“It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done for my own skills and career development”

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Deborah McClean

DeborahMcClean is an English teacher living and working in Bristol who we stumbled across after she posted this message on Twitter:

It really resonated with us (well, certainly with Jo from the GovernorHub team who also used school governance as a way to ‘upskill’ during parental leave). The NGA’s Educators on Board campaign promotes this very idea – that teachers should consider becoming governors at other schools to enrich their professional development.

We wanted to find out more about how Deborah had decided upon governance as a useful route for development and what she’s learnt so far.

Deborah, firstly can you tell us a bit about your background as a teacher?

Well I’ve been teaching English for 11 years, firstly at a school in the Forest of Dean and then more recently at a larger school in Bristol. I’ve been enjoying teaching and developing my practice and then I had two daughters – my first daughter Ivy is now 4 and my second daughter Cora is 2.

After I had Ivy, I joined up with the MTPT Project (Maternity Teacher, Paternity Teacher project) which is run by Emma Shepherd. The project involves doing a little bit of CPD, very self-led, whilst on maternity leave. You do some reading around your subject and you also get coaching. I was coached by a wonderful woman, Krista Elledge, on career development and what I wanted to do in the future and that’s been really inspiring. I’m doing the second MTPT module at the moment.

Despite returning for three days a week, on my first day back from my first maternity leave, I went for an interview and got a TLR (Teaching and Learning Responsibility Post) as Head of Extended Project Qualification and Enrichment at my current school. Then I had my second daughter and I thought, ‘Right, now what am I going to do’.I was looking into what else I could do to keep learning and growing while still keeping my three days at work. The answer I arrived at was being a governor – it’s something that I can fit around my family and that’s important as we don’t have any other family nearby to help with childcare.

Was this pre-pandemic?

Yes. I joined the school where I’m a governor just before the pandemic began. My first meeting was in September following everything shutting down so I haven’t had an evening meeting at school yet. This school has five, two-hour meetings a year and that’s very do-able for me. 

It’s something just for me. I work part-time, I look after my children and I do all of my marking but by being a governor I’m still developing my career in the background without having to go up to five days a week. So it’s been really exciting from that perspective – I feel I’m still building my skills. It’s the old chestnut of ‘so you’re part-time, you’re not that bothered about progressing’ – but I’m the complete opposite, it’s just that I can’t work full-time at the moment because I want to spend those two days with my daughters and that’s really important to me.

Can you tell me about what you’ve gained being a governor so far and the ways in which it’s developing your career?

The school I’m a governor at is a really interesting school. It’s an all-through specialist school for autism. I work in a mainstream school, so immediately I’m gaining skills by learning about autism and how it affects young people aged 4 to 18. It’s been really useful in helping me understand children with complex needs.

The school is also reasonably new – their eldest year group, Year 9s, will be going into Year 10 in September so they’re building their GCSE English curriculum from scratch. I’ve been able to bring some experience to that. I’ve been looking at things from a different, more strategic perspective – being on the other side of the table alongside the head, focusing on how staff will work and how they might teach certain parts of the curriculum.

I think the leadership has found it incredibly valuable to have an English specialist as a governor. I’ve been to school a couple of times this year and I just really enjoy it. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done for my own skills and career development. Looking at the curriculum from a completely different perspective than I do in my current school.

Does it give you an insight into some of the challenges of leadership which would be hard to fully understand otherwise?

Yes – I got a handbook from the National Governance Association so I read it and annotated it and one thing that struck me was that you’re there to be a ‘critical friend’. So I’ve been able to look at things from that perspective and it’s helped me to be more strategic in my thinking. 

Presumably you don’t see as many of the financial challenges in your current school as a teacher?

No I don’t –  as a governor you really do see the big picture. I have a greater understanding of the challenges that leaders face and how it’s always a juggle – the need to save money and how if you need it for one pot, you’re invariably taking it from another. It helps to have that kind of overview.

Do you feel like it’s changed your teaching practice in any way?

That’s a really interesting question. I think probably, yes. As an English teacher I’m able to go into their school and look at what they do and bring back ideas and suggestions. In the old days, whenever there was tons of money for CPD, you’d be sent out to other schools. You just don’t get the chance to do that anymore. You’re in a bubble in your classroom with 33 Year 9s and that’s all you have.

However being able to work with different people, especially working with a special school – seeing how they work and deal with issues is really valuable. We have discussions about staff and I can bring my view to the table about how staff might feel about certain changes.

You’d recommend it then – particularly when you can’t jump into a big leadership role at the current time?

Yes and it fits around my family. It’s easy to commit to the meetings especially as we’ve been doing it virtually – but, as I say, even being able to go into the school and meet the staff and pupils has been wonderful. My husband works a half day on a Friday, so I have been able to go into the school a couple of times on a Friday afternoon. I’ve met with the incoming headteacher over Zoom several times too. You do as much as you like really – on top of the meetings.

A lot of the TLR roles I’d want to apply for would be full-time roles. I’m biding my time until I go back up to full-time work but by being a governor I’m still gaining incredible experience. It’s strategic leadership experience without the commitment – and I’m still able to have my two days off with the girls and go to the park and do all of those things. 

Is governance a common form of CPD for teachers in your experience?

I think it’s completely hidden. One of the main reasons I know about governance is that my dad is a presbyterian minister in Northern Ireland and he’s a governor in two schools as part of his job. He’s always talked about the role.

But it was never recommended to me in my teacher training, I don’t know anyone else in school that’s been a governor – apart from being teacher governors, which is slightly different as you’re in the same school.

I keep saying to people you should definitely think about it. I think if you’re teaching five days a week – it might be a bit more of a challenge than if you’re part-time – but it’s still worth considering.  

I think if you asked Joe Public what the role of a school governor involves, many wouldn’t actually know and yet we have such an important role. How might we encourage more people to understand what the role actually involves?

As a member of staff in my current school, we get the odd letter from governors but they’re not very visible.

It’s a real asset for a school to have a teacher governor on the board so maybe schools should be providing more information to their teachers and recommending the role, outside of the role of recruiting a staff governor.

In the most selfish way possible – you need to think of what governance can do for you. As a teacher, it can do an incredible amount. I know the workload might put people off but if they understand it’s not that onerous then perhaps they’d be keen. I’m excited to talk about it if I ever get a job interview.  If people knew how much it can develop them, they’d be more keen.

What’s the most rewarding aspect?

As someone who’s had two maternity leaves and worried that her career might be over or stalled,  it’s given me a real sense of purpose again. You can lose a sense of identity as a new mum and forget what you’re good at. Going down to part-time has made me even more ambitious. I’d say being a governor has given me my purpose back again.

The WomenEd movement has been incredibly inspiring to me. WomenEd is about helping women like me believe in ourselves. They’ve encouraged me to think that while I’ve had two children and I’m part-time, it shouldn’t affect my career progression. I’d love to be a Head of Sixth Form one day or a Headteacher. Women Ed, as a movement, is about saying ‘Yes, you can do that’. They’re a really important driver to help us women believe in ourselves and just go for it. 

When you become a mum, you’re so engrossed in what you’re doing with your children that you kind of forget about what you’re good at. I forgot how to sell myself. Being a governor has helped me remember what I’m good at and acknowledge my skills and experience. It’s built me up and helped me realise what I know.

Have you got anything else you want to say?

Not really – just that everybody should be a governor. It’s just amazing. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done, honestly.

***

Feeling inspired?

Governors for Schools find and place volunteers on school and academy governing boards across England and Wales. Educational skills are in the top three most requested skills from schools that register with them.

Inspiring Governance also connects skilled volunteers who are interested in serving as school governors and trustees with schools in England. They have an ‘Educators on Board’ programme to support education professionals into governance.

WomenEd is a global grassroots movement that connects aspiring and existing women leaders in education and gives women leaders a voice in education.

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