Be flexible when others can’t be

Dear reader
Our latest blog is written by an anonymous headteacher. They have withheld their identity to protect the stories of their staff and their own children. I think there is something for every headteacher here about diversity and inclusion.

I’ve pondered over how to write this blog for many months. As someone who sees themselves in this vocation to provide a service to others, the idea of sharing my humble opinion of such an important and sensitive subject seemed in fact farcical.

I’ve been in education for nearly 25 years, starting as a teacher and moving into headship in the last five years. Whilst working in senior leadership across two schools ten years ago, I found my passion for developing teachers. As many of you leaders will acknowledge, supporting adults to reflect on and adapt their practice involves quite a skill set, including careful communication and relationship building. I have spent many hours rehearsing difficult conversations, considering my audience and their possible reactions. For me, this is made more challenging because I have a lot of traits of autism and communication mishaps are fairly frequent. When I recently asked my Assistant Headteacher how my autism effects my communication, she replied ‘You’re fairly blunt’. Personally, I just see this as efficient and being succinct, and I’m often exasperated by others who seemly take forever to get to the point.  Because I’m aware of this tendency, I make a concerted effort.

Recently I have been working with a team who have experienced work-based trauma and therefore some staff have neurodivergence through environmental factors. Alongside this, there are also staff with undiagnosed ADHD and ASD, who feel they are failing in their role. They compare themselves to their neurotypical colleagues and wonder how everyone else appears to be finding it so easy. During my first year at this school, I focused on creating a psychologically safe environment, where staff wellbeing and opinion was valued. They decided to openly share their mental health levels at the start of the weekly meeting and they offered support to colleagues who were struggling. By the end of the academic year, staff wellbeing was high and they often communicate how lucky they feel to be part of our supportive team.

A lot has changed in education over the past 10 years and we can now proudly say there is inclusivity in our classrooms. Teachers know how to adapt their lessons, classrooms and routines to suit children with neurodivergence, and these children can thrive when the provision is suited to their needs. But what about our neurodivergent staff? What steps do we need to take in order for diversity within in a school team to not just be accepted, but to be celebrated? Our first phase must be to create a climate where it is safe for people to be themselves, to be honest about their barriers without judgement and to celebrate difference. My teenage son (with an ASD diagnosis) often quotes, ‘Comparison is the thief of joy’, so let’s encourage colleagues to focus on their own journey and champion the diverse strengths found within a neurodivergent team of staff.

In my previous leadership role, I employed a young teaching assistant with a diagnosis of ASD. He started with us as a college student and when we offered him a contract, his mother cried on the phone and thanked me for giving her son a chance. In the UK in 2022-23, only 30% of people with an ASD diagnosis were in paid employment.

When considering the content of this blog, I asked my former colleague if he’d answer a few questions about how leaders can support neurodivergent staff. As you can imagine, the elements of the job he found the most challenging were the social experiences, engaging with colleagues, parents and external professionals.  He told me he has a plethora of pre-planned phrases to say should he get confused and together we created a script for, ‘How to end a conversation’, as this was something he found difficult as did not wish to appear rude by walking away from people.

I asked him what he feels neurodivergence brings to his team. It was a balanced response. He felt he brought hindrance to his colleagues due to his need for clear and concise instructions, and additional processing time. He also openly talked about his lack of ‘neuroplasticity’ and how hard it was for him to be flexible with his routines, and liked consistency. We were able to adapt his working hours to fit with his needs and kept to daily routines, where possible. Although he recognised these reasonable adjustments were essential for him to function in his role, he communicated a regret that he wasn’t able to reach his potential without them.

On a positive note, he keenly expressed how his own experience of autism and strategies could help children, either neurotypical or neurodivergent, to self-regulate and how to deal with feeling overwhelmed by emotions or by the environment. Also, he hoped that his own knowledge surrounding autism could help inform the practice of other members of staff, as well as being a role-model to neurodivergent children, as they would see him as a ‘tangible example of success’.

Shouldn’t all staff teams reflect the pupil body they serve?  If our primary school leaders demonstrated open and flexible approaches to welcome neurodiversity into their team now, would more neurodivergent young people choose teacher training in ten years’ time? Thus, increasing representation for future generations.

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Be flexible when others can’t be

Dear reader Our latest blog is written by an anonymous headteacher. They have withheld their identity to protect the stories of their staff and their