Tuesday 3 November 2015

Emma’s question

Emma Kell

Emma Krell describes being faced with an arresting question during a particularly demanding and frustrating period in her new educational role hereNudged by our mutual friend, Bill Lord, Emma asked me the same question "Can you see it getting better?”   My first thoughts were, “Who asked that and why?” and “How to respond?”  It struck at my heart and leads to a warning before my Director’s Cut of a reply..


Before you risk reading this you must consider my circumstance.  It will affect your response.  Check this: I am not a classroom teacher anymore.  I'm long gone as head, adviser and senior inspector. I'm freelance. For some, this is another reason for rendering me irrelevant, like the woman who on entering the room before a course I was running looked at me and grimaced, “Oh, you’re old”.  So, you may be thinking that he can’t possibly understand Emma’s, or my, situation and, anyway, denuded of all status and power to bestow furtherance, he’s not a “more powerful other” for me.  My only challenge, to those who think this way (come on we've all met them eager, swivel-eyed at conferences and events) is, “OK I'm an old man, 45 years after qualifying and a long way down my road less travelled.  I may have lost some of my muscled purpose but I'm still kicking against the pricks and consider this. When you’re my age, you’ll still be trudging towards retirement”.  If that doesn't make you ponder Emma’s question little will.  If not, click off and find something quick, simple and smooth-skinned to take your mind off thinking too deeply.  For the rest, maybe my fulfilling and arduous journey through our profession and my still enthusiastic striving, will create hope and value in what follows.  Final warning - it contains some of that outmoded stuff that Emma values – advice.

Can you see it getting better?
Emma’s question captures a search for meaning in troubled times.  It’s been in my head all my working life.  I've written poems about it. My BLOGS and articles echo with it here and here  Almost all my school improvement work, CPD and training have its music behind the words.  It’s been a nightmare when I was forced to answer, “No”.  It’s been a huge challenge when working with those beginning to form a, “No”in their heads.  The least I could do was answer it properly for Emma and Bill and myself.

First, let’s dismiss the version uttered, soft voiced, by a smug coach-type cajoling Emma to finger nail herself out of, what they would claim is, her self-inflicted, “demanding and frustrating experience”.  There’s a precise place for coaching but not when a colleague wants and needs an answer.  Advice and a firm handhold are often the best way forward.  Offering what we National College Facilitators call, “non possessive warmth”[1] is sometimes Ofsted inadequate.

Can you see it getting better? Assumes the worst of times and is best imagined as a plea by the questioner for some kind of hope from their local optimist.  It may even be a tentative, “Are you (too) finding what we are currently experiencing unbearable?”  It might be a gentler way of asking, “Can it get any worse?”  Whichever, it’s a brave ask for someone struggling who recognises a momentary lapse of reason. They want help, to share an inspiration, to think more positive and feel hopeful.

So, here I am your local optimist free forever from your bell ends of unfinished, oft disappointing lessons

So, here I am your local optimist free forever from your:  bell ends of unfinished, oft disappointing lessons; trials of marking; bored over-preparation;  sleep chasing, sexless nights;  beamish leadership and sodding administration! [2]   I've taken time to offer Emma and Bill, and anyone else still reading some sort of answer.  It’s simple and complicated like all things – if you think long enough about them.

My simple answer is, “Yes, I can see it getting better, if you look at what you do with a view to doing it better.”  Is that simple enough?  Johnny Wilkinson, commenting in a Rugby World Cup studio, observed that Team Talks are usually full of simple one liners, “Be positive – stay calm – keep focussed” but these maxims only mean something when we are told what to do to achieve them.  In other words, we have to know the complicated before we can make it simple. So, let’s get complicated!

But before I do I want to recognise those hopeless circumstances where the only answer to Emma’s question is a realistic, “No, it’s not going to get better!”  Emma’s is almost certainly the last question pilots, and their passengers, climbers and their companions think before calling out, “Shit!” and hitting something solid.  I read somewhere that’s the most common last word - gruesome.  So we must think of accidents, natural disasters and terminal illness as circumstances when things do get worse and we are confronting suffering and probably death.  Along our way we will all be frightened in similar ways but I have come to believe, after surviving a few of my own, that even with a few seconds to think, we can still find a better way to face the ultimate horror.

That paragraph should push any over-dramatised view of personal circumstance into its wider context.  This is not to deny that we teachers[3] have witnessed slow professional deaths and real illness in long suffering colleagues and badly managed schools.  We have all seen, in recent years, the zest for our work dulled by a deep learned helplessness.  Countless surveys of teacher well-being, mental health, unhappiness and increasing suicide are indicators of the deleterious effect of a discourse of derision from, not just, right wing politicians and their tame press.  Only the fools amongst us have avoided countless, sleepless, seemingly pointless nights moaning, “Can it get better?” I have tested out my view that it’s never been this bad and no one has seriously disagreed.  I’ll return to the endgame later.  In the meantime how I come to answer a positive “Yes” is even more important.

Image result for teachers failing headline

First, I assume that we teachers, when we started, wanted to make the world a better place. I've checked this with hundreds over the last few years and almost all agreed.  Some had forgotten that spur and drifted off course but most accepted their vocation remains the firmest foundation to an inspirational, “Yes” in response to Emma’s question.  I often say that teaching is the best job in the world if you really want to do it and the worst if you don’t.
Thinking more deeply about my own resounding, “Yes,”   I realised it is a blend of of five, interdependent, sub questions.  Because I can answer “Yes x 5” my overall answer is a  “Yes”.  So what are your Big5 answers?  I’ll offer a few qualifying phrases to help....

Can I see it getting better:

  Globally?  Yes, I feel, on balance, hopeful about the future of our world.
  Professionally?  Yes, I can see a way forward for myself and others in our profession.
  Locally?  Yes, I'm positive about potential success in our team, school and community.
  Personally?  Yes, my own and my family’s health and well-being is as good as it can be.

Obviously, each of us has a different world view, professional circumstance and local situation.  These all change, none more quickly than our personal factors perhaps.  So, we must answer our own Big5, honestly, alone, albeit with help... 

It becomes obvious that, when helping colleagues by listening first, those who say, “No” to one, or more, will have a hard time getting to an overall, “Yes”.   The more “Nos” the more unbearable their teaching life - their whole life perhaps.  Each of our own realities mean that we cannot, even after hours of listening, really comprehend the other’s circumstance and offer anything much more than, “Oh dear,” “there there’s” an actual, or metaphorical, or a banal, “Hang on in there”.   We have to walk away at some point and think hard how best to really help them - if indeed we can.

So, those 5 sub questions (are there more?) make any individual’s response unique and therefore any generalised answer to Emma’s question useless.  This points up the futility and frustration, of a type of BLOG, article, paper or talk about, “The State of Education” or “My take on your work”.  For someone with one or more “Nos” these are a blathering and infuriating accompaniment to reality.  It’s when these well meaning, fit and unpressurised “5Yes” colleagues presume to speak at, for and on behalf of others.  The worst talk fluent superman or superwoman and inhabit an imagined world of total well-being.  These are the tossers in suits, male and female, who bounce into reception trailing bandwagons and briefcases full of “answers”.  I got fed up of this sort spouting crap at conferences years ago.  But, as I wrote in the preface to a poem at the time, “Superhead” there’s a bit of all of us in there somewhere.  I still belly laugh at their inevitable comeuppance (read the poem below) I will perhaps learn to do it more quietly one day.

I see that the latest bunch of tossers in suits are selling “Teacher Well-being” in Booklets and  “Happy Teacher Bags”. The latter contain Smiley Face Badges and Chocolate Hobnobs amongst other crap - Urgh!.  Do they really believe sugar and false smiles ward off depression, cancer and bereavement?  Imagine how it feels, if you are being bullied, feel a failure, haven’t slept, or taught the wrong syllabus, to “wear a happy face” or, “have a night off from marking on Thursday”.  

The next is an additional paragraph (added 5.11.15) following some tweets which appear to suggest I don't care and am misunderstanding "well-being" #teacher5aday etc They go on to champion those bags and badges....

For those colleagues who have recently been part of giving out badges and bags I must be clear I do care about well-being. I am arguing for proper, integrated, focussed well-being, as a part of good leadership.  I'm warning against tokenism, tactical, simplistic, one-off quick fixes.  These are to my certain knowledge carried out on some "Well-Being INSET days" run by individuals (what I deliberately call tossers in suits) who turn up do their bit and go. I'm also wary of a school just producing joy bags and badges as a panacea. 

These alone will change and help nothing and can actually do harm by alienating hurt staff. I have many examples of the latter and several replies to this BLOG from teachers who feel this way.  I am arguing, as I have since the 1980s, what I précis below as PSHE for staff.  This is about a strategic view of well-being and may include such tactics (if you really must) as part of an overall approach which has to be about far more (care about workload, behaviour support, counselling, proper professional development etc) I'm happy to share materials on this because it is about a differentiated approach to CPD not a one size fits all. (Please see materials on my website here https://goo.gl/N0vmIk  It's a full session on setting up a "Teacher Well-Being Group")

back to the original text  

We really must get serious and recognise the hopeless circumstances that all of us experience at some time and find ways to help suffering colleagues.  This requires good leadership not bloody wellness kits.  It may mean time off, a modified workload, looking for a new post, a new job... it will certainly mean more than hectoring, harassing and hoping all will get better.  If we want well-being we need well-meaning, well-wishing and well – good leadership. This includes pastoral care and PSHE for teachers too and it must be in place before we can even consider moving on.

So, those of us who dare to teach teachers must offer more than simple one liners and generalities.  We must describe what can be done to achieve our simple truths.  We must offer process, more than content.  It’s what I've been trying to do for decades  (sense the frustration there do you?) based on a firm belief, rooted in research, that the best and only way forward, for our profession, is to seek answers together and not to have them tossed on us from on high and afar.  We all risk being just another tosser dancing on a bandwagon selling snake oil.  That fear should slow us down but never stop us.... So, here is  my specification for to finding positive answers to your BIG5 and a confident overall, “Yes!

Can we see it getting better:

 Globally -  Yes, if we can teach our students ways to be hopeful for the future of our world. This will require excellent Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Education (SMSC) based on a careful description of global, “Common Goods”. These are the beliefs and principles all the great religions, philosophies and reasonable people agree upon.  They are stored and described most succinctly in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (and Rights of the Child)  here  Most colleges are surprised to find these are a legal requirement for all schools in signatory countries.  By the way, the articles blow out of the water any thought of unique “British Values”.  What a stupid and unnecessary debate that was and is.

     Professionally?  Yes, if we work interdependently supporting and challenging each other to succeed and present a powerful, professional front to any doubters out there.  There are giants in our communal literature who have paved the way for this.  Amongst the hundreds of these are my heroes: Kurt Lewin, Peter Senge, Michael Fullen, Alma Harris and John Hattie.  There are so many more and the best all have process solutions in their models and systems. They all value sharing, collaboration and a sense of common purpose. Whilst I love my twitter I fear for an unqualified cohort of colleagues junk-reading scraps and tittle tattle.

Locally?  Yes, if we understand what success in our team, school and community really looks like. This means mining our community’s wants and needs and blending them in with those standards and benchmarks of a national system.  We must cherish the local, “Plus what?”  and be prepared to describe, in detail: Ofsted+, Estyn+, Dubai Schools+  etc+.  It is not either-or any more than it was ever Pastoral or Academic, Arts or Sciences, Traditional or Progressive.

Personally?  Yes, if we prioritise our own and our family’s health and well-being by first understanding we are role models and will be copied.  We must practice what we teach and we can only do this if we speak, drive, eat and think more carefully.  If we take more time to write shorter letters. We can’t précis a PhD into a tweet so we must be ready to get our minds fit for longer, considered pieces.  We must get fit and stay fit. Show me an unfit teacher and I’ll show you an unfit teacher. Every a photocopier requires switching off, its parts checking and a rub down with an oily rag. When were you last rubbed with an oily rag?

Readers who know me will see something emerging here.  Each of my Big5 have a set of specifications attached. Call them what you like: success criteria; descriptors; desired states; visions; targets; goals or outcomes.  These too are meaningless unless they become a blueprint for action.  So, the really, really, really hard work is about the rigour of self-evaluation, analysis and planning to achieve each measure, one by one, in priority order.  These are the tough days and nights behind my simple, “looking at what we do with a view to doing it better next time”.  No one ever said it was easy to succeed and sustain success. So Emma, your, our, final hurdle is sticking with it until it’s done.

The really, really,really hard work

Rigorous self-evaluation leading to action planning requires an attention to detail that, only the most successful are prepared to apply.  It requires a devastating personal honesty, an attention to minute detail and banishing self-delusion.  It is about knowing what has to be done and having the will to see it through until it is done.  The driver of success is your will.  Reading about climbing a high mountain and failure to do so in, “Summit Fever” recently I caught something I immediately knew was true. 

“Enthusiasm may get you started, bodily strength may keep you going for a long time, but only the will makes you persist when those have faded.  The will is the secret motor that keeps driving when the heart and mind have had enough." Andrew Greig “Summit Fever 
It was a revelation. Like a more powerful other who gave far too little feedback once said, “I'm glad you said that John, I was just about to think it”.  It was his best complement.  So, here’s mine in advance Emma and Bill,

“Deep in their hearts, they knew what success meant and had the will to achieve it”.

John is creator of The iAbacus the on-line self-evaluation and planning tool that incorporates the rigorous process he describes here.  It is preloaded with a range of national and specific success criteria www.iabacus.co.uk

[1] This really was (is) a criteria for NCSL facilitators described as a warmth towards the person coupled with a studious refusal to possess their issue by making judgements or giving advice. I wrote a piece about what I guessed was the opposite of this  "Chilled Possession" the preserve of Ofsted Inspectors. What a daft profession we are at these times.

[2] Before you dismiss this list they are recent set of grumbles from a clutch of colleagues.

[3] Of course I’m still a bloody teacher. If you care about the kind of world you live in, the kind of society you inhabit and the sort of family you have created you can’t just pack away the mental tools you honed in the classroom and lie down on a beach, or sofa and forget about it.