As the old saying goes, you can never really understand someone else until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes – and this is certainly true when it comes to grasping the full extent of the pressures and responsibilities attached to senior leadership in schools. If you are trying to explain the benefits of investing in a specific new teaching and learning resource to a time-poor head with an increasingly stretched budget, then you stand a much better chance of getting your message across if it’s clear that not only are you completely familiar with the product you are talking about, but you also have a genuine grasp of the full scope of the decision making process.
Michelle Johnson currently dedicates a large portion of her career to talking to leaders in schools about GCSEPod, the digital solution that provides a high quality, consistent learning experience for students across the curriculum as well as supporting teachers in planning, provision and assessment. She is totally committed to the goal of improving young people’s outcomes and closing the achievement gap through outstanding leadership; and remains completely convinced that GCSEPod is a simple, effective and affordable way to help that happen in any school. Why? Because she’s been a senior leader herself, and seen exactly what GCSEPod can do for students and teachers.
Michelle’s first leadership position was as head of science, in the school where she had originally been an NQT. “It was a great feeling,” she recalls, “and I quickly realised that, even more than teaching, the challenges of leadership itself represented a real buzz for me. So I did a postgraduate course, and joined a national headship programme in 2008. I was just 28 years old when I started as an associate deputy head in a Manchester academy, for what I thought would be a one-year stretch. In fact, I ending up staying there for five years, despite the punishing one-hour commute each way, before becoming vice principal and then moving on to another academy.”
Not long after becoming associate deputy head, Michelle found herself responsible for educational technology across the school. “I knew nothing,” she admits. “I had to start from scratch, and do all my own research.” She discovered that when it came to digital resources, she was faced with a culture of departmentally-led sourcing and procurement.
This meant that the offer for young people differed hugely across different subjects, with varying levels of take-up and engagement as a result. This, Michelle decided, simply wasn’t good enough. “Effective e-learning requires an exceptionally high quality resource, combined with a consistency of approach across the whole curriculum delivering the combination of both content and functionality,” she insists.
“GCSEPod delivered that for us; I loved it so much, that when I moved to my second school as a leader, I purchased it there, too.”
It was round about the time that Michelle was moving schools, when the CEO of a global edtech company asked her to work for him. “I said, ‘let me think about it,’” Michelle laughs.
“Two years later, I was ready – but after 12 months the company needed me to spend more time in Australia, which wasn’t what I wanted. I already had a relationship with the team at GCSEPod, and had attended shows with them as a senior leader, talking to potential customers about my experiences with the resource. When they realised I was available, they asked if I would come and work for them. It was a very easy decision – I know that GCSEPod is an incredibly high quality resource, and the rate at which it is changing, keeping up with dramatic curriculum changes across every subject and exam board, fascinates me. This is absolutely where I want to be devoting my time and energy at the moment.”
When it comes to ‘time and energy’, it does rather seem as though Michelle is somehow blessed with more of both than most of us. Since changing careers, she has taken up horseriding, joined a book club and a choir (‘for people who can’t sing!’ she clarifies), and completed courses in wine making and massage. She’s also involved in fostering and rehoming Rhodesian ridgebacks, as well as caring for two of her own – and recently ran her first half marathon. What on earth is her secret? “It’s actually really simple,” she says, with a smile. “When business feels like pleasure, then it doesn’t drain you.
Because I spend my professional life doing something I’m passionate about, and meeting and working with incredibly inspiring people, I have the energy and headspace to explore all kinds of options in my personal life, too.” In other words, GCSEPod is a powerful agent of transformation – and not just for the students and teachers who use it every day.