Why we lead: ensuring success in challenging circumstances

Oct. 20, 2017
Jim O'connell lauder

Jim O’Connell Lauder

Assistant Vice Principal at Dixons Trinity Academy

This blog is part of our new blog series, 'Why we lead'. The series takes a look at the inspirational motivations of our participants by taking a behind-the-scenes look at their leadership journey.

Jim O’Connell Lauder is Assistant Vice Principal at Dixons Trinity Academy in Bradford. After being promoted to middle leader at the end of his NQT year and having worked in some of the most disadvantaged schools in the country, his journey through leadership has been quick. As a Future Leaders graduate, Jim is relishing the opportunity to apply his learning from some incredibly challenging environments to a new role at an outstanding school. 

What challenges have you faced throughout your leadership journey and how have you overcome them?

I have certainly come up against a lot of challenges throughout my journey! I started Future Leaders at 26 and went from being Head of Philosophy at a leafy, laid-back sixth form college in Essex, to working at Ark Elvin Academy, one of the toughest turnaround schools in the country.

I would arrive at work at 7am and within the first half an hour I could be facing issues such as teachers walking out, IT systems collapsing, or children engaging in really challenging behaviour. I had to adjust to that environment incredibly quickly and make the best of the resources I had available to me. Sometimes it was just sheer will to succeed that helped me to get results. If I was being blocked in my attempts to make progress, I’d change tack, work with other people and just keep plugging away.

Part of overcoming challenge, for me, was realising that often you can’t actually fully solve issues, but doing your best and learning from what didn’t work is just as good. If you stick to your moral purpose, you can keep working through difficulties and take learning from those times it doesn’t work.

What impact are you most proud of?

In my first year at Ark Elvin Academy, I took the lead on reading. I had 120 children in key stage 3 who couldn’t read at all. A lot of them were new arrivals to the country with Gujarati being their first language. They were shy and socially inexperienced, and most could not sign their name.

I had to say to staff, “this isn’t okay, we need to rethink what we’re doing”.   

Making changes required a great deal of negotiation with staff because I changed the school day entirely. I asked them for more of their time which is always a tricky ask from teachers! We put interventions in place by having morning classes for these children which taught them the absolute basics of reading. Ultimately, 90% of those children learned to decode over the course of that year. To have a project that is a great achievement but has also actually improved a child’s life; that was a proud moment for me. We spend so much time as teachers doing things that don’t directly lead to impact for the kids, but teaching those children to read just felt like an inherently good thing for me to have done.  

How did the Future Leaders programme help you to become the leader you are today?

The relationships that I formed through the Future Leaders programme and the network have been invaluable. Being able to talk to other Future Leaders about best practice and the issues they’re experiencing has given me skills and learning that I have been able to carry with me throughout my career. My coach was also such an important part of the programme, providing a dedicated space to seek advice and being a calm sounding board for me. 

IMG_0003(c-S).jpg 'Excellence is a habit' - the canteen in Jim's school

What is the most important thing you’ve learned as a leader?

I think the most important thing I’ve learned is to stick to your values. You have to constantly reflect on your current situation and check that you’re still being true to your principles. I have been incredibly lucky with the opportunities I’ve had and it’s not always easy but, where possible, stick to your values within what you’re doing.

Having worked in such challenging environments throughout your career, do you have any tips for motivating a team in these circumstances?

I think you need to have a clear plan which reflects the moral purpose of what you’re trying to do and demonstrates why your vision is important.

Once you’ve got buy-in from your team, it’s vital that you stick to this plan consistently. Keep working towards that goal without faltering; inconsistency is the enemy of progress! The more you try to change processes and systems, the more you get stuck in a cycle of believing that change is the only answer. This makes it hard to prevent staff from becoming distracted and demotivated, something you don’t want when you need them on board during difficult times.  

" If you stick to your moral purpose, you can keep working through difficulties and take learning from those times it doesn’t work"

What are you looking forward to from your new role in an outstanding school?

The emphasis on culture and the mission and values at Dixons Trinity is important. So often that sounds like management speak, but it’s clear to me that they genuinely live and breathe their culture every single minute here. I’m excited about learning how to craft and maintain that because at Trinity, some of the pupils are from really difficult circumstances, yet 1 in 4 of them achieved straight A’s. I’m thrilled to start playing a role in that success by bringing my previous experience of working with children from challenging backgrounds into a new environment.

This article originally appeared on the website of the Ambition School Leadership. In March 2019 the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute. 

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