Senior Leadership: How Can We Help Novices Learn?

“’It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards’, the Queen remarked.”

Through The Looking-Glass – Lewis Carroll

In my last blog post I tentatively explored the need, as I see it, for a greater emphasis on the ‘what’ rather than the ‘how’ in senior leadership. I’m still umming and ahhing over what I think could or should be included in senior leadership courses to make them any good. I have never done the NPQSL or NPQH; the ones I’ve asked to see information about have been sorely lacking and, again, seem to push the narrative of tub-thumping leadership ‘personality’: that everything about a school is the elliptical orbit around the head teacher’s personality, and everything and everyone is held in position by that. Or, conversely, there is often a treacle-wading emphasis on reflection; so much so that inertia seems to be the only course of action. And this still seems to be focusing on the leader’s perceived charisma and personality rather than what a senior leader might need to know. Carl Hendrick wrote a tweet yesterday that I thought was excellent: “…a charismatic leader is one who IS knowledgeable.” I’m still exploring what it is that would be useful for senior leaders, especially new senior leaders, to know. Almost what a senior leadership ‘curriculum’ would look like, and also how this meshes with the dispositions we might see as useful for effective leaders. But, as Carl says, perhaps the charisma is an outcome of the knowledge.

 
So you could say that I’m arguing in favour of an overhaul of the content of senior leadership courses. I guess I am. But I’m not sure senior leadership courses are necessary. As you can see, my thinking is still developing. I don’t, though, necessarily see senior leadership curriculum content as separate from the ‘pedagogy’ of leadership. I do think that too great an emphasis on how we lead rather than what we lead in our schools (e.g. the leadership of curriculum or what people thought was the leadership of curriculum) has been problematic in the last ten – fifteen years or so. I’m pretty sure the what of senior leadership isn’t seen to be as ‘sexy’ as the how of personality types, leadership styles or the ubiquitous trotting out of vision statements.

 
I don’t think that the what and the how are mutually exclusive though. The senior leadership curriculum has to be great, but the strategies used to ensure that this is learnt and practised are also important. Because, after all, new senior leaders and new head teachers are novices.

 
The last twenty four hours has got me thinking about this again, because I was fortunate enough to attend the Learning Scientists conference in Bedford, generously run by Advantage Schools. I went with my deputy head hat on: I lead curriculum, and I line manage the assistant head teacher for teaching and learning, so the conference was bound to be useful. Although it did help me reflect on what we do at my own school to ensure teaching is most effective for our pupils, I didn’t expect my thinking to wander down the path of learning for other novices: new senior leaders, and the pedagogy that might be most effective for their learning.

 
After my train odyssey from Birmingham to Bedford, I arrived late and at the first break, so after being fuelled with substantially strong coffee (thanks Bedford School!) I took up my pew in the gods of the Quarry Theatre. The Learning Scientists were talking about the importance of elaboration, and elaborative interrogation in particular. They talked about novices asking ‘how?’ or ‘why?’ questions, and then trying to answer those questions, compared to passive re-reading. Interestingly, they said that elaborative interrogation may work better when knowledge is high (Woloshyn et al., 1992). I found this fascinating. When I was a new senior leader, I asked a lot of ‘how?’ and ‘why?’ questions, and discussed them with the other, equally inexperienced assistant head teacher, but with little guidance or input of knowledge from the head teacher. This was useful in some ways, but not particularly effective; we still made errors and we didn’t learn and execute as well as we could have done; our knowledge wasn’t yet high enough.

 
In a Q&A session, Tom Rees asked an excellent question about when elaboration goes wrong: when pupils may be explaining to each other but the content and explanations are incorrect. This made me think about novice senior leaders and the importance of both a senior leadership curriculum and pedagogy and where this has gone wrong in the past: too much elaboration between novice senior leaders on the fluff and rhetoric of perceived ‘leadership’ and not enough on knowledge and substance. The Learning Scientists were clear about elaboration: be as explicit as possible to novices about what a good example is and get them to explain why. Something useful, I think, for experienced senior leaders and head teachers to bear in mind when working with novice senior leaders or novice head teachers.

 
The Learning Scientists also talked about novices needing concrete examples. I loved this. And I’m talking about personal preference here, but that this was a proven strategy shared by the Learning Scientists made me smile! I am an experienced deputy head teacher, and I’m tentatively, through my own reading, writing and discussions with colleagues, exploring the knowledge and dispositions that may be needed to lead a school as a head teacher. I often talk to colleagues and friends who are head teachers, and who generously give of their time, experience and knowledge. But when another school leader talks to me, for example, about the “…love we have in our school” or the “…sense of family in the MAT”, this is unhelpful for me as it’s too nebulous and abstract. Concrete examples, as the Learning Scientists point out, are easier to remember. So often, when talking to head teachers, I like to know exactly what something looked like or what was done that made it effective – the concrete, the absolute. And if it’s a difficult idea or concept, more examples make it easier for me to understand; again, something else the Learning Scientists explained when talking about novices learning well. I remembered that this was something I need to do more of for new senior leader and middle leader colleagues.

 
I wrote in my last blog post about how I like to listen to others, which is my default position more than talking. I do like to listen, and I like to learn stuff and know stuff. Once I’ve got the hang of an idea, I like to question and compare – perhaps that’s elaborative interrogation in action and I didn’t realise. I also sometimes feel like there are so many interesting and useful things to know about education that I’m never going to know everything. The awe-inspiring encyclopaedic knowledge of the Learning Scientists brought this into sharp focus. But it also helped to reinforce the point that providing multiple examples helps the novice. As does providing worked examples, so the novice can extract the underlying structure of the problem. This made me realise that this is often what colleagues and friends who are head teachers do with me. That, and quality feedback; something else the Learning Scientists emphasised was crucial. And I’ve realised that, after listening and questioning and feedback and thinking, I am moving to solving more whole school problems and challenges on my own.

 
There’s much more to consider here, particularly in relation to the following:

 
1. How senior leadership knowledge is revisited and concepts and problems are reactivated over time for the novice senior leader or novice head teacher.
2. That effective learning strategies for any novice will work in the long term, but that there are no magic bullet short term solutions.
3. That practising application of knowledge is hard, and that gut feeling cannot necessarily be trusted: something that senior leaders and head teachers have fallen into the trap of in the past.

 
So again, I don’t really have any solutions or answers. Sorry. Learning is hard, and sometimes learning is boring, and all of this is important for any novice to understand. And now I’m thinking deeply about my new knowledge from the Learning Scientists, I can happily say that the application of it is hard, but rewardingly hard.

 

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School Leadership: Dispositions and Knowledge Part 1

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

 

I’ve been teaching for a while now. Sometimes I forget precisely how long it’s been, and then I depressingly realise I am working with teachers I could have taught. So yeah, it’s a while. And it only seems to have been in the last few years where some of the craziest teaching edu-myths have finally been properly challenged. And a big hurrah from me for that. No more mini-plenary hoop jumps required. But education is still preoccupied with leadership, and some leadership myths linger. And it’s absolutely right that we should think and talk about educational leadership, of course, but in my view there’s far too much preoccupation with the ‘how’, when we need to look at the ‘what’ in more detail.  Many young teachers aspire to be school leaders. I’m not criticising this at all; I find it interesting. What I also find interesting are perceptions of ‘good’ leadership. So this blog post is different from the usual. It’s an exploration, and a reflection, and I don’t have any answers and haven’t come to any conclusions yet. Sorry about that.

 

A friend said recently that they found me an interesting mix of self-confidence and self-doubt. This is a fair and perceptive assessment of me. As a child, I was quite shy. As a very little child I remember hiding behind my mum’s skirts at Mass. But I also remember hurtling in my StartRite patent shoes down the gentle curve of the hill at Birmingham Botanical Gardens, flapping my arms, and thinking that if I really tried, and if I practised lots, I would take off and sail into the Edgbaston skies. I didn’t give a hoot about anyone who said I couldn’t, so although a little shy, I was undaunted. Of course, I didn’t take off. This annoyed me, and I resolved to do something about it. I didn’t fashion any wings in a Why Don’t You? pipe cleaner and tissue paper triumph, but I did decide that I could try really hard at other things and see if they worked or not. I grew out of thinking I could fly, or that my Staffordshire bull terrier might turn into a unicorn if I fed her enough Pedigree Chum (she just got tubbier), but I did, in my little 1980s head, decide that I wanted to KNOW LOTS OF STUFF, and I recognised the value in working hard and in practice. I learnt how to use a sewing machine and practised sewing at Brownies: I made a half-decent pencil case. I learnt how to use a fountain pen properly and practised handwriting: my ks were looped and beautiful. I learnt how to read music and practised singing: I started to get quite good. I began to realise that, although I didn’t fly, my hypothesis was correct: knowing stuff + practice = improvement (most of the time.  And obvs I’m aware I’m simplifying this).

 

At primary school my small group of friends, like me, were the slightly geeky kids who liked hanging out in the library and researching information about saints for us to choose for our confirmation names. I didn’t speak out in class because, remarkably for me now in 2019, I was teased for having a ‘posh’ voice. I decided I didn’t want to be teased, and I made sure I spoke like everyone else, which was different to my mum’s well-spoken non-accent (she’d had elocution lessons as a child in London), and my dad’s flatly-vowelled New Zealand accent. I still threw in what I thought was the odd poshly-pronounced word in class, barely perceptible, but my own tiny act of lingual passive resistance. I was also shy because I was teased for being clever, so I learnt to shut up in class and not to put my hand up to answer questions. But in year 6, my small central Birmingham primary school took on a remarkable feat: the whole school was to be involved in the first full-scale musical the school had ever produced: Joseph And His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. And I was to be the Narrator. This was a massive deal for me, and also a big preoccupation for me between the end of Grange Hill and the start of Neighbours. I loved music, and I loved singing and performing, but I was reticent. At age 11 I decided that the joy I got from music and performing outweighed the fear of performing in front of a lot of people, and I did it. And I was good at it. At that point I realised that just as I was a bit shy, I was determined, too. But, though being determined is great, it’s a disposition. I had to know stuff about reading music and beating time and where to breathe in a line etc to make a good enough go of it. So although my determination was important, equally as important, or even more important perhaps, was my knowledge.

 
Things changed at secondary school. Being in Joseph did give me a lot of confidence, and I made new friends, so I became progressively mouthy, more gregarious, more outgoing. I enjoyed school. I loved learning. I really enjoyed knowing stuff, and still do. I was sometimes naughty. I enjoyed all the extra-curricular activities my school provided for me. I enjoyed the routine and the consistency that school gave me. I’ve written about that before, here. But I was, and still am, interested in listening. I like hearing what others think, what others have to say, what makes people tick. This means that sometimes I do much more listening than talking. Conversely, I also talk a lot sometimes. This isn’t my default position, but this was often seen as What A Good Leader Should Do in the ten years I’ve been a senior leader. Have all the answers. Lead from the front. Do all the talking. Be charismatic. I struggled with this when I first became a senior leader, especially as when I first started I couldn’t even get the lunch queue sorted. I thought that as a new assistant head teacher I should be able to do everything with verve and vigour and resolve. That I should stride the corridors and make decisions in a split second, because that’s what good, extrovert, charismatic leaders do, right? I hadn’t even considered that there were different ways of doing things, or that different situations called for different knowledge and perhaps a different approach. Or indeed, that I needed to know stuff very well and practise stuff, and that this was really, really important. This was the X-Factor era even in school leadership: if you wanted a school leadership role hard enough then – why! – of course you must have it. It was the epoch of the cult of the individual. There were some tub-thumping, very vocal school leaders, tiresomely bounding into assembly halls up and down the land. This was when those school values began rolling through laminators and magically appearing on walls overnight: dreaming and believing is all very well, but it’s not going to get you far without knowing something, or even simply being aware that you don’t know what you don’t know.

 
I guess what I’m tentatively exploring here is twofold:

 

1. That not every school leader should have to feel comfortable being in the limelight all of the time, but should be comfortable with ensuring colleagues have input into decisions, ideas, actions; and that our school leaders are those “…who build not their own egos but the institutions they run.” (Quiet, Susan Cain, Penguin 2012, p.55).
2. That although there are dispositions (e.g. my steadfast determination as a little girl) that we may want to develop in school leaders, we must consider carefully what we need to know as school leaders, and that we probably need to focus on this more, because much of the knowledge we need to acquire as school leaders may be domain-specific.

 

So there we are. All I have presented here are a number of questions and thoughts really. I’m thinking a great deal about what a senior leadership ‘curriculum’ might look like, and I’ll explore that further at a later date.

 

This Is Going To Hurt: Medicalised Words in Education

‘“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

Through the Looking-Glass – Lewis Carroll

 

I’ve been wondering why there are so many medicalised and anatomised words in education.  It’s an itch that I love to scratch; it’s word pedantry eczema.  Some have been creeping in over the past few years, almost unnoticed, like rampant edu-chlamydia.  I wonder if it’s because there are things (symptoms?) in our profession that are seen as needing to be treated, and therefore it’s perceived to be more straightforward to name, classify and ‘treat’.  And I’m not arguing that there aren’t things that need treating/sorting/improving.  But why our educational lingua franca is so blotched with these ulcerated sores of words is odd, if not fascinating. 

So here goes: the stain and pain of medicalised words in education.  And this is going to hurt.

 

1. Lens

OK, so we’ll start with a relatively innocuous one, but boy is it lazy.  I hear this time and time again, usually in the language of perceived effective ‘leadership’, often uttered by the chin-stroking, musing type.  And it frequently belies someone who’s not really thought of anything useful, but has swallowed a few ‘leadership’ books and vomited up something they think sounds sage.  ‘Lens’ is often used thus:

– How interesting.  Let’s look at that through the lens of…

– I do think we need to see things through the lens of…

– Have you considered thinking about that through the lens of…?

Enough already.  What you mean is from a specific perspective.  Let’s be precise.  Let’s not get all unnecessarily opticianal.  Or next time you say that I’ll squirt you with saline solution.  Stop it.

 

2.  Diagnose

This is one of the many medicalised verbs that have stealthily wormed their way into our staffrooms, usually in the context of looking at data.  Even without the innumerable problems with the use of data in our schools, I have an issue with ‘diagnose’.  Diagnose suggests there’s something wrong: a problem or symptom that needs examining and classifying.  It also implies that whatever the perceived problem is can be ‘named’.  And this is a concern in itself, and is symptomatic (ha!) of so many of us looking for easy solutions to complex issues in schools.  I don’t blame schools for this; often it’s the pressure that many of us work under.  Which leads me neatly on to…

 

3.  Therapy

This is the one I love to hate.  It propels a bit of sick into my mouth, and has done, annually, since I first heard it a few years ago.  This is an appalling noun to use in my opinion, for two reasons:

  1. It suggests that there is some form of faux psychological talk show Ricki Lake-ness to schools, and that schools, or challenges in schools, need ‘therapy’.  This lurches and skids over its mindfulness colouring books to huddle under the oft seemingly-psychological umbrella of ‘wellbeing’.  I find this problematic.  You can read my views about ‘wellbeing’ in schools here, and here.
  2. It also implies that there is an illness or a disease in our schools (presumably that the data will reveal to us), and that there should definitely be some sort of salve or ointment to ‘treat’ it.  Perhaps a few spoonfuls of sugar.  Perhaps a ticklist, worksheet or poorly-used knowledge organiser.  Perhaps a sit in the mindfulness yurt (thanks to Tom Bennett for that one).  Perhaps a pet of the wellbeing dog is an ‘intervention’ that will work?  Don’t get me wrong.  I like dogs.  I even like yurts.  And I definitely like knowledge organisers, and I like sugar.  But ‘therapy’ goes straight into my edu Room 101.

 

4.  Dissect

This is a new entry, and gruesomely weird.  I’ve heard it in the context of both data and lessons.  Sometimes that the data needs ‘forensically dissecting’ (whoah there CSI senior leadership teams!), but also in terms of cutting up a lesson into parts.  I thought we’d seen the last of four-part or six-part lessons, but it seems that in far-flung realms of social media they’ve made an unwelcome comeback.  Lessons are ‘dissected’, so that the most important ‘organs’ (say whaaaaat?!) are included.  This is a checklist-cum-operation, where useful stuff has become more about process than what works in our classrooms/operating theatres.  And it’s just really, really odd.  Lesson autopsy anyone?

 

5.  Clinic

Let’s end with another innocuous one, and one that has again been around for years.  This noun is usually used to mean ‘a drop-in session to help teachers with something’ or ‘extra CPD’.  Now this is fine.  But ‘clinic’ has a whole weeping carbuncle of unfortunate connotations.  CPD is fine.  Drop-in session is fine.  ‘Clinic’ is essentially an edu-swab.

Great Expectations: growing up Pupil Premium

“Alice had begun to think that very few things indeed were really impossible.”

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

 

This is a personal post. It’s about poverty, and it’s about me.

I grew up in Birmingham in the 1980s and 1990s with my parents and my sister, and pretty much a whole ark of pets. My parents moved to Birmingham from London in the late 1960s, shortly after they were married. They passed away in recent years, and my sister and I relished hearing their stories about life in the 1960s. Dad, a celebrated New Zealand sportsman, adept at both rugby and cricket, on a whim (after living in Sydney for a year – another whim) joined the Merchant Navy in the 60s and embarked on a global jaunt for eighteen months, settling in Copenhagen, and then finally in London, where he met my Mum. Mum was even more whimtastic than Dad. She did things because she wanted to, not because my parents came from well-off families (neither did), but because, from what Mum and Dad said about the 60s, you could pretty much do loads of stuff relatively cheaply. Mum worked as a tour guide in Paris for a while. She spoke fluent French and German but had a terrible sense of direction (me too), so she lost many of her tourists, and left them wandering around by the Seine somewhere. She gadded about Spain and Italy for a bit. She auditioned for the Bluebell Girls, passed the audition, and then couldn’t decide whether to move to Vegas or Paris, so turned them down in the end. She was a hand model, modelling some of the most coveted photocopiers of the 1960s (!), she was a flamenco dancer, and she was a trapeze artist. Mum also worked for the Milk Marketing Board in the 1960s. She had a keen eye for design.

 

Mum and Dad met in Kensington where in the 60s, amazingly, you could rent a flat quite cheaply. Last year, I visited the pub in Kensington where they first met on New Year’s Eve 1967. They lived in Kensington and then eloped to Cornwall to get married. Another spur of the moment thing.

 

They moved to Birmingham in the 70s for Dad’s work. A few years later, my sister was born. Then I was born. They joined the pub trade and ran pubs in Birmingham, including The Jester – a well-known gay bar in Birmingham city centre, and Dad was also the relief manager for the Mulberry Bush, one of the pubs in Birmingham bombed by the IRA. Thankfully he was not working the night of the bombing. They continued to live an eclectic, fulfilled, happy life.

 

Just as I’d started primary school in the 80s, things changed. We had to move to social housing in a very deprived part of Birmingham. My sister and I don’t know to this day what happened, but the comfortable life we’d had vanished pretty much in an instant. Suddenly we had a 50p gas and electric meter. We had one small gas fire in the house. Other than the sitting room, the house was often very cold and we wore many layers of clothes. Our clothes were clean, but most were from jumble sales. Mum had to pawn some jewellery. My 6th birthday present from a family friend was a haircut. My Brownie uniform was second hand, and didn’t fit properly. We were always fed, but sometimes Mum and Dad had to ask others for help. I can’t imagine how hard this must have been. There were times when Mum had to take us to the Hindu temple in Handsworth so we could eat. We had no food in the house, and Mum had two little girls, so we were kindly and generously fed without question by the lovely people at the temple. Our neighbours also gave us food. My sister and I often skipped down the road where we feasted on samosas provided by our friends’ parents. Mum and Dad always made events like this, that must have been so hard for them, an adventure. I remember this happened quite a lot, but it’s only in hindsight that I realise that it was because we were poor.

 

Mum and Dad left the pub trade and continued to work full time, but there was never enough money. Dad worked in insurance and Mum ran a play centre for the children of prisoners in Birmingham Prison, and after that ran a playscheme for children from even more deprived backgrounds than us. My sister and I helped out at Mum’s work and it meant we were fed and watered too. Mum was incredible with the children she looked after, and was adored by both the children and their parents and carers. She organised amazing trips for the children in the summer holidays, securing funding from various organisations, and it meant our little group of children from Handsworth and Lozells went on trips to places like Aston Hall, RAF Cosford, Warwick Castle. We went to Carnival in Handsworth Park and read books at Birchfield Library in Perry Barr. It was beautiful. The sense of community was palpable. Mum was so tenacious she even got NASA to send over resources and posters from the USA to her little playscheme for the children.

 

We continued to be a family living in poverty. Shopping for clothes and toys at jumble sales became the norm. I didn’t think there was anything unusual about this at all until I started secondary school. Then, when friends asked where I had bought my jumper, I found myself lying and saying that it was from Miss Selfridge or Dorothy Perkins, when really it was from the Salvation Army down the road. As I got older, I started to feel the simmering heat of shame that poverty kindles. Mum and Dad did everything they could do stop my sister and me feeling it, but we did. When I was fourteen, my best friend asked me to go on holiday with her to Tenerife with her parents. I couldn’t go because we didn’t have the money. It still hurts remembering. The shame of being “hard up”, as Mum called it, lingers.

 

Although we were poor, Mum and Dad did everything they could to make our experiences rich. No one in my family was musical. My sister and I used to snigger in Mass on a Sunday listening to Mum sing the hymns – she sounded like a croaky, out of tune bass-baritone. But Mum and Dad soon realised I was keen to find out more about music. I watched Inspector Morse with them, mainly to hear the snippets of opera that Morse loved so much. It sounded amazing to me and I wanted to know more. Not being musical, but having heard of a few composers, Mum and Dad bought crackly second hand tapes and LPs of any pieces by Mozart, Handel, Holst. I listened to them, trying to work out the sung French, German and Italian pronunciation, and teaching myself how I thought was the best way to conduct an orchestra after I’d learnt how to beat time from a battered second hand copy of the AB Guide to Music Theory. My favourite was conducting the overture to Mozart’s The Magic Flute after hearing it in one of the Inspector Morse episodes. Then school paid for singing lessons for me. Fast forward a few years and my first solo operatic performance was in a production of The Magic Flute. And then eleven years later, I was training as a lyric mezzo-soprano with English National Opera, and with Janis Kelly teaching me, the soprano in all the Inspector Morse episodes. There’s beauty and triumph that can sometimes emerge from exceptional difficulty.

 

My sister and I went to a wonderful school. Neither of us did the 11+ exam but instead went to a Roman Catholic girls’ comprehensive school in Birmingham. We would have been labelled as ‘Pupil Premium’, had it been around back then. Apart from the free school meal queue at lunch, which I avoided like the plague, my school never made me feel any different. I was never given anything easier because I was poor, or given any less challenge, or expected any less of. If anything, my school pushed me to know more and to do more. The expectations were sky high. And my sister and I rose to the challenge with relish. School soon realised I had promise at public speaking and debating. Before I knew it I was involved in the annual school public speaking competition, and the debating club. I was in all the musical productions and sang at the annual carol concert at St Phillip’s Cathedral. I was a school librarian. I was in the hockey team and vice captain of the tennis team. The school funded the loan of a clarinet for me. I was rubbish as it turned out, and a far better singer, but the point is the opportunity was there. What I didn’t know until years later was that the school funded most of a week’s trip to Germany for me when I was fourteen, with my grandparents paying for the rest of it, as well as school part-funding a classical tour of Greece for me when I was in the sixth form. It was incredible. In my final year of school I became Head Girl.

 

I was pushed in lessons to achieve in a way that built my confidence and made me want to learn more. The expectation was that I would go to university, so I never thought there was any other option. School continued to be a beautiful constant whilst things remained difficult for us as a family. Within the same year, when I was fourteen, Dad was diagnosed with emphysema, and mum with MS. A couple of years later, with symptoms that couldn’t be attributed to Mum’s MS or her epilepsy, Mum was also diagnosed with the final part of the most unholy neuro-trinity: Parkinson’s disease. My sister and I became carers for our parents, and they were for each other. Both Mum and Dad had to stop work but were able to remain in our little house in Lozells until a few years before they passed away. What I remember from this period of time was how determined both my parents were for my sister and me to do well despite the many challenges we faced as a family. And school and the church we went to supported us, quietly, without embarrassment and without pity. I was not labelled. I was simply Claire Stoneman.

 

Both my sister and I went to university – the first members of our family to do so. I stayed on an extra year to study for an MA in English literature. Mum and Dad couldn’t afford to pay for it, and neither could I, so I grafted and grafted in the last year of my BA to do as well as I could, and won the School of English bursary at the University of Leeds to pay for it. Poverty’s bite, whilst jagged and painful, can also make you exceptionally determined and focused.

 

And so fast forward to today. Dad passed away in 2012, not of emphysema that he remained stubbornly determined to resist as best he could, but of liver cancer. Mum finally succumbed to Parkinson’s disease in 2015 – a terribly cruel disease that robs you of so much. My sister is very successful in her line of work, and I am a deputy of academy. This post is very personal, and it is so because it utterly underpins everything I think and believe so keenly about education. I refuse to teach children who are labelled as Pupil Premium in a different, ‘easier’ way. I might need to know that they are Pupil Premium (but could easily argue that I don’t), I might need to give them a pen and not make a fuss about it, I might need to guide them towards opportunities that could enrich their lives – like public speaking competitions or clarinet lessons – but, if anything, I need to expect MORE of them, not less, and support them to do it. Because if we stoke the smouldering fire of poverty with the pernicious poverty of expectation too, then we are perpetuating a cycle of poverty; we are actively complicit in expecting less of ‘poor’ pupils. I wasn’t ‘free school meals Claire Stoneman’ or ‘poor Claire Stoneman’ or ‘disabled parents Claire Stoneman’ when I was at school, although I could have been labelled all of them. I was simply Claire Stoneman, and great things were expected of me. I will be forever grateful to my school for that.

Edu-Words of 2018 That Get my Goat (well a little, anyway)

“It would be so nice if something made sense for a change.”

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

If you who read my blog, or some of my tweets, you may know I’m a word pedant. I like precision. So the picture of Alice above is pretty much my face when a word morphs into something it shouldn’t. And I don’t mean neologisms. I like them. In this post I’m not referring to the hurtful words of the sticks and stones variety. I mean words and phrases that get stuck, occasionally irrevocably, in the teaching vernacular. Words that may be used in a well-meaning way, but sometimes lead to odd decisions and actions in schools if they’re not questioned. Words that contort into different interpretations of their original meaning. They’re not hurtful, they’re just bandwagoned. Let’s recover them.

So join me for a hurtle down the 2018 edu-word rabbit hole. It’s a bit bumpy, but it’s worth it.

1.Vision. Now this is a tricky one. I like vision. I like direction; I like to know where I’m heading. Moral purpose underpinning vision is important to me, too. But sometimes in education, ‘vision’ is the be all and the end all. I’ve written before about the ‘vision fog’ that can, sometimes without warning, descend on schools. And it’s seductive and nebulous – nearly everyone loves the vision lingo and the vision tub-thumping. But I’m shamelessly shimmying the pom poms again here for management as well as vision. Cos without the oils wheeled with effective systems and structures, the vision won’t be made manifest. Both are valuable and both are intrinsically linked.

2.Authentic/authenticity. Oooh, this one grates. I wrote about it last month here. Don’t tell me that to be a great teacher or leader I need to be ‘authentic’. Authentically what? Authentically obsessed with stationery? Authentically a Britney fan? Authentically committed to teaching? This can be a pernicious word, sometimes implying that if you don’t bare your soul or reveal all your hopes and dreams you can’t be the best person in teaching you could be. I disagree. Forced authenticity is, indeed, the exact opposite to what the purveyors of authenticity are well-meaningly trying to encourage. Being a teacher or school leader simply doesn’t need to be ‘framed’ by anything else. It can, of course, but it doesn’t have to be, and colleagues shouldn’t be made to feel that this is an imperative. As Brinkmann says, “Unbridled emotional openness” (Stand Firm, Brinkmann, p.68) is not always beneficial. Being a teacher or school leader is as authentic as it can get. Please, school leaders and teachers, be mindful. And I don’t mean colouring-book-dreamcatcher-mindful. Do it if you want; it’s just not my cup of tea. Which leads me neatly on to…

3.Self-care. This is a funny little hyphenated puzzle. I reckon there are hipsters in gentrified localities muttering it as they cautiously sip their spirulina tea (if that’s actually a thing. Although I think spirulina is a bit early noughties pashminaesque tbh. But I digress.). Self-care, from what I gather, means DOING STUFF YOU LIKE. And this, well obvs, is great. I like having a good sit. I like drinking good coffee. I like watching Lewis. I have this impending middle-aged self-care down pat. I get it though. I understand it also means looking after yourself, taking time for yourself and taking time off the ever-whirring school hamster wheel. And this is good and important too. It’s when these ‘self-love/self-care’ words and phrases are conflated with quasi-religious language that I worry.  Salsa self-caringly down edu-Twitter’s wellbeing yellow brick road and you’ll soon find school leaders recommending teachers to engage in soul mentoring and soul yoga. I don’t mind people doing this if they want to. Go for it. But really, if you’re going to spend scarce school funds, I’d much prefer teachers and school leaders spend their CPD engaging in curriculum development and the minutiae of great teaching, not practising the “religion of the self” (Brinkmann, p.76). But, yep, self-care in terms of looking after yourself is grand. Can we just call it something else please? Thanks 😊

4.Narrative. I have mixed feeling about this. As an English teacher, I love a story. But ‘narrative’ has been hijacked in some schools, often used in a way that means ‘Find and explain the evidence to prove what you mean about that thing that went wrong/that thing that went well.’ For example:

“That’s an interesting narrative. Tell me what you mean about….”

“Let’s explain the narrative behind….. to show……”

“What’s the narrative behind the improvement in……”

Yikes – I’ve been guilty of using ‘narrative’ in this way myself sometimes. But it’s lazy and imprecise. Let’s recover it.

5.Tribe. Often used in the context of edu-Twitter as in ‘Find your tribe’. I’m not sure how I feel about this. I like people. But I don’t need to feel the urgency that I have to ‘find’ people that feel the same way I do about education. But – oh. I like researchED. Are they my tribe? Gah. Foiled again.

There will be a follow up to this, including medicalised words in education. There are, bizarrely, so many.

 

The Problem with ‘Authenticity’

“…I wish you wouldn’t keep appearing and vanishing so suddenly: you make one quite giddy.’

‘All right,’ said the Cat; and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.”

Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

 

An abstract noun has slid into our teaching vernacular over the past year or so, and it’s as slippery as it’s seductive: authenticity. And I have a problem with it.

 

As usual, this blog post is only an opinion – recommendations for consideration as such – and you can take them or leave them. I am aware that this one, as with previous blog posts on wellbeing (here and here), may be one little fly in a massive wellbeing soup. But, if you have time, do linger to consider the fly, albeit fleetingly.

 

At first, the concept of authenticity seems common-sensical: of course, why wouldn’t you want to be authentic? But there are so many bewildering interpretations as to what ‘authenticity’ actually is or means. Of late, educational bandwagon-y authenticity is seductive, and offers a beguiling camaraderie of all-in-it-together-us-against-the-inauthentic-world, almost without question. The authenticity bandwagon’s path is a path of laminated memes and dreams, and it’s slippy. As the bandwagon rumbles on with newly-blogging followers keenly clambering aboard, or reverently laying freshly-laminated memes in its wake, Brinkmann recalls Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. Brian, who has been proclaimed the Messiah, addresses his followers with, “Look. You’ve got it all wrong. You don’t need to follow anybody! You’ve got to think for yourselves. You’re all individuals!” (Stand Firm by Svend Brinkmann, p.25). The crowd responds to Brian with one voice: “We are individuals”. And Dennis says, “I’m not.” Questioning ‘authenticity’ can be a lonely job. Those voices are rarely heard because the authenticity bandwagon commands righteousness and silence. To say anything that seems to counter the need for authenticity goes against the perception of what is right, and good, and true. So voices can get drowned out by the authenticity righteousness whirlpool of stuff (and often guff). I’d like to offer a different perspective to the often over-simplified authenticity-by-numbers that seems to be much leapt upon by some school leaders.

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I am concerned that for all its well-meaning amateurism, the all-pervasive imperative for authenticity can, sometimes, be damaging. Where the imperative for authenticity is questioned, people are labelled as insincere, not ‘in touch with their true selves’, or that they’re even in need of therapy. For me this is highly problematic, not less with the idea of perceived lack of authenticity in education equating to some sort of emotional fragility. Why, even the ‘acceptance’ of authenticity renders you vulnerable, apparently (see purple meme above).  But that’s for another blog.  Importantly, there’s a crucial difference here that is rarely highlighted amid the authenticity vision-fog: making the culture and conditions right for someone to be authentic if they want to be (e.g. a safe, supportive, happy and inclusive working environment) and the oft-proclaimed omni-pseudo-psychological-you-are-emotionally-vulnerable imperative of having to be authentic, or colleagues recommending/encouraging ‘authenticity’, whatever that is. I do think that there is a significant difference. Of course we want all our colleagues to be and feel safe and happy, so schools have to ensure that protected characteristics are, naturally, protected as per their obligation. Celebration and inclusion of colleagues’ authenticity/self/personality (see – hard to define!) is great, but I would encourage schools to consider that forced authenticity (even by recommending/cajoling/encouraging) is not inclusive whatsoever; it is indeed the opposite: it removes colleagues’ autonomy of thought and action. At points in my career I’ve had palm fulls of ‘self-labels’ that I could have shared, but chose not to share them at the time. This was not because my schools weren’t supportive (they were incredibly so), or because I was somehow inauthentic or disingenuous, but because I simply didn’t want to; I didn’t want my roles of senior leader and teacher to be ‘framed’ by anything else. I talked to my head teachers when I needed to. I told the people I line managed if I thought they needed to know, due to me having to leave straight after work on some days and not being able to meet them after school. These self-labels included the label of ‘carer’: the lengthy suffering of both my disabled parents prior to their deaths, and the difficulties and joys my sister and I faced as carers. I chose not to share these self-labels at school at the time, other than with my head teacher and a few others. But, most importantly, I had the choice to share or not to share. You can read about this further here. Choosing not to share these self-labels did not make me any less ‘authentic’, or any less good at my job as a teacher or senior leader. I am concerned about the recent proliferation of blogs, articles and tweets that I have read this year that indicate, with inalienable doubt, that the following is the case: perceived lack of authenticity = not good at your job because you are not yourself. Had my then head teachers tried to force me (which thankfully they did not), into some sort of confessional Loose Women-like sharing of feelings, to pour out my authenticity soup onto the floor of the staffroom for all colleagues to see, it would have taken a great deal of mopping up. And I would have left the school. School leaders, please don’t make colleagues feel that this is necessary. It isn’t unless they want to, and your school should be supportive of all colleagues, anyway. If colleagues do want to talk to others and be open/authentic, then support, obviously. But don’t assume. Don’t assume anything, and don’t impose an ‘authentic narrative’. Listen.

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There’s also a pragmatism that we don’t seem to have considered. Many have enthusiastically scrambled aboard the authenticity bandwagon in the past year or so, I’m sure with the best of intentions. Many of its advocates talk of teachers being able to be their true selves, of being sincere, of being ‘real’. I get it. I really do. But my ‘being real’ on a Monday morning – needing multiple cups of coffee, and occasionally being Monday morning grumpy and irritable, coupled with authentic inertia-riddled self-reflective navel-gazing at the school gates, is neither productive nor efficient for a school first thing on a Monday. Monday morning needs me perky at the gates, welcoming kids and colleagues, ensuring a well-ordered, well-structured start to the school day and school week. It does not need me checking my authenticity at that point, and it certainly doesn’t need my stony Gorgonesque Monday morning authentic feelings (unless Year 9 require my Medusa face. I’m really quite good at that). My actual authentic feelings would get in the way of running a school well. Brinkmann cites Rousseau’s idea that being yourself has some kind of intrinsic value (Stand Firm by Svend Brinkmann, p.27). Again, I would like to question this. My Sunday morning self of PJs, pastries and binge-watching Kath and Kim is of no intrinsic value to the school (other than me being rested, which is obvs important.). What does have intrinsic value is my deputy head teacher self: my duty and obligations to the school as a deputy head teacher and English teacher. And it is the duty of the school to ensure that colleagues’ authenticity, whatever that might be, can be supported by the culture and conditions in which the school is run. But equally, it is also the duty of the school to be wary of seeing everything through an illusionary authenticity lens. Further, it is the duty of the school to support anyone who doesn’t want to be ‘authentic’/open with feelings and emotions, and to ensure that they are not thought of as emotionally fragile or vulnerable, simply because they don’t want to take a trip down that beguiling authenticity path.

 

A note:

‘Authenticity’ is bandied about at will at the moment, but a great leader and author that cuts through the authenticity faff is Tom Rees. In his book Wholesome Leadership he writes about the importance of “leadership authenticity”, and I agree with him. Plus Tom is a really nice bloke, so I reckon you will agree with him too 🙂

 

Book referenced:

Stand Firm by Svend Brinkmann

The Truth and Beauty of Curriculum

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

 

I’ve said before that I’m very interested in language.  I’m an English teacher, so I should be.  But I’m also interested in spoken language and its nuances. I’m fascinated by the frequency of words used, word class choice, and what it might reveal. I’ve blogged before about my infrequent informal analyses of spoken language choices.  For an example, see this blog post which was in response to Pritesh Raichura’s excellent presentation at researchED Rugby.   I usually analyse spoken language when I’m listening carefully to understand, and to process someone’s thinking and rationale.  I focus very specifically on the words the speaker uses and keep a little tally of how often they mention specific words. It’s very useful and can often tell you a great deal.  To emphasise again, as I have done in the past: my analysis isn’t an exact science. I haven’t carried out any research into it, and I’m not laying claim to anything other than finding words interesting.

On Tuesday this week I was giddy with excitement.  Not only was I visiting Bedford Free School and Stuart Lock’s fab team, I was also attending part one of the Inspiration East training on curriculum, led this week by Christine Counsell, and next week by Summer Turner, generously hosted by Bedford Free School.

This is a short blog post.  I do not intend to write up my thinking from the training.  I wouldn’t be able to do the session justice.  What I’d like to do is to share with you the most frequently spoken words by Christine as she took us through the different types of questions to ask of middle leaders when designing their curricula.

By far, the most frequently used words by Christine in the first part of the training were nouns.  They were:

Story/stories

Knowledge

Narrative

Christine has blogged about curriculum as ‘narrative’ before, so this didn’t come as a surprise to me, but I could see that there was a sense of the sequencing of narratives (and ‘stories’) of different disciplines that Christine was articulating.  It was about moving away from the merely episodic to carefully sequenced, interlinked and interwoven schemata of knowledge and understanding.  It was about senior leaders being interested in the stories that our middle leaders want to teach.  It was also about what children are going to encounter in the curriculum narrative they experience that will enrich their knowledge and understanding in later years.

And as an English teacher, those nouns appeal immensely.

Interestingly, Christine’s language shifted slightly as the session progressed, but again there were more nouns, and just one adjective used more frequently than any other:

Mountain/s

Hinterland

Fertile

This was the language of travel and of voyage.  There was a sense of senior leaders understanding and navigating the “fertile” terrain of curriculum.  It was telling that Christine used an extract from both MacFarlane’s Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination, and from Wordsworth’s ‘The Prelude’. These wonderful extracts both feature rich, lustrous, towering terrain, perhaps alluding to the immense power and the highest of heights that our children should be able to access through a rich, lustrous, towering curriculum. The language of the navigation and voyage of curriculum used by Christine almost placed a moral compass in front of us all.

And lastly, that moral compass fluttered, and moved from concrete nouns to abstract nouns.  The two most frequently used nouns spoken by Christine towards the end of the training were the following:

Truth

Beauty

As Christine said, “When you let the content matter, it changes almost everything you do.”

Now there’s real truth and beauty in that.