The Via Negativa of SLT: what they are not

HeadmasterI’ve read quite a few tweets and blogs that, I think, might make the heart sink of anyone who has ever been part of an SLT. There seems to be quite a lot written about things that SLTs are getting wrong, often written by people observing those roles from outside. In response I wanted to write a description of the work of members of a Senior Leadership Team by describing what they are not.Headmaster-Office-Door-si-007

Being a member of SLT is not:

  • About leaving your humanity behind. It’s all too easy to describe a decision as made by ‘management’ or ‘SLT’ because it dehumanises teachers into a thing, an object, that is making life difficult, rather than talking about people
  • Easier than being a teacher with a full timetable, it is different, a different job with different challenges. Each role is of value and essential to the smooth running of the school
  • A step away from the classroom, it should still be about everything that is going on in the classroom, the reason why we do what we do. Most SLT members will still have some teaching commitments & some have way too much teaching commitment (in my opinion)
  • Irrelevant to Teaching & Learning.  Better leadership means a better school, which can improve the standard of teaching and learning
  • For everyone. It is not a natural progression that everyone has to aspire to, but it is something that if you feel you have an interest in you should not hold back, but investigate right away
  • The ‘them’ of an ‘us and them’ scenario, it’s not about finding someone to take the blame for decisions that are often made elsewhere, but should be about colleagues working for the same goal
  • A provider of answers to everything, teaching is difficult and there are many times when it is best to work together to work out what the best solution is for your school
  • A heartless occupation, there is nothing harder and more heartbreaking than having to work with a colleague who is struggling for whatever reason
  • A punching bag, although the are times when it can be helpful to take that role, if you assume opposition from the outset it ends up being a waste of time and energy
  • Someone who should just let teachers get on with it, they are themselves still teachers and they are, in many cases, hanging on to their reasons for going into teaching in the first place
  • About making changes just for the sake of it. As professionals we all want to make progress so that sometimes, but not always involves change
  • Communicating one way. It might seem that many members of SLT are constantly issuing reminders, updates, emails, etc, but by far one of the biggest aspects of the job should be listening to everything that is going on
  • About living in your office and this is sometimes really hard to avoid. Listening to others often involves lots of meeting with colleagues & this inevitably ends up happening in offices, but it’s not about hiding thereheadmaster-2
  • About trying to thwart the professional development of their colleagues. They are not trying to waste precious budget on useless INSET days to irritate overworked teachers
  • Being beyond criticism yourself. Members of SLT should have extensive appraisals carried out, where all kinds of members of the school community can have their say
  • About being in it for yourself, in fact a personal vision of education & a shared vision for the school should be providing the motivations for decisions made
  • An emotionless experience. Sadly, being promoted to an SLT doesn’t automatically make you immune to feeling hurt when unfair comments are made, but you just have to deal with it
  • About being better than anyone else, as it is with the classroom, so it should be with the school and that is above all else people should be treated fairly
  • About being infallible. You do not automatically have Pope-like status and therefore can still make mistakes, but you need to have the humility and integrity to recognise your failings, we’re all human

Now this is not to say that there aren’t failing leadership teams of failing individual members of those teams and if you’re faced with injustice you have a decision to make. Either move on to a school more akin to your values or challenge the way things are.

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Education Book recommendation for the Summer: Ecclesiastes

20140702-114319-42199272.jpgAs we approach the summer holidays it is a time when many teachers thoughts turn to their summer holidays and the reading material for those long, lazy days. On Twitter I have already seen a number of book lists, which seem to consist of weighty educational tomes (make sure you check your baggage allowance!) that all seem to be worthy contenders. I have a recommendation for your reading list and it is only 51p on Kindle and about sixty pages, it’s an easy, accessible treat. My recommendation for a summer reading is the book Ecclesiastes. Shockingly it is a book of the Bible. I am recommending it, not only because there are lots of gems in there to make you think about life, the universe and everything, but also because I think it can give an insight to a lot of what is happening in education at the moment.

The author is a shadowy figure, less accessible than say your Hatties and Dwecks. The author has no name as such, although is referred to as Qoheleth, which means the ‘wise one’ or the ‘preacher’, in fact in some versions this is actually translated as ‘Teacher’ so think of the connections there. They seem to be a philosophical kind of person, with their opening words, having more than a dash of Buddhism about them,

“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (1:1)

Already I imagine there are some that might say, ‘Ah here is someone who truly understands the craziness that forms the basis of educational matters these days’. This quote certainly does set the tone for the one of the themes of the book. The author considers the meaningless nature of what we know. A wonderful epistemological question right from the outset. What can really be known? A question that, if we could answer it, might just guide our journeys through Teaching and Learning land. Qoheleth says that so many of the things that we consider to be important are really worth nothing; he says that it is just like chasing the wind. A lesson to be learnt there regarding levels perhaps, is there really such a thing as an objective benchmark and do we need one anyway?

Perhaps one of the most telling parts of the opening section of Ecclesiastes is when Qoheleth says,

What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which one can say,
“Look! This is something new”? (1:9f)

I recently came across the phrase ‘graphic organisers’ when researching new assessment and differentiation practices and wondered what it was referring to. When I looked further it was essentially the distilling of information into boxes or different shapes on a handout. Look back across the decades of teaching experience and you will see this practice existing in one form or another. We might give ideas new labels, but perhaps Qoheleth has a point, is there anything of which one can say, Look! this is something new! Perhaps instead of looking for easy new answers, or debunking myths, we should be considering permutations, in the words of one of Ian Gilbert’s Thunks (@ThatIanGilbert), can you really stand on the same beach twice. It is all too clear that education is forever in a state of flux, perhaps there is nothing new, but what we can do is learn to adapt to our ever changing environment,

If you feel like the emphasis on the meaninglessness is a little too much for the summer holidays, keep going, in the way you would with Its a Wonderful Life, because chapter three takes you to familiar territory. One of the most well known passages of Ecclesiastes has made it into popular culture, particularly if you know the 1965 hit for The Byrds, ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’. The passage famously examines the concept of time and the inevitability of certain events and rituals.

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace. (3:1-8)

There is a time when certain things are right and a time when they are not. Inevitability requires an acceptance that there are things that are beyond your control. This is not the same as refusing to challenge injustice, but it is to recognise that ideas will come and go regardless. There is a time to search out, but there is also a time to give up. What is particularly noteworthy for teachers is the time to be silent. The space for peace and quiet can be a rare thing in schools and especially for those who work in schools. What better way to restore balance but to seek out a moment or two of silence over the summer. Even the tweets can cease some times. What is encouraged is to live your life to the full and to enjoy the pleasures of today, because they could be gone tomorrow.

This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labour under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot. (5:18)

If Qoheleth is to be believed then our lives should reflect the balance of all those things. One of the worst mistakes you could make, particularly as a teacher, is to imagine you know what is going to happen. The academic year might be sketched out, dates might be in place, calendars taking shape, but it has yet to be painted in. Students will return as new individuals and their learning pathways are yet to be written.

Qoheleth writes on the nature of wisdom and encourages us to persevere. A number of interesting ideas are included, which you might agree with or think are ridiculous, but they at least might give you something to think about. Some might give you comfort when faced with the latest educational headline.

Frustration is better than laughter,
because a sad face is good for the heart. (7:3)

Other points might be helpful for those who get embroiled in ‘educational’ twitter debates.

Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit,
for anger resides in the lap of fools. (7:9)

Another point might be helpful when you find yourself about to embark on yet another debate about teaching standards.

Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?”
For it is not wise to ask such questions. (7:10)

If after all of this you feel at a loss as to what your goal should be, Qoheleth has something to say about this too, which may appeal in its simple nobility.

So I turned my mind to understand,
to investigate and to search out wisdom and the scheme of things
and to understand the stupidity of wickedness
and the madness of folly. (7:25)

Now I’m not saying it is always an easy read. Ecclesiastes is a strange, challenging, difficult, depressing, uplifting, bizarre, annoying, confusing and illuminating read. I do recommend that you read it, whatever your beliefs and if you do not believe in religion. I haven’t given the end away. Read it, you never know you might love it.

 

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