A leap of faith: my year of self-employment

LinkedIn lit up this week. Unbeknown to me, I’d reached a ‘work anniversary’. I can’t believe it’s been a year since I left my role as Group Director at Derby following a successful inspection and set up shop as an education consultant, trainer and writer.

You know what they say: those who can, do; those you can’t, teach; and those who can’t teach, become education consultants. I’ve certainly met a few snake-oil salesmen in my time; ex-school leaders who haven’t seen the inside of a classroom in twenty years but insist on telling practitioners how to teach. I was determined not to do that. First, I had a good track record to protect: I’d never been afraid to roll up my sleeves, get my hands dirty, and do the day job; plus I loved teaching and didn’t want my teaching skills to get rusty. Second, when you spend most of your time researching and writing about pedagogy, you can’t wait to put theory into practice with real-life students so I’ve insisted on teaching as often as possible.

Becoming self-employed is a big leap of faith. Admittedly, I had a headstart this time. In 2012 I spent a year working freelance whilst acting as ‘daddy daycare’ to our youngest daughter so my wife could go back to work. As such, I’d already established a business and had a healthy contacts book. Even so, going it alone is like stepping off a cliff, hoping someone’s standing at the bottom with a big enough net.

You never know where the next pay-cheque’s coming from and whether or not you’ll make enough money to pay the mortgage and feed the kids. That pressure can, if you’re not careful, turn you into a mercenary, willing to accept work you’d otherwise reject, or hard-selling your wares to an industry that relies more on collaboration than competition. So I consider myself very lucky: to date, I’ve been able to maintain my integrity (stop laughing), turning down anything I didn’t like the sound of on moral grounds whilst also picking and choosing the most interesting, challenging jobs. Whenever people ask if I’m busy, I touch as much wood as I can and say ‘yes, very’.

Variety is the spice of life. Not only have I been able to keep very busy this past year, I’ve also taken on all manner of different projects. I’m now writing for several more publications including the The Times Ed, in addition to my longstanding column in SecEd (which has become weekly, albeit with the odd holiday!), and have churned out (by which I mean carefully researched and lovingly written) a couple of books in the last year including Making Key Stage 3 Count which has led to lots of speaking engagements, and The New Teacher Survival Kit which I’m now developing into a training course for a national provider.

I sometimes feel like a travelling salesman. As well as writing, I’ve kept very busy travelling up and down the country delivering countless open courses in hotels (as my waistline will attest) and in-house training for schools and colleges, some sub-contracted from national providers, some delivered directly through my own company. I’ve led CPD days and twilight INSET, too. And I’ve spoken at many a conference and event. Living on the road or rail, out of a suitcase in hotels, does make me feel a bit like David Brent but the joy of meeting teachers and school leaders and getting paid to talk about pedagogy more than makes up for it.

I get to see the impact of my actions most vividly when providing longer-term consultancy. These return visits also enable me to build relationships. One consultancy job in particular has allowed me to re-kindle an old friendship and get to know lots of other great people. It’s also proven to me the importance of treating people well on the way up and of acting with integrity; you never know, you might need their loyalty later.

I’ve realised we’re surrounded by ghosts. In addition to writing books and articles, and providing training and consultancy in my own name, I’ve also ghost-written training materials and articles for various institutions and offered anonymous advice to organisations and charities. I hadn’t realised how much this sort of sub-contracting goes on. Big providers get the contracts then farm out the work to anonymous ‘ghosts’ like me. Our slice of the pie may be small but the work is always interesting and it builds goodwill and enables me to work from home part of the week. It’s odd, though: I come across my words everywhere. Sometimes I read something that has a familiar air about it, only to realise I’d actually written it. I know my work now features in many a teacher-training course and has been shared in lots of school CPD sessions. I’m always pleased when a student or trainee emails me to ask if I can help with an assignment or if they can cite my work in their essays. It’s my way of passing it on and, in the words of Hector from Alan Bennett’s play, The History Boys, that’s the best inheritance we can bequeath the next generation: “Take it, feel it, and pass it on. Not for me, not for you, but for someone, somewhere, one day. Pass it on, boys. That’s the game I want you to learn. Pass it on.”

No day is the same as the last. What’s more, I get to utilise and hone my knowledge and skills whilst constantly learning and developing myself. In fact, the second best thing about this job is that you get the opportunity to learn lots of new things and to really challenge and deepen your thinking. If that’s the second best thing about the job, what then – I hear you ask – is the best..?

The teaching profession is in safe hands. Travelling around the country and meeting teachers and leaders from hundreds of institutions has been the biggest privilege and the greatest pleasure. Every week I meet scores of new people, whether that be on training courses, at conferences or whilst providing consultancy. I also get to see inside lots of schools and colleges and meet students. This is the best part of the job and constantly reassures me that – despite what you hear in the media and from politicians – the profession is thriving, even under such immense political and financial pressure, and is full of hard-working, dedicated, caring people.

My sheep-dog keeps the Black Dog at bay. My border collie, Meg, has been a constant companion this past year. Dogs really are a man’s best friend, loyal and loving, and an essential accoutrement for the home-worker. So much so, in fact, that they should be tax-deductible. On the days I work from home, far from being distracted by menial chores or daytime TV, I’d happily stare at a computer morning, noon and night without once rising from my chair if it were not for Meg. She makes me get up and go out. Sometimes even willingly. She keeps me fit on our long walks over the moors and through the woods. And, more importantly, she helps keep depression at bay. I do some of my best thinking on our long walks which provide me with the space I need to look at life from a different angle. It is whilst walking the dog that I also find the time to switch off by listening to audio books, throwing sticks, or apologising to passers-by for the fact that Meg’s just licked their child’s face.

What’s next? That’s one of my favourite lines from the peerless TV series, The West Wing. It’s uttered by President Bartlett as soon as he’s succeeded in solving one problem and, without a beat, moves on to the next. It speaks of the relentless nature of leadership but, moreover, of resilience and determination, passion and energy. I love that feeling when you’ve just accomplished something or overcome a challenge, and can tick it off the ‘to do’ list then move on to the next job feeling reinvigorated and refreshed. Although I will, no doubt, be lured back into full-time employment at some point in the future – attracted by the next big challenge like a Bisto kid floating on the gravy trail or a rat scuttling in line behind the Pied Piper – for now, and for as long as my diary is full, I plan to march onwards to my own drum-beat. 2017/18 is already looking busy. I’m booked to speak at several conferences and deliver training across the UK and as far a field as Azerbaijan! I can’t wait to get started on the next challenge. So… what’s next?

Follow me on Twitter @mj_bromley

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