Holding on and being brave

by Julia Knight   @KnightWilliams

In December 2019, I took a bold decision to move on from my current school. I like and follow the Twitter hashtag, 10% braver (inspiring women from @WomenEd) but for me, it was more akin to feeling and being 97% braver. So much felt at stake.

But it wasn’t the first time that I had to be brave. I stepped away from leadership in 2016 when the demands of being a mum were no longer compatible with the demands of being in Leadership. My second son’s first words were in Thai- akin to the number of hours spent away from him after a mere six weeks maternity leave.

So we moved country from Thailand to Bahrain- a reluctant 6 year old and a Thai babbling 15 month old. The daunting prospect of starting over- from houses to childcare - we settled happily into Bahrain and it felt like ‘home.’

However, I will always describe that career move as a sideways step because it was the right decision at that time- not just for me but for my family- or was it the other way round? Right for my family and also right for me...

I often wonder how many times a women makes a decision and their desire are first and foremost? It feels like we are often our own second or third priority.

How often do we sacrifice aspects of our lives to fulfill other obligations? Is this where the pay gap happens, promotions slip away and post graduate courses disappear too, in the tertiary thought that we allow ourselves to occupy?

Unanswered questions abound: if only and why are fruitless and cannot be indulged for we need to carry on doing what we do. Wearing our many hats, badges and titles, braving the world even when we feel vulnerable.

So in January 2020, after the winter holiday allowed time to think; I realised I was at a point. I could settle and stay, leaving ambition neatly tucked away or I could be brave.

I started to apply for a range of roles. These jobs stretched out over the oceans, and would have taken our little family to new places, but none of them really ticked all of the boxes. They didn’t feel right. We didn’t want to move. I didn’t want to move.

By the end of February, I had reached that low and miserable point in job searching where you feel slightly helpless. Dejection is terrible. It allows those questions to rise up and intercept sleep and tea drinking daydreams.

My interview feedback was always positive, and yet rejection came with a palpable but.... “you’re too experienced for this role” or “we have appointed someone internally.” Then to top it all, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the international schools market and I started to receive: “Due to the current global pandemic, we are putting recruitment on hold.”

I felt physically sick at times, the angst of the unknown were comforted by heralded words of wisdom: What’s for you won’t pass by you. Holding my nerve seemed impossibly brave. I did receive offers and the jobs that were just didn’t feel right- offers ranged from Head of Faculty to pastoral leadership- yet in my bones I knew that I couldn’t accept them for the sake of feeling comfortable, even if it was comforting to know that I had secured a job. It felt almost selfish to put me before my family and hold on.

As international teachers often resign long before having a job to go to, you have to be brave enough to spend months searching and waiting for the right job; it is especially hard to hold out, to be brave when the whole family depend on you.

The UK security of a term’s notice following a successful job hunt is a luxury that international teachers give up to live life and teach differently. This is especially comforting when you make the brave move from the UK to abroad. You go with the mantra, ‘if it doesn’t work out, we can always go back’ but after nearly a decade of overseas teaching, I don’t want to go back. International teachers become by osmosis: nomadic, resilient and optimistic risk takers except when you feel so out of control, it’s hard not let fear and panic set in and opt for comfort.

But I knew two things: I wanted to remain in Bahrain and I wanted leadership.

I was steadfast in the decision and with the anticipation that even though Covid-19 had caused upheaval just about everywhere, its chaos could actually clear the pathway for opportunities that could arise from disappointment.

In March, I had an hour long conversation with Executive Head, Carol Pedersen of Eton House, Bahrain. We talked about our shared education philosophies and my CV; she asked questions about my future and what I wanted. I felt emboldened to say Headship, to say that I wanted a mentor and someone I could work closely with to achieve that goal. I could feel that hope rising that this could be it, the one...

Carol is the perfect female mentor, she is easy going, knowledgeable and experienced. She has set up schools in Denmark and China, she embodies hard work and success. As a lifelong expat living and raising her family in the Middle East, there is very little that hasn’t passed by her door as a Headteacher. It’s been refreshing to see dynamic leadership in action - she has designed the new school sites (there are 2 in place with one more on its way) and is the sort of person who rolls up their sleeves and does the job without quibble. Carol has high expectations and that comes from her desire to see children thrive creatively, academically and pastorally.

The international setting is more often than not dominated by white, male leadership; her guidance is a unique opportunity that affords me a much desired professional learning curve. To learn under the stewardship of a strong, female, international school leader and to build the school from the ground up.

As my dreams tumbled out of my head and into reality, that sense of free falling, fear and panic subsided. When I visited Eton House and saw the school, my skin tingled. It was (and is) absolutely perfect; the school, its ethos and vision.

My new role is Vice Principal. To be one of the founding senior staff members of the first fully IB school in Bahrain is such an honour. It is currently up to Year 1 with the island’s first and only fully comprehensive and fully implemented Reggio Emilia curriculum in its EYFS provision. I shall be learning, teaching and supporting in a new setting, alongside new colleagues and a new curriculum; learning about the whole school as we move towards welcoming students to the middle and senior school. Challenging, daunting, exciting and fulfilling in equal measure.

Over on Twitter and the Tes boards, I’ve seen so many teachers looking for jobs and discussing the ups and downs of job hunting - internationally and locally. It’s so hard to hold your nerve, to be brave. But you have to!

All I can say is: do not give up on your dream job, don’t settle for anything less than the place and person that’s perfect for you.

I held out for the right job or maybe the right job held out for me. It emboldened me to signed up for my MA in Education Leadership and has made me feel 100% braver about returning to leadership.

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