For this episode, Helen Woodward welcomes Jonathan Coy, CEO of HeadteacherChat. They discuss the competitive nature of education, the role of the Headteacher, and creating supportive communities on Twitter.
With the abundance of resources available to school leaders, Lucy and Jonathan Coy noticed a gap; the need for a centralised space for school leaders to seek support, ask questions, and find quality-assured resources.
Find out how HeadteacherChat addressed this gap by listening to the 10 with Zen podcast on Youtube, Spotify or by reading the transcription below:
Helen Woodward: Today, my guest is Jonathan Coy. Jonathan has a background in primary headship and is the CEO of HeadteacherChat. What inspired you to set up HeadteacherChat? Where did the idea come from?
Jonathan Coy: Great to be here, thanks for inviting me! We started on Twitter about 10 years ago. We're very curious as leaders in schools, and we started going on Twitter and asking questions.
I was a senior leader at the time, I wasn't a Headteacher. I started posting questions online and got loads of responses! It all started to really take off when we were in contact with Dame Alison Peacock. And we thought, wow, this is incredible. Here we are in Norfolk, talking to one of the leading educationalists in the country about the approach to teaching. And she responded, and she got back to us. And she asked us loads of questions. It led to Lucy, my wife, being part of one of her books and doing a whole chapter in a book. And we thought this is a powerful mechanism that we could use to help support school leaders. It started growing from there.
In many ways, our aim is to support school leaders and Headteachers because we know they have a troubling time. We want to give them a voice to broadcast on Twitter, to help them find different things like products, services, new resources and our planners; but the aim is to support as many people as we can.
Helen: One of the things I love about your Twitter account is that it is really positive, but not so positive that it avoids the brutal facts; you do ask very pertinent questions. And you ask a lot of questions on behalf of other people as well, don't you?
Jonathan: Yes. Most evenings, we have three or four questions from Headteachers that we put onto the platform to help. We had some really good questions over the weekend. Good in some ways, but also quite reflection questions. One Headteacher was saying, ‘what should I do? I'm struggling with the Headteacher role at the moment and six weeks in, I'm not sure if this is the right choice.’ In response, there was a load of support from people, ‘have you tried this?’ and ‘maybe look at getting a coach.’ Twitter is very powerful in providing that supportive network. That's what we're trying to foster.
We have interview questions, about tutoring, about sports premium: we have a whole range of different questions across the platform. If someone's asking that question, there'll be someone else out there who will be asking the same question. And we feel that if we can put it out there and help one or two people, then we've done something good to help people out.
Helen: So you've built a really very supportive community network, but it's based on that Socratic questioning approach and reaching out to the community for the answers and the support. And the community steps up, don't they?
Jonathan: They do! It’s incredible. I was a Headteacher for four years, and it was quite a lonely job. Where do you go for your supportive network? In schools, there were not many people you could go to. So we’ve tried to put that platform on Twitter so that we could be that network for people in the background. We're trying to do a lot of work to actually support them. So we’re always checking up on people, making sure they're okay. We want them to do well, so we're trying to help them out as best as possible. So there is that side of it, which we don't show on Twitter that much. But actually, we are there to help people.
Helen: I didn't know that about you, that's lovely to hear. I wanted to ask you about the review-of-services work you do. I think the time in my career when I had the most unsolicited emails and phone calls was when I was head of early years. A lot of it was paper based, some of it was email based, but a lot of it ended up in the filing cabinet next to my desk. It was constant and hard to know who was offering something which was genuinely going to be useful, which would help us solve problems and who was just adding clutter to our lives. It was quite difficult trying to differentiate that. Sometimes a colleague would recommend something that was going to solve a whole heap of problems for you and you were just lucky because somebody mentioned it. But tell us about the work that you do, because this is quite a passion for you?
Jonathan: Well, as a Headteacher I was very time-poor, so I'm always looking for improvements and trying to get the best out of what we've got. We set up the edu-network to help Headteachers out. We go out and find products that we feel are going to benefit the schools. We talk to the companies about the product, and we find out how they work. What is the background behind it? Does it help the school? Then we present it on our edu-network.
As a headteacher, I didn't have a chance to find out about these companies. Someone recently said to me, ‘it's like a car with square wheels. So you've got something in school that you're using, and you've been using for 10 years: it works, it does the job. But actually, there's someone out there who's offering circle wheels to the car. But to get the circle wheels in, you've got to trust the people saying this is a really good product, you also have to trust the people who are going to fit the car. And actually, you've got a whole load of change modelling that you have to do to put it in place to get it working…and then it's got to work. So we try to do the brokering and say ‘this is a really good product, this will help your school by doing this, this and this, and this is what other schools have said about it.’
I don't think there's anyone else that does it quite like us at the moment. So we're trying to support people with selecting new products and services. There are absolutely brilliant companies out there, which even 18-19 months ago, I would have never heard of, and they wouldn't be on my radar. Some of the bigger companies are offering great things out there too, so we share new products which people just haven’t had time to find out about.
Helen: One of the things I like that you mentioned in there is what I've come to understand from a psychologist friend is the switch cost. There is a cost when you decide you're going to switch. So you've really got to be clear that what you're switching into is worth that initial cost to you.
Jonathan: Yes and there's not just monetary cost, it's the emotional cost of changing to a new system that people have never seen before and the change management that has to happen in schools at the moment. At the moment, people are less reliant on changing things despite the fact that services and products could really improve their school in a short amount of time.
Helen: Let me ask you a quality-assurance question. Are there companies and services that have approached you, who you declined to put on the platform having reviewed the product?
Jonathan: Yes. We only recommended resources that we have reviewed, and we recommend going into schools. That’s our integrity, you can trust that’s what we're doing. We have smaller companies who sometimes can't get out into the education world, because it's a very fiercely competitive world out there. We also want to support them. We will talk to them, discuss their products and make a decision on whether the product they have will be recommended on our edu-network: sometimes smaller companies can face blocks from other companies and we want to help people.
Helen: So talk me through a new Headteacher perspective because I think it's tough for them at this time. I mean, really tough. So if I'm a new Headteacher in a school, and I'm asking questions about some of the existing services, I might be doing a bit of a value for money and best value review of what's going on. What help could you offer me and how would I approach you? What should I do?
Jonathan: We had one question the other day which was very similar. It was a new Headteacher who'd gone into school and their whole service system was broken! He came to us and said ‘ah, what can I do?’ Immediately we said, ‘we have three companies here that will help you out’ and we signposted the company with ‘we're not a broker, talk to them, see what they say about it, and see if they can help you.’ That's a very immediate thing we can do.
On Twitter, we do have quite a lot of questions about Pupil Premium at the moment. Tutoring has been raised a lot. We raise questions and help signpost them to people who can answer the questions. We promote on Twitter as well. So out of all the resources we recommend, we will tweet saying ‘have you seen this one?’ We're also doing a few webinars in the next couple of weeks, on parents, engagement and how to use math in a physical way. We also are doing a webinar called My School Year. It’s a calendar from SchoolBus where they have populated a calendar for the whole school year already. It's free of charge. It's brilliant. I know all DfE key dates, Ofsted key dates, all the big organisational key dates are in it and it populates one big calendar so you can keep track. If it changes, you get the updated version. As a Headteacher, it would have been great because I was always searching the DfE website to find out when the due dates are and when I'm meant to be returning things, but it's all in one place.
Helen: So for listeners who are interested in posting a question or having you post a question anonymously following this podcast; can they directly message you? What can they do?
Jonathan: They can directly message us on Twitter or on our Facebook group, which is becoming more popular now. We try to do each question within a couple of days. If you DM us and you want it anonymous, say you want it anonymous, and then we will post it for you. And hopefully posts get a lot of traction and responses from our followers.
Helen: It's been brilliant to talk with you today. I always find it interesting to hear about what you're doing and what you're reviewing and what the latest questions are. Jonathan, thank you so much for joining us!
Jonathan: You're very welcome. Thank you for inviting me. It's been great!
10 with Zen is an education podcast hosted by Zen Educate.