Emotional literacy coordinator Julie Leoni pays tribute to a late colleague, and reflects on what she learned from her about emotionally literate leadership

Doreen Williams embodied my idea of emotionally literate and inspirational leadership. She was tough but never shouted; she was kind but didn’t over protect; she gave freedom within secure boundaries; she knew a lot and wanted to learn more; she was curious, witty, intelligent, emotionally aware and responsive.

Making changes
I had only heard bad things about Doreen when I went back, as a teacher, to the school where I had been a student. I was told that she had taken away the freedoms that students enjoyed in my day, and had pushed some of the more maverick staff into early retirement. It turned out that she was acting as the tough deputy to the more retiring and intellectual head.

When a new head was appointed, I came to appreciate the way she provided support, nurturing and advice to someone who was generally thought of as weak, ineffectual and inconsistent. When some kids came out of his office one day, laughing about having called him Homer Simpson to his face, it was Doreen who wiped the smile off their faces and enforced the boundaries; she did not want his job, but nor did she want the school she loved to suffer as a consequence of poor leadership.

She could have bitched about the head, exposed still more of his weaknesses, conspired with the staff against him. That, though, was neither in her nature nor in the interests of the school. She always framed his mistakes in the light of what he still had to learn.

Building a relationship
I was full of sound and fury. Having worked for a year in marketing, done my probationary year at a London comprehensive and spent the next year in India, I thought I was the Dead Poets Society of Medway! The first thing Doreen said to me was that she expected me to stay for at least three years. I wasn’t so sure. What about my world travels? In the event, I stayed for six years.

Under her watchful eye, I mentored student teachers and was eventually appointed to head of year when I was far too young in the eyes of many colleagues. She didn’t push me into these roles, but nor would she let me talk myself out of them. She told me I just had to be good enough and know when to ask for help.

I had madcap ideas for developing the year group. She always listened and showed genuine interest. If there was any cynicism, I never felt it. Some ideas came to fruition. Others didn’t because she knew how to say ‘No’. She would listen to counter arguments but, if she needed to, she would eventually rein me in, explain her position and then not budge. 

Loose tight
Someone once described Doreen’s style of working as ‘loose tight’. There was enough room for me to manoeuvre and initiate. She let me have my head, and would allow me space to succeed as well as to fail. And when she needed to, she took control. I never felt undermined when she did that; in fact, I felt safer. I did sometimes feel angry when I didn’t agree with her, but she would acknowledge my feelings, explain her thinking and then do what she needed to do.

Some staff did not like her. The found her too structured, too opinionated, too soft, too hard. She knew they didn’t like her and let it pass over her. She would speak with courtesy and authority and would challenge any jibes or whispers head on. She didn’t suffer slackers in students or in staff, and would never connive or conspire.

Surprising her students
She often surprised her students. They were usually nervous when they arrived in her English classes at the start of their GCSEs; their experience of her up to then would have been the sight of her when she presided over assemblies and extolling the necessity of picking up litter. She ran a tight ship. No interruptions, no put downs, no mess, no slouching and watch your Ps and Qs while you’re at it. And yet she was the one they would eventually confess to, cry to, confide in and laugh with, because she genuinely liked them and was interested.

Energy and optimism
She was feisty and would stand up for what she believed. Her energy was indomitable. She read widely, collected news articles voraciously, and was passionate about her work, both as a teacher and leader of young people, and as a manager and leader of staff. I might not have always agreed with her, but I always respected her and felt respected back. 

I think it was this optimism that shone through most brightly. She believed that education could change lives as it had hers. A barefoot child and a grammar school success, she had come this far through grit, hard work and acceptance. She believed that people could change and grow, and that most people wanted to be the best they could. She didn’t really believe in failure; only in lessons to be learned. She passed on the need to dust oneself off and start all over again.

In short, Doreen was a wise one, my tribal elder. I hope one day I can be the kind of leader, mother and woman that she was.