Notes from a Newbie

This is the second post in a series capturing practices to establish one’s self as a new leader.

The Connector

Have you ever felt like just another nameless face in an organisation? Chances are, we’ve all felt ‘invisible’ in the workplace at some time or another. As a leader, it’s incumbent upon you to ensure that you intentionally aim to reduce the occurrence of this. This is where you get personal. Remember the saying: people don’t care about how much you know until they know how much you care.

In organisations there are some who don’t want to be seen, instead choosing never to stick their heads above the parapet. They go into mole mode; burying themselves as far under the earth as possible. You know the type. Usually sits at the back in team meetings. When asked their opinion they respond with phrases like ‘I just want a quiet life’ or ‘I’m never one to rock the boat.’ However, I don’t think this is true of most. Many are searching for deep meaning, value and recognition in their work. For many, work isn’t just a means to an end. As a leader coming into an organisation, you must find the people who are seeking to make meaningful contributions.

I recall my first month in my current senior leader role. I made it a priority to have 1-1 meetings with all teaching staff. Simply through asking the right questions and hearing about their passions and unique perspectives I was able to see how people like John, a passionate South African educator, could be a great professional coach or how Kayleigh, a young, bright new teacher, was brimming with practical ideas for implementation which she could share with others who might not have such rich creative thinking. Liz Wiseman call this the multiplier approach. In her book ‘Multipliers: How the best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter’, she details how multipliers connect with people to get team members to do their best thinking and achieve things they never thought possible.

Here are several reasons why it’s important to establish personal/professional connections with team members.

1- Part of a leader’s job is to identify where people can best serve the organisation. Consider yourself as the head coach of a sport’s team. You need to deploy the right people into the right positions. Although observing them within their role is a great way to do this, this takes significant time. Meeting with them and posing the right questions can serve as a way to identify strengths and weaknesses.

2- Building on the first point, as you find out the weaknesses of people in your team, you can begin to consider the right training options for them and make an assessment of whether you think they will be right for the type of organisation you are trying to grow and build.

3- Have personal meetings with your direct reports. This is an intentional first step in building a culture of trust. Trust is often overlooked as a cultural asset but the most effective organisations have high trust cultures. Organisations with high levels of trust take more risks and increase innovation, openly admit failure and learn from it as well as admit weaknesses. If you meet with team members, they are more likely to see your decision as a sign that you care about them. Don’t fake your concern. People will see through this so don’t insult their intelligence. Genuinely show an interest.

So how can I do it?

You’re probably thinking that this is going to take a great deal of time to organise and schedule. You’re right. You can’t short cut meaningful relationships, but there are ways to speed up the logistics. If you have a PA, give them access to manage your diary and have them book the meetings for you. If you don’t have one, use apps like Google Calendar where you can share your diary with colleagues and have them book a time when you are free. An added advantage of this is that you can identify who is keen to meet you and, conversely with whom you might need to do a little more work.

When you have your 1-1 meetings, make them as private as possible. You can meet over coffee, in a private office or over lunch. The choice is yours, depending on your style and personal constraints. Just ensure that you won’t be distracted by other co-workers. You need to be attentive and engaged and clearly show that they have your undivided attention for the next 20 minutes or so. The quality of the interaction is crucial. After such meetings, you can then begin to meet with entire teams. You’ll find yourself invigorated by the intensity of debate and rigorous thinking.

Finally, remember that you as a leader are the orchestrator, the conductor. Not in a grandiose it’s all about me-look guys! kind of wayThis simply means you will require all of your ‘players’ to be in tune and working with you. Draw people in. Don’t be a leader of a nameless, faceless, homogeneous mass. As Wiseman would say, don’t be a diminisher.

Go and book your 1-1!

If you’d like a free guide on delivering a 1-1, please email me directly.

Newbie- notes from a new leader

Being a leader in a new context presents its own unique challenges and because of this, being successful requires a unique set of skills and approaches. This leadership series will be particularly helpful to those looking for new leadership opportunities or those recently in post in a leadership capacity. This is the first in the series.

Ask questions

In just a matter of days after starting, and maybe even before you have arrived, you may have heard a lot of information about current employees, the state of the organisation and other matters. Although this could be valuable intel, you will have to draw your own conclusions. One of the most effective ways to really understand your new context is to ask questions. This will involve spending quality time with people and actively listening to their responses as well as posing follow up questions to gain a deeper understanding. You need to be able to ask questions at every level of the organisation: those working under you, those in your direct team as well as those above you. This will give you a vantage point of all levels of the organisation.

This might sound basic but pose questions using a range of probing stems such as:

  • Why are things done in this way?
  • Who benefits from this process?
  • How could it be improved?
  • What outcome am I / they expecting?
  • Use instructive verbs in your questions such as: define, explain, describe. You’ll prompt more detail and richness in responses.

If you’re a new leader or have been in post for some time but can recall when you first started in a new leadership position, I’m keen to hear what advice you’d give to others. Please feel free to comment and get in touch: darren at keystolearn dot org

Teaching in the Middle East

Top Seven things I’ve learned


With it being the end of my first half term, I wanted to share my experience of teaching in an Arab nation. I’ve learned so much in 8 weeks of working alongside my colleagues and with the students. I’ve made some mistakes as well as achieved some successes.

Those reading this might be interested in teaching abroad and hoping to avoid some of the mistakes I’ve made or simply get a first-hand perspective. Perhaps you are new to the post or have been in the Middle East for some time and wanting to be more effective in your role.

Here are my 7 top tips.

  1. Decide to have high expectations of pupils and explicitly communicate these.
    Even though the Ministry of Education in Qatar require students to have a minimum pass of an E to graduate Year 11, I feel it’s important to give students something higher to strive for. I regularly tell students to never settle for a pass grade.


  1. Seek to understand the student’s worldview.
    As a born and bred Londoner, there are so many things I see differently. Neither way is right or wrong- it’s simply a difference of paradigm. For example, in Qatar a teenage boy is considered a man especially if he is the eldest male in the household other than the father. This position affords him a certain amount of respect as well as responsibility. He will take the lead on important matters when his father is away from the home. As a result, such a person might challenge your authority if he feels he is being belittled, or he might expect to be treated in certain ways that might surprise you. Seek to understand such things by asking questions and showing a genuine interest in their lives, but always stand your ground as the adult.


  1. School starts early.
    I mean really early. Students are at school from as early as 6:30am! The early rising can take its toll after weeks and weeks of waking before dawn. Did I say that school starts early?


  1. Plan lessons with EAL students in mind.
    This seems obvious but just because you are teaching a British curriculum in an international school, do not take it for granted that all of your students will understand everything you say. Do lots of explicit vocabulary work with clear modelling on how this vocabulary is used in context. I have also found dual coding, using images to represent ideas and concepts, a very useful tool in explaining things to second language learners.


  1. Don’t be surprised if you are given gifts!
    The Arab culture values gift giving and students might very well present you with tokens of their appreciation. Western culture can often seem clinical and very sterile in comparison and for me it was heart-warming to have received gifts on World Teacher Appreciation Day.


  1. Don’t be alarmed at frank expression.
    As a Brit, I’m used to highly nuanced and subtle expressions of communication. Arabs often tell it how it is. Don’t be offended or take it personally.


  1. Embrace the tactility of the Arab culture.
    Again, having worked in London schools all my career, strict safeguarding measures cause teachers to become very wary of showing too much affection. I have not seen this in Qatar and it has been refreshing to witness teachers and students more relaxed concerning this. High fives, a caring arm around the shoulder or pats on the back abound here. Please note – this is not to be done with members of the opposite sex.


I love teaching and leading in Qatar. I know that I have so much more to learn and will continue to make mistakes, but that’s part of the learning process.


5 Caveats of Feedback

We have received it all of our lives; some of us run from it; some love and welcome it; others heap it on in large amounts, much to the annoyance of friends and family; feedback! Done well, (and received with the right attitude) it can lead to significant growth. Conversely, meted poorly it can crush the spirit or result in inertia induced frustration. This short post outlines five ways we can avoid giving poor feedback.

1. Over kill.

Too much feedback can result in over dependency. This can become disempowering for learners as they develop a ‘handout’ mentality and feel helpless without constant reassurance. Worse still, the sheer volume of numerous points of feedback can overwhelm students.

2. Accurate but unhelpful feedback.

Dylan William’s anecdote of a learner who received feedback from a science teacher which read “You need to be more systematic in planning your scientific inquiries” lucidly illustrates this problem. The feedback was accurate but, quite unhelpful as the learner needed to know how to be more systematic! Helpful feedback is specific and deals with the how more so than what

3. Unclear progression models.

Essentially, the purpose of feedback is to progress learning from one stage to another. The crucial word here is stage. Both feedback recipient and giver need to know what the standard at each stage looks like. Take for example a grading system in a martial art. At each grade, there are clear benchmarks to identify that someone has reached a particular level of proficiency. This is non-negotiable- the standard is the standard. The same rule should apply to progression models for subjects. This is the guide map in how to get to the destination and the deliberate practice is the physical journey to reach it.

4. Too late. (Cue sad face emoji)

There are strong arguments and evidence bases to suggest that feedback is most impactful when delivered in the moment- a challenging prospect for educators with 20-30 learners in a classroom, potentially more if you’re a lecturer. Feedback is most helpful when it allows learners to correct that which they have executed poorly. If the moment has passed, well…

5. Unguided peer assessment.

This links to point 3. It’s vitally important that learners have a firm grasp of what quality looks like. In the absence of this, peer assessment comments nebulously  look a little like so: ‘really neat handwriting’, ‘nice words used’, ‘you really thought about this task’, ‘write more next time’. Eurgh!

I’m no guru when it comes to feedback but 10 years in the classroom and reading quality literature has taught me some fundamentals of feedback.

Recommended reading:

-Embedded Formative Assessment Dylan Wiliam

-The Future of Assessment for Learning Daisy Christodolou

-Inside the Black Box Dylan Wiliam and Paul Black

-Thanks for The Feedback Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone

Managing Wellbeing

Recently I lead a session with NQTs and RQTs on the subject of wellbeing. The group was young, diverse and keen- just some of the very qualities we need in teaching. I purposely chose the theme of wellbeing as the first session in their training programme as it’s a topic I find fundamentally important as I’ve suffered from burnout before and it’s not a feeling I’d like anybody to experience if I can help it. Also, leaders in every school I’ve ever worked in have never openly expressed concern for the physical, spiritual, emotional and mental wellbeing of their staff. This is plain wrong! I felt a strong need to ensure that these newly/recently qualified staff felt that the school they had chosen to work in was genuinely concerned with their welfare.

Teachers in the group said they regularly worked more than 50 hours, which included taking work home.

The most common things the group perceived as threats to their wellbeing were:

1. Excessive marking loads
2. Lesson planning and content
3. Data entry

How to cut excessive workloads

By no means a panacea for the issue but here are a few strategies to cut workloads.

1. Decide what is worth marking. Greater effort does not equal greater results. Try to use feedback strategies such as ‘take a snap!’. This is where you place a picture of a student’s work on the board and peer assess as a whole class. The piece of work should be of the highest quality so all have a ‘gold’ standard to aim for.

2. Don’t try to plan every lesson from scratch. Scour online for resources which you can tweak or use as they are. Make use of high quality textbooks also.

3. Ask yourself ‘do students really need their exercise books this lesson?’ Perhaps annotating a copy of a poem or using sketch books is enough. This will reduce marking time. I know of on maths teacher who issues all of his students with ‘draft’ books where students use these on a day to day basis for rough work and these are never marked! They have another book where final executions are made and these are marked

4. Use symbols and codes for marking. It’s surprising how much time you can save not having to write out the same targets numerous times.

We rounded off the session by conducting individual SWOT analyses on our personal wellbeing, paying particular attention to the weakness and threats areas so as to avoid burnout and ill health.

With teachers leaving the profession in droves, schools must do far more to challenge the issue of workload. Retention is key to ensuring students get long term stability in the classroom. I admire the approach taken by school leaders such as John Tomsett. Click here to read more about his conscientious and pragmatic approach to whole school wellbeing.

Overall, feedback from staff participants was positive with one staff member almost giving me a running commentary on how he has taken charge of his own wellbeing since the session!