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I hope reading
7 Questions with Carla Whelan
helps you in your leadership.
7 Questions with Carla Whelan
Name: Carla Whelan
Current title: Executive Director of Primary Education at Marches Academy Trust
Current organisation: MMAT
I have been in education for over 26 years, working from London to Plymouth and now reside in Shropshire. From working across the sector in both primary and secondary I’ve gained a huge insight into the journey of learning for a pupil from age 2 through to 16. I’m privileged to work with incredible staff who go above and beyond for every individual and to me providing the foundation of learning that ensures a child has the skill set to regulate, process information, articulate and contribute to the world is key. To support learners to become happy, energised by learning and a mindset that drives an ambition to reach their potential (to which is on their terms) is truly a fabulous role to be in.
Which option best describes the religious affiliation of the organisation you currently work for or most recently worked for?
Christian religious affiliation
What type of organisation do you work for or support?
School (5-17 y/os)
1. What have you found most challenging as a leader in the education sector?
Managing the aspiration of wanting to create a magical learning environment and experience for our children, while dealing with the restrains of financial restrictions. Every leader and teacher I have worked with has had a dream, an ambition and a clear understanding of what we need to do, yet this often gets placed in the chains of government directed frameworks. To be courageous with this is probably the hardest thing a leader needs to do.
2. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?
Wow! Hard question as the job is so diverse in its nature. One minute it could be unblocking a drain because your site managers away... or strategically leading a visioning session for curriculum design. Imbetween this the job varies from leading strategically to daily managing. I try to structure in blocked task time so that my day isn’t swamped with meetings with actions with then no time to do those! My email checking generally ends my day, so I can feel closure to start the next day.
3. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?
I spent much of my earlier leadership overanalysing myself. Creating a monster in my head making me feel like I was an imposter! I read a few fabulous books which made me recognise that mistakes, asking for clarity and being kind are essential tools to being successful as a leader. I would often think ‘ oh I can’t ask in this meeting what they mean’ ... then leave and get anxious... yet it’s a strength to say ‘I’m not first on your point could you explain it to me?’. The one thing I find I can’t tolerate is the leader that expresses in their body language irritation ( you know the leader that friend when you ask a question.. sub consciously not aware they’re doing it). This can be a real barrier to developing open and transparent dialogues in teams. It’s important as a leader to learn to use your words and your body language to encourage teams to be honest, open and expressive. You might not always agree but there has to be a respect so all feel they can share their views, have opinions and ask questions. Leaders need to get good at listening, not to reply but to understand.
4. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?
I recently read a book by David Carter, which was about leading Trusts. It was thought provoking in its offer to simplify. To filter the chaos and have clear systems. Clear channel and this brings organisation. I think this really made me aware of how over complicating things brings anxiety to teams, so simple clear systems well communicated are essential.
5. How do you find and keep great leaders in the education sector?
By empowering and energising them. Offering professional development that allows them to ignite their passions, that fuels their beliefs and drives them. By doing this you create an excited and energised culture in a school, a school that’s full of researched and well informed professionals that understand their learning is as important as the children’s. However this needs to be balanced, the expectation for staff to research needs to be nurtured not just expected... done to approaches don’t work! Yet throw an idea seed out and it often grows wildly.
6. What's most important as a leader in the education sector for developing a culture of wellbeing in your staff and students?
First and foremost I believe if you live and breathe integrity and kindness in all you do, you don’t go far from the track! If you model and own this and authenticity then your team have faith in you, they know your decisions are based on these values and they trust you. If the tram have trust and faith, the culture is often positive. If there is a positive culture it breeds daily wellbeing as people want to be there, enjoy being there and feel part of the family. This then can be felt by the pupils and the community. The same is for our children and homes, building trust and ensuring integrity means everyone knows you are doing it WITH them. Then those small gestures regularly to say ‘ I’m thinking of you, I care’. Walking around the school and asking how people are is so important and genuinely daily wanting to support. No wild gestures of one offs! Just daily practice of caring.
7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a leader in the education sector so far?
I have worked for many different leaders before becoming a leader of my own school and from all, I’ve learnt lots. Sometimes how to do things, sometimes modelling how not to! A leader I worked with a number of years ago was a person I saw lots of ‘ how not to’. However I also saw their commitment to the school, their passion for education but their poor communication skills always led to staff feeling undervalued and disconnected. I tried to develop this by (diplomatically) suggesting things which were often ignored. On their retirement there was a real undercurrent of joy from staff which saddened me and as they left they said to me ‘ I don’t know what I’ll do with my time now’. This person had given so much to education, their school and was misunderstood because of their manner. It taught me a lot about your body language, your articulation as a leader and also about having a life outside your job! Fill your life with joy in both work and home.
We're looking at doing a limited, online 30 minute leadership masterclass in the next couple of months. What topic/s would you find most valuable from a leadership masterclass?
What do you feel are the fundamental parts of education we need to adjust following covid to ensure our future generation has what they need to be successful?