviews I secured my first substantive headship of a multi-site Alternative Provision.  I can honestly say it was the best decision I have ever made professionally, but also for my own wellbeing. There is definitely never a dull moment and there are always new leaves overturned of things I didn’t know about before I became a Head. But I can hand on heart say it is the best job ever and with a fantastic support network of family and friends, both in person and on social media; there is always someone to help on those tough days!

How do you create a culture of wellbeing?

Throughout my professional journey, I have encountered situations that have impacted my own wellbeing:

Bullying, professional jealousy, discrimination, work life balance pressure, difficult Designate Safeguarding Lead cases, overloaded line management responsibilities…. I could name more.

However, each and every experience has taught me how important it is to value wellbeing and for me, my passion is the wellbeing of my staff. Without them, I couldn’t educate the students in my provision. As a relatively new Head I would reflect I am working on it still…but the things I have implemented to try and support wellbeing:

  • Fair leave of absence that support staff from all backgrounds with differing lives outside of the workplace
  • Professional Supervision for the Senior Leadership Team
  • Supervision for all staff via the Educational Psychology Service
  • CPD Programme led by staff needs and requests; not just tick boxes
  • Staff meeting time designated regularly to achieve the bigger tasks…reports, high levels of planning and also flexible to each site lead’s priorities
  • Opportunities to get out of school to see good practice or attend fab conferences such as #WomenEd
  • Transparent communication; very little is kept hush hush hierarchical unless policy/procedures says it has to be
  • Openness to change and allowing staff to try new ideas and take risks
  • Transactional Analysis training and approaches to conversations
  • Use of Yammer Internal Social Network for a variety of internal communication, most importantly celebrating achievements

Beyond this, I always say hello and say thank you! I give hugs too…. if they are accepting of such things! I think being a human and showing staff you are human is integral.

Although recognising that there is the need to be the front facing leader, even if you’re completely not that tip of the iceberg…if really important too.

How do you talent spot/nurture aspiring leaders?

Nurturing your own staff, I feel is the best way to build an organisation that will deliver the values and vision you want in your school. I try to ensure all staff, irrelevant of line management of hierarchy know they have an open door policy to come and chat to me about their own aspiration.

If I think I’ve spotted someone who needs nurturing, I touch base with them 1-to-1 and have an informal chat with where they want to be. Sometimes they take the leap straight away and I ensure the correct CPD opportunities is in place. However, with others, I find the drip effect is best. Catching them showing that leadership quality and praising.

One of my key passions is empowering support staff as leaders. Within my settings, non-teachers our key and I am proud of the growing middle and senior leaders developing.

For the teaching leaders of tomorrow, it is about supporting them at an early point. Seeing the potential in a fabulous Teaching Assistant and opening their aspiration to an achievable pathway via Instructor and then Assessment Only. This has been especially true for staff who may not be able to afford to give up work for a year to complete the final teaching qualification.

What are the values that your shape you as a leader?

Credibility, Morality and Passion

What barriers have you had to overcome in your career/role?

The biggest barriers I have had to overcome in my career have most definitely been about my age, gender and marital status. By Year 3 and 6 in my career, I was ready to step up to middle leadership, beyond the TLR roles I had in my school. Over both rounds of applications and interview I experienced absolute discrimination.

I married young…23 years old, fresh faced from university and the assumption was that I would be a risk to employ within a leadership post, because I might go off and have babies! Of course, this was not the case on every interview…but there was a definite pattern forming.

Added into this, I have had and still do have discrimination about age. The assumption that on face value I look young and in actual fact am ‘just 35’. The most frequent phrased used is ‘young lady’ but not as a term of endearment. It always comes with a preloaded opinion about how I can possibly have achieved or have the experience to be amongst peers or other stakeholders.

I always reflect on my experience and try my best not to treat anyone as such.

Leadership Advice

My first line manager as a Middle Leader told me to always value staff and advised I always keep blank cards in my top desk drawer. Though I have moved on a bit from solely using thank you cards, over the years I have realised how much small things matter to the staff you lead.


Don’t always let the tea be made for you; make it too

Don’t be stone faced; showing you are human helps

Don’t forget to say thank you; catch staff doing something and remember to thank them

Don’t ignore the perceived small stuff; it might not be in your urgent list but for them they need be heard, so find a way to authenticate their views

Don’t ignore; always say hello in the corridor…no-one feels inspired or empowered by a busy leader who doesn’t give them the time of day

In my current setting I’ve found a Crunchie bar on the last Friday of each half-term is a simple gesture but the sentiment behind it is important.

Leadership Inspiration

I’m re-reading the fantastic When the Adults Change, Everything Changes – Paul Dix after seeing him as a Key Note last year. The culture within my setting is changing and everything hew writes about is common sense and achievable, so revisiting before tackling new policies, procedures and CPD.

Leadership Mantra

Nurture the radiators and tackle the drains!

Honest and Transparent

Smile and be human

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