Every child knows stories about fairies and genies and the wishes. It used to be a staple task we were asked to do at primary school, and each year it felt like we would return to them to see if those wishes had changed.
Unfortunately, try as I might, I still do not have the power to grant wishes. There is still no world peace, hunger and poverty is very much a thing, and my bank account clearly shows a distinct lack of a lottery win.
However, as we hurtle again towards the end of another year, with term 6 existing in some sort of strange time anomaly where it shifts between light speed (I never got everything done I wanted to) and crawling at a painfully slow snail’s pace, I can’t help but think what I would give to the teaching profession if I did somehow wake up with one morning with the ability to grant three things which might make the education sector more effective and a happier place for all to be.
If I had genuinely had power over the profession, my first focus would be to wish for more teachers and more funding, leading to a reduction of timetables to 60 percent contact time for all. That way we would know the quality of the lessons planned, many of which could be done collaboratively as there is more space on the timetable to discuss, would be even better, and the quality of the feedback given could be much more meaningful, as opposed to something that needs to just get done.
I’d follow that swiftly with things such as students really appreciating the importance of education and having high levels of self-regulation, as well as of course wiping out the huge issues caused by social inequality, mental health and opportunities really presented to all.
I need to be realistic here though, and as the famous serenity prayer says I need to have ‘the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference’. That doesn’t mean I won’t continue to rail against those inequalities and systemic problems as I see them, but today I have a laptop and a small audience who sometimes like to read my words, so I will start there.
My first thing I would grant would be time.
During every feedback discussion I have had with teachers this comes up constantly The time to plan. The time to mark. The time to physically teach and the time to follow up the hundreds of little things that happen over the day. Time to just take a breath sometimes seems limited. School hours are crammed together in intense bursts, leaving people breathless when they finally come up for air. It is no wonder that people feel exhausted during most of their weekends and holidays, often coming down with various bugs as an immune system used to being pumped around by adrenaline and coffee, finally given a few minutes to relax?
But there are some things we can do, especially if you are a school leader. We need to not be afraid to hit pause. I don’t mean by banning emails in the evening or weekends, although in some contexts people find this helpful. I mean during both the working day and term time. We rush from task to task and rarely take time to reflect on things such as efficiency and why we are doing the things we do.
This is really important and sometimes we need to just stop and hold everything up to the light for some real scrutiny. Feedback and marking policies, report writing, lesson planning, parents’ evenings, documents and policies, often creep into our working day and we plough on with approaching them in the way we always have, regardless of whether it is having the desired impact, or even without real certainty of what that impact is supposed to be. Of course there are statutory requirements which need to be met, but do we really need to have pages of assessment criteria, lists of homework tasks or eight part lesson plans? One of the things which I think was really positive about remote working (don’t worry I’m not suggesting it was great- it wasn’t), was the flexibility it offered in terms of communication. People were increasingly able to manage elements of their own time better and I certainly found that I was able to find out much more, much more quickly during some of the remote sessions. Many businesses are keeping hold of these practices, but some are eager to get back to previous routines. That’s fine if they were really fulfilling what you needed, but make sure they really were by taking the time to pause and reflect.
Once we have paused, we should probably consider if those reflections might suggest we need to press stop. ‘Because we do it this way’, has never been a satisfying answer to a question, whether that came from my parents or my boss, and if, on reflection, that is the main reason you are doing something, I would suggest that it might not be the best way. I would argue it is similar if your answer is ‘because of OFSTED’ too. That doesn’t mean I am suggesting changing old habits or traditions for the sake of it. After all the reason many of our structures, both within education and without, exist as there have already been decades of exploration which have led us to this point. However, if you have reflected and can’t find a good answer to why something is done then it might be you need to consider if it is even a necessary part of the day. What would be lost if it didn’t happen? What might replace it? What would the benefits be? There is some time to be gained right there.
The second thing I would want to give would be space.
I found during my years as a teacher, a HoD and a senior leader that my head would constantly be full every day. So many thoughts swarming around my head: to do lists, strategy and vision ideas and the need to respond quickly to immediate needs, meant it could be hard sometimes to have clarity. Certainly, hard to really work on some of the real priorities. Those were just the ones I had allocated to myself too. There were also all the to-do lists and ideas which were being added by others. I think that means that we should not be afraid to give ourselves, and those we lead, some space. We often overwhelm ourselves and each other with the desire to ‘do’ but there is nothing wrong with spending time staring into space, reading a book, or musing over a coffee. We have learnt to feel guilty about taking those quiet moments and that can be just as true during the evenings, weekends and holidays too. We get caught up with the idea that if we have had an idea it needs to be all hands on deck the very next day. We attend or present something at an INSET and then expect it to be enacted immediately, but people need the space to reflect on it properly. There is a fine line between creating and It is important that leaders model this openly and actively encourage it. Filling meeting schedules with information giving, checking what people are doing and generally micromanaging time will lead to an erosion of trust. Give people some space and time and they will do great things. Daniel Pink’s book Drive explores how a number of companies increased productivity by doing just that, allowing intrinsic motivations, including interest in their work, to have the space to thrive.
This means that as gained time comes back on the scene for many secondary colleagues, the temptation shouldn’t be to fill that with lots of specific tasks. Whilst this is a great time to being to plan for the next year, we shouldn’t feel that every minute needs to be accounted for. Provide direction and support but let staff have some autonomy within this and encourage them to factor in some time to just think, without a specific outcome to be immediately ticked off, and you might find that it brings real rewards.
My final wish that might be in my power to bestow would be to grant all staff the ability to peer through the noise. By this I don’t only mean the noise of all the different directions and directives which they are pulled in by those outside of schools, but to see through the noise to see how they are really seen. Despite some of the loud voices which adorn the front of newspapers and rant on social media, teachers are still both respected and valued by the families you work with and the students you serve. It can be easy to lose sight of that when yet another headline screams what you should or should not be doing. So, what I suppose I really mean, is I want you to see yourselves as you really are. Worth your weight in gold.