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Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway

Changing careers is scary. Being out of a job for any period of time is even scarier. But staying in a job that dissatisfies you or is limiting your career progression or is making you plain unhappy is worse than being scared. Accept that the process of changing careers will be challenging and time-consuming and it instantly becomes less daunting. Here’s how:

Make an exit plan. Give yourself at least six months before you resign to research your strengths and skills and passions; find out about possible new career paths and the best ways to break in; figure out how future careers may shape your lifestyle and work/ life balance. Appreciate the breadth of choices you have. There are numerous websites dedicated to every career imaginable and plenty of free online study courses. Coursera with London University offer an excellent course called Enhancing Your Employability; it covers all aspects of the job hunt process from application to CV and cover letter to interview. Buy ‘How To Build Your Own Rainbow’, a practical workbook which analyses every aspect of your life and work and crystallises your thinking. It’s only £12.99 on Amazon.

Consider a career coach; they encourage their clients to explore fixed mindsets and assumptions that may be holding them back. I was lucky enough to get three two hour sessions (for free – networks are amazing); as with any coaching, it taught me to think in new ways. Career coaches can be a brilliant way of helping to develop focus but they are expensive.

Build your network and personal brand. LinkedIn is the best platform for your professional life; there are plenty of online blogs and websites giving practical advice on how best to use it. Create coherence across your social media presence but understand how each platform works best and keep your personal (Facebook, Instagram) separate from your professional (Twitter, LinkedIn).

Save money. Reduce your financial commitments where possible and start putting money aside for rainy days. Looking for work is always challenging but it’s worse if you are also penniless. Bear in mind that employees who voluntarily leave their place of work will get no financial support. We get used to the comfort of a monthly salary and it doesn’t take long, once the savings start to dwindle, to learn the value of even small things. On a very low income, a really good coffee feels and tastes as good as the most expensive champagne on your expenses account.

Sort your CV. Employers now use software to filter the huge number of applications they receive. Applicants are selected for interview based on specific keywords; spelling, punctuation, grammar, layout, even contents are less significant than they used to be. So know the keywords for your ideal job. Here’s a useful trick to try: find ten advertisements for your chosen role and feed them into Wordle (it’s free). This will create a word cloud of keywords for your chosen role.

If you’re really struggling with your CV pay for a professional writing service. Most services will offer a telephone consultation of 30 – 40 minutes based on your basic CV and then re-write it. You can be confident that your biggest personal brand tool will be ready for action. CV writing services are expensive but, if you applied for an interest free – credit card before handing in your notice (and there are currently plenty of options available), it becomes a long term investment. Off-set the £150 cost of the CV against the loss of earnings if it takes you four to six months (the average time) to find a job.

Get registered with recruiters and job sites. Create a profile and upload your CV and covering letter. Set alerts for jobs that interest you. Many of the websites hold the same job advertisements so there are a lot of triplicates to wade through. And most of the job applications use very similar wording so there is little differentiation. To have any chance of success tailor your CV and cover letter as much as possible to the company you are applying for, if you have that information. Which, mostly, you don’t. For every job, there will often be over a hundred applicants. The one-click online application process may be easier (though for who, I wonder?) but it is also impersonal and lonely, and in my humble opinion, mostly ineffectual. Get online anyway. It gives you focus.

Better yet, research the companies that really interest you; set job alerts (most big companies and corporations have this facility now) so that you are immediately notified when a job is posted. Adapting a CV and cover letter to a role within a company you know a lot about increases your chances of success exponentially.

Create a daily routine. Keep regular hours Monday to Friday and commit to being at your desk by 8.30am. The early bird is much more likely to catch the worm. Develop a system so that you don’t start the day by wondering where to start. Better yet, find a coffee shop with good wifi or use your local library to get you out of the house. You can fool your mind and body into believing that you are going to work and it stops home feeling like a prison. Dedicate a certain number of hours to job hunting each day then walk away; like revision (only harder, because you are not working to a deadline), you can only do a certain amount and still have an impact. Treat yourself at the end of each day, even if only with a glass of wine.

Get used to your own company. Your partner, friends and family will mostly be at work and the social interactions you had previously with work colleagues will leave a huge gap. Your world will quickly shrink right down. Getting out of the house will remind you that the world is turning and you are still part of it. Being out of work leads to a startling and sudden lack of status; it is very easy to begin to doubt your decision to leave and loss of self-confidence can quickly follow. To avoid this happening, keep busy and purposeful. That rainy day money comes in handy now; look for meet-ups in your local area, search free things to do, see movies on cheap tickets. Whatever you choose, you will end up doing a lot more alone. Get used to it.

Get volunteering. Start with one charity in your local area, one day a week. It can quickly open new doors to opportunity. And it looks really good on the CV. It’s another way to get out and about and build your network. Some of the best opportunities I had in my two months out of work were gained through volunteering.

Ultimately, my new job came unexpectedly. I followed up a failed application (for a company and a job I really wanted) with an email asking for a month’s internship. In return, they invited me to interview for a newly created role more suited to my skills. Two interviews later and I was in. This reminds us that we don’t need to play by the rules; when you see an opportunity, take it. It’s also a timely reminder that the personal connection matters most. They liked my CV and my commitment to ‘making a difference’, clearly evident from my volunteering roles; I was a good cultural fit. Find the company whose values and ethics match your own, get your foot in the door and show them who you really are. A good cultural fit is more important to the workplace now than ever before; a recruiter will overlook gaps in your skills and CV if they know they are getting a passionate and committed employee who really wants to be a part of their team.

Ultimately, if you decide to take the leap and change jobs or career, make it a positive, dynamic choice, one that works for you.

 

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The trouble with magpies…

Everyone of a certain age remembers Magpie, the British TV programme which ran from 1968 – 1980; I remember it for its catchy theme tune and its title chosen to reflect the programme’s eclectic contents. At the time it was devised to compete with Blue Peter though I didn’t know that then; in retrospect, it was a slightly edgier looser version, a little less well behaved. The theme tune was based on an old children’s nursery rhyme and I bet even now most people who watched it could sing it, catchy as it was:

One for sorrow, Two for joy

Three for a girl, Four for a boy

Five for silver, Six for gold

Seven for a story never to be told

The last three lines were changed for the TV show and looking at them now I can understand why.

Eight for Heaven, Nine for Hell, Ten for the Devil himself.

A little bit of artistic license never went amiss.

I didn’t realise the unconscious impact this little rhyme had on me until one day when I was 18, driving home from the supermarket with my dad, I glanced out of the window and saw two magpies perched in the grass. I was due to get my A Level results that day and I was almost sick with nerves, so sick that I was willing to do anything to take my mind off the impending phone call – even going to the supermarket. But when the call came the news was good – I had gained a clean sweep of A grades. And I remember thanking the magpies because clearly they were the harbingers of good fortune.

Totally illogical, right? Except this little coincidence has stayed with me and now, when I see a lone magpie, I feel a certain trepidation; and when I see two, I can’t help but feel happy. Something good must be on its way.

Most people, busy with their jobs and families, have no time to look out of the window and notice how many magpies are sitting on their garden fence. But since I stepped out of teaching, and since my desk looks out over the spring garden, I have become acutely aware that there are at least seven magpies living in the trees around my house and they present every day in different constellations, almost like the stars gracing our night skies. And illogically, they have become the barometers of my daily mood. If I see them singly, a feeling of anxiety creeps up and can overshadow my whole day. Meanwhile, in twos or threes I’m happy; I draw the line at more than four as I know there is no pot of gold at the bottom of my garden.

It’s funny how, with too much time on our hands, we can quickly fall victim to such distortions of thought. I liken job hunting to revising for exams – we spend an inordinate amount of time on the process but have very little real influence on the outcome. And if I glance up and see one magpie instead of two, just at the wrong moment, my whole process becomes distracted. And I stall.

To combat the magpie effect, I am reading Mike Weeks ‘Un-train Your Brain’. It heralds itself as ‘a Formula for Freedom’ from the neurons holding you back. I wonder what he would say about magpies?

They say you should do what you love…

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…but sometimes it’s hard to remember what we love to do. We are so busy with our jobs and families and everyday life we tend to function out of habit and routine and commitments made a long time ago when we were different people. Sometimes it’s good to step back and take a good long look at where we are.

I knew I wanted to begin some voluntary work when I left teaching; teachers are born helpers and a trusted colleague advised me to find a way to carry on helping before I lost my sense of purpose (she was right). I was surprised at the certainty with which I focused on Age UK although, in retrospect, it made perfect sense. I worked in a care home for elderly and poorly people when I was at school; I remembered it was fun and we had a lot of laughs. It was easy to assume it was time’s rose-tinted spectacles – and the fact that at the time my studies and my social life were also going well – that made those memories that good, but no. They really were good times. Friends expressed surprise at the choice; presumably it was a bit of curve ball because I have been working with young people for so long. One friend expressed horror but that reflected a general fear of old people and the ageing process, I think; she’s still young so it’s all very alien to her.

So when the opportunity presented itself I took on an IT Support role at Age UK Brighton. We gather in the IT Suite every day at 10.00am. Usually there are two volunteers and it can quickly get busy. We’re a surprisingly eclectic bunch, a mix of older ladies and gentlemen all with a shared purpose, to master some aspect of technology. But what makes the older people I work with so special?

Firstly, it’s the pace at which they live. How refreshing it is to greet someone as they walk into a room and have a chat about the small things; the weather, the new ache they woke up with that morning (I am beginning to relate to that), something in the news. It takes time, that rare commodity, to chat; and none of us have enough of it nor make enough of it. But time also creates strong bonds and those bonds create community. Sometimes I feel as though I am in one of those clever film shots where the subjects are standing still while the world keeps spinning. It’s disorientating but simultaneously unbelievably calm.

Then there’s the humour; maybe because these people have lived a long life they are a little more accepting, a little more generous in their opinions. Or maybe I’m just really lucky with this bunch. They look for the funny, sunny side in every situation; even their own short-term memory loss is a target for comedy (and frustration, of course, though they express that differently!).

It’s also their enthusiasm. As children their toilets were outside and refrigerators were just about affordable in ordinary households; electricity and central heating and endless hot water were proper luxuries; TV was unimaginable technology, the domain of science fiction while phones were firmly fixed to the wall; only cinemas offered big screen entertainment and playtime was, well, playtime, in the old fashioned sense of the word. So they approach new technologies with wide-eyed wonder. I love helping them learn to download music, sell useful stuff on eBay and send messages and emails. I must admit I have learned a huge amount since I started.

It’s also their patience. Maybe they are patient because they have time. Or maybe they are patient because everything moves more slowly at an advanced age and suddenly the rush isn’t so important anymore. Or maybe they are patient because they appreciate our time and our company; it would be fair to say that many of them do come to be social. Maybe they are patient simply because they have worked out what is really important in life and they are happy to let the the other stuff slide off like water off a duck’s back. It’s lovely to spend time with patient people because impatience and frustration are constant companions for most of us – I’m instantly grumpy when my Netflix is streaming too slowly or someone does not return a text – partly because, if I didn’t want an instant reply, I would have sent a letter. Still, it’s a reminder to step back and slow down.

These people are genuinely kind. They offer to make me tea even though I invariably end up making it for them because the kitchen is a long way and downstairs and, well, I’m just quicker. They are kind with their thoughts too; they ask after my daughter and marvel at the fact that I can talk to her at anytime of day or night even though she is in Nicaragua. To be fair, even I marvel at that, having gone months without talking to my family because when I was a backpacker phone calls were prohibitively expensive.

Or maybe it’s because they are thoughtful. By which I mean they spend a lot of time with their thoughts. Before connectivity became the norm, we all spent more time being thoughtful. Without distractions they turn inwards and reflect on how the years have treated them. They process and examine and explore; I’m sure not all their memories are good ones, but they are in the past and that makes even the worst memories more benign.

I have a very strong memory from childhood that has stayed with me over the years. One summer, my mother left me with some Turkish friends for a few days. We were in Marmaris, long before Marmaris had become a British holiday destination. Come bedtime, to escape the stifling mid-summer heat, we all – parents, children, cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents – decamped to the roof, where we slept under the stars in the cool sea breeze. The grandparents bedded down in the middle, at the very heart of the family, and we spread like the spokes of a wheel from a hub. It was perfect.

I know older people can be rude, grumpy and inflexible, but so can everybody. I can’t help feeling sometimes that our culture, obsessed with youth and beauty and celebrity and shopping, has lost sight of its elders and the pleasure and fun they can provide. I love working with Age UK and their clients. It’s been good rediscovering what I love.

 

Taking a Sabbatical

When I tell people I have taken a sabbatical from teaching with a view to making a career change, they respond with either surprise or envy. Relatively, I am still quite young to leave any profession and who doesn’t like the idea of taking six months off work, whatever the context? Initially, even I had dismissed the idea as a pipe dream – I have a serious case of Protestant Work Ethic, thanks to my parents. But once the idea had taken root, it was, like convolvulus in the garden, impossible to cull or contain. Punishingly long, dark November days simply nourished its growth. Still, even I was surprised by my own audacity when I handed my notice in on the first day of the Spring Term.

To ensure my school had the best opportunity to find a replacement, I gave my SLT a whole six months’ warning of my departure. This long lead-in was to my benefit too; six months’ full salary to save for when I was no longer earning, and a full six months to clear up the three classrooms and two offices that had accommodated me during my thirteen years at the school. A lot of paper was sorted, shredded, filed, shared and archived. By the end of a busy six months I had accrued a healthy savings account and provided a clean slate for my successor. I left feeling virtuous and ready to take that first step into the unknown.

My excitement and optimism continued through the early days of the summer holiday and the hot Greek sun, but almost imperceptibly, my energy levels fell so that by the time school re-started in September, my batteries were perfectly flat. Rather than luxuriating in week-day lie-ins, doubt and uncertainty begin to creep in; a lack of direction is a difficult concept to wrestle with.

Here’s the thing about teaching; the rest of the world believes that as the summer holidays begin, teachers down tools, put up their feet and live, laugh, love. In reality, we work through our holidays, researching and preparing texts and resources for the following year’s programmes. Actual stopping – the kind of stopping a sabbatical allows– is like the speeding bus in the Keanu Reeves blockbuster; drop below a certain pace and the bomb will explode.

Doubt and uncertainty can both be very undermining. My best friends were back at school, and unavailable for philosophical musings and pick-me-ups; furthermore somehow it didn’t feel appropriate under the circumstances to ask for their support. I felt totally disoriented; an uncomfortable place for a professional used to the rigorous structures of a school day.

This leeching of energy and focus is also quite frightening. I began to feel that I might be going a little bit mad; my brain felt sluggish in the mornings (too much sleep) and raced at 2.00am – what was I doing? What next? How long might my money last? I paced like a caged tiger through each day, even when I was yomping across the South Downs.

Often teachers who leave the profession are back within the year. Teaching is unique: dynamic, challenging, fun, fast-paced and draining but also very addictive. Teachers are carers and helpers and that is an addictive feeling; they are also purposeful and focused, with never ending to-do lists, which fire up the adrenalin first thing in the morning, and adrenalin is addictive; teachers always strive to make things better, and that too is addictive. In my more despondent moments, I considered returning to the classroom. After all, I reasoned, teaching is what I’m good at; it’s what I do.

Thankfully, unlike the cold, wet summer, the autumn was warm and gentle. I took long walks with my partner, read voraciously, began different personal and domestic projects, most of which tailed off after a few weeks, took naps in the day and stayed awake long into the night, watched too many films and drank too much wine on school nights.

But I also played. I played with big ideas and everyday life. I played with my friends’ children at the park, and on their bedroom floors, and I started colouring again with my god-daughter. I played with our domestic space and in the kitchen with new flavours and recipes and on the bouldering wall, pushing myself to my physical limits. My partner and I played favourite card games from childhood and dug out Monopoly and Ludo and scrabble, just for fun. Play is creative and stimulating and therapeutic, and most definitely under-valued. But when do we ever have time to play?

And then, slowly, seemingly out of nowhere, ideas, plans and opportunities began to bubble up. Maybe they were always there but I didn’t see them? Or, I saw them and was too tired, and too tied up, to care? Without warning my replacement took time out after just ten days of term and I was back in a part-time management role that imposed a degree of structure on my week (lack of structure is really challenging on sabbatical) and provided a modest source of income. The familiar school environment and the friendly banter were welcome after the isolation of meandering unemployment. It instantly took the pressure off job hunting.

Meanwhile, without realising, my sleepless wonderings, seemingly prehistoric in their lack of form, had taken a firm shape. With space and time to think creatively, I had clarified my personal and professional values and identified my ideal role. The haphazard connections I had made during the summer began to deliver results.  Freelance writing jobs came in and voluntary work at Age UK satisfied that deep desire to help others.

Four months later, my days are busy, varied and unpredictable – much like teaching. However, they are also flexible, stimulating and inspiring. I had liberated my long-lost resourcefulness and discovered a new range of talents and skills. Most importantly, I had designed a life of my own choosing; where, when and how I worked was entirely up to me. Such autonomy is impossible in teaching, which is dogged by limitations and restrictions delivered at every management layer from government to senior teams, and by time itself. While I appreciate this is both necessary and usually practical, it feels at times like a tight vice around a life.

Taking a leap into the unknown is always frightening, but maybe not as frightening as the alternative.  Has it been worth it? Absolutely.

Going to Market…

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When I was a child going to market involved five little pigs; or the kind of market where fresh fruit and veg overflows from market stalls in impossibly photogenic ways. Now going to market is about jobs. Times have changed.

Apparently I have to put myself up for sale. Firstly, I build my brand online. Get myself onto Twitter and LinkedIn and maybe get a blog going too (see what I’m doing here?). Tweet pithy, inspirational gobbets (more of that later), re-tweet other people’s insights and musings, upload interesting professional links to LinkedIn, connect with everyone and anyone. This way I look focused, motivated, ready.

When I’m not building my presence online I’m networking in person at events, dinner parties, cocktails, even at work. I’ve stopped seeing friends; now I see only contacts – what can I do for them and what will they do for me if I impress them with my expertise and professionalism? Business cards have come back in fashion. Through my social media presence employers will find me, check me out and eventually employ me. I’m amazed anyone has time to work.

Are these today’s equivalent of Alan Bennett’s ‘gobbets’, as Hector calls them, ‘handy little quotes that can be trotted out to make a point?’. The History Boys satirises the gaming involved in applying to Oxford but today’s social media gaming feels rather similar. My hackles rise and I understand why Rudge, towards the end of the play, states ‘If they like me and they want to take me they’ll take me because I’m dull and ordinary…’

Connecting the Dots Forward…

In his 2005 Stanford Commencement speech, Steve Jobs narrates the time he dropped out of college – and then started dropping back in – to the things that really interested him. One of the first courses he took was Calligraphy, a course that, ten years later, provided the basis for Apple’s phenomenal graphics. How could he have known, he asks in his 2005 Stanford Commencement Speech, that this knowledge would one day be so valuable?

What if the point of education is to provide students with the dots that they may later connect and join up – just like the dot-to-dot pictures that we enjoyed so much as kids? Is Gove’s new curriculum allowing this to happen? Can a diet of EBacc subjects, prescriptive content and rigorous assessment driven by an education department focused on market forces, school monitoring and standardisation of provision (rather than what’s good for our kids) give today’s students the opportunity to learn in the wider sense, to learn the stuff that they don’t even know they will one day need and use?

Today the head of the CBI called for ‘GCSEs to be scrapped’ because it is narrow and out-of-date. He also warns of a false choice between academic and vocational lessons. Internationally we are the ‘oddballs’ in Europe, putting our students through major exams at 16. He calls for curriculum reform which values practical skills, soft skills such as ‘character and resilience’ and academic knowledge equally.

How extensively have we researched the value of an education driven by intellectual curiosity, philosophical challenge and practical activity rather than performance measures? An education that allows students to acquire knowledge and experience which isn’t immediately useful but can develop creative and innovative thinking, confidence and resilience alongside formal knowledge – an appropriate preparation for an employment environment which is driven by change, chance and complexity. In essence, a joining of the dots?

Steve Jobs 2005 Stanford Commencement Speech

BBC News: CBI Head calls for GCSEs to be scrapped.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-33190028

Shaking things up…and off.

Seven Reasons Teachers (EVERYONE) Should Shake Things Up images

Try something new! Yep, we’ve heard it before. Loads and Loads of times. But being told something a million times doesn’t make us hear it any differently. Even meeting friends who have taken up pottery or Asian Fusion cooking and are enthusing endlessly has little impact. It takes 50 hours to change a habit or embed a new skill into our normal way of working. 10, 000 hours to become experts. Change is hard.

Schools are very good at creating resistance ‘mindsets’. Tight routines and structures give little chance to think differently –  education is almost opium to teachers. Maybe the government’s strategy is to hem teachers in so tight that we cannot change or leave. It certainly feels that way. I’ve taken up bouldering, a form of climbing without ropes, only not so high. It made me think about other aspects of life I want to change. We are quickly institutionalised by schools – trying something new is an act of rebellion against the oppression of the system. Here’s why we should:

1) Because teaching is the most routine profession. Everything is dictated by the timings of the school day. Such routine means we never miss a lesson or a meeting – my body clock even knows when it is coffee time on holiday. Disrupting the routine and the familiar is vital. Small changes – like taking a different route to school – can make a huge difference.

2) Because we need to be stimulated too! We spend our time inspiring and motivating our students and become robots when we have taught a text or mathematical concept or historical event so many times we can do it with our eyes shut. But we get very little opportunity to enrich our own imaginations and creativity, to think in different ways and do things differently. Much as I really enjoy the learning dialogue that marking invites, another batch of essays on a text I have taught fifteen times simply isn’t motivating – even when they are funny (by which I mean tragically wrong).

3) Because it’s dangerous! Trying something new is scary when you are used to the safety and comfort of the familiar. I walked into a buzzing seminar room at Ealing Studios at the weekend feeling very small and alone and learned how to read film scripts for the studios. I can’t remember the last time I did that – when I walk into a classroom or meeting room I take control of my space. But doing new things regularly makes it easier, until it’s also routine.

4) Because it’s really hard to be a student again. We get too comfortable being the experts; we forget what the students don’t know. We pitch and pace lessons every day but when were we last in a situation where we couldn’t keep up with the learning? Our students experience this regularly; we are more sympathetic to their anxieties and worries if we remember what it feels like. That makes us better teachers. No brainer.

5) Because teachers are insular. Education is insular. You know that teachers will be talking shop all night in the pub; you never bring more than one teacher to a party. If you do, they will have found each other within minutes through some kind of invisible GPS, and they will be talking shop… again. We live and breathe education;  attempting new things brings something new into the classroom – the world beyond these walls just happens to be the place where many of our students are happier, too, so making that connection for them only builds their confidence.

6) Because teachers are blinkered. We are passionate about our subjects, and we might even call ourselves experts in our fields. But when was the world all about Geography or Literature or PE? What would happen if we let teachers loose with proper CPD that took them outside their academic environments? Corporations give their staff challenge days under the guise of bonding. Let’s get a multi-disciplinary, co-curricular perspective into our teaching – a way of thinking and working much better suited to the modern world.

7) Because teaching is about growing. Building a ‘Growth Mindset’ is the big idea in education at the moment. Building grit and resilience develops out of our comfort zone – another education buzzword. But why are we preaching to our students about taking risks and being bold when we do nothing of the sort? If education is about growth, we should all be growing together.

Go on – get out there.