Mei Lim studied ancient and modern history at the University of Oxford before training with Teach First. She then worked in London secondary schools for six years before completing a master’s degree in public policy in Berlin, focusing on social and education policy. She started as a deputy headteacher at Weyfield Primary Academy in Guildford in 2014, before going on to become headteacher in 2016.
“…The best parts of my day are greeting the children and their families on the gate at the start and end of each day. I love being able to engage with everyone personally. These small interactions are an important part of setting the tone and creating buy-in from the whole community…”
A pathway with a clear social mission
At university, I volunteered with an organisation providing educational support to disadvantaged children, as well as working overseas during my holidays as a camp counsellor for children with disabilities. These were extremely formative experiences for me and so, when I left university, Teach First was one of the few graduate pathways that resonated with me through its clear social mission.
My career choices continue to be determined by my strong desire to have a positive impact and to address educational disadvantage. This is one of the reasons why I eventually made the shift from secondary to primary phase. At primary, you have an amazing opportunity to change the course of a child’s life chances, as all the research shows that the gaps between socio-economically different groups of children emerge during the early years and continue to persist.
I loved teaching in the dynamic environment of a classroom but the move into leadership has been incredibly enriching. It is really exciting to set out a long-term vision for the children in our community and to lead a team of professionals towards delivering that vision.
A multifaceted role
It sounds like a cliché but no day is ever the same. The role of a headteacher is very multifaceted, which is why I enjoy it so much, but you have to be good at prioritising – and delegating! I always make sure I spend sufficient time with the children, which sounds obvious but it is surprising and often frustrating how much administrative work is required of the head. I plan to get most of my work and ‘thinking’ done outside the school hours of 8.35am-3.00pm, which enables me to be fully present and visible during the school day.
Our school is challenging on many levels so on any given day it’s pretty much guaranteed that I’ll be dealing with one or two behaviour issues, meeting with parents, discussing curriculum or planning with class teachers, following up on a safeguarding concern, supporting staff and making decisions about resources.
The best parts of my day are greeting the children and their families on the gate at the start and end of each day. I love being able to engage with everyone personally and. These small interactions are an important part of setting the tone and creating buy-in from the whole community.
I’ve learned that it’s really important to strike the right balance between the strategic and operational parts of my job. It’s easy to become distracted by the day-to-day logistics of running the school but my leadership needs to be about ensuring we stay focused on the bigger vision and our main priority: the quality of teaching and learning interactions that take place in the classroom.
Choosing Teach First
Teach First has a compelling mission to address socio-economic disadvantage and its teacher training pathway gave me the opportunity to work in challenging schools. Although the initial commitment to Teach First is only two years, I have continued to receive invaluable support from the organisation as an ambassador.
— Teach First (@TeachFirst) September 4, 2017
I have access to fantastic training and networking opportunities and have made very close friends over the years. I have also found mentors through Teach First, which I think is a hugely important part of being able to navigate new leadership roles successfully, especially as a woman.
Taking time out of teaching to study full time in Berlin for my master’s degree
Having worked for six years, it was a real luxury to be able to devote all my time and energy to learning again. I set out to complete a master’s degree in public policy with the intention of moving into policy making or research, but I ultimately came full circle and decided that, with my particular strengths and skills, I could have a bigger impact working directly in schools.
Studying international social and education policies helped widen my perspective on the education system in the UK and reminded me of the need to always look up and out: someone, somewhere will be doing something different or the same and it’s important to reach out, connect and learn from each other; nothing will be gained from us all working in isolation.
My studies also reinforced the need to implement evidence-based policies in school and not to be sucked in by zeitgeist or the latest fads – people are always trying to sell me silver bullets but they rarely work!
Sea-change, but still a long way to go
When I joined as deputy head the school was really at a crisis point. I worked tirelessly with the headteacher to overhaul and improve all aspects of the school: behaviour, teaching and learning, relationships, safeguarding, everything, and 14 months later the school was judged as ‘good’ in every category by Ofsted.
I assumed the role of headteacher not long afterwards and have continued to embed, fine-tune and evaluate the impact of all our policies and systems. I also spent my first year in the role working hard to change the culture and ethos of the school – raising expectations; instilling a sense of pride in staff, pupils and parents; establishing a purposeful, focused learning culture and celebrating successes at every opportunity.
Whilst there has undoubtedly been a real sea-change in the school, which has resulted in visitors commenting on the positive atmosphere throughout and excellent behaviour for learning of all pupils, we still have a long way to go! I am really proud of the strong outcomes emerging at the bottom end of the school and know that we have to keep working collaboratively to ensure these are sustained as pupils move up, so that they are truly ‘secondary-ready’ by the time they finish Year 6.
I am particularly proud of the way we have coupled a relentless focus on improving literacy and numeracy skills with strong provision for building character, through our unique Scouting programme.
In January 2017, we became a Scouting school, which means we currently have four registered Cub packs (soon to be six!) and over 100 Cubs. Every Friday lunchtime, school “ends” and Scouting begins… The children have completed many different badges already and we had our first overnight camp at the end of June, which was amazing; 70 children camping on the school fields, the majority of whom had never slept in a tent before.
A significant proportion of our children are highly vulnerable for a multitude of reasons, so this part of our work is as important as ensuring they attain age-related expectations. Scouting is helping our children build character, develop leadership skills, gives them a sense of collective identity and social responsibility, and increases their individual self-esteem, which is sorely lacking.
Ensuring girls and boys are given the same access to opportunities
Providing opportunities like Scouting is one way ensure that girls and boys are given the same access to opportunities! All our girls and boys are enrolled as Cubs, once they reach Year 4, and the whole experience is totally levelling.
We also mix the packs across year groups, so you might have a Year 5 girl leading a diverse team of children aged 8-11 in a rocket-launching competition, or a Year 6 boy showing a younger group how to sew on their badges. The Scout Leaders always plan a programme of wide-ranging activities and badges that girls and boys take part in together, whether it’s sewing, fire-lighting or orienteering.
Providing children with positive role models from a young age can also be really powerful. We started an initiative this year called Community Lunches, where we invite different representatives from the community to come and eat lunch with our pupils and talk to them about their jobs. So far, we’ve entertained business leaders, local councillors and a team of scientists from RHS Garden Wisley – the majority of whom have been female. Meeting female ambassadors, particularly working in STEM fields, is very empowering.
Re-energise and reaffirm
Academic years are so short, they literally fly by! After only one full year in the position, I know I still have so much to learn and I’m looking forward to having more opportunities to work with other schools and colleagues in my multi-academy trust.
I’ve also been accepted onto the Teach for All Global Community of Practice this year, which is really exciting as I’ll have the chance to network with school leaders from all over the world and I’ve no doubt the experience will influence how I develop as a leader.
— Teach For All (@TeachForAll) October 6, 2016
As a school, our priority is to raise standards and ensure we provide every child with a fantastic education. We didn’t reach our attainment targets last year with the KS2 [Key Stage 2] results and that disappointment was felt heavily by everyone, but of course the greatest sense of failure resides with me as the head.
It’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the feeling that you’ve let everyone down but ultimately that doesn’t help anyone – my job is to analyse what went wrong, explain but not excuse, and then take action to ensure it doesn’t happen again. We’re welcoming some great new teachers into our team, which is exciting as “new blood” always helps to re-energise and reaffirm everyone’s commitment to the mission.