Talking Heads Blog #40: Tina Farr

Leadership Biography:

Name: Tina Farr

Phase: Primary

Sector: State

Region: South East

Years Served in Education: 23

Years Served as a Headteacher: 6

Leadership Journey:

2001-2006 Assistant Headteacher; 2008-2012 Deputy Headteacher in an area of deprivation, 2012-2016 Headteacher of a school with a diverse catchment including service children. From Sept 2018 Headteacher of a school in central Oxford.

Leadership Coach/Mentor/Inspiration:

I have known and worked with some brilliant leaders during my career.

Sue Mortimer, ex HT of Rose Hill Primary School with whom I worked as her AHT at St. Michael’s, Oxford, led with bravery and was always willing to push the boundaries of what is possible, especially with the curriculum.

David Lewin, HT of Wood Farm, Oxford, has a wisdom, moral purpose and relentless determination to change lives for the better.

In 2006, I became hugely motivated by Ken Robinson’s TED talks, ‘Do schools kill creativity’ and ‘Changing Paradigms’, both of which gave me much food for thought in how I would run my own school.

I regularly return to the work of Sir Tim Brighouse’s ‘The Jigsaw of a Successful School’ which keeps me grounded in the essentials of headship.

Debra Kidd’s ‘Teaching, Notes from the Front Line’ and her blog keep me focused on why I do this job (see below). I would advise all leaders to read Mary Myatt’s ‘High Challenge, Low Threat’ which outlines exactly how it is possible to put people first yet have high expectations. For a succinct reminder of how to allow others the limelight, I regularly refer to the work of Jim Collins ‘Level 5 Leadership’.

I have found further inspiration in a friendship with the minister from our local church where we discovered many similarities in our roles. My wife, AJ, is my 24/7 mentor who not only takes care of me during term time but who will halt her yoga practice first thing in the morning if she can see I need to get something off my chest!

Twitter Handle: @bekind1972

Blog: this is my first!

Leadership Reflections:

Why did you become a Headteacher?

I became a Headteacher when I had clarified my personal vision for education. I can remember being on the NPQH in 2007, before I was really ready for Headship, and being asked to have a vision and not really knowing A: what one was and B: what mine was!

I realised that our education system needs people who are brave, who provide hope for the future and who lead schools that provide exceptional education. Debra Kidd  asks us to truly consider whether the purpose of education is to get children to pass tests and provide a compliant workforce or to produce children who are independent, wise critical thinkers with ‘the power to change the world’. If we only teach children to pass tests, we are in danger of producing passive young people who fall at the first sign of challenge, to whom Angela Duckworth refers as the ‘fragile perfects’. We risk this in pursuit of a test, age 11, which doesn’t benefit children but is used purely as a school accountability tool. We risk this in response to constantly changing political whims and ideology. We risk this in trying to second guess what Ofsted want rather than thinking deeply about the purpose of education and the needs of the children and communities we serve. Being the HT means you have the power to decide to do so much more than try to top a league table. It is possible to create a school filled with such certainty of kindness, trust and positivity, that adults and children feel able to strive to improve through embracing kind critique and are empowered to express their personal opinions. You have the power to create a curriculum that motivates and inspires and has human values threaded through it. Whilst I will pursue high academic standards (why wouldn’t I?), I will not do it at the expense of children’s development or well-being.

Now I have been a HT for six years, creating and evolving this vision is what motivates me. This vision has acted like a magnet: attracting interesting things which make it stronger and repelling those that don’t. I have also seen through my first headship how a school’s vision can create a true sense of belonging for adults and children alike and witnessed the power of everyone pulling in the same direction. As the HT, you get to create a movement – a movement that everyone wants to be a part of because it’s so compelling they can’t not.

Why do you think it is important for Headteachers to still teach?

It’s in the name of the role! It is all too easy to become caught up in theories of teaching and learning and to forget the realities of caring for 30 children for six hours a day never mind actually teaching them in a way which might get them to commit something to their long term memories! As a Headteacher, I constantly strive to learn and to retain my authenticity as a teacher, I personally feel the need to continually try to improve my own practice. It also means I can share my own trials and tribulations with my teachers; it levels the playing field and keeps me fallible in their eyes. Besides, my teachers know full well that their job is often harder day in day out than mine; teaching helps me remember that. 

How do you create a culture of wellbeing?

Essentially by keeping at the forefront of your mind that people’s loved ones are more important than anything. Flora Barton recently made the very good point that schools expect parents to support events, yet can be hesitant in allowing staff to attend those of their own children. Staff also need to know without doubt that they will be supported with their personal problems. I think many Headteachers worry that this approach is too ‘soft’ and that they will be taken advantage of, however, I have seen first-hand that, within a culture of trust, people will want to do more and be more if they feel cared for as individuals.

I frequently refer to my staff as my ‘class’, in the knowledge that if I care well for them, they will care for the children in our school.

How would you like to change the perception of Headteachers?

That the job is ‘really hard’ and that people think they wouldn’t be able to do it. This is not surprising given press coverage of firings and work-related stress. I would be foolish to say that the role doesn’t bring with it peak times of extreme stress but the times around that are simply magical. Until you do the job, it is hard to understand the rewarding relationships you can build with your community. If your approach to behaviour management is one where all staff feel empowered to act, then the majority of your interactions with children can be overwhelmingly positive. Similarly with parents, if you make it your business to be highly visible on the school gate and to listen attentively to people, you can develop relationships which are valued on both sides and which further enhance the development of the school, because people are willing to bring feedback and suggestions.

Another perception is that being a Head is a ‘lonely job’. I think it can be, if you choose to make it so. If you choose not to have lunch with your staff or your children and to sit alone at your computer, that can indeed be lonely. I love being in our staffroom not only for the laughter but to enjoy staff discussions about pedagogy, acts of kindness by children and to see the care with which staff treat each other. Another way to combat this feeling is to get out there and network with the only people who really understand your role, other Headteachers! I have made and continue to make beautiful new friends as we discover a shared passion and moral purpose.

What is your leadership style?

Using Hay-McBer definitions, I would say that my ‘typical’ style is pace-setting. However, this meant that I did too much myself at the start of my first headship.  As time has gone on, I have used affiliative, democratic and coaching styles to help develop young teachers to become effective leaders but will be authoritative in a crisis. I love Kim Scott’s term ‘radical candour’, where she refers to the ability to give people honest, kind feedback to improve their performance because they know that you care about them as a person first. I am also a big fan of the concept of ‘Followership’. In a nutshell this really links to having such a strong vision that people become such effective followers of that vision that they make great decisions on behalf of the organisation, which progress it without the direct input of the Headteacher or CEO.

What do you do as self-care routines to look after yourself as a Headteacher? 

We must be committed to looking after ourselves! We have to be wiser than wearing the hours we work as a badge of honour. People are central to the role, and a tired Headteacher who is not in control of their self-care is less effective. People need energy – positive energy – and this can become very quickly drained if you are not careful.

My self-care routines are to exercise most evenings – with rowing and yoga being my favourite. I find moments of clarity during exercise to help me solve seemingly insurmountable problems as well as the more obvious benefit of stress release.

I talk to my Headteacher friends a lot, gaining advice, affirmation and inspiration either on the phone or from visiting their own wonderful schools.

Leadership Advice:

Take time to think before acting and always walk to a crisis.

David Lewin, at Wood Farm, taught me this, handed down from his mentor. There have been many points over the last six years when I could have caused unnecessary hurt or damage if I hadn’t taken time to think about what to do for the best or to discuss actions with a colleague. However bad or urgent something seems at the time, how you respond can either begin to make it better or make it disproportionately worse!

Walking to a crisis such as an angry parent or distressed child means that you are able to be calm and rational at the scene rather than out of breath and appearing panicked. In these situations, everyone needs to believe you are in control, even if you aren’t entirely sure you are!

Leadership Inspiration:

The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to Coherence – Mary Myatt.

Especially as Ofsted now has such a focus on its breadth. As I enter my new Headship, this book is helping me to think more deeply about how we can construct a meaningful curriculum taking on some of the latest research and current thinking in education.

When the Adults Change Everything Changes – Paul Dix

I have read and reread parts of this book several times over the last 18 months and it has helped me to refine our behaviour management strategy. This will shape my leadership of behaviour from the outset in my new school enabling me to more quickly lead the school to a place where there is consistency in behaviour management across all adults.

Teaching the Child on the Trauma Continuum – Betsy de Thierry

Betsy de Thierry has a talent for explaining something as complex as childhood trauma in a way which school leaders and teachers can understand just enough to change their own embedded beliefs about children’s behaviour. As a leader this will give me more examples of why school staff need to understand behaviour as communication.

Leadership Mantra:

Look after your staff and they will look after the children.

School staff do a relentlessly challenging job; quite simply they need to feel valued by leaders to enable and empower them to have the energy needed to shape young lives in the most positive way possible.

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