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A never-ending learning journey – hopefully!

Dawn Spence Portrait When I was asked to write about my leadership journey I grappled with a few things:

  • It has not been linear!
  • It has been more of a learning journey!
  • It has been mine!

My love of education began with two of my most memorable high school teachers – Mr Foley and Mr Ross. Mr Foley was my English teacher throughout most of my high school years. Looking back, he was inspirational, firm but fair, knew his subject and cared, he cared so well. From the after-school sessions for those who were great at maths but needed English support, to providing meaningful feedback and praise in and outside of his subject area. I will always remember him praising one of my unique pottery creations! Mr Ross was my history teacher, to describe him as creative does not do him justice. He was incredible, not only in his own subject area which included the most amazing classroom set up, a central ‘tree trunk’ to store all the resources needed for a lesson; to the startling shows he put on including a mash up of pantos one year! They both left a lasting impression on me, and the power teachers can have on young people to inspire and nurture their aspirations. Later in my career, I heard this again when Sir John Jones described “teachers as weavers of magic”.

Newspaper clipping, Quiet day at the office? No tanks, says DawnHowever, I never went straight into teaching. My A level studies saw me becoming extremely interested in communism. After studying business and accounting at university I went on to work in industry for a few years then joined an Asian Development Bank funded project in Outer Mongolia. I was working in an ex-communist country, my dream job! Little did I know that this was to become a life-changing experience. I volunteered in some of the children’s homes in the country and on my return to the UK, and several interviews, I realised I could not continue with an industry-based role and trained as a teacher.

From my first lesson I loved being in the classroom. Working with and around all that potential – other teachers, support staff and of course the young people – was so motivating, proving my choice was the correct one. I spent six years teaching in two high schools gaining a secondment to SLT in my seventh year. I loved having whole school responsibility for different areas of work and the challenges that brought, being able to directly influence the opportunities and outcomes for learners.

I carried on my own studies too gaining a MA and my NPQH at the University of Manchester, working in schools for another 12 years including six as a headteacher. However, like other headteachers I ignored certain symptoms and became ill, so decided to take some time off from headship.

A group of people sitting around a tableThat was nearly seven years ago now! I would never have thought that my leadership journey would have taken me to the roles and places I have been. This has included working on a UNICEF funded project in Cambodia for two years supporting headteachers and government officers with results-based management to my current role working for Flintshire Local Authority leading on the strategic development of an adult learning in the community partnership. It is a privilege to work with adults who are returning to education and to support and witness their learning journey. I am not planning on returning to headship, but I am considering returning to the classroom to finish my working career as an ESOL tutor.

So, as you can see my journey has not been linear! It has been a learning journey though, and I decided for 2023 I would formalise some of that learning by gaining the PMP accreditation for project managers, returning to Spanish lessons, training as a peer inspector for adult learning in the community and of course, becoming an associate of the National Academy. It has also been my journey, however, reflecting on this and reading other leadership stories published on the Academy’s website, I realised the similarities we all have on our leadership journeys from Richard Carbis’ advice on not being superhuman to Mark Powell’s use of one of my favourite poems to illustrate how the decisions we make can lead us down different pathways. Many other associates’ leadership journeys have resonated with elements of my own. I think it is important to make our leadership journey our own and we often stand alone in that role, however it is also important to never forget we have more in common, regardless of sectors, than we think, and we can build on those similarities to support and thrive in our leadership roles.

As for the next stage of my journey, I am going to be first and foremost kind to myself, the toughest journey of all! I am going to keep learning and I am determined to continue promoting and celebrating our similarities especially when the role feels so lonely, as Brene Brown so succinctly puts it “we don’t have to do it all alone, we were never meant to”.

Dawn Spence, Associate and Flintshire’s advisor for post 16
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