Championing women in teaching

Erika Eisele

Erika Eisele is headteacher of Dalmain Primary School, a mixed, two-form entry community primary school within the Forest Hill community, located in the London Borough of Lewisham, England. The school’s vision is “where creativity meets educational excellence” and through inspirational, inclusive and academically challenging learning opportunities, Dalmain Primary School aims to nourish and encourage its pupils to become curious, confident and aspirational young citizens of the world.

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While many men and women make up the teaching community across the world, there remains an imbalance, particularly within senior leadership. At primary school level, men are present at senior level at a ratio of almost 2:1. While progress has certainly been made over the years, there is still a long way to go, and this underrepresentation must be addressed at all levels if we are to inspire more women to strive for leadership positions. 

Research into leadership behaviours by McKinsey found that women, more frequently than men, demonstrate leadership styles and traits that are most effective for addressing future challenges. Traditional behaviours of control, corrective action and individualistic decision making were found to be least critical for future success, intellectual stimulation was highlighted as far more important. While this is demonstrated by men and women in equal measure, other factors included inspiration, participative decision making, setting expectations and rewards, people development and role modelling – all traits more frequently exhibited by women. 

At the age of 35, I was appointed to my first headship at Dalmain Primary School in the Forest Hill community, London. While the last two years have been extraordinary to say the least, with many challenges along the way, I believe much of my background and experience has been integral to my role within leadership and supporting other female colleagues strive for excellence. 

Playing the violin since I was three and training at the Royal Academy of Music helped me to become a strong teacher and now, leader. They say practice makes perfect and that is true. With years of rehearsals and playing helping me to hone my skills, along the way I still made mistakes and it’s how I recovered from them that has been important in my career. I’ve taken the same mantra into my teaching; half the battle is being able to continue to turn up and deliver. This is what contributes to overall performance and outcomes. Being able to know your craft, quieten your mind, and focus on the end goal will help dispel any criticisms and alleviate long-standing stereotypes about what leadership ‘should look like’.

Putting all this into practice was key throughout the pandemic, with the last-minute responses from the Government, and actions schools had to put in place. It was crucial to keep everything going despite school closures, and the isolation meant that keeping the team together was one of our greatest challenges. Every individual at Dalmain felt it but regular communication and trusting staff to do their very best, got the whole team through. We are now stronger than ever. Building these foundations are key in instilling respect, admiration and perseverance amongst staff. This is particularly true for my female colleagues, with 75 per cent of my senior leadership made up of women. We work very hard to promote each other’s leadership journeys through training, sharing of practice and conducting regular research. We really champion one another. The biggest thing that drives me is progress; it isn’t just about the children but also the adults that you’re leading. Leadership is a different form of influencing. Sharing wisdom and building confidence amongst colleagues, particularly women, will inevitably result in more meaningful change and difference to the next generation.

Addressing the challenges

It hasn’t always been plain sailing of course and as a woman, the perception of my capability has, at times, been challenged. This was particularly the case when I took up my first headship. Before then I had never experienced any form of sexism, but my capabilities were certainly questioned and challenged. However, when Ofsted visited six months later, the progress that had been made in such a short time was recognised and celebrated. Whenever I am faced with doubt or criticism, it’s important to look at the bigger picture, namely the children’s progress. By having a strong sense of moral purpose, courage and conviction, you can overcome anything. Knowing policies and procedures and having a strong network of people to bounce ideas off also helps. There are many networks out there – don’t be afraid to seek them out and ask for help. The bottom line is, if it’s right for the children, that will always drive me – they have precious time with us and that sense of responsibility runs through absolutely everything I do, as it does for the team we have developed together at the school.

As a holder of public money there are also many important decisions I must make as a headteacher and responsibilities I don’t take lightly. It’s crucial to identify the best resources, provision, and approaches that we need to take as a school to make sure we’re providing the very best teaching and learning opportunities. In most cases, these children only have one shot at a particular lesson, task or subject and if I know I’m doing right by every individual pupil, parent, carer, and the wider community, I feel confident in my abilities and the decisions being made.

At times there has been resistance when I hold people to account or insist on higher standards. This has been the greatest issue I’ve encountered as a female head, and I do sometimes wonder if I would get the same reaction if I was an ‘aspirational’ male rather than a ‘what does she know?’ female. People also tell me that you can’t have a career and a young family, which can be difficult to hear, but I disagree. As a mother-to-be set for maternity leave this summer, I am very mindful to balance the two, and feel it is my responsibility to demonstrate to other females in education that it can be achieved. I know colleagues that will be hungry for an opportunity to step up to support the school during my time on maternity leave and I’m excited to see them flourish. It’s important to inspire them to continue succeeding and developing, regardless of whether I’m on the school premises or not. The right support and advocacy must be in place but when others see what is possible, it will help inspire other women teachers. 

While the balance is important, so too is the reminder to be kind to myself. I realise that as part of the journey I’m about to embark upon, I’m not going to be perfect, and may even, at times, feel like a failure. But what’s important is how I deal with those feelings. It’s my duty as a female leader that is key to modelling this for other women climbing the ladder. By fostering a culture of trust, mutual learning and high aspiration, people are provided with the opportunities to develop their own ways of working and sense and style of leadership. Being open-minded to reflect on what is working and what could be developed allows us to adapt and plan for the future, while celebrating what has been achieved so far. Building confidence and resilience also helps us adapt and respond to whatever this amazing job throws at us! The last two years has certainly proved that. 

Celebrating women at all times 

Awareness days like International Women’s Day are of course an important mark in the calendar and should absolutely be used to celebrate female achievement in all sectors across the globe. However, this shouldn’t be a flash in the pan moment, but a catalyst for ongoing conversation, thought and action. 

In education, it’s not enough to host an assembly or highlight female role models as part of one lesson. It’s vital that the conversations continue to happen all year round. Only then will real thinking and real change happen. This applies both for women teachers and our young girls who must grow up surrounded by female role models to help them realise what is possible to achieve, and not just see it as a handful of women defying the conforms of society. 

The greatest impact is the way we behave day to day. I have been inspired by female leaders before, and I hope to do the same for others, but it is about living your values and demonstrating them in your own way consistently. Both women and men have so much to bring to this job and it is about trusting yourself, knowing what is best for your community and having the courage to follow that instinct – your gut is always right. Not to mention, be that 10 per cent braver in everything! 

All this requires buy-in and collaboration between educational stakeholders at all levels and areas. Together, it is our responsibility to continue shining a light on the brilliant work of female counterparts across the sector to not only help generate further recognition around the imbalances and inequities of gender representation, but also to empower more women to aim for leadership in education. There are many qualities that females possess which demonstrate excellence in leadership. The more we celebrate this, the more meaningful and long-lasting change can take place in our schools and across the world. 

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