‘If you spread a wee bit of joy and laughter, that’s a good start’

22nd June 2018 at 00:00
What’s the secret to a successful teaching career? Have fun and don’t get ‘caught up in the nuts and bolts of it’, one celebrated former head tells Henry Hepburn

“Love your job.” Lindsey Watt bubbles over with nuggets of wisdom for those just staring out on a teaching career, but this is the one that she would underline several times in red pen.

This month Watt was appointed OBE for services to education, in recognition of a career that has taken in a quarter of a century as a headteacher. And even after having bounced back three times from cancer, her enthusiasm for the teaching profession is boundless.

Days after Watt’s OBE was announced in the Queen’s Birthday Honours, probationers from every local authority gathered at an event in Edinburgh to celebrate their achievements so far and look ahead to the careers stretching in front of them. Watt’s advice to those arriving in their droves to teach in schools after the summer would be simple: “Just go in and love every moment of it.”

“I try every day to live a joyful life,” she says. “I know that sounds a wee bit hippy-dippy, but if you try to go into work and spread a wee bit of joy and laughter, and really put your all into doing it, actually, that’s a good start.”

She advises new teachers to “find your happy place”, both emotionally and geographically – “some people prefer to work in leafy suburbs, some prefer rural schools” – then concentrate on creating the conditions that allow pupils to feed off that enthusiasm.

“Don’t worry so much about making sure your paperwork’s up to date and all the rest of it,” she urges. “Plan a lesson that you think the children you’re going to be facing every day are going to be engaged in and enjoy.”

Watt, who continues to work as an education consultant, encourages teachers to keep asking children for their feedback: “Which bit of that lesson went really well for you?”; “What was your lightbulb moment?”; “Was there anything I could improve on?”

The reason, she says, is that “the children will tell you what was good about your lesson and what they’re really getting from it”. She adds: “It’s about actually engaging with the children you’re working with – that’s the most important bit. Everything else will fall into place, but you’ve got to want to be there.”

Creating a ‘school family’

Probationers should not be nervous about taking their first steps as fully fledged teachers, Watt says, and “they should be going in thinking, ‘I’m involved in one of the best jobs in the world: teaching Scotland’s children.’ They should be enjoying every minute of it.”

The former head is not shy of talking about love in a school context, and recalls one boy who, concerned about her absence as she fought cancer, said upon her return as headteacher that it was nice to have her back: “Ken, like, it’s when you go home and your ma’s no in the hoose.”

“Isn’t that a lovely thing to say?” Watt adds. “You should be creating a school family that loves you.”

As well as love, Watt believes “there should be much more laughter in Scottish education, I really do”, adding: “I think people get caught up in the whole kind of nuts and bolts of it, and actually it’s a really joyful thing being in a classroom, but people get really stressed about the delivery [of education].”

As if to demonstrate her point, Watt laughs about her recipe for being a successful headteacher: “You have to surround yourself with people who are way better than yourself, give them the tools to do their trade and then bask in their reflected glory!”

She reels off a list of former colleagues who have gone on to be “far better headteachers than I would ever be”, and adds: “I think that more headteachers should hire people that are absolutely first-class and blow them out the park – why wouldn’t you?”

Yet, a survey by primary school leaders’ body the AHDS this month found that nearly two-thirds of deputy heads and principal teachers did not want to take the step up, and that the number was rising, amid concerns about the growing demands placed on heads.

“I don’t think enough headteachers see it as their role to encourage their younger leadership team members to go and leave them, to go for heads’ jobs,” says Watt. “It is our role as school leaders to develop the next generation of school leaders. If we don’t, then we’ve failed; we’re doing a disservice to Scotland’s children.”

‘We’re not good at sharing’

When asked to name one thing that Scottish education does well, Watt makes the type of statement that feels increasingly rare in a time when many are disillusioned with curricular reform: “I like Curriculum for Excellence – there you go, I’ve said it.” CfE, Watt adds, “was an amazing opportunity to create a curriculum that was unique to your school, and that’s what I tried to do with my team”.

Asked for one failing of Scottish education, she bemoans a lack of collaboration across schools and council boundaries. “I don’t think we’re very good at sharing; I would like to see more of that happening,” she says. “I’m hopeful that the new regional improvement collaboratives that are coming in will go some way to allowing good practice to be shared.”

Concerns have been raised recently about one major recent development in primary schools: the advent of Scottish National Standardised Assessments (SNSAs). (See “P1 children ‘in tears’ over new national assessment”, Tes Scotland, 25 May.) Watt comments: “I am not against measuring children’s progress, and I know sometimes that it’s quite controversial to say that.”

While she has heard of “a few teething issues” with the SNSAs, she says: “If a P1 [pupil] is getting upset, then the conditions are not right for that P1 to be sitting that test. You can do measurements with any children if the conditions are set properly for them … With all learning, if you make it fun and enjoyable, then children will engage with it.”

Watt compares the new assessment regime with the old 5-14 curriculum, when test results were published for all to see – an approach she labels as “really unfair”.

“Schools could be doing everything right and working really, really hard, and providing high-quality learning and teaching” while still ranking well below schools located in a more affluent area, she explains.

Watt agrees with the approach of the SNSAs, which are designed to prevent the creation of league tables, and says: “Data like that is fantastic for schools – we should have more of it in schools, but it shouldn’t be shared.”

Mention Watt’s old job as headteacher and she admits to becoming teary, even though she is now kept busy developing the next generation of school leaders through the Skye-based social enterprise and charity Columba 1400, as well as running the education consultancy she has formed with another former primary head, Alice Brown.

“I’ve had a blessed career,” Watt says, “but you do miss the children – the merry banter of it all.”


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