'Every single second counts': Evidence-informed thinking and overcoming adversity as a young black leader
There aren’t many trainee teachers in their first year who have their first lessons viewed by hundreds of thousands of people.
Here, Claudenia Williams talks about what it was like to have her first moments in initial teacher training aired on television, and the challenges she met on her journey to leadership.
Her passion and commitment to the pupils she serves has seen her devote her career to keep getting better through evidenced-informed thinking.
As you walk through the doors of Kingsley Academy in Hounslow, West London, Assistant Principal Claudenia Williams says the first thing that will strike you is how polite the students are.
She also notes the diverse student population, with a significant proportion from Goa specifically, and around 70% of pupils speaking English as an additional language. She tells me there is a tangible sense of community, and team spirit.
One in four students are on free school meals. Local families are those in jobs and contexts that will have been hardest hit by the pandemic.
Growing up just down the road, Claudenia faced similar challenges to her pupils when she was at school. This is why becoming a champion that her students can look up to has become the focus of her journey as an educator.
“When you’re working in schools like mine, you have to be a cheerleader. There are lots of barriers that those students have that are outside of our control. So you need cheerleaders; you need champions that can allow those students to be successful.”
A great influence on the way Claudenia leads comes from the adversity she has faced throughout her academic career, which has motivated her to be a role model for her students and colleagues.
She had to work several jobs throughout her time at university to pay for things as simple as textbooks and accommodation. With undiagnosed dyslexia, Claudenia also struggled with the jump up to academic reading and writing. Having thrived at school, this knocked her confidence.
“University for me wasn’t a walk in the park. I almost thought I wasn’t going to graduate. I took a knock on my confidence, but I got my grades, did well, and my experiences there shaped me.”
Claudenia says being one of five people of colour on her course at a Russell Group university was something she wasn’t prepared for at that age. Although assured in her academic ability, she was unaware of the other hurdles that come with being successful in that space. These became apparent in a lecture on evolutionary psychology.
“I remember being in a lecture and the lecturer was talking about whether there should be a separate test for black people. I wanted to say, ‘Nobody let me in, I earned my space here just like everyone else’. And that wasn’t that long ago.”
She now reflects that education acted as an equaliser, allowing her to open doors to further opportunity: “Little old me from my little old town, I was able to walk through the same doors as them. It’s a tool that can open doors. That was the confidence I had to lean on.
“I didn’t have positive examples of a young black woman in the media or at my school. They were limited or were being challenged. It’s not just about challenging, it’s about showing others excellence”.
In 2021, government data on the education workforce revealed that just 7.3% of headteachers were from minority-ethnic backgrounds. Claudenia says the challenges she faced early on in her journey mirror those in the education sector.
“That’s true of education now in leadership, it can be a challenging place to occupy in this skin”.
An unconventional start to the journey
But if the title of ‘role model’ is the first phrase to describe Claudenia, ‘high achiever’ would have to be the second. After finishing her degree, representing her university in athletics at the Olympic Stadium, and a quick spell around the US on an athletics tour, she returned across the Atlantic to start her initial teacher training – which would be aired on national television.
That’s right – the highs, the lows, the mistakes, the small victories of being an NQT; all were recorded and aired as part of the BBC’s Tough Young Teachers for the world to see.
When the programme’s production team first approached Claudenia and asked her to take part, her initial, some might say reasonable, response was: ‘Why would I ever want to do that?’
She was reminded by her mum and some other relatives about the importance of being seen in the role.
“How many black science teachers do you know? Like, young women? And for me, thinking about role models in teaching, particularly in STEM. To be that for somebody at 21-22, I grabbed it.”
Accepting she wasn’t going to be the best teacher in the world straight away, she took on the challenge, believing that trying and failing was all a part of the journey of education that she wanted to show. She knew if she wanted to become a teacher, she was going to have to “learn to get good at failing”.
Claudenia now laughs with confidence about her “very public tears”, but takes pride in the impact her role in the programme has had on others – she still receives emails and messages from NQTs who say they entered teaching because of her.
“I love that. It’s fantastic. Now there are 30 children with a teacher sitting in front of them because of that. They saw teaching be awful, but then they saw it get better.”
“I knew they would only show reality, and it’s important to see that. People think we leave at 3.30, but I think it showed how hard it is. It showed decisions, red tape and bureaucracy. Are we making the best decisions on research-informed interventions? This is the reality.”
“We cannot afford not to be research-informed”
Evidence-informed decision making is very much is at the front of Claudenia’s decision-making. Several years ago, after entering her first leadership role, she took a step back, and spent time to focus on herself.
“I wanted to ensure that I was the best possible teacher I could be. Stepping into my first Associate Assistant Head role, having that exposure, I knew I couldn’t take it lightly. I need to be equipped so I can be a leader that has impact, because I’m working directly with teachers.
“What I input, what I do, and the decisions I make have an impact on other individuals in the building, including the students.
“We know there is a leadership gap in education at the moment and for me it’s important I’m as effective as I can be, that means taking time out to invest in my own learning so that the decisions I make are in line with the best bets, and what we know works.”
As we speak, Claudenia ponders on why prioritising her own development is particularly crucial in her context, with so many students impacted by learning loss as a result of the pandemic.
“Every single second counts. Every moment in that lesson for that child counts.
“The risk is too high, we cannot afford not to be research-informed, we can’t afford not to have teachers who are excellent at what they do. But we can continue to move forward, we can get better at what we do and hone our craft, we can help to ensure our students get the best possible deal.”
"It’s about unlocking the potential in people"
The jump to headship
Claudenia is now an assistant headteacher, and aspiring to headship. She is also enrolled on Ambition Institute’s Future Leaders — a programme designed to aspiring headteachers looking to make that jump to leadership.
She admits with a laugh that she didn’t actively seek out a leadership position. Instead, she sought out the opportunity to make informed decisions on a wider scale, and ultimately have a school-wide impact.
“I think it’s about scale. I think ultimately being the one who sets that culture where every individual can thrive is so essential, there is such a need for it.”
She wanted to have immediate impact in people’s lives, to share her journey with others. Claudenia enjoys the way that the role now pushes her to not only develop her students, but her teachers as well.
“Seeing that tangible impact is powerful! And something you can very easily get addicted to” she says with a laugh.
“Seeing teachers talking about teaching and learning in the corridor and getting excited about it, or talking about retrieval, how learning works, and having an understanding. Knowing that is something you started, and knowing you’ve got someone excited in teaching, and knowing they can pass it on is a great feeling. It’s about unlocking the potential in people.”
Read more about our participants on our blogClick here