In an excerpt from her book, Be More Toddler, Emma Turner describes the moment when she first realised she should be taking leadership inspiration from the littlest sources
A ball pit at soft play may seem an unusual spot for an epiphany, but that is where I had mine. I was amidst the migraine-inducing noise, primary colours, sticky surfaces and questionable smells of our local soft play with my then five year old, two-year-old and newborn in tow, when I bumped into a former colleague. He had been an interim headteacher at the school where I had worked and was there with his brood of grandchildren. He was – as he had always been when we worked together – wonderfully buoyant, positive and hugely optimistic about, not only education as a whole, but also what I had achieved, so far, as a leader. During the conversation we reminisced over achievements and colleagues, proudly introduced our respective progeny, and I found myself overwhelmingly happy to reconnect.
My initial thought was to message my former co-head job share colleague, and close friend, to share the lovely news that I’d bumped into our old interim head. However, by the time I had wrestled the three tiny ones through the soft play security gate, convinced one of them that the woman behind the counter wasn’t actually trying to chop her arm off but was just trying to attach an entry wristband, and then realised we had to all traipse back out again to change the newborn’s ill-timed exploding nappy, I was exhausted and my colleague had gone.
I sat in the ball pit, trying to balance a newborn and a ‘phone at the same time to send that text, whilst wondering where my five year old had dashed off to and also ensuring that my two year old didn’t fall, face first, off the foam steps when, all of a sudden, I felt an unexpected wave of sadness.
I suddenly realised that the conversation with my former colleague had all been in the past tense. Everything he had referred to about me, using such lovely phrases such as, ‘You were always going to do well, you had such talent’ and ‘You were a real star’, were all in the past tense. It was as if all the bright talent and stardust he had referred to had suddenly vanished and I was now a shadowy former version of myself.
In the harsh, artificial light of the play centre, I realised my own leadership lights had somehow dimmed. At that point I had been in education for almost 18 years and I had worked tirelessly throughout that time to amass and share leadership experience alongside countless hours, weeks and years of extra study and work to hone my skills, but in that moment I was diminished. As I hauled my two year old from the edge of the steps by the waistband and set her on her feet again, I recognised for the first time the silent gradual erosion of my own leadership skills and presence. I realised that there was no-one to grab me by my waistband and set me
back on my leadership feet again.
In that moment I could so easily have become a statistic; the largest group of people to leave education, after retirees, are women aged 30 to 40 (37%). That is a staggering figure and, whilst in that noisy ball pit, looking at my two daughters and my newborn son, I decided that group was not going to gain another member. I was going to defy the statistics.
As I watched my middle daughter repeatedly try to fling herself off those steps I noticed the thin line of determination into which she’d set her mouth, and the steely focus with which she’d attempt every jump. ‘Now that is what I need to channel,’ I thought to myself, ‘that toddler focus on getting things done and believing that nothing is impossible and that – even if you fall flat on your face – you get back up and have another go.’
In that moment, my idea of using observations of just what can be achieved by replicating the positive attitudes and behaviours of toddlers was born. My three, new, tiny ‘colleagues’ taught me more about leadership than any training I’d been on in decades.
Published with permission from John Catt Educational.
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