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Derryn, the sense maker (ITWS#17)

I have a brilliant collection of contacts in LinkedIn gathered over my own years at work and play. I inflict my posts on all of you as well as the wider LinkedIn community but, until now, I have no aspirations to be an online influencer. For this particular post I wish I had a kerzillion readers who would read and celebrate what I am sharing with you.

The reason being is that I want to talk about the single most important thing to me. My wife, Derryn. As part of a series of blogs about senses this is appropriate as we have a shared sixth sense, or at least so it seems. Without question she is my sense-maker, helping me navigate through a fog that I occasionally find myself in. That capacity to make sense of things has been a central theme is all aspects of her teaching career too….

What I really want to do today though is celebrate her teaching career which she retires from at the end of this week. COVID19 has meant that there is no opportunity for an ordinary sense of closure marked with her students and her colleagues. For her, and other retiring teachers like her, this has made an already complex journey an even more emotionally charged one. I have felt a little helpless in doing anything about this so perhaps this is my small contribution to raise a smile, to ease the pain of departure. Funny thing is, my bestest friend is not on LinkedIn, so will most likely not see this. Will I tell her I have written it?

Where to start? I have tried a couple of approaches but none seemed to flow so how about a few words that mean something to me in terms of describing the professional Derryn. Perhaps a significant truth is that many of these describe the private and the social Derryn too. Here we go, in no particular order: aura, creative, inspirational, passionate, leader, gratitude, generous, energetic, positive, inclusive, enthusiastic, compassionate, resilient, determined, focussed, role model, challenging, courageous….

I confess I am not sure that I know what an aura really is but nonetheless Derryn has one! Her forcefield is one that is tuned to draw people in 99% of the time, it is seemingly an unlimited supply of energy that she combines with a willingness to share it with others who perhaps have a need. I don’t think I have ever come across someone with such a positive vibe.

It is fascinating to watch how people respond to her, both pupils and staff. Without any apparent effort she would engage people, however challenging the situation, and build trust by being clear what she expects of them and equally clear on what they can expect from her. Her trick is to always meet the expectations that she sets in relation to herself and other people. I must confess to the sin of pride when I have watched how staff and pupils behave towards her. From the outset of her career it has been clear how people quickly come to respect what she has to offer and how she offers it.

Her creativity started as a classroom teacher when she never failed to get the best out of her students. She was equally at home with working with gifted and talented or with students whose motivation was not towards school. I recall her being the first teacher to succeed in getting a piece of written work from a student I’ll call Paul. Paul rejected school from day 1 and had a vigorous response to engaging with any English that had a whiff of curriculum. There was no chance of getting any work on Shakespeare or Steinbeck from him! So Derryn invited him to let her into the secret of his inspiration. Undaunted by his favouring of the I Spit On Your Grave films (this was a while back!) she challenged him to write on that topic as it inspired him. He did just that, and did so very well. In doing so he came to realise he was good at writing as a result of being encouraged to work on what he felt he could. It’s a story that has been repeated many, many times over the years. Accept people as they are, find their motivation, and explore/ exploit it to their advantage.

Her creativity also played out in the development of teaching practice, both her own and her colleagues. She was a whizz with using IT as a teaching aid when the one school computer took up the boot of a family car. She actually wrote a manual on how to bend a computer to the needs of English teacher in one of her early schools. In every school she has taught she has left a legacy of improved and inspirational teaching practice which, whenever possible, she has shared within her education authority.

As well as English she has also taught Drama and, for a significant period, Media Studies. I have to confess a response that was less than positive when Derryn told me she was setting up a Media Studies programme from scratch. I had a spot of University arrogance playing out on the back of the assumption that some subjects, media studies being one of them, were rather ‘lite’. This was also a stance taken on more than one occasion with some of my UoS colleagues and they, like me, learned that if you wish to make a case for or against the value of a particular subject with Derryn then you have to do so with more than just prejudice. Jeez, she can carry an argument with both clarity and passion. I learned so much from listening what she was helping her students understand about history, social policy, behavioural science, artistic creativity, influence and being influenced all in talking about comedy, comic strips, advertising campaigns and many other media topics. Ate some humble pie there, I surely did!

Speaking of pie! Towards the end of her career Derryn had a flirtation with early retirement as she sensed her trademark positivity was ebbing away. The solution came in the form of her supporting her food tech department and taking on what I will call cookery lessons. It was the perfect tonic for her as it reconnected her with pupils at a time when she was at risk of being swamped by the strategic and operational decisions arising from a falling school role and a the less than supportive attentions of Ofsted. Her enthusiasm for the theory and practice of cooking and her interest in knowing more about what you are eating led to many a student re-evaluating what was good to eat while re-affirming her own passion for getting the best out of a class full of students.

Latterly the same enthusiasm and flair had been applied to teaching History. Her last ever lesson was about Henry VIII and his selective use of faith in pursuing power, money and love. I just asked her to describe this lesson as I am typing this and she was beaming away as she recalled the robust and intelligent discussion as her 13yr old’s shared views on the morals of our most (in)famous king. She was quite the subject polymath and had a suite of approaches to teaching that went well beyond simply delivering a curriculum. Saying a goodbye to this class as the lockdown took hold was an acutely emotional moment and one which left her literally bereft. While her resilience and courage reasserted itself very quickly I suspect the memory of that moment will be one of the most significant as a reminder of just how much teaching has meant to her.

For more than 30 years Derryn has led Departments and Faculties, been an Senior Teacher, and for all her time at Toynbee, a Deputy Head. She felt content in this leadership role as it ensured she could still teach as time allowed. Perhaps most important to her became her leadership in teacher and teaching development, something that she engaged with from many different perspectives. In her relationships with her staff she effortlessly role modelled the professional behaviours she expected to see. With the vast majority of people she managed and collaborated with over so many years she lead through encouraging a sense of commitment towards whatever work she was leading. It is simply in her nature that she is able to foster commitment rather than lead through compelling people. It’s a very great skill.

In recognition of this commitment Derryn would never fail to show her gratitude with a warmth and authenticity that really meant something. I was confounded by how she would send a handwritten, personal message to every one of her staff each Christmas and frankly a little pissed off that so much of our home made jams and chutneys made their way into Toynbee staff’s larders. Not for long in most cases, she really is a fine cook! There is nothing fake or strategic in her generosity. It comes from the heart.

Derryn has been an inspiration to so many people. There are thousands of pupils whose engagement in learning have been influenced by her. There are many teachers whose progress on their own leadership journeys has been enriched by their memory of how Derryn did things. Over the last few months several have independently talked about how they wonder what Derryn would have done when they find themselves in a challenging situation. She could lead from the front yet could have written the book on servant leadership and compassionate leadership too. Although not a matter of regret I would love to have seen her as headteacher in ‘her own school’ given how she grew even further in stature in the two periods she was acting headteacher. I remember during one of these periods I had to carry her from car to office because of a chronic back problem. Even though she could only sleep on a sort of chiropractic deckchair for several months her first thought was always for others.

There it is, my celebration of Derryn as a teacher, as a sense maker on so many different levels. She is an extraordinary professional and an extraordinary woman. Teaching’s loss is my gain! I am massively looking forward to seeing where she will focus her talents in the future, all the while benefiting from the fact that we will be able to spend more time together.

Looking forward to that, beautiful lady.

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