West Midlands Regional Leader: Kirsty Tonks

Leadership Biography:

Name: Kirsty Tonks

Phase: Secondary and Primary

Role: Principal Designate

Sector: Academy and Free School

Region: West Midlands

Years Served in Education: 23

Leadership Journey:

Assistant Head in Primary; Manager of School Based Company, Shireland Learning; Assistant Principal in Secondary; Director of Shireland Teaching School Alliance

Leadership Coach/Mentor/Inspiration: Jan Rudge / Mick Waters

Twitter Handle: @KirstyTonksSCA

Blog: N/A

Leadership Reflections:

Why do we need WomenEd?

WomenEd is currently highlighting the fact that despite it being a fifth of the way through the 21st Century, we are still seeing a disproportionate number of women making it to the top in education. It is an agenda that I feel had been put on the shelf as ‘sorted’, but for me the issue has still remained and not disappeared. WomenEd is reclaiming that agenda; bringing it off the shelf, dusting it down and asking us to seize it and move forwards with it and making changes for this and the next generation of female leaders.

Why do you volunteer to contribute to the WomenEd community?

For the last 15 years I have advocated the role of technology for school improvement and realised that there are still not enough women in education in this particular area. I would very much like to be a part of that change that sees an increasing number of women of all ages moving into this space. I also feel that after being supported and encouraged to take the step to leading my own school, I very much want to facilitate others in taking the steps towards this aspiration themselves.

How do you maintain a work life balance?

Over my career to date I have not always found it easy to get that balance right. In fact, in my early days I really burnt the candle at both ends and in the middle when it came to work, getting in at 6 in the morning, working till 8 / 9 at night and spending half of Saturday and most of Sunday preparing and planning. There was absolutely no balance and my personal life definitely suffered. Now I make sure that I try to have my two ‘free’ (no work past 6pm) nights in the week a free Saturday and settle down to work on Sunday afternoons. After 20 years I finally feel I have got that balance. I don’t resent the work that I do at home and it seems to work for me.

How do you combat the imposter syndrome?

I have to admit this is something that I have unquestionably ‘suffered’ from and I’m not completely sure that I am ‘cured’. Have I sat in meetings and thought – “What am I doing here? Will they find out that I shouldn’t be really be here? Do I have the word ‘fraud’ floating above my head? Categorically yes, I have! And I definitely think that it is more of a female ‘issue’, although not exclusively. I have often compared my own or other female colleague responses to situations, challenges or opportunities to our male counterparts and thought of the vast differences in those reactions between us. It’s part of my nature to question myself and worry if I have got things right or how people view things I am involved in. What I have learnt is to remain true to myself and not change for others. People can sense ‘fakeness’. Being authentic is vital as a leader.

I have also learnt to take risks; as the mantra goes, ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ and then make sure I learn from the mistakes that I make. And it’s ok to admit as a leader that you are not the font of all knowledge educationally and that you don’t know something – that is not a weakness; it’s an absolute strength. In the past I have found mantras useful to avoid self-doubt, but take time to choose one that resonates with yourself and not using one that you’ve seen on Twitter that morning or one that you hear a colleague using. Mantras are a personal choice.  360 reviews are also useful tool as a leader to see how others view you and for me, more often than not, they show that I worry unnecessarily about certain things. I’m not sure I would be the person I am if I was a more blasé and uber confident leader and I don’t think I want to be. What I do try to do is mould that uncertainty into a more reflective approach that I can positively channel to make the changes that are needed. At the end of the day, I strive to be a confident and trusted leader and focusing on my own insecurities in a meeting will not allow me to be in a position to lead objectively and decisively.

What are the values that your shape you as a leader?

I’ve recently had to write the vision and define the values for our new schools with a team and the values we chose for those very much mirror my own as a leader and as a person. They are EXCITE; you have to have passion and be excited about what you do. I love my job and want the people I work with to feel the same; for both staff and pupils to be excited to come to school. EXPLORE; I constantly want to find out more and learn about ‘stuff’. When I left university it suddenly hit me that I wouldn’t have ‘formal’ learning in a full time way again and from that moment on I have valued any opportunities I have had to learn more and ever strive to improve. EXCEL; whatever the outcome I think you need to strive to be the best you can be and do the best you can. No-one can criticise that motive, as long as success doesn’t come at any expense. It has to be tempered by a set of moral principals.

What has helped you progress in your leadership career?

In the last 10 years at the school and Trust that I work for, I have been lucky to have been supported and encouraged to go for promotion and been given opportunities to do things that have taken me out of my comfort zone and helped me grow professionally and as a person. I have been trusted to do a range of different roles that have rounded me and I have been given the space to make those roles my own and succeed. There are a whole raft of people that have helped and supported me over the years at Shireland and those people have had an unshaking belief in me. This belief has helped propel me forwards. I have also had huge support at home and this makes a real difference too.

Leadership Advice:

Aim for 100% but be satisfied with 80%.

Leadership Inspiration:

I am currently reading Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed – the idea that there is nothing wrong with making mistakes as long as you learn from them really resonates deeply with me and is something that I have often shared with others. No-one is the finished article and you often learn more form the mistakes you make than you do from your successes.

Leadership Mantra:

“Feel the fear and do it anyway!”

It comes from the title of a book by Susan Jeffers and it made me think differently and encouraged me to make choices that took me out of my comfort zone.


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