Talking Heads Blog #34: Emily Clark

Leadership Biography

Name: Emily Clark

Phase: Primary

Sector: State

Region: Yorkshire

Years Served in Education: 12

Years Served as a Principal: 3

Leadership Journey:

NQT with Primary Maths specialism, seconded in my second year by the Local Authority to teach in a school in Special Measures, Literacy Lead, KS1 Phase leader, Teaching and Learning whole school with responsibility for leading the Improving and Outstanding Teacher Programme, Deputy Headteacher, Acting Headteacher (at the age of 29 and after 6 months of Deputy Headship – very scary!) and then finally onto Principal in my own school.

Leadership Coach/Mentor/Inspiration:

I am lucky enough to have worked for a range of very different leaders. Each of which I have learnt something from. I would like to think that I have taken some of the strengths from each one to create my own style of leadership that works well. I have had the privilege of working for some very supportive leaders that have given me the opportunities and confidence to believe that I could make a significant difference to the lives of many pupils in my various roles. My parents were also key to making me who I am today as they’ve constantly believed in me and made me believe that I could do anything if I put my mind to it.

Twitter Handle: @clark84_em


Something to set up in the future now I’m gaining confidence to share my story!

Leadership Reflections

Why did you become a Principal?

I absolutely love teaching and have a real passion for building relationships with pupils, parents and the community to achieve the best outcomes. To have observed what can be achieved through determination and high expectations, with precise assessment and planning, in my own classes and phase made me consider how exciting it would be to cascade this at the next level for all pupils in a school somewhere. Although initially I missed the close relationships with pupils that you build when you have your own class, I ensured that I built this into my role as Principal. This was my non-negotiable in terms of what I wanted out of my new role.

I found the prospect of being able to influence change on a whole school level a daunting yet exhilarating challenge. The thought of being able to create a vision for what pupils can achieve and then being able to action plan and implement this was thrilling. I also felt that one of the areas I’d previously had most success in was improving the teaching profile across school as my strongest assets had been working to coach and mentor teachers. This led to raised attainment as well as a more confident staff that had been upskilled. Teaching and Learning is to me the ‘core business’ of any school, therefore the most important aspect of being a successful Principal was what I found to be most rewarding.

Why did your school appeal to you?

Becoming a Principal was not something that I was considering at the time when the role became available. However the Executive Principal, who I had worked with previously on school improvement, encouraged me to take a look at the school and think about the role. The position came with lots of CPD to support which was vital when choosing to apply for the role as I knew I would need to do a lot of learning on the job.

When I visited the school, it was the pupils that sold it for me! The school is in a deprived area within Edlington, Doncaster which can be unfortunately known for all the wrong reasons. It has 46% of pupils categorised as disadvantaged and is in the heart of a community which is subject to regular crime such as anti-social behaviour, vandalism and drug gangs which impact on pupil and family well-being. I could see how much the pupils and their families had to face before even contemplating achieving academically. The pupils are the friendliest and kindest of anywhere I’ve been. The school had not long ago been given a judgement of ‘special measures’ by OFSTED and I could quickly see how I could support the school in its journey to ‘good’. After visiting I was desperate to apply and be a part of the journey.

I’m pleased to say that eleven months after I started in my new role we came out of ‘special measures’ and straight to ‘good’ as a result of hard work, high expectations and determination by every single member of staff in the school. The sense of accomplishment was phenomenal and the boost that the whole community needed and valued. The school is a fantastic school and we are continuing our journey towards securing ‘good’ and becoming ‘outstanding’.

How do you create a culture of wellbeing?

This is a really interesting question in the current climate with all the reports and consultation on workload. Wellbeing is something that I consider constantly for all staff and pupils within school. I strongly believe that being as organised as possible enables staff to plan in advance for things that happen. I know that you can’t always predict what will happen as no day in school is the same as another. However, I provide staff with advance notice by giving them termly overviews of any curriculum events, teaching and learning reviews and monitoring. When making decisions I think about the desired impact and whether the impact will justify the action. I am keen not to increase workload and think carefully about why we do the things that we do. Every decision has pupils at the heart of it.

I allocate time to spend on writing reports, moderating results and some of the things that need to be done but take time that teachers don’t have in a normal working week. Feedback from staff is important and supports the CPD that is delivered. They have fed back that CPD is useful each week, not a waste of time covering something that is not relevant to them. We have a strong culture of self-improvement which is why staff often ask to attend courses and visit other schools. I am only too happy to facilitate this as professional development for all is an entitlement that my staff have.

I spend time thanking staff individually for their efforts. School can be busy and fast paced but this is vital. I ensure that staff are able to attend important school events for their own children where possible and allocate well-being afternoons off site when staff have stayed late to support Christmas Fayres and Instant Christmas displays. I know that I can never fully repay staff for their effort and dedication but I aim to always make them aware of how valued they are. This can be through special breakfast meetings where thank you notes are read out and through appraisal where line managers and I comment on all the positives for their role.

How do you talent spot/nurture aspiring leaders?

I always reflect on the opportunities that I have had along the way which I am very grateful for. Even though I am intrinsically motivated, there were times when I needed those around me to give me a push and give me confidence to pursue my next steps. Because of this, I place a lot of importance on talent spotting and nurturing aspirant leaders within my school.

It is important to create opportunities for all staff to show what they are capable of and what they are really passionate about. In my experience if someone has a particular passion/expertise in an area, they can also be more likely to lead it with confidence and drive. In addition I have found that sometimes people surprise me. I had a member of support staff that lacked confidence and always questioned her abilities but once I praised her for her pastoral work and placed her on the Thrive practioner training, she became a different person. She is now someone who supports others and works as a learning mentor to support pupils pastorally across school. She does a brilliant job and is having huge impact.

I hold appraisals with every member of staff in school which I know is valued as it enables them to reflect on where they are and where they want to be. This time put aside is important as it enables me to ensure that everyone has access to quality CPD which builds confidence and knowledge of skills. Whilst it can take a lot of time to do this for every member of staff, the benefits can be spectacular for pupils which is ultimately why we are here.

What have been the highs and lows of your role as Principal?

The greatest moment for me so far was hearing HMI say to us that we were no longer ‘special measures’ and had moved straight to ‘good’. I remember being speechless and just crying uncontrollably with relief and probably because I was very tired after the intense two day visit too! One of the main emotions I felt was pride and just how proud I was of my team in school and what they had achieved for our pupils and wider community. To know that we had all made such a difference was incredible. I also remember thinking that if I could lead a team of staff to do this then bring on the next challenge. I felt empowered and motivated as all the hard work had been worth it.

The lows for me have been not getting something right straight away such as issues linked to finance and risk management. This has been hard but not something beyond my reach. I am still working on this and in true growth mindset fashion I say to myself – you can do it, you’re just not there YET! The role of Principal is diverse and this is an area where I need to build knowledge and skills.

I’m currently finding the role of Principal an emotional rollercoaster. I feel as though the highs that I experience are so fulfilling and the feeling cannot be matched to anything else. However, the lows can make me feel as though I’m not doing my job well enough and I need to be far better than I am. In reality the number of highs outweigh the lows and mean so much which is why I love what I do.

What makes you get out of bed every morning?

I get out of bed every morning because I adore what I do. I am proud of the culture and ethos that we have created together. I know that every single person in the building wants to do their best for the pupils. I could not want to work with a better team of staff and I’m confident enough now to say that I feel integral to how our school runs. I’m one very proud Principal and in the words of Aerosmith – I don’t want to miss a thing! School is improving year on year and I want to be part of the journey.

Leadership Advice

I am someone that is very reflective which can be a positive and a negative at the same time. I often can feel very down if something hasn’t gone to plan and take it very personally. However, I am very fortunate to work with an Executive Principal who will put things into perspective quite quickly for me. One of the best pieces of advice she gave me was that it was okay to make mistakes as long as you learn from them. I initially felt as though the role of Principal meant that you had to be outstanding in all facets of the role but there are so many and I am definitely still learning. This piece of advice had been instrumental in helping me to move forwards and see things as useful learning mistakes.

I’ve also found that reading the Talking Head blogs and seeing such honesty from other leaders has made me feel that everyone is still learning. This in all honesty is what has given me the push to write this article.

Leadership Inspiration

I am very interested in learning behaviours and the belief that anyone can achieve anything so have continued to read around Matthew Syed’s book Bounce and Carol Dweck’s work on Growth Mindset. Interestingly, even though learning behaviours are now well established in my school, I find that these messages need to be increasingly cascaded to parents so that they can encourage their children alongside what we do in school.

Leadership Mantra

Be the kind of leader that you would follow!

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