This is quite simply a book that every teacher and educational leader needs to read. I have a shelf full of fantastic books on how to support the emotional well-being of children and yet not one combines research, evidence and practical reflective tasks in the way that Maria has managed. The particular strength of Pro-active Pastoral Care is that it has a focus firstly on defining wellbeing and its place in the educational landscape and secondly on evaluating the impact of the work that schools do around the theme. For many years, we have struggled as a profession to know how to measure the wellbeing of the pupils we support; Maria offers tools that allow to do precisely that.
A real act of love that has the power to transform attitudes, schools and the lives of children.
This week I was privileged to present a session at UKEdChat’s global online conference. This is the basis of what I said.
Hello there I’m absolutely delighted that you’ve joined me for this session today and that you are ready to consider the idea of authentic leadership or how to be a professional human.
Our focus for the next 20 minutes is going to be on exploring the balance and maybe the tensions of being both professional and human but also taking a bit of time and space to think about how we align our professional selves and behaviours with our values.
My contention, after almost 30 years in the classroom is that if we spend too much time playing a role in our working life that isn’t aligned with our true self and personality then eventually that will take its toll on us.. but also on those we teach and work with.
Now although my title for this session talked about leadership, I am coming out at that from the perspective of us all being leaders in our classrooms; leaders of learning but most importantly role models who have responsibility for shaping the lives of children and young people.
It’s my belief that the pandemic and the way that leaders at national and international level have acted has given us a good landscape and maybe a new and current example of what we need from people who are role models and have responsibility for us and our futures.
Without going into politics or commenting about any individuals I’m sure you can all look at the leaders out there and think for yourself which leaders you feel you have faith in, which leaders you feel you would trust with your life and which leaders you would trust with the future of our society and communities and the lives of those close to you.
Now I know you may think that your job as a teacher isn’t really compatible with the job of a prime minister or president …but actually one of the things that I’ve learnt over my career (and it’s backed up by some of the greats in educational discourse) is that we do take on a huge amount of responsibility when we choose this incredible job of shaping the lives of children and young people. And that responsibility is also a privilege.
Dr Haim Ginott who was was a school teacher, a child psychologist and psychotherapist and a parent educator working in Israel and the USA in the 1940s through to the 70s. He said, in his preface to “Teacher and Child: A Book for Parents and Teachers” in 1972:
So, before I say more i’d like you to take a moment to think about this question.
How do you show up at work? I don’t know what stage of your career you’re in, whether you’re new to teaching, whether you’re like me, a bit long in the tooth and having done the job for many years…. but just for a moment, have a think.
Is the person who shows up at work the same as the person watching this presentation?
When you show up at work do you act differently to how you would right now?
When you show up at work do you talk differently to how you would right now?
When you show up at work do you dress differently to how you would right now?
Now when it comes to dress, possibly it would be a good thing if you dress differently for work because I imagine that some of you may have got into some of those lockdown habits, whereby you are in a state of dress or undress right now that is absolutely appropriate in your own home on your sofa but *possibly* wouldn’t be in the outside world….
Because of course we have social norms and conventions of what is acceptable in different contexts.
As a drama teacher I used to talk a lot children about this and I would explain to them about the fact that as human beings we often play different roles in our lives. whereby we change our language and behaviour to suit different contexts and relationships.
So for example I would explain how the language and behaviour that they might use when they were out with their friends would probably be different to the language and behaviour that they might use in front of their granny or perhaps if they ever got to meet the Queen.
I would explain that as we grow up we learn appropriate behaviours to use in different contexts and that school is a place where children can explore this.
However I also used to explain to children that under all behaviours and language we have a personality, identity and a character that shouldn’t have to change across the different contexts that we are in.
Because although in society we have to adapt our behaviours and language so that they don’t cause harm or hurt to the other people around us, we should never have to change the essence of who we are in order to fit in.
And of course that sort of teaching is absolutely underpinned by the United Nations Convention on the rights of the child and in particular article 8 around identity, article 12 around the views of the child, article 13 around freedom of expression and article 14 around freedom of thought, belief and religion.
So what happens if we take those ideas and relate them to ourselves as teachers? How important is it that,whilst we may change our behaviours and language to suit the context of the classroom and the role of being a teacher, we also need to be clear that we should never have to change the essence of who we are, in order to fit into the role?
Of course it is important, when we explore what the elements of being an authentic professional human might be, that we also take a moment to look at what it is not.
It is not about over sharing or making lessons all about you. We can probably all remember the equivalent of the teacher whom we all adored and who told us everything about his family, dogs an holidays but from whom we learnt practically nothing about ..(insert subject).
It is not about subverting agreed professional codes relating to use of language or dress. (Tattoos, use of social media and hairstyles seem to constantly cause debate but the best advice I can offer is to check out the codes in any school you plan to work in.)
More about boundaries later.
I believe that it is very important and that, in fact, that it’s only by taking our true selves to work that we will make our classrooms the most conducive learning environments that they can be.
Rita Pierson once said that children don’t learn from people they don’t like.
I understand what she was saying but I think it’s about more than liking. In my experience, children will learn best from people they trust.
And how to we get people to trust us?
By being honest. By being consistent.
By showing that we are interested in them.
By giving something of ourselves.
When I was in my second year of teaching and struggling, as a twenty three year old, to manage some of my classes of young people who were just 7 years younger than me, I had in my head this idea that I needed to project an image of some sort of strict, sensible and mature professional in order to gain respect and establish control.
My teacher training has definitely instilled in me the idea that I should never consider smiling before Christmas.
Incidentally if you want proof as to why this was one of the worst pieces of advice that young teachers could ever be given, find the video of the still face experiment by Dr Edward Tronick on YouTube. https://youtu.be/apzXGEbZht0
Why was it ever thought a good idea to withhold from children the warmth, empathy and enthusiasm that comes from a smiling face?
But I digress. In desperately trying so hard to be something that I was not and suppress my personality, I ended up with lessons that were chaotic and a desperate attempt by me to “keep a lid on things”.
One day, my line manager came to me after a lesson observation and said “the one thing you need to do is relax and be yourself. You don’t have to control it all so much. Take some time to get to know the pupils, talk to them about their hair, their hobbies and their families. You know your subject and your stuff but you need to get to know them. And they need to get to know you.”
In following that advice, I found that my practice was transformed. And it is advice that I have used in every classroom and in every school and every role that I’ve taken on since.
And not just in my relationships with pupils but also in my relationships with colleagues and with parents and carers.
Children will work hard for you and learn from you if they trust you and feel safe in your company.
Colleagues will cooperate with you and, if you’re a leader, work most productively for you if they trust you and feel safe in your company.
And parents and carers will be confident that you are doing the best for the most precious beings in their lives if they trust you and feel safe in your company.
And trust and safety come when people see who you are, what your values are and what makes you human.
If you work in a school or setting where you feel that you have to put on a mask, or maybe worse still, a suit of armour before you step through the door, maybe take some time to reflect as to whether changing your behaviour and fitting someone else’s mould is really serving you and your values. If you are asked to do things that, in your heart or your gut, don’t feel right, if you are being motivated by drivers from someone else’s belief system, consider the toll that, over time, this may have on you.
Back in September I was lucky enough to attend an online conference with the psychiatrist Dr Bruce Perry who is one of the most inspiring and knowledgeable experts on child development and trauma in the world.
At that conference spoke of something called ego-dystonic behaviour in relation to employees who are expected to undertake actions and behaviours which they know are not in the best interests of those they are there to serve – so for example therapists who have to see 8 children in an hour when in fact they know that this is too rushed.
He talked about the negative impact that, over time, working in such a context will have on the health of the organisation and the individual.
I attended that conference as, over the last couple of years and through my work with care experienced children and young people, I’ve been involved in some work around what is known as trauma informed leadership. This is specifically to do with making sure that the practice of anybody working with children and families takes account of the trauma that people may have experienced in their lives and how we as organisations make sure that we don’t traumatise or re-traumatised people through the work we do with them.
If you’re interested in this work more generally I would encourage you to look at the work of Dr Karen Treisman or Lisa Cherry and Dr Bruce Perry at an international level.
However as part of my work in this field I began to explore what it might be like to be a truly authentic trauma informed leader. As part of this I began to talk about my own personal experiences of trauma and the impact on my development and mental health over my formative years.
Two years ago, I stood up at a Head Teacher conference in my local authority to speak to my colleagues about our Trauma informed work.
Many of my colleagues knew me as a respected teacher and education leader with many years of experience. They knew I had worked in a number of countries and schools throughout my career and I had a reputation for speaking and writing on a number of educational issues including leadership, inclusion, curriculum design and pedagogy.
They didn’t necessarily know some of the other reasons that I feel so passionate about this project and this work. But as part of modelling courageous and trauma-sensitive practice, I decided to tell them about the abuse that I had suffered as a child about the coping strategies and behaviours that I developed to help me survive in a world that I saw as unsafe, scary and sad and about the subsequent mental health challenges that I had faced throughout my life.
I had actually already written about these experiences in a book. I first wrote that book three years previously under a pen name but had gradually been sharing it as “me” because I had a strong belief that my authenticity as a leader is what might help change things for others.
I know I took a big risk in doing this. I know my bosses and my colleagues will never see me in the same way again.
I know it is possible that this has had and it will have negative consequences for my career but I feel strongly that it was necessary for me to take that risk.
I know that, on the whole, people are “either” an “education professional” or an “inspirational speaker on trauma with lived experience” but what I have tried to show that it is possible to be a hybrid, a professional human and simultaneously outstanding and flawed.
But on the whole, my risk has paid off because some of our most “dis-engaged” families have reached out to me because of what they know and because, rather than creating a barrier, it has built a bridge.
It’s not “me over here in my comfortable world as a leader” and “you over there in your family with your trauma and mess”. It’s us, in the middle.
Now to go back to what I said previously about boundaries, I have never mentioned these issues directly to pupils or families who I have worked with. I have never discussed them in classes I have taught or in conversations with pupils.
I have touched on them with colleagues, on occasions, as part of coaching and when I felt that a shared experience might help them.
But my writing is out there and my contributions at events like today are out there.
Because to me, anything else would be inauthentic.
I am absolutely not advocating this approach for anyone else, if it doesn’t feel right or comfortable.
But I do advocate today, as an invitation to you, thinking about whether you make take a little bit more of you to your work.
If you want to find an example of someone who has been an absolute inspiration to me in this respect, I would recommend that you find out about Rae Snape who is a primary head teacher down in Cambridgeshire.
Rae unrelentingly takes her whole self to work and I asked her permission to share her recent avatar which I think sums up the idea of being a professional human.
So before I do that, thanks so much for joining me today. I hope you have taken something from the time you have spent with me and above all I hope this gives you the power to be the person you want and need to be at school.
Many staff in Scotland and certainly in my local authority, did training around emotional regulation and trauma last summer, ahead of the first full scale return to school buildings after lockdown. It may be a good time to remind you of or direct you too these simple slides and the key messages:
Certainly, not all of the children returning this week will have experienced trauma during lockdown. The pandemic has not been traumatic for all. But as we have said many times in education, we are not quite sure what our pupils might have been through and how they will be when they return, in terms of their ability to regulate themselves emotionally.
Learning and recall for school work assessments are likely to be impacted if pupils are not emotionally regulated.
We all know that calm, regulated adults welcoming all of our pupils back this week into familiar routine is the ideal. We know that we as adults will have to work hard on this, particularly as we are having to cope with another big change to our routines (for example, one class spread across three rooms!) and will probably be feeling all sorts of worries around where, what and how we are teaching.
But let’s remember what we CAN control. Our breath, in and out. That first interaction we have with each child as they enter our class. Our own behaviour and actions,
Evidence from the last year and the various changes to rules and protocols has shown that there are likely to be few issues with pupils remembering to follow the COVID mitigation protocols. They quickly picked up on sanitising and bubbles and will quickly get the 2m and mask protocols.
We need to remember also, however, that adolescents are biologically driven and that peer pressure can be a hugely important factor in their lives. The classic teenage brain/head and heart dilemma means that even though they know the right thing to do, they may be influenced to act otherwise if they are in an unsupervised situation with peers. If you want to know more about this, check out professor Sarah Jane Blakemore. Many of them will be craving connection after weeks of isolation. Many of them have missed out on the essential interactions, flirting, bonding and risk taking that normally characterise the natural moving away by adolescents from having their strongest bonds with their primary care-givers. Instead, they have been rather unnaturally trapped at home with these care-givers…..who, however lovely and funny and caring, just aren’t peers!
And just on peer pressure, it can be a strong influence on us all. I distinctly remember last summer, when masks were 2 weeks away form becoming compulsory in shops but Nicola had asked that we wear them, sitting in the car on the forecourt of the local garage. Mask in hand, I said to my child beside me “but no-one else has one on, I feel stupid……” And then I remembered my GP friend and what she would have said and put it on straight away……..
But if that was the process a 51 year old “good girl” went through, we can’t underestimate the power of peer pressure on younger people.
It is also understandable that adolescents may not instinctively follow the protocols as they will not have got into the habit of standing 2 m from their friends or wearing facemasks and these are habits that they need to be reminded of as frequently as possible.
However, if staff and other pupils see that the “rules are being broken”, they may well feel anxious and possibly angry and respond in a way that reflects this, unless they have pre-empted the situation and thought of a regulated response to have at hand.
I am going to adopt “face and space” as the mantra that I am going to use, if I need to remind someone that they have strayed from the protocols; calmly, assertively and with a mask-hidden smile. You may want to adopt something similar ?
I am also going to arm myself with tools to help me stay regulated through the day in school. Deep breaths, in for four, out four six.
A tissue with the smell of a perfume that makes me feel calm in my pocket. The comfiest of clothes that I can find in my work wardrobe.
This is a document I have shared with all of my S1 and S2s as part of our work on choices and speaking up when you feel that someone else has broken the rules. Peter Vermeulen has done incredible work around this. It has been very helpful and not just for autistic people.
It is maybe ironic that this event took place on the afternoon that the First Minister then announced a phased return to start on 15th March which APPEARED to suggest the need for more children and staff in buildings…. but with both her announcement and the event fresh in my mind, I penned the following.
I am not a head teacher, although I am an aspiring one. I am not writing on behalf of my employer and I do not propose or suggest that this will or should happen in the school where I work. But I do have significant experience of risk assessment, timetabling and teaching in secondary schools. I also went from the event with the SLS to speak at an incredible event organised by a consortium of schools in Aberdeen focusing on the positives to be taken from the pandemic for young people, the focus for educators in a post pandemic world and predictions of exciting opportunities that may emerge.
With my heading buzzing with inspiration and ideas, I penned these thoughts on what I think could be possible and practical for secondary schools who have worked so incredibly hard to establish an online offer that is fit for purpose for most pupils who are still living within a global pandemic that has caused significant risk to life.
Key considerations when looking at the return to school.
What is the purpose of having all pupils back in school before Easter?
Do we have a clear sense of this from the government and chief medical advisors?
It would appear from all the reports that have been produced by education Scotland that social isolation is a major concern and that getting pupils into school is very much about their well-being and a need for face-to-face in the flesh connection with other peers and staff.
However we also need to consider the fact that the core purpose of teaching and learning at this stage can successfully be addressed for the majority of secondary pupils through the continuation of what is a very well evidenced and successful virtual learning experience which we know works in terms of scheduling staff and pupils.
We know that delivery of the online offer, with most pupils and staff working from home as part of COVID-19 mitigation is fit for purpose, based on the recent surveys conducted at national level and the implementation of subsequent refinements.
Generation of evidence for SQA purposes
It seems that some politicians, staff or schools feel that there need to be full classes of pupils back in classrooms do to assessments or tasks that will generate evidence for the SQA. However the two metre distancing rule means that this is not going to be practical.
(There is an assumption here that measures have already been taken to allow small groups of pupils to attend school for the purposes of the assessment of practical subjects).
It would seem preferable that materials are given to pupils for these non-practical assessments that can be undertaken at home. Whilst this will not be under exam conditions, schools have already set a precedent for this by students completing and submitting work from home. The element of trust around this method has already been established and therefore could be easily replicated in other subjects. So, for example, if a maths paper is to be done at home, pupils and possibly a supervising parent could simply be asked to sign a declaration that the assessment was done without help or supervision. An alternative would be for us to ask the pupil to video themselves completing the work but this may not be necessary at this stage, given that there is no requirement for any evidence to be produced under exam conditions this year.
A further alternative is to suggest that the two week period before Easter is not to be used for these purposes and that if staff wish to give pupils a paper assessment in a classroom with staff supervision, they will need to leave this until after Easter when we hope that the two metre distancing rule may be relaxed. There will always be a risk that this is never actually possible, should another lockdown or stricter mitigation measures be imposed.
We need to be absolutely clear that staff indicate which pupils, if any. need to be in school for the purposes of support or assessment at this stage.
If we assume that the worst case scenario is that full classes will not be in the building at the same time for the rest of this session, we need to know if there are any senior phase pupils who would because of this have no assessment evidence that would enable them to get a national qualification.
If there are identified disadvantaged or disengaged pupils or pupils with other additional support needs who we know need to be in the building with an adult in order to produce assessment evidence, we must find a way of prioritising getting them in for those purposes over the coming weeks, possibly adapting and using Easter study support offers.
Schools could therefore continue exactly as they are now but invite each year group into school for one day a week of each of the two full weeks before Easter; for example S1 Mondays, S2 Tuesdays, S3 Wednesdays, S4 Thursdays and S5 and 6 Fridays.
(In fact this could possibly work by doing it for just one of the two full weeks leading up to Easter, if that is all that staffing allows.)
The purpose of these days would be Connect, Communicate and be Curious.
Each year group would have activities and information shared with them on their day that is pertinent to where they are in their learning journey.
There could be a session on the practicalities of the 2m rule and mask wearing for all pupils, training / refresher information in use of lateral flow testing kits for senior phase pupils and then a focus for each year group on achievements, celebration of success and looking ahead to what comes next in their learning journeys.
Pupils in relevant years could also have input around the options processes.
In addition the day should be an opportunity to look forward with hope and optimism and for staff to ensure pupils that we are confident about how we will work together to help them re-focus and continue with their learning as they gradually return to spending more time in the school building over the coming weeks and months.
Some of this could be done in a large space with two metre distancing, mask wearing and ventilation in place such as school hall and gym or even in outdoor spaces, as long as this is permitted within our risk assessment based on latest COVID-19 mitigation guidance.
At other times the school could be divided up into areas and SLT/ support staff/ other staff as available could supervise across the classes where pupils would be spread out at desks two metres apart.
The smaller breakout groupings would allow staff to connect with individual pupils in a smaller setting and take stock/be curious about how the pupils seem and what their needs might be moving forward.
This would be demanding on the staff facilitating these activities and it would need to be considered how they would be given breaks and rest time during the day.
There would also need to consider their other needs such as childcare.
There would need to be a shared understanding that the staff in school for the facilitation of these days would not be available to deliver their online teaching;, pupils, parents and carers would need to know that for the two weeks leading up to Easter the staff in school doing the Connect, Communicate and Be Curious days would not be delivering online. In fact, the communication strategy around this and the justification would be a crucial factor in its success.
One major consideration would be around ensuring that S6 pupils and any other leavers need to be given an opportunity to come together and process the fact that their last year in school has been so different to what they had hoped for. It will be an opportunity to talk to them about and alleviate their fears and anxieties regarding the future but also for them to plan some sort of marking of leaving school.
This potential solution would ensure that the human rights of adults working in schools to remain healthy and safe can be balanced with articles 28 and 29 (right to and goal of education), 15 (freedom of association) and 24 (health) of the UNCRC.
On the 15th March, there will still be a very uneven playing field for staff returning to secondary schools; some may have had one vaccine dose, some two and some none.
Where our risk assessments, as far I as understand, still have the risks related to COVID-19 for those working in secondary schools at red level (as advised by the Health and Safety Executive) unless mitigation measures can be very strictly enforced, we surely can’t risk doing anything else than proceed with caution?
So, the book about me and ADHD certainly won’t be coming any time soon. The roller coaster of highs, lows and revelations that has been my life since my diagnosis in December means that I have been simultaneously enjoying new freedoms and holding on for dear life.
There is certainly no time for starting on a book. However, I have had a few Eureka moments and don’t want to lose them so thought I’d add them to my blog as and when I remember. And of course, the fact that I am doing this RIGHT NOW when the deadline outlined below is looming is just typical……..
I have just written this on Facebook:
Here’s a weird thing about my ADHD. When I am involved with stuff with other people (eg directing and producing school productions, planning and delivering programmes of teaching or having a strategic vision for a class, department or school and staying true to it over time), I am pretty damn good, I think, and have evidence to back that up. When I have a thing that involves just me, I can’t manage my time, put it off and then have terrible anxiety when I have to get it done at the last minute. Today I am trying to record a presentation for a conference that I have had MONTHS to do and is due TOMORROW. See you on the other side. I hope.
And is another thing I shared earlier in the week on Twitter:
Today I sought a bit of help. It wasn’t a big thing, other than in my head. I am literally Dory when it comes to remembering I need to ask for help sometimes. That expression “note to self” Is fine, except when you have ADHD and keep losing the notes.
And this is an article I found that scared me beyond belief because it feels so pertinent but has also made me seek a bit more help around how to handle it:
That diagnosis has helped me to understand some things. I understand why I am restless. I understand why I can have issues regulating my time and my focus. I understand why my brain is often on overdrive.
I understand why I am hyper-sensitive and that having had to fit a mould that is not quite me-shaped for decades has taken its toll and left me physically and mentally exhausted.
I also understand why I can work harder, longer and solve problems more quickly than some other people. And why I am talkative, energetic, creative and passionate about the things that are important to me, like values and integrity.
The last few months since diagnosis have been a rollercoaster. The highs of feeling as if I have answers and the very deep lows of feeling that I have lost so much time trying to overcompensate for things I found perplexing, difficult and exhausting.
I don’t want sympathy. I don’t think I particularly need adjustments, as I work in education, where all the things I am and can offer are celebrated when we meet them in young people.
But let me return to the over-sensitive and over-thinking thing.
That is something that I do need help with.
I spend a lot of my time worrying that I have said the wrong thing, done the wrong thing, offended someone or just “got it wrong”.
I am a people pleaser and it hurts me when I feel that someone is cross or upset with me.
And my over-thinking brain will often ruminate, assume and often lead to conclusions that maybe aren’t true.
The people close to me know this and realise that I need more re-assurance than your average friend. It is probably irritating for them but they see it as a “reasonable adaptation” that they are willing to make because they know that, if they do, I will be less anxious and more pleasant to be around.
The long and the short here is that for me, clear is kind.
If I have done something wrong, please tell me.
I genuinely believe (and have always done) that all I do comes from a place of values, love, integrity and good…
If I’ve got it wrong, please help me to understand.
Please do it kindly.. because although every single human being deserves to be included and treated with kindness and dignity, that sensitivity that comes with being me means that I also don’t take unkindness very well.
It was a bit cryptic and I made reference to a new piece of information that I had come upon that had helped me to understand myself a bit better.
I am now in a position to say that the information was a diagnosis of ADHD.
At 51 years old, I have finally found some more answers to my life-long feelings of “otherness” and restlessness.
After diagnosis, I wrote a letter to my closest friends explaining what I had found out and shared some of the reasons for me seeking diagnosis:
* the fact that I was very close to burning out, having tried to fit in and keep going over many years in spite of the immense effort of trying to manage and keep a lid on hyperactivity, poor focus regulation and impulsivity
* the fact that being 51, peri menopausal and in the middle of a pandemic seems to have massively diminished the efficacy of my coping mechanisms, honed over 5 decades….
* the fact that, after years of soul-searching, talking, writing and trying to fix myself, there was still a part of my jigsaw missing.
Of course, me being me, I immediately thought that I would need to “get on and write a book about it”, or at least add yet another Postscript to my other book to help other people in my situation. But actually, this diagnosis isn’t about me helping other people. Yet, at any rate. It is about me helping me, and accepting help from others, to understand what I can do to improve the quality of my life, albeit at a more advanced age than might have been ideal.
In fact, looking back myself at my book, with the knowledge I now have, I can see that it makes very good sense as a record of an undiagnosed woman with ADHD who was trying to progress along a journey of self-discovery without the right map.
Fortunately for me and everyone else, I don’t need to write the book in any case as, in a slightly spooky parallel universe way, an amazing woman called Emma Mahony has already written it. I mean, she claims it is about her, a Modern Languages teacher who sought diagnosis at 51, after a life full of incredible achievements but also blighted by constantly being at odds with the world….but she has done a pretty damn good job at writing about my experiences, without ever having met me.
So for now, I am not writing a book. I am not trying to save the world. I am not trying to blame everyone else or just keep trying harder.
I am learning to accept that my brain doesn’t work in quite the same way as most people’s. I am also coming to understand that, with that, comes challenges but also great possibilities.
I am slowly and cautiously accepting that the Story of My Self from now on is the story of having both a hidden disability and a superpower. Maybe when I feel a bit more at ease with this, I will write more, do more, advocate more. Or maybe not. Maybe I will just live for a bit.
So, this week, I returned to my substantive post in a leadership team in a Scottish high school. One of my first task was to assist with the coordination of our learning offer now that we are in another lockdown.
We only have to look at Twitter or listen to the news to witness a vast array of amazingly creative solutions, opinions and criticism in relation to the challenges of providing education at this time.
Because I like to turn to simplicity when things are complicated and overwhelming, I have returned to the question of purpose in reflecting on where we need to focus our energies and time over the next weeks and months.
What am I doing in my role of educator just now and why?
What is the purpose of our collective activity as educators:
● Safety and saving lives – emergency measures (suspension of “normal” education delivery)
● Learning – ensuring that learning is continuing
● Wellbeing, routine, structure, avoiding overwhelm and providing re-assurance
● Visibility (safeguarding)
● Maintaining relationships
In my reflections, I have taken “educators” to encompass all adults in the life of a child, as duty bearers who are doing their best to address article 29 of the UNCRC:
Article 29 (goals of education)
Education must develop every child’s personality, talents and abilities to the full. It must encourage the child’s respect for human rights, as well as respect for their parents, their own and other cultures, and the environment.
More than ever, the African proverb that talks of taking a village to raise a child is pertinent as we ask parents and carers to work closely alongside us to achieve the best in education that we can, given the current restrictions.
During the last lockdown and at a time when schools had much less capacity to interact with children and families within their own homes, I made daily videos to try and help parents and carers who were suddenly faced with the task of being home educators. Perhaps some of the messages are still pertinent now:
What went well, what did not go so well and what could be even better this time?
Of course, what we are attempting just now is an exercise in differentiation par excellence.
But whereas we usually think about the need to differentiate according the varying needs of the learners in front of us in a classroom, this time, we as strategic leaders have an exercise in differentiation that relates to the highly differing circumstances of ALL involved; we need a quality of knowing what is possible for each individual and their current capacity.
This means we need to consider three distinct groups.
Firstly, we have our pupils, with their diverse needs and circumstances, as exemplified in the following fictional examples:
Pupil A – all the tech needed, own room, one parent available to help;
Pupil B – as above but looking after a 3 year old sister as both parents are working;
Pupil C – no tech because the laptop ordered was not delivered, no parent or carer at home and a 3 year old sister to look after;
Pupil D – non-verbal, attends a specialist provision where bespoke tech is used that cannot be sent home.
We then have a range of parent/carer educators:
Parent/carer A – a former teacher in a comfortable home with all the tech;
Parent/carer B – a single parent teacher who is entitled to childcare but also has a vulnerable parent living next door and in his support bubble;
Parent/carer C – a parent working from home, with a partner who is the same, not key workers and with three under fives in the house and pressure on devices and the wi-fi.
And then we have a range professional educators:
Teacher A – has all the tech, a laptop with VPN at home and all the skills to deliver whatever the digital platform can offer;
Teacher B – has a personal ipad and is relatively confident but also has very intermittent broadband and a partner who is off work with anxiety and depression due to COVID;
Teacher C – is autistic and anxious about using technology because it represents a big change, even though she has no reason to be because she is hugely competent.
So, having analysed the current needs of the people who we serve, how do we as school community leaders decide what is possible and what will enable us to exercise our duty of care to all of these groups?
The potential of technology is now huge and thanks to some very accessible training, staff have the opportunity to become competent and confident very quickly in delivering online. We also now (in Scotland) have clear national and local permissions, risk assessments and guidance to be able to do so.
But before we launch into 9 to 5 delivery of live lessons, we must consider the words spoken by Jeff Golfblum’s character in Jurassic Park (thanks to my friend Ish).
“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
We also need to consider the potential that our actions and decisions, as responsible adults in positions of power, have the potential to do harm as well as good.
The best analysis of why need to proceed with caution is here, written by Mark Enser:
Let’s not rush. Let’s reconsider our purpose and the purpose of education, now as ever:
Knowing each child and young person within our care, resisting labels and using history to inform positively rather than label negatively; these must at the heart of what do in schools. This way, we will get the true measure of each child and be able to walk beside them as they develop their sense of self, their potential and their individuality.