What is your mission statement?

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I’ve sat in different halls when the newly revised and rewritten version of the school’s mission statement has been revealed. I’ve been on both sides – part of the SLT who is sharing it or a member of staff, being shown version number 473. I’ve heard the cynical sniggers from those who cast it aside immediately as a meaningless document at best or at worst an agenda-laden manifesto of the controlling management team imposing their ideas on the true educators. I’ve read different kinds of mission statements – the extensive, leaving nothing unsaid, detailed essay and the pithy ‘can we say it in ten words’, yes as long as it’s a meaningless educational soundbite. It’s not an easy job trying to write one, but it is easy to be critical of others’ attempts. What has struck me more and more is that it’s often a question that you only have to really tackle when you start showing an interest in promotion, but it’s as important a job from the moment you begin your career until your retirement year (and beyond).

What is a mission statement anyway? Ultimately it a way of communicating your purpose to others. Why are you doing what you are doing? I don’t think anyone properly asked me that until I’d been teaching for about ten years, already well into a Head of Department role. I wanted to really think about my answer and not through it away on something too logistical. To help you come up with your mission statement I’m going to slightly adapt a suggested approach from business via Forbes magazine and ask you three questions to come up with your own statement of intent. As an extra challenge, can you sum up your answer to each question in one sentence?

  • What do you do? The obvious answer is to teach, but what do you actually do so that learning takes place? Have you developed a particular style in the classroom or adopted an approach to learning that influences your planning? Have you got a USP? If you are going for a leadership role or currently in one then what do you enjoy about the responsibility of leadership?
  • How do you do it? What do you bring to your role? Whenever I was responsible for schemes of work I always wanted them to be flexible enough for individual teachers to shape the material with their own personalities. Are you passionate about your subject? What motivates you? Why would it be different to work with you?
  • Why do you do it? For me this is the foundation of your mission statement, in that everything else should be built upon these ideas. What are your values? Some of you will know from my tweets and blogs that I am a big fan of Michael Fullan and his focus on moral purpose. I was introduced to him at the very beginning of my study of educational leadership, but I think it is something that should be considered right at the start. What are the principles that underpin your decisions and choices? Are there deal breakers for you that might cause you to look for another post if a request appears to challenge your values? What does it mean for you to be an authentic teacher and/or leader? Would colleagues be able to say what your values were, do you communicate them to others?

It is not surprising that an understanding of mindfulness and resilience is becoming more significant in teacher development. Rather than be seen as fanciful additions these ideas, along with our core values, construct a teacher who’s well being is integral to their success. As Fullan suggests (referencing Palmer’s Courage to Teach) in chapter 2 of his very readable book, Leading in a Culture of Change,

‘…the best teachers integrate the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual aspects of teaching to create powerful learning communities’

At this challenging time, when teachers are even being politically scolded for not being positive about their profession, it is even more important to know what your mission statement is. For many of us, taking time to ask yourself these questions will prove to be the chart that will help get you through the roughest seas and cope with the highest waves. In fact, your mission statement should be the most positive statement of intent and will also be celebration of everything you have already achieved.

Life outside the Forest: one year into research

I wonder how many of you have been watching the series of The Island with Bear Grylls, one episode with the men’s group and the other with the women’s. As soon as it began it was hard not to compare the performance of the two groups according to gender.  Would stereotyped behaviour emerge or would our expectations be challenged?  I was certainly shocked how easily half of the women’s group, venturing out to discover a site for a good base, were lost in the wilderness. They spent days without proper food and drink looping in circles through the trees trying to find, firstly their way to the sea, and then to find their way back to camp.  Watching their struggles, Bear informed us that, without the ability to see the sky or any recognisable landmarks, us humans have the tendency to walk in circles. As teachers we can easily relate to the idea of been immersed in the forest, especially with the way our lives our governed by the academic calendar.  We take great strides into the trees in September and emerge in June or July, blinking at the brightness of the sun.  In between we trek well-worn paths and sometimes discover new ones.  We often think we are in a new place, only to realise we have been here many times before.  Our worlds become a life under the canopy.  We listen to the twittering of the birds, but even these can be deceptive.  We think we hear distant sound of those cutting down the forest only to discover that some tweets are mimicking chain saws, causing alarm about supposed new government initiatives, deceptively convincing.

About eighteen months ago I had a difficult choice to make: to make a move to another deputy role, go for some headships, or to carry on with the research I had enjoyed so much as part of my Masters, by starting a doctorate.  I had juggled the Masters work with life as a Deputy, but knew that for me this would not be possible, if I was to keep going with the research.  So I decided to step outside of the forest.  This would allow me to carry on with the research, but also continue some of my favourite aspects of work as a deputy.  I could work with teachers, as they worked through the PGCE process and write material to deliver to teachers through training encounters.  At the end of my first year of research outside the forest, what I have learnt so far about the process?

  1. There is always so much to learn.  I never thought of myself as a great writer, but I didn’t think I was terrible either, but I have learnt so much about the ways I can improve my technique through the superb, critical feedback I have received from my supervisors.  They have challenged every aspect of my thinking process and we don’t get that enough in our working lives.  Teachers are usually such a supportive community that we tend to praise our peers rather than truly critique them.  It’s understandable, given morale at the moment, that the common approach is one of wanting to encourage others.
  2. There’s a lot to learn about the forest whilst being outside of it. Of course I’m not suggesting that it isn’t important for teachers to share good practice with each other. As a deputy I was passionate about learning together as a community, so much good can come from it. However, I’ve been surprised by many colleagues’ quick dismissal of what can be learnt from outside of the forest that can inform and enhance our day to day practice.
  3. Inspiration comes from many places.    I have learnt an awful lot from a host of different sources including the twittering birds of Twitter.  Through my research I have enjoyed the inevitable journal surfing, one journal leads to its references and then that takes you to the next article and so on.  Like many here I’m sure, my Amazon wish list runs into hundreds.  I have also learnt that sometimes we don’t get the chance to encounter some great sources of inspiration.  This can be seen when people share their reading lists, as often the same dozen or so books are there. It’s an argument for access to research, but certainly if there are staff researching in your school it’s a bonus for them to share the good stuff with colleagues.
  4. Life outside the forest isn’t always easy. The regularity of the academic year can make you feel like you are living on a hamster wheel at times, but take that familiar regularity away suddenly and it can really throw you out of kilter.   Teachers often say that the intensely structured life following the timetable of an academic year makes the years fly by. I’ve learnt that’s true, but also that there’s a lot to love about regularity, enjoy the support it gives you and that you always have the freedom to change.
  5. There’s a great view of the forest from here and I actually can see the wood for the trees.  It’s all about a different perspective. Sometimes having the opportunity to step outside can help to see new things about the forest. Just like the women on The Island, with no chance to see the sky or recognisable landmarks, I know there were times when I could not see where I was.  That is why I still see value in the away day INSET, because for that day you step outside of your usual routine. I’ve always felt that the chance to acknowledge the bubble we operate in and to be able reflect upon it is essential.
  6. Some people don’t value my time in the forest.  This really shocked me. I’ve been teaching for over twenty years, but for some my move to senior leadership was enough to push me to cushy forest fringes where I sat in the comfortable visitor’s centre (drinking tea all day apparently).  That was bad enough, but now I’ve basically been asked to leave the forest, because I have no idea of what it’s like to live there. I can, of course relate to there being different experiences of the forest. It’s very different being a lumberjack to say being a botanist. However, I do know what its like. I have learnt a lot from twenty plus years in the woods and I continue to learn from others who share their forest experiences. I have been trained as a teacher, have worked hard as a teacher and I continue to be proud to see myself as a teacher as I continue to teach. Why are some so quick to dismiss that?
  7. There are always new things appearing in the forest. This is one of the most exciting aspects of this life and yet at the same time this can also be a source of frustration. This is why it is important to always remember…
  8. There are many things that do not change. I can recall recently encountering the phrase ‘graphic organisers’ and being excited to discover this new development. I then realised it was essentially structured, i.e. with boxes or trees, etc., handouts. People were raving about their value and it made me laugh given that these have been part of my experience for well over twenty years.
  9. The more questions you ask, the more interesting it gets.   For a number of years I have been fascinated by leadership theory and the impact it has on practical matters.  I am amazed and saddened by those that teach for a living, but are so quick to dismiss any theoretical study of educational leadership.  How does that inspire a love of learning?  The more I study issues of leadership, headship, identity and gender the more I realise these questions definitely still need to be asked.  Another reason why I am a passionate believer in the professional development of teachers.
  10. The forest looks amazing from here. Perhaps it’s because I am not trekking through, looping in circles. In the thick of it, with no break it’s easy to see the forest as some kind of prison, trapping us and sapping our energy. From here, it looks diverse, broad, huge, full of life and energy. New shoots are springing up all over the place ready to be nurtured. I’m hoping those inside don’t build too many fences because being able to go in and out of the forest I think does everyone some good.

Will I return to the forest? I’m not sure. I actually get to spend more time in classrooms now than I did as a deputy, but who knows where this new path goes, for me it’s undiscovered countryside out here.  This weekend I saw three women from The Island on television talking about their experiences of reintegrating back into society, with all its comforts and excesses.  Despite this and despite their lack of food, water, energy as seen on The Island, they were asked which would be their preferred choice – here or there.  For all three it was easy, they wanted to go back there. It’s amazing what perspective can do for us all.

The Case of the Teacher and the Multiple Identities

2014-09-27 13.10.22When I left my last job I thought long and hard about how to say goodbye.  I loved working with the staff there and was sad to go, but how to convey that?  Well something that I did in my leaving speech was to tell them two things that they didn’t know about me and two things that I hoped they knew about me.  The two things that I really hoped that they knew were, firstly, that I thought they were a really amazing staff, that worked really hard.  The second thing was I was really proud of everything they had achieved and that I had learnt a lot from them.  If you want to know what the two things were that they didn’t know, then you’ll have to ask them or me!  I had worked there for a while, but I was pleased that there were things about me that were still unknown. The thing is that I think we need to to be more than the job that we do.  I’m always wary of people who so completely identify themselves with their job, because especially in today’s climate we will all know people who have lost jobs and the devastating effect that can have on an individual’s identity. Instead of it being ‘I am what I do’ we could see that what we do can add important meaning to our identities and helps us to be part of different communities.

Think back to when you were at school, we had a crazy fascination if we ever saw a teacher in the holidays, say, at the seaside, the cinema or in town. What on earth were they doing? How come they are pretending to be like normal people?  In my first job I lived in the same small city as most of the pupils and was frequently followed around town when shopping just because they were so curious as to what I could possibly be buying.  The classic cliche of the teacher going into a box a the end of a day still rumbles on, and with extensive marking and planning, it is easy to feel that are lives are consumed by school, especially during term time. I am a passionate believer in protecting that work/life balance, but that’s not just something relevant for those with dependants, because, well let’s face it, not everyone has dependants. It is ultimately about out our identity that we need to protect and encourage to flourish independently to school persona. The more content we are as a person, the more we are in a position to let our passion for what we do flow in lessons.

Identity is a crucial component of our working lives. Rather than have one identity throughout our careers we take on a succession of different identities, different roles in different schools, a bit like trying on shoes and some fit us better than others. Some we fall in love with, if you’ll permit me to continue with the analogy, and others we can’t wait to kick off at the end of the day. What perhaps we don’t acknowledge enough, whilst we are working in schools, is how tricky those transitions from one identity to another can be. It could be that we really enjoyed being a Year 7 tutor and then suddenly the next September you can assigned to the Year 9s without so much as a warning. There is a sense of loss with, quite often, next to no time to adjust to the change. Herminia Ibarra talks about the ‘reinvention ripples’ that happen when we change identities. In schools it sometimes feels as if there is no time for the the ripples.

Splash created by a drop of water splashing into a calm poolOther transitions can be much harder and trickier to cope with, for example, the move to middle management. When that pile of examination board forms hit your pigeon hole that have to filled in right away, or the out of date text for the website, or the schemes of work that need updating, it seems a million miles away from the days when you could spend that time planning and marking. Bigger still is the move to senior leader.  Again, it is not an augmentation of your current job, it is a completely different job. You are moving from one job to another and more often than not there is no acknowledgement of that. I can remember when I first became a Head of Department heading to a bookshop to find a book called, How to be a Subject Leader, which didn’t exist at the time. I pretty much did the same thing when I became a Deputy Head. Of course, there is a great uncertainty taking on a new role with all of its new responsibilities, but it is more than that. You are also taking on a new identity. For example, being a Senior Leader means getting used to some conversations stopping when you walk into a room, when previously you might have been in the middle of that conversation. That’s fine, because you’re in a different group now. It doesn’t mean that you can’t have a fun working day, or respect your staff with every atom, but you also have to do some not so pleasant jobs sometimes which mean you really need that bit of distance. It is hard and you can be prepared in terms of your experience, prepared even in terms of your knowledge base, but nothing can quite can prepare you for the change in identity.  With all of these changes being a part of our working lives, I think we need to ensure that we are more than what we do. We need to hold something back. We need to keep something for ourselves. That stops us from being completely consumed, in case the distinction between us at home and us at work disappears altogether. Even the most open book amongst us should have a hidden chapter or two.

So what is in your life that is protected just for you. I’m not talking about family or friends, but something about you, your interests, your party trick, a special hidden talent. We can be open books to our colleagues, we can share what is going on in our lives, but keep something just for you. These days teachers’ emotions and reaction are being watched every moment by the ‘Educating Essex/Yorkshire/East End’ Series.Those unmanned cameras zoom in to witness the despair, the joy, the frustration is writ large on our television screens. Even in our technological advances the barriers are being broken down. I am a great fan of social media, not least because it makes even the more famous more accessible and that our communication is made easier. Twitter is genuinely a fantastic media for career development. However, we need to manage it with our work roles. I definitely agree with @TeacherToolkit’s recommendation for at least two Twitter handles, keep one for your professional identity and keep the other one for kittens, memes and fascinating pictures. Don’t give yourself away completely, particularly if your using it with students, protect that part of your identity that school can’t get their hands on.

So what are things that your colleagues perhaps don’t know about you? Are you a secret Heat magazine reader? Do you play bingo? Do you love listening to thrash metal? Think about the Venn diagram below (you’ve got to love a good Venn diagram) how much of an overlap would there be on your version and what is being held back just for you?2014-09-27 12.44.27

What kind of reception are you?

1st Floor Lobby Welcome DeskStarting a new term can be a daunting prospect. It could be because you are starting a new school or it could be that you are taking on a new responsibility. It could be that you are starting a PGCE in school or are a keen, but mildly terrified NQT. You might have had to move to a new part of the country and be experiencing all kinds of new feelings about your surroundings. It could just be the usual butterflies that come just before a brand new academic year begins. Whether well established or brand new it could be quite normal to ask yourself I wonder what reception I will receive. How you interact with colleagues can make such a difference to your working experience. Staff still genuinely worry about using the wrong mug, or sitting in the wrong chair. At one school I actually had my pile of books, planner and diary moved because I had put it on the ‘wrong desk’. The reception you receive is important.

 

If you’re new to a school then you might be hoping that people will be friendly and warm; that you can get to know others and feel at home very quickly. You might be smiling endlessly as you’re introduced to new person after new person, their names evaporating before your eyes as soon as they’ve been uttered. If you’re well established, you could be wondering about new colleagues, what are they like and will they fit in? Perhaps you’re still pining for colleagues that have just left and find it hard to believe that these ‘new ‘uns’ are ever going to be as fun. For the couple of weeks of term there are a lot of new people to meet, adults and children. How people treat us, and how we treat other people, is very important at the start of this experience. The reception you receive makes a difference.

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When I worked in London I used to go back into the City after a summer away to an ever-changing landscape. It wasn’t just the children who had grown up and changed, but the buildings had too. Many of the big City banks and companies would constantly invest vast sums of money in refurbishing their reception areas. Schools have also picked up on the importance of this, particularly in recent years. Twitter has even had proud head teachers post images of their refurbished receptions ready to welcome hoards of visitors to their school. When I walked around the City, I would nosily look in through the glass walls of these companies to catch a glimpse of what went on inside. A favourite company that I recall had the most spectacular chandelier that mirrored every colour of the rainbow on a sunny day, emphasizing the opulence of the surroundings. From outside it looked very pretty, but if I’d had to walk in there on my first day at work it would be hard not to feel intimidated and a little daunted at having to match the heights of the company I’d have just joined. The reception you receive can change your perceptions.

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Some of the reception halls try to incorporate pieces of art, like the huge, impressive pieces in the entrance to Deutsche Bank. Would seeing a work of art put you at ease; many schools proudly display the best of their students’ art, would that give you something to focus on rather than the reality of your nerves? There are other reception halls that might be vast in scale, but rather sparsely furnished in a minimalist way. If you walked in there on your first day you could try to sit as neatly as possible in their designer chairs being sure not to knock their delicate orchids. If a school reception were furnished in this way you could image the well placed spread of school literature on the table in front of you, tempting you to see just how amazing the schools’ achievements really are. On a school trip to a school in Manhattan I had to wait in the school’s special reception room having just come in from a downpour. I can remember wanting to disappear into a hole as I sat on the most perfect sofa, dripping quietly, opposite the most perfect, glamorous Manhattan couple smiling with their beautiful teeth. Sometimes the designer approach is impressive in terms of its designer status, but might not necessarily be the warmest of welcomes in its clinical minimalism.   You can imagine your voice, echoing around as you announce your arrival at the reception desk. Perhaps they want you to know for certain that they are very, very important and you better be on your best behaviour. Or maybe they are suggesting they are serious about their work and so you should be too. The reception you receive creates an impression.

 

Plasma screens with news stations showing can be a feature of reception halls in businesses and now in schools, showing that not a thing passes them by and they are as up to date as you can possibly be. Although in one entrance hall I went into they had three giant plasma screens, two showing different channels of news – maybe to indicate that they are not biased in any way and are open to different ways of looking at things, but the third one showed a film of a tropical fish tank. Needless to say it was the fish film that mesmerised me. Balanced with the news channels, I wondered whether they were showing me that on the one hand you can be stressed with the news, but on the other the fish would relax me. Or maybe I would think they were serious about current events, but the fish showed their fun and creative side too. Some school receptions have vast trophy cabinets filled with every kind of cup, shield, chunk of glass and block of Perspex. These perhaps want to give future parents and pupils the impression that if you come to this school or work in this school you area winner, you will succeed, you will reach the top. The reception you receive can make you think.

 

Thousands and in some cases millions of pounds are spent on creating the perfect reception. Perhaps this is money well spent when so much can hinge upon those important first impressions. The environment around us can affect the way in which we feel, particularly when we are in a new and unfamiliar situation, but what about us as people what kind of reception do we give others? Have you spent the first week bouncing around catching up on everyone’s news? If you are going into a new school or if you ‘part of the furniture’ what impression do you give? Are you warm and fluffy, the one who tells you where everything is? Are you somewhat reserved, everything looking great, supremely efficient, like the minimalist showpiece, but no warmth and comfort? Do you show your fun and creativity, or is it empty and hollow sounding and lasts for the first few days. Are you the one that invites everyone to the pub that first Friday? As I’ve said before I was known to have a new bag, notebook or pencil case to show and tell, something new or different for the start of term. Do you make others feel at home? Or do you make them feel intimidated? Welcomes can take many forms and some can last for an afternoon, others for years. The reception you give to another can really make a difference.

 

It is a wonderful feeling to be made to feel welcome. I always appreciate the welcome I get every time I arrive at schools. I’ve been lucky enough to work in schools where the reception was one where you were looked after and it often made those early mornings more bearable. I was lucky to be greeted with smiles and kindness. We appreciate that in the places where we work and go to school. This seems to be a great opportunity to apply the Golden Rule: we should treat others, as we would want to be treated. How would you like to be welcomed to your school? There are many different styles of reception hall around busy cities just we as individuals are able to welcome people around us in countless ways. It is not just about welcoming people to a particular building, but also about how we make people feel when we encounter them. To make someone feel welcome or to be made to feel welcome is tremendous.

 

So what kind of reception are you?

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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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Thank goodness RE is complicated

complicatedWhy did I choose to teach RE? The answer was really simple, because I loved my subject. I was passionate about Theology & Philosophy of Religion, and by the time I reached the dizzy heights of 22, had been so for at least a decade. Why did I love it so? Because of complexity. It was the way in which humans encountered the divine in a number of ways, but each was beautifully complex. I had loved my university lectures on Systematic Theology, because I liked the nitty gritty of Incarnational or Trinitarian theology, for example. I even enjoyed coping with the complexities of early church history, because those Patristic leaders seemed to spend decades arguing over single words, because they wanted to agree to create creeds and canons. With Patristic Theology there never seemed to be a sense of, ‘Well, that’ll do for now’. Then there were the textual studies. Having been prepared for Theology by learning New Testament Greek, at my local comprehensive, by the most brilliant of teachers (see ‘I want to continue to develop professionally’ ) I was ready to dissect text with the rest of them. I was happy to translate Mark’s Gospel with all its hurried mistakes and clumsiness. Was challenged by the detail of Romans, but loved in particular John’s Gospel, with all its hidden symbolism, underpinning structural meanings, its theological clues that sent you on an exciting detective hunt. I loved the complexity. Even now, if I’m feeling in the mood for a little Greek jousting, I will happily answer the door to bewildered JWs to discuss the role of the definite article in Trinitarian theology. For me, there were frustrating, yet beautiful paradoxes to battle with and yet this was only half of the picture. Theology’s intricacies also sprung from the fact that people are complicated too. Not surprising if you believe in Imago Dei.

 

Why did I want to teach RE? Well that love and appreciation of complexity of belief, of people and of divinity had been nurtured in me by outstanding teachers. They loved their subjects too and had passed that on to me. The RE department that I attended did have its beautiful wall displays (albeit in a portacabin, too hot for summer, too cold for winter), but it had even more beautiful discussions. Nobody dumbed anything down, that I can remember. We were not a selective school, a nice rural comprehensive, so quite a mixed bag. There were a lot of ultra brights, Oxbridge classes for some, but some struggled too. I remember my A level class had about 20 in it. Students were drawn to the variety within the subject. I wanted to be able to pass that excitement on, just as my teachers had done.

 

Once teaching, I like to think that I managed to sustain that level of complexity, even being asked to teach an A Level paper on Patristic Theology and still using the Greek for analysing Mark’s Gospel at GCSE. Over the years the demands and expectations of the subject have changed, but the best RE is still a subject that embraces the complexity, rather than distils it into something unrecognisable. Watered down, the study of religious views loses its vibrancy. Maybe this is echoed in the ‘post-Christianity’ that Rowan Williams recently spoke about. Rather than a dismissal of Christian values instead an ‘in-the-background’ complacency. It would be easy for that to be a feature of RE too, if it wasn’t for the vigilance of great RE teachers. The classic ‘breadth at the expense of depth’ conflict, making sure we know something of what everyone says on the subject of abortion, at the expense of really knowing what anyone believes. How could you possibly

‘adopt an enquiring, critical and reflective approach to the study of religion’ (‘Religious Education: realising the potential, Ofsted, p5)

if religion has become a beige catalogue of pretty days and greeting card sentiments. No wonder RE organisations and teachers see the need to challenge the level of achievement in RE. It lifts the heart to see that the Religious Education Council’s first step in mapping out a way forward with RE is to acknowledge its complexity, not only in terms of its undefinable quality, but also in its encompassing of the complexity of people (‘A Review of Religious Education in England, p48). It’s a tough job out there.

 

So, the on-going challenge to teachers of RE is to embrace and communicate the challenge. One way in which faith was presented to us in a more sophisticated way was through the medium of television with the third series of Rev on the BBC. Here we met with Rev Adam Smallbone, his wide, his colleagues, and his parishioners. What we were shown was an exploration of what faith means, of the value and meaning of prayer, of forgiveness, of liturgy, of sin, of death, of tradition, of ecclesiastical structures, of Easter and perhaps most importantly of doubt. Nothing was explained away to the nth degree, questions were not always answered and it wasn’t always funny, but it was complicated, because belief in a divine being is complex, as are people. Encounters like this also serve to highlight where good RE teaching has always led the way in tried and tested educational theory (see Delivering the Perfect RE Lesson ). A discussion about Rev. could illicit some interesting and profound responses.

 

Why do I still love RE? Because now more than ever is a time to enjoy complexity. We even have a phrase, ‘dumbing down’ and we have books for dummies (of which I am happy to admit I am one). That’s fine, because we all need support and scaffolding to help us understand difficult things, but as with Wittgenstein’s early view of language as a ladder, it serves a purpose to help us climb to a different level, but we can kick it away once we’ve got there. It’s worth the effort, RE for dummies would be like ‘Wizard of Oz’ without the Technicolor. We need to embrace the complexity.

 

I can remember in the midst of my days as a theological student, going along with a friend to their place of worship to see what it was like. The people were lovely, the music was amazing, but as a rather too earnest theologian I can remember hearing a preacher say that ‘Kingdom’ was a tricky word, so for his talk he was going to use the word ‘family’ instead. I couldn’t tell you what he said after that because in my head I think I had begun to list all the ways, theological and otherwise, as to why ‘Kingdom’ was not like a ‘family’.

 

This is not an argument ignoring accessibility, instead it is a celebration of complexity. When I was a Head of RE I often had parents ask why it was still called RE, one even suggested it could be called, ‘Respect’. Hmm. My standard answer was always it is Religious Education because the majority of the world’s population are religious, it was about religion, even when it was about atheism and agnosticism, it was about religion. No need to hide from that. So, my hope, along with so many RE supporters out there is to embrace the details, light the fires of fascination and challenge each new mind you encounter, because complexity doesn’t get much better than this.

The way you make me feel: why teachers’ emotions matter

20140401-150510.jpgIt would be an understatement to say that, on the whole, the morale of teachers is not good. Never in my experience of teaching have I been so aware of so many colleagues considering leaving the profession. This can be for a range of reasons, but many seem connected to the combination of being overworked due to a level of bureaucracy that seems unconnected to pupil progress and also a general sense of being undervalued. I have read comments from numerous teachers who feel that their managers contribute to their despondent feelings. This combined with the public perception that teachers cause problems for parents by striking, or are seen as whinging despite their ‘long holidays’, means that emotion is interwoven into the professional experience of being a teacher these days.

Most teachers, including myself, can recall times when colleagues and managers made us feel terrible. This could be directly, through managers being unfairly critical or disrespectful.   Or  indirectly; the lack of appropriate praise after a big venture, the lack of recognition of the effort that is being put in. Some have argued that teachers need to ‘grow up’ and not be so sensitive about such things, but does it really matter how you feel when you are working as a teacher.  I would argue that it makes all the difference.

There have been some amazing studies over the past few years looking at the importance of emotion as an aspect of educational leadership. Not least the developments of recognising Emotional Intelligence, pioneered by Daniel Goleman. This recognises that some have a better awareness than others of the emotions of other people. It also then goes on to show why you can gain a greater understanding of people through picking up on the emotions of others. The irony is that this work is almost taken for granted as part of teaching when it comes to recognising warning signs with pupils, but can often be sidelined with colleagues. 20140401-150627.jpgMegan Crawford (@DrMeganCrawford) has written a seminal work, ‘Getting to the Heart of Leadership: Emotion & Educational Leadership’ (2009), challenging leaders to reflect on their values and looking at the dynamics of the range of different relationships within school. I suspect her forthcoming book will also pick up this theme as well. Even in the last week my trusty ‘Educational Management Administration and Leadership’ journal from Sage (@Sage_EdResearch), the amazing publication, part of the membership of BELMAS (@Belmasoffice), covers a variety of aspects looking at Educational Leadership and emotion.  All of these references and more suggest there is no reason why leaders should not be reflecting on the emotional dimension of their leadership and in particular the way they make others feel. As an aside here, I would argue strongly against those who suggest that educational research must only be about pupil progress for it to be of any worth or relevance. Here is a case in point where the excellent research being done can have a direct influence on teachers’ working experiences, and therefore indirectly can influence the experience in the classroom.

Despite this work, there are still leaders who feel that they do not need to consider the feelings of their staff, or colleagues who feel it is acceptable to treat others badly in the professional context. Ask most teachers and they will have a ‘horror story’, or two, about something someone has said or done to them, perhaps to undermine them, to belittle, to be unsupportive, to fail to acknowledge their work, or worse still, take credit for others’ work.  We spend countless time in pastoral training sessions recognising the importance of developing listening skills when dealing with pupils and yet very little time and money is invested in staff to develop mentoring skills. Really listening to someone is a skill and one that matters a great deal in education, because we are dealing with people. People are complex, unpredictable, and multi-dimensional.

So what can we do to respond to the problem of low morale. Leader or not, we should be supportive of one another. Even on Twitter with educationalists it is depressing and frustrating when debates turn into point scoring, or worse still, sniping or deriding. Twitter is an opportunity to be supportive of others who are miles away. In schools so many teachers offer practical support through peer observations, through collaboration, sharing of work load, giving time and recognition when others don’t. Emotion doesn’t mean a lack of professionalism, instead it should be embraced as part of an on-going dialogue between teachers. Emotion can make things happen, can prompt a creative force and can reveal truths. Working in a school can be an emotional experience and events can occur that provoke emotional responses, so it’s good to embrace that there will be times when we need to talk. Being able to express our emotions and recognise our own emotional triggers also helps us to recognise that in others. The butterflies at the start of a term is a good thing, caring about the results your pupils get is a sign that it all still matters. Of course, the classroom itself is not necessarily the place to experience a full emotional crisis, but I know that I have benefitted hugely from the support of colleagues when having to deal with something particularly challenging.

Rather than seeing emotion and professionalism as mutually exclusive, we should embrace that our humanity means that emotion has a place in our work.  So even when morale is low we can comfort ourselves with a few of important points. Firstly, that even feeling low is an emotion, that shows we are still passionate, feeling creatures and that can only benefit our work with pupils and alongside colleagues. Secondly, being emotional creatures can help us deal with the nature of our work in education, which is with nurturing and developing the next generation. People are wonderfully complicated and the emotional dimension is an integral part of that. Finally, our terms are intense working experiences and yes we do have holidays and that means the holidays are for living fully to ensure we are well balanced human beings. So I hope everyone has a wonderful Holiday ready for the summer term ahead.