Tag Archives: culture

When is a teacher a salesperson?

self-help graphic
From the Ten Commandments for the ethical salesperson

 

Teaching is selling

I was chatting to a headteacher at an event I had organised recently and I can’t even remember what we were talking about exactly, but he said to me: “So basically you are a saleswoman”. I backtracked and said, “Well, in a way I am, but not that kind of saleswoman, not the slimy car salesman type. I see myself as just spreading the gospel of a good thing”.

Salesperson isn’t usually used as a compliment. I felt slightly shamed by what he had insinuated but our conversation took an unexpected turn for the better. He nudged me jovially, leaned in, and confessed, “before I got myself into all this” he said, gesticulating to the room heaving with long-serving, high achieving headteachers from across the country, “I was what you might call a travelling salesman – and I loved it”.

To pare down the conversation and cut to the point, we found ourselves discussing with great interest and agreement that teaching is basically selling. Here are some thoughts on the basics of really sound sales skills based on my decade as an English teacher and a decade in consultative sales in the education sector, in my roles as Director of Business Development at The Key for School Leaders, as a consultant helping two small education businesses grow and develop, and as Head of Membership at Challenge Partners.

Believe in your product

One of the key ingredients for failure in any profession is being half-hearted or lacking in belief in yourself and in what you are doing. The best teachers are really convinced that what they have to offer is really worth knowing. Those that have great passion and enthusiasm for what they teach, and genuinely want others to share in their joy, are the ones that usually at least get the attention, respect, and often loyal commitment of their students.

Likewise, I only became interested in business development out of necessity. I started at The Key as Research Team Leader, working with a team of researchers tasked with swiftly, accurately and succinctly answering questions from school leaders on anything that concerned their school. The service was a hit, schools were feeding back that this was a game changer, freeing up their time, reducing their anxiety and ensuring that they were doing what they needed to be doing. And then the financial crash happened and the DfE decided they couldn’t roll out nationally as planned. We had two choices: fold or find a way.

My absolute conviction that what we were doing could change the way school leaders worked led me to take on the role of business development and start to spread the gospel. My enthusiasm was boundless. We went from a few hundred schools that received the service for free to 60,000 school leaders with paid membership across the country over the course of the next 5 years.

Know your market and be an expert

Belief isn’t enough of course. You have to know who you are dealing with. You have to be an expert in your subject. You have to keep refreshing your knowledge. And you have to find a way to make sure that you can communicate to your market, based on your intimate knowledge of what their needs are, where their heads are at, and how you can reach them.

I care passionately about education. I steep myself in reading, thinking, listening, connecting, and getting involved in the sector as a school governor, through events and TeachMeets and the like. I can be passionate and well-informed about a number of key issues. I am seen as someone who understands and empathises with the frontline sector folk.

A teacher who is clued up about how their subject connects with their students’ worlds and can articulate that, is onto a winner. And I’m not talking about convincing students that they really will need to use Pythagoras’ Theorum in their daily lives one day, especially if they ever have to move a sofa up a narrow staircase.  Being able to play back your peripheral knowledge to your students and being able to pitch at the right level, is essential for teachers.

In my roles to date, being clear about what schools will prioritise based on ever-changing Ofsted criteria, funding streams, times of year, demographics, local politics, or any number of factors is paramount. Working that into my discussions with my clients can help them trust me and know that I understand where they are coming from.

 Know your client group and listen carefully

Basic knowledge about your students’ lives, the things that might be pulling them this way or that, being savvy about forces such as poverty, pressures on gender expectations and your own unconscious bias can be a massive advantage when thinking about your target audience.

As teachers and as salespeople, we have a natural tendency to want to launch in with our message of enthusiastic good news. Worse still, salespeople and teachers alike often find themselves in the oppressive world of targets, box ticking and trying to get to the end point from the minute they start their day. Lest these things start to dictate unsavoury behaviours, asking questions and listening carefully is time worth taking. Greeting each child as they enter the classroom is a great way to show you are human, but actually listening to them when you ask how they are, is even better. Making connections, following up, replaying and reaching out is hard to find time for, but can actually get you further along towards your end goal than you would imagine.


Know your competitors and treat them with respect

Something I really believe in is knowing your competitors inside out. I also believe that you shouldn’t politely avoid them but should rather make efforts to connect, be in the same space and interact comfortably. Moreover, I believe that you can never get anywhere or earn the respect of others through dissing your opposition or competition.

If you know your competitors, what they do well, where you are similar and where you differ, it is possible to articulate this in a respectful and engaging way.

Kids always try it on and will compare you with other teachers. How many times have you heard them say words to the effect of “Miss never gives us homework like you do! They are much nicer than you”? Or perhaps they complain about another teacher saying you are much nicer because of x, y or z reason. What do you say in response? Can you say something that shows that you actually know what your colleague is trying achieve and what is important to them rather than skirting around the issues or god forbid agreeing that they are a moron compared with you?

Or what about those students that are more interested in other things rather than in what you think is important? How can you be inquisitive, give respect to things that matter to your students rather than defaulting to the generation-gap trap of poo-pooing their passions?

When I worked at The Key, we didn’t really have any genuine competitors until one set themselves up to aggressively mimic what we did and deliberately target our members by offering to undercut us by 50%. Legend goes that their CEO was so determined to bring us down that he used to spit on the floor every time he had to mention our name. I made it my business to always go over and say a friendly hello to their sales team at their conference stands and congratulate them on their latest small landgrab. If asked about them, it was easy for me to set out the differences around quality, methodology, capacity and so on without ever saying a disrespectful word about them.

Recently as part of my work with Challenge Partners, I was invited to a seminar of organisations that offer peer review. Instead of the usual circus of pitches behind closed doors, each organisation was asked to speak about their model in a roomful of heads and in front of their perceived ‘competitors’ for business. What was delightful was the chance to hear more about these different models and to see the virtues and differences between them. Everyone was so passionate about their belief in peer review as a way to create meaningful and impactful collaboration, it was fascinating!

Solve problems, remove barriers

Consultative sales is really all about this. Putting together the points I made earlier, the ‘sales pitch’ really isn’t one at all. It is a discussion, which starts with you listening, and genuinely trying to see if what you have to offer will work for the other person. You can only know this by listening, knowing the market, understanding needs and so on. What are the simple things you can do to remove barriers? Can you move on the price, or perhaps add value without shifting on price? Are there economies of scale or a trial before there’s a commitment in full?

Students also need this level of barrier removal. You can’t know what these barriers are without listening, understanding, thinking creatively.


Have clear expectations for timelines and next steps

Some of the best teachers fall down on not being clear on what they want, when they want it by, in what format, how often, and for what purpose. It doesn’t take much to set these out and clarity can make for much better engagement and achievement in the long run. It’s not enough to just say it once either. It needs to be communicated in several ways at different intervals.

Same goes for sales. It’s easy to get carried away with the excitement of a prospective new member of your organisation without having properly set out the timelines and next steps of your discussion or negotiation.  If you get this wrong, excitement can lead swiftly to disappointment on all sides.


Be trustworthy

This is a big one for me. Having been brought up by basically unreliable and unpredictable adults, I have a special wariness of people who are flaky, who over-promise and under-deliver. I especially can’t abide by professionals or personal acquaintances who say they were swamped and that’s why they didn’t do what they said they were going to do. It seems to be a big feature of the education sector that people will just not be there when they have asked to schedule a call with you, or are half an hour late when they have asked you to come and meet them. As well as setting out next steps clearly, I always make sure I am true to my word. If I say I can move on price, I will. If I say I will call you at 2pm on Tuesday, I will.
Children need to be able to trust adults. They need to know that you will do what you said you would do. They need to know that if you set them homework, you can be trusted to take it in and mark it. They need to know that you will behave in a way that earns their trust and they also need to know you will be trusting of them.


Be warm and friendly but keep clear boundaries and don’t be a walkover

When I started teaching, I was told that I should start like a closed fist and only unfurl gradually and on my own terms. “Don’t smile ‘til Christmas” is what is said in this country, I believe. We often mistake being warm and friendly with a lack of boundaries. It is possible, desirable, essential even, to be warm and friendly to the people that we want to trust us, respect us and learn from us.

The same goes with sales. Warmth that is genuine and being friendly even if your service is ultimately rejected as not appropriate, is really important. If you have followed the steps of true consultative sales as set out here, there will be no change in your warmth and ability to be friendly, whether what you are offering is taken up or not. On the other hand, people can take the mickey and ask for a level of flexibility that just isn’t realistic. Don’t be afraid to say no because you worry you might lose the sale. Just explain why in a friendly way. You might be surprised that you don’t lose the sale after all.

While being friendly, one has to keep those clear boundaries.


Love what you do and do what you love

I have always had one rule about work. I love what I do and do what I love. If I find things to be otherwise, it’s time to move on.  I am genuinely passionate about the organisations I have worked with and feel completely at home sharing my passion, engaging others in dialogue and seeing if they might benefit from them too. There will always be targets, ideals, peaks in workload and even days that are simply crappy. But it’s important to me to work with my colleagues to build the right culture so that these things don’t become central drivers.

As a teacher, you can find that your initial passion can become swallowed up by the demands of the job. Where you can, join together with colleagues in your school to make sure the culture is one you believe in and that makes you feel happy and alive at least most of the time. Make sure that you aspire to being surrounded by staff and students that love what they do and do what they love.

Colour-blindness, cats and cucumbers, and cycling

Image result for Unconscious bias
From Margie Warell

Why is my curriculum white vs. why, is my curriculum white?

I was telling a friend of mine about the BAMEed Network and was surprised by her reaction when we started talking about a podcast I had listened to called ‘Why is my curriculum white?’ She suddenly sounded really annoyed as she said, “you know, we don’t need this pitying, dumbing down of the world on our behalf, thank you. Of course the curriculum is white, this is England. I don’t mind adding a black or Asian philosopher into the mix but it’s not representative and it is artificial if there’s more than one or two isn’t it?”

I wasn’t sure how to react. She said, “All you are doing with this BAME thing is segregating and categorising people – I don’t want to be seen as a brown woman when I walk into a room or representing brown people or women when I am on the school governing body. I just want to be me”. I love my friend, we often holiday together as families, we feel so at home together but we are completely opposed in terms of politics and many aspects of our world views. But we can talk about things and trust each other completely. We also don’t try and change each other’s minds about things. We find the middle ground. Still, I said to her, “colour-blindness, that’s not actually real you know?” She was resolute. It would be for her.

Test yourself if you dare

It gave me pause for thought though. I am not trying to segregate the world, I am trying hard to be aware of my unconscious bias. I start from the standpoint that we are so culturally socialised by certain viewpoints that it is unrealistic to pretend to be colour-blind or neutral. I have been challenging myself recently by trying out some of the Harvard University unconscious bias tests available online. If you are brave you will give them a go too. It makes me squirm but it reminds me that this difficulty exists and the key is to be aware and to not deny or enact the consequence of your initial unconscious bias.

My husband and I keep comparing our results with great curiosity and some mirth. We are such opposites in some ways too. His experience starts as an Israeli-Iraqi Jew brought up in Jerusalem, where he is seen as mixed race and a second class citizen alongside the Ashkenazic, European Jews. He is an immigrant to this country since the early 2000s and that makes him feel an affinity with certain populations more than others. He sees how ethnic minority students, and staff members, are treated differently in his workplace, a university setting, and it makes him incredibly frustrated. Having spent over a decade living in Israel myself, being constantly reminded that I am a foreigner, I know how he feels to some extent. Back in England now, in my relative position of white privilege, but still sometimes finding it hard to assimilate back in, my experience sometimes feels so extreme that it feels disingenuous to do anything but recognise that the way we see the world and are seen by it differs depending on many factors.

Three popular internet things that make you wonder

Every day, things I see online make me think more about this. Three very different ones have made me think. The first is the story of a five year old white American boy who wanted to get his hair shaved short like his black American best friend so that their teacher “wouldn’t be able to tell them apart”. This is a stark reminder of the fact that we don’t seem to be born looking for differences and aware of skin colour that much. It is culturally constructed over time and is a part of our education. You can’t culturally un-construct it just by declaring yourself colour blind. All culturally constructed notions are deeply engrained.

Secondly, the news interview where a white man is speaking to the camera and in marches his small daughter, shortly followed by his other child in a baby walker. They are pursued by a woman who rushes in on all fours grabs them both and hustles them out of the room, returning briefly, still on her knees to shut the door. The assumption online was that this was his wife. Others speculated that it could be the childminder. There was backlash against presumed racially charged assumptions that the woman was a childminder and not the children’s mother and the white man’s wife – she was Korean. She was his wife.

Thirdly, isn’t it human, – and animal – ancient, learned behaviour to break the world up into categories of like me, not like me, threat and non-threat. You only have to see what happens to a cat when someone puts a cucumber behind it. Why would a domestic cat that has never seen a snake, have it so engrained in their ancient cat-bias, so as to be afraid of a vegetable that has only a vaguely snake-like appearance, is completely inanimate but seems to have sneaked up on them? Could this be true also for us human folk? Does it go that far back?

Cycling and gender-biased aggression

On a personal note, as a cyclist in London, I am now clocking up 45 minutes each way on my commute to and from work. I have always been bothered by the amount of abuse I get, although my cycling style is pretty mellow and non-confrontational. I have cycled for years and a while back now, I complained to my husband that as a woman, I get called all sorts of vile names and people can be unduly aggressive towards me. He said he never got any abuse and put it down to the fact that I can be bloody-minded and belligerent with my opinions so I am probably the same on the roads. One evening, we went out together locally and I suggested we cycle there together. On the way, I asked him if he would be willing to do an experiment with me, and to cycle some distance behind me and watch what happened. Sure enough, he was shocked by the different treatment I got compared to what he has been accustomed to. I had the usual array of cars beeping, or deliberately overtaking dangerously close and shouting as they passed, making me jump. There was also unwanted interaction with swearing pedestrians, heads down in their phones while they were weaving between the cars pausing for a moment in traffic, and from other (male) cyclists even.

Due to the air quality of central London, I have taken to wearing a pollution filter mask while cycling in recent months. It has been quite cold so with the mask, gloves, helmet and all my waterproof gear on, you can’t tell if I am a woman or a man or even what colour I am. It’s amazing. It’s as if I have been granted a completely new status. No-one bothers me at all. Bingo.  I can see why it would be amazing to reach a place where we don’t automatically treat people in certain ways based on deep seated and learned bias.

Dare you consider, how might unconscious bias affect your relationships at school?

Let’s assume then that unconscious bias does exist. How might this affect your relationship with your students and other staff members? Here are some all-you-can-eat, food for thought observations I have heard played back to me by school staff I have spoken to:

Have you noticed that BAME staff members tend to be in charge of certain subjects and the further up the hierarchy you go, the whiter it gets? Any BAME senior leaders that do make it in schools tend to be in charge of discipline or PE. What’s that about?

Why is it, in some schools, that the majority of kids that are in detention at the end of the day are black? Why do teachers of all races treat black children’s misdemeanours differently?

Why is it that schools which serve predominantly BAME areas, in parts of London for example, often deploy a military style discipline regime and refer to this as being appropriate for “these kinds” of students? The claim is that they are entrenching bias towards certain groups being subordinate to the ruling middle classes rather than promoting a socially mobile, lifelong learner expectation for children of ethnic minority backgrounds.

What about the teachers who are surprised when their Chinese heritage students educated in this country are not maths whizzes, when the black kid can’t run and their white working class boys love to read?

What of the Asian British pupil who wrote that he lived in a terrorist (terraced) house, and then ended up facing an investigation by police?

Why is it that more ethnic minority people get university degrees than white people in Britain and yet in the workplace they will be still more likely to be unemployed and paid less?

What about assessment, what elements of that is geared towards certain socio-economic and ethnic biases? What about the recent Year 6 SATs test and the dodo question for example?

Can you join me in learning more?

Please ask yourself these questions, try the Harvard online tests and let’s start to discuss what this makes us feel, what we could do differently and where the issues might lie. We will be holding a BAMEed Network conference on all aspects of unconscious bias on June 3rd. If you have ideas for what other issues should be covered, let us know and make sure you are there on the day!

Treading the line between compliance and creativity

alma

Last week I went to a screening of ‘Most Likely to Succeed’, the Sundance nominated film about what education could be. The star of the film is High Tech High in San Diego (featured here), a place where teachers have the freedom to shape projects that culminate in public exhibitions. The film itself was interesting although sitting next to my anthropologist/social work lecturer/documentary film maker/husband, was a little distracting as he texted me his critique of the film and how it was made.

I was also doing a pretty good job of distracting myself with the plethora of emotional reactions I seemed to be going through watching the film. You can’t do anything much in life without recognising who you are and how this affects your experience. I am a mother of a 14 year old and an 11 year old, was educated in the 1970s and 1980s in London at a hippy primary school and then a girls grammar school that took me on despite my failing the entrance exam. I did an anthropology degree, have a PGCE that specialised in alternative education and a Masters degree in Education. I taught English for over ten years in Jerusalem in the 1990s and early 2000s in democratic and alternative schools. I helped set up, and worked at, The Key for 8 years, supporting school leaders and governors to run their schools. Now I work for the school-led charity, Challenge Partners. I am a long-suffering school governor too. It would be safe to say I live and breathe education. So clearly, my viewing experience was coloured by my life so far and as I watched, I also listened to my own thoughts and reactions.

As a teacher

I taught in three schools that were really like the one in the film and as part of my teacher training, visited several others across Israel. It made me nostalgic and excited to see it again on screen in Hi Tech High, and to remember that wonderful time. We had complete freedom to decide what we taught and how. The curriculum was designed by each teacher, there was no monitoring of their classroom, homework or lesson plans. We wrote our own tests and decided when, what and how frequently to test the children. There were national GCSE equivalent tests at the end of year 12. The kids usually did well. It was the most incredible experience. It made me a passionate, hard working, dedicated, curious and committed teacher. I wanted each child to thrive and shine, I loved my subject and my classes were vibrant, varied and the children were, on the whole, enthusiastic learners. It wasn’t without its challenges and difficulties but we worked these through, the general tone was one of exploration, dialogue, understanding and practical solutions. The school was a happy and purposeful place.

On the other hand, I sometimes look back at my teaching experience as I do on my neglectful parents during my 1970s childhood entirely devoid of any health and safety awareness. The amount of times we could have died as we lolled about in the back of my mum’s Morris Traveller without seatbelts, or ran about the streets playing unattended sometimes laughing off the passing paedophile’s pathetic attempts to lure us into his car, or hopping over the tube rails for a dare. If I hadn’t been streetwise and vigilant, it could have been tragic indeed. And if I hadn’t been the massively enthusiastic and reflective practitioner I was, I could have just done not very much with my students and coasted my way through the years. I found that some of the children at the schools where I taught really suffered from the amount of freedom they had. It was their parents who had wanted this for themselves as children, and were living vicariously through their children by giving them relief from the oppressive discipline they hated in their own childhood. With such permissive parents, lacking in clear boundaries, some children were really ill equipped to deal with freedom of this kind and it was exhausting trying to meet their needs.

As a mother

I felt remorse, guilt and anxiety – why don’t my children have this kind of education? Why have I been so passive about sending them along with the herd to normal schools? Have they missed out and been compromised by restrictive educational experience that has increasingly been narrowed by the obsessive managerialist measurement culture? Or have they been strengthened by having to eke out creative, autonomous, and alternative educational experiences despite being on the factory line of bog standard English education?

I felt defensiveness and derision – I didn’t have to decide whether to send my own children to the schools where I taught in the end, although I agonized over it, because we moved to England when the oldest reached reception age. There seemed no choice except to go to the local primary school and hope for the best. What is shown in the film is all very well but if this school happened in this country, it would be only a very certain kind of parent that sent their kid there. It would be swamped by anxious yummy mummies and would fall foul to the fate of many of the free schools of its ilk. It was my experience of my hippy local primary school in the 1970s where we learnt Beatles songs, carpet weaving and were left to self-directed learning from laminated cards in Learning Lab boxes that led to my failing the 11+ and spending my entire secondary education gasping to barely keep up.

As a working person

Throughout my career at management and director level, when I interview people for roles in my team, I sometimes find the more impressive the grades on their CVs are, the more lacking in creativity and unable to cope with autonomy they are. The Hi Tech High model of team work gives importance to going through a process and not just to the output, respect is given to exploration, for taking the time, and this really appeals to me. We seem to be racing people through life, meting out the stages of development they need to reach from birth to graduation and ticking them off to satisfy our own need for measurement, league tables, evidence of productivity and the like. We have a generation of young people in their early careers that are restlessly running on underdeveloped tip toes before they have developed the stability needed when they hastily learned to walk.

My conclusion will always be the same. I am ever the relativist in my outlook. There’s room for everything and a one-size-fits-all approach never works. I would love there to be room for such freedom and depth of thought and experience for all children. I believe that some schools do manage to build in some pockets of exploration and autonomy while marching along to the exhausting demands of the system as a whole.

By way of example, while we were watching this film, my youngest was away for the week at a wonderful life-changing experience through her school. Fifteen Yr 7 to Yr 9 children were sent away to a writers’ retreat of incredible calibre in Shropshire. It’s especially amazing that she was chosen as the school has recognised that she is an articulate and enthusiastic writer and that her SATS scores and dyslexia shouldn’t be allowed to be an impediment to this. “I wish my school was always like that”, she repeated over and over for the coming weeks. What she loved was the freedom and structure that interplayed so well. The autonomy mixed with clear guidance from professional writers. They cooked their own meals and went for country walks. They were able to steep themselves in a project day after day, after day, were encouraged to focus on depth, to make mistakes, and to be treated as writers by writers. It’s not the first experience of this kind they have had at the school, and it won’t be the last. So instead of beating myself up for not banding together with fellow parents and creating a free school that provides the North London version of Hi Tech High for my children, I think I will continue to support my local comp that treads a confident line between compliance and creativity.

 

 

Don’t treat marketing and PR as an occasional necessary evil, be wicked at it from the get-go

 

marketing-cycle

Source: Simon Hepburn 

It was the level of marketing and PR that surrounds secondary school choices that got me interested in this area in general with regards schools. It might sound entirely bonkers to admit that a school with a seemingly poor reputation caught my attention and ended up being the one my children attend today. Doing what every parent does when they don’t know better, I asked other parents about schools in the area. One school nobody seemed to mention, but that was a stone’s throw from my home, always got the same response when I asked about it. People seemed to think it was a bit rubbish – but when pressed, no-one could say why and not one of the people who had an opinion on the school had visited it, knew anyone who went there or had even read anything about it. Me being me, I had to investigate. Since then, the school has invested time and energetic enthusiasm into their PR and marketing, and its reputation is starting to match that of the actual magic that happens every day at the school. I tell people, get your oldest in now, because all too soon, it’s going to be oversubscribed. Turns out the other local school that parents told me they just “knew” was amazing and a first choice, and whose headteacher blogs about incessantly, is about to take a reputational nose-dive since the latest Ofsted visit, as the hype might not live up to the reality.

When we talk about PR and marketing with regards schools, there seems to be a level of distrust and even disgust from many, as if this is solely the realm of the private sector, the commercial and the corporate. However, savvy schools are realising that this area is absolutely vital not only if you want to keep pupil intake high, but also if you want to have some control over the story that is being told about your school. Providing you can back up your claims with substance and it’s not all puff, when times are good, your reputation will be good – people will want to come to the school, existing students and their parents, and staff members will be well-informed about all the great things that are happening, and they will feel proud and justified by their choice to be part of the school community. When things go wrong, the proverbial dog mess hits the whirring blades of the media circus fan, this good stuff you’ve been consistently broadcasting could just be what people remember despite anyone’s best efforts to pervert the course of justice.

Good marketing covers several bases that shouldn’t be ignored, especially in the complex and challenging education landscape today. Here are some of them:

  1. Your school can be seen as the first choice school if you articulate and market what your unique selling points are and keep making sure these are firmly grounded in the experience of the school community
  2. In a landscape of increased competition, and where the new shiny ideas such as academies, free schools and now grammar schools catch parents’ eyes, building networks and partnerships with others across the sector and with local business that benefit students and staff alike, can make your school stand out too
  3. Promoting good news stories regularly and consistently can stand you in good stead when things do go wrong or the going gets tough. Ongoing reputation management leads to robust damage limitation
  4. Good reputation with the local community and across the sector can lead to excellent partnerships, some of which can support alternative revenue streams, which in turn can help the school when flat cash is at a premium. Future partnerships can also create future opportunities for your students in universities, local business and beyond
  5. A school that is clearly a great place to work and to study will draw not only parents to send their children there, but will also be attractive to teachers. If you can articulate and broadcast widely the culture, ethos, CPD opportunities, and the high-quality education to be gained there, you can recruit and retain staff as well as families wanting to send their children to the school

The importance of marketing and PR really shouldn’t be overlooked. Traditional marketing for schools has been all about profile-raising for the purpose of successful recruitment and retention of both students and staff. Marketing is about improving and maximising brand opportunities. Taking this a step further and savvy marketing can mean future-proofing your school as mentioned above, and ensuring that your school is a first choice school for the surrounding area. The ninja marketers will also be mitigating some of the pressures in these financially straitened times, and will be using marketing for resources and income-generation through building meaningful networks and partnerships that benefit the school for years to come.

Links and resources for further reading:

If you are interested in learning more, Simon Hepburn from Marketing for Schools has many resources and opinion pieces from his many years’ experience on his website here

There is a good overview written by Simon called, How does your school stand out from the crowd, in SMT Magazine here. This sets out the cycle of marketing and PR  shown above that schools should embark on and helps you think about who in your school should be building the skills and expertise and making time for such a role.

Janet Murray gives useful advice on ‘How to link up with journalists on social media without feeling like a crazy stalker’ here. Her website contains all sorts of other useful links, articles and blog posts.

The Key for school leaders and NASBM (National Association of School Business Managers) have produced these useful slides called Why marketing matters to schools and their School Business Manager Toolkit also has some information on marketing your school successfully.

 

Collective punishment: it doesn’t work but still it happens

punishment-letter
As part of a group detention, students were asked to write a letter on why it is necessary to follow the teacher’s instruction. My child wrote this.

 

Collective punishment might feel good to you at the time, but it is always wrong

I am not sure I need to add more than is already clearly and respectfully explained in the letter above. Collective punishment is as much a punishment for those that behave themselves as it is for those that don’t. Only, it seems perverse to me that those that have done nothing to deserve it, are punished twice. They are taught that there is no reason to behave well and that if a teacher doesn’t recognise and even disrespects their efforts to follow the rules, these students eventually may say……pfff! What’s the point?

I have given group punishment. I have been that teacher. It was many years ago but when I think about it, I can still feel the ghost of sheer desperation and the feeling of vindictive hatred towards those that had wrecked my well-intended, well-planned lesson. Sooner or later I must have realised it was wrong. Or perhaps I just got better at managing behaviour in class and seeing who was misbehaving.

A couple of weeks ago, it happened in my Year 9 child’s school for the umpteenth time this term and she texted me to say she couldn’t face yet another group detention after school, having missed lunch just days before for one from a different teacher. I called the school livid but also determined to come with the suggestion that they help the offending teachers to understand why it is a stupid technique and to help them find other ways to get the students to behave. As it turned out, the way the school has responded is spot on. They will work with the teachers in question, have deployed more mentors for the class in question, will reissue the school behaviour policy, which disallows group punishment and will also meet with the well-behaved students in the class and discuss with them what they see going wrong so they can learn from their perspective too.

Collective punishment doesn’t make any sense

If you are ever tempted to deploy this as a technique, here is a short film about how ridiculous it is. And if that is not enough, here is a list of some of the reasons not to do it:

  • It makes you look weak and too lazy to get to the bottom of who is misbehaving
  • It probably isn’t allowed by the school behaviour policy so you are not only breaking  the rules yourself but also breaking the contract that each child and teacher have signed up to in the school
  • It demotivates well-behaved students and discourages them from behaving well and makes you feel horrible about yourself as the teacher
  • It doesn’t make sense – we don’t close entire roads because some people drink and drive or shut down libraries because some people damage the books
  • There are better ways

If you need other ways to punish those that misbehave, here are some people with a few ideas:

Learning Spy  deploys an approach which involves gradually releasing students until the right person can be identified and dealt with.
Larry Ferlazzo, in The Happy School, advocates a gentle approach that happens more discreetly than the public display of anger and disappointment in front of the whole class that often takes place.
Playworks advocates 6 ways teachers can build a collaborative contract with their students so that collective punishment such as withholding break-time doesn’t have to be an option.

When it comes to behaviour management, the one that needs to change is probably you

Behaviour management actually requires change of behaviour from you as the adult first and foremost. Pivotal Education is one organisation I know of that has built their entire, very successful, training business around this basic theory – and it works. See this simple but effective explanation of how adult behaviour is the biggest influencer of student behaviour. Most impactful, especially in such financially straitened times, is just considering the real costs of not sorting your own behaviour first.

pivotal
Source: Pivotal Education

An example from one of the masters

There is a Spanish teacher at the school who commands respect from all students and who we often hear about over the dinner table. This teacher seems to know a key fact about each student and uses it to draw out of them a level of engagement and concentration that is stunning. One boy can’t sit still and often loses concentration. He is a great artist. The teacher asks him to summarise the key points of the lesson in a series of drawings which can be distributed to the other students at the end of the lesson to complement their own notes. He is riveted and gets stuck in. His own understanding has increased and he is proving to be a great student where, in other classes, he is disruptive and disengaged.

One student always shouts out inane things that cross his mind, and sometimes he shouts answers to questions without permission and over the top of other students when they have been given permission to speak. His role is given to him at the start of the lesson. He is given a vocabulary list of phrases and words in Spanish like “how interesting” and “ridiculous” and he must make remarks appropriately using these words when class mates are speaking. It’s fun, it keeps others on their toes. They want to get things right because it’s hilarious making him interact with them. He is bristling with concentration, not wanting to miss an opportunity to shout out.

Finally, when the teacher is telling them a story or explaining and uses the word that means “but”, the class must catch him and call out “pero means but”! It’s hardly surprising that most of the class wants to do GCSE Spanish and he doesn’t ever encounter behaviour problems.

This might seem like an energy-intensive method to engage a class but it seems to work and I bet he will never give collective punishment in his life.

 

 

 

 

School counsellor guest blog: What I do to protect clients’ privacy and why

‘What I do to protect clients’ privacy and why’ was first published in in the September 2016 edition of BACP (British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy) “Children and Young People” journal for counsellors and psychotherapists working with young people by Ben Gross MBACP(Accred) MSc PGCE BSc(Hons) 

Ben Gross is a school counsellor, working in an infant, a primary and a secondary school and in private practice.  He is also a teacher and an author of children’s stories. You can contact him at innerrainbow@hotmail.com 

bob

Picture courtesy of Stan Dupp

I believe that protecting clients’ privacy is fundamental to ensuring the ethical and effective delivery of counselling in schools.  In this article I explore the significance of privacy by describing what I do to protect the privacy of my clients and the rationale behind my approach.

I protect my clients’ privacy by taking care to not make it obvious to their peers and staff that they are clients.  Here are a few examples of how I do this:

I cover the windows to the counselling room, although I often have to leave a small gap so staff are able to look in “if it might be necessary”.

I put a “PLEASE DO NOT DISTURB” sign on the door.

I choose discreet locations for counselling rooms.

I do not want to let other children know who my clients are because I do not want to make them seem different from the others.  If I did not take these precautions I believe that many of the children, even of nursery age, would notice that certain children are having additional input and before long all the children would realise it.  Generally children don’t want to appear different because they want to fit in with their peers.

To avoid making it obvious to their peers that they are having counselling I avoid collecting clients from class.  I ask their Learning Support Assistant (LSA) to bring them if they are Key Stage 1 (KS1).  Others can usually come alone.  If for any reason they cannot come alone, they can be brought by their LSA.  If a client forgets to come I ask either the SENCO or Deputy Head to collect the child from class (in primary schools).  In secondary schools if a client forgets to come I write them a letter explaining that they have missed a session, reminding them of their appointment time.  In the past when I have collected clients from class I noticed that it can attract a lot of attention from the other pupils.

Other ways I avoid exposing clients are by refraining from:

  • sitting with clients in the dining hall
  • working with clients during lunch break in the playground
  • pinning “counselling clients” lists to the staffroom or counselling room noticeboard
  • allowing clients to put pictures on the walls of counselling rooms with their names on.

This objective of ‘not letting others know who do not “need to know”’ also applies to parents of clients (who are also clients).  For example, I do not collect carers and parents of clients from the school foyer when we have meetings, but instead arrange for them to come straight to the room where we are meeting, so it is less likely that other parents and staff will see they are meeting with me.  I work in the same way when I have meetings with staff.

I do not let people who do not need to know, know the identity of my clients because there is inevitably a stigma attached to being in therapy, which springs directly from the stigma around having social, emotional or mental health difficulties.  We project our own vulnerability and fear that we might be mentally unwell into those who have been given this label, and then reject them, and in so doing feel we are now fine in comparison; not like them, the “mentally ill” ones.  This process of projection can cause people to treat “therapy clients” differently at best and, at worst, avoid and bully them.  Many young clients have said to me that they don’t want their peers to know they are going to see a counsellor because it would embarrass them, or they are worried they might get teased or bullied about it.   This can deter them from accessing counselling or make them want to stop if they are having counselling.

I also protect my clients’ privacy in relation to the school staff.  In my experience, many clients would not be comfortable with staff knowing that they are having counselling.  Only those who need to know should know, namely: Learning Support and Behaviour Support staff who work with the student; the teachers of the client; The Senior Leadership Team (which includes Special Educational Needs Coordinators and Head of Inclusion) and Year Heads in secondary schools.   I have found that staff readily refrain from talking with me about clients in front of other staff (ie in the staff room or corridor) and understand the idea of respecting client privacy once I explain to them the importance of this approach.

In secondary schools I protect clients’ privacy by not automatically letting carers and parents know when a student is referred for counselling; instead I ask the client how they would like this managed.  By contrast, in primary schools I have always been required to get signed parental permission before beginning the work.  This difference in approach seems to apply in many schools.  Although some clients, regardless of age, do not want their parents to know they are having counselling, privacy for clients in relation to their parents seems to be determined by whether they are in primary or secondary school.  This may be because of a mistaken understanding of The Gillick Competency where the rule has been oversimplified to match school ages for ease of application; after all, some primary-aged children have the capacity to make reasonable decisions for themselves and some secondary-aged students do not.

I contain my work within the privacy of the counselling room to protect the privacy of the counselling relationship.  Hence I avoid doing anything which would make me become part of a client’s social world such as:

  • leading assemblies about counselling
  • observing classes
  • teaching classes
  • setting up counselling info stalls in the school foyer
  • appearing in photographs of staff on the noticeboard
  • working with clients outside of the classroom (e.g. in the dining hall or playground)

The reason I avoid these activities is because in counselling work, I provide safe containment for very sensitive personal feelings in the privacy of the counselling room.  I join my clients in their private, inner, emotional world and so I feel that I should not at the same time be part of their outer, social world.  It is for this reason that the counsellor assigned to a child should not be a friend or teacher of the client, or a friend of the client’s parents.  My view is that if I enter a client’s social world, this creates two different relationships and the boundaries of therapy become blurred.

It is hard to uphold these boundaries in schools. Sometimes staff or students open the door of the counselling room, ignoring the “Please do not disturb” sign.  I have experienced members of staff not wanting the windows of the counselling room to be covered.  In a school where I worked it took over a year to reinstall the latch on the counselling room door that had been removed so that it could not close.  If staff are able to tolerate their frustration about not knowing who the counselling clients are they will model appropriate behaviour for pupils who will learn to not be intrusive with peers who are having counselling.  When a student is having counselling some of their peers and staff will no doubt find out, one way or another, even by simply seeing the child walking to the counselling room.  But this does not imply that all their peers and staff might as well be told.  So I do my best to be as subtle about it as I possibly can.

The BACP Ethical Framework for the Counselling Professions 2016 (EF) supports my approach to client privacy.  The EF states that counsellors have a “commitment to clients” to “Show respect by …protecting client…privacy” (p1).  The EF sets out guidelines on “Good Practice” (p5) which includes “Respect” and states, “We will respect our clients’ privacy”.  Thus, according to the BACP, if we let others know unnecessarily that a client is in therapy we are not respecting their privacy and this is not good practice.

In schools, as already stated above, it is almost impossible to keep the fact that a child is having counselling completely private.  The EF states, “We will protect the confidentiality and privacy of clients by…informing clients about any reasonably foreseeable limitations of privacy or confidentiality in advance of our work together” (p7).  So we have a duty to explain to clients that others will find out they are having counselling, what the implications of this could be, and help them to make a decision for themselves about whether or not they are comfortable with this.

Of course some clients may be happy for others to be told.  The EF states, “We will work with our clients on the basis of their informed consent and agreement” (p7).  “Informed consent” is key here, and relates again to the idea of Gillick Competence; the ability to make an informed choice.  If a child does not have the knowledge and maturity to make an informed decision, we have a duty to protect them from the side effects they may inadvertently be exposing themselves to by agreeing to openness.  The idea of what is or is not private develops only gradually in children’s mind.  They need to be given the opportunity to develop their attitude to privacy.  If we don’t help them to make this decision themselves, but instead tactlessly reveal they are having counselling to others, we are doing them a disservice.  This could even be seen as abuse.  If I suggest to a client that it’s ok for all and sundry to know, they may agree and later regret it.  The EF states: “Careful consideration will be given to working with children and young people that…takes account of their capacity to give informed consent…and their best interests” (p8).  Clients have a right to choose for themselves whether they want the fact they are having counselling to be revealed freely to their peers and staff by those who know.  Some young clients will need support to make such a decision.

The guidelines for “Good Practice” in the EF state, in the section, “Building an Appropriate Relationship” (p8),  “We [counsellors and therapists] will establish and maintain appropriate professional and personal boundaries in our relationships with clients by ensuring that…any dual or multiple relationships will be avoided where the risks of harm to the client outweigh any benefits to the client” (p8). This supports my previous suggestion that we should avoid taking on additional roles outside the counselling room.  Similarly, the Department for Education (DfE) report “Counselling in schools: a blueprint for the future” states: “Counselling needs to take place in a safe, private and welcoming environment…If possible the counselling room should be in an area where it isn’t obvious the pupil is going there to attend counselling” (2016:p30).

I have encountered members of staff who believe that it does not matter if the counsellor is seen in public with a client because students don’t know who the counsellor is.  I think that is unlikely; after all, young people are curious and they will see the counsellor walking about and into and out of the counselling room and news spreads fast in schools.  Some staff deny the existence of stigma saying, “All the children want to go to therapy because it has such a positive image in our school.”  I think this is wishful thinking.  There is a vast body of research evidence that counselling is stigmatised in UK schools, and that children fear being stigmatised for attending counselling. “Much research reinforces the ubiquity of concerns about negative stigmatisation by peers as a barrier to young people accessing services” (Prior, 2011:p1).  Students, generally don’t want it to be known that they are attending counselling because of student attitudes towards mental health and well-being services (p1).

Interestingly I have seen situations where senior staff members are extremely attentive to the privacy of staff members who are attending counselling whilst at the same time adopt a very open policy towards children attending counselling.  They are quite aware that staff seeing a counsellor would not want other staff to know.  Perhaps this is because they believe that adults stigmatise but children don’t.  Children, in their view, might not be affected by stigma if counselling is dealt with very openly.  I don’t agree.  If a therapist stays with a student in the playground or dining hall (acting rather like a human dunce cap), this will advertise to the entire population of the school the fact that he/she is a client.  Once when I was visiting a school for an interview, a counsellor introduced me to her client as they went into the therapy room (which was just off a dining hall full of students).  The client looked extremely uncomfortable.  I do not think being open about counselling is a good way to try to reduce the stigma around therapy.  Better keep a private interaction private.

In summary, I believe that protecting privacy is an essential component of ethical and effective counselling practice.  If we do our best to protect the privacy of our young clients this will help them feel comfortable about accessing counselling support in schools and staying with it. I hope the ideas I have set out in this article will encourage practitioners to think carefully about their approach to protecting the privacy of young clients in schools.

Bibliography

BACP, (2016) Ethical Framework for the Counselling Professions.  Leicestershire: British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.

Cooper, M. (2009) Counselling in UK secondary schools: a comprehensive review of audit and evaluation data, Counselling and Psychotherapy Research 9, 3, 137–50.

DfE, (2016) Counselling in schools: a blueprint for the future, Departmental advice for school leaders and counsellors February, 2016. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/497825/Counselling_in_schools.pdf

Freake, H., Barley, V. and Kent, G. (2007) Adolescents’ views of helping professionals: a review of the literature, Journal of Adolescence, 30, 639–53.

Prior, S. (2012) “Overcoming Stigma: how young people position themselves as counselling service users,” in Sociology of Health & Illness Vol. 34 No. 5 2012, pp 697–713. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-9566.2011.01430.x/pdf

Educolour: change begins with you

stereotypes

 

There seem to be several ways that people tackle the issue of diversity in the workplace as far as I have experienced it. Having occupied various positions in white, middle-class dominated work environments, the issue of diversity has exercised me for a long time.  I have been regarded as “the ethnic minority” in some places by virtue of the fact that I am of Jewish heritage, am married to an Iraqi-Israeli and my kids were born abroad. I have seen the almost visible domino effect of assumptions that click into place when people find out these facts about me. But, better out than in I say. If people can tell me what they assume about me, at least then I can work through the stereotypes with them and isolate what is right and what is not. One of the most destructive things is to ignore altogether race, identity, culture, colour, whatever it is that makes for difference between people.

Whether or not I can lay claim to be classed as an ethnic minority is immaterial. I am wholly and passionately committed to doing what I can to break down barriers that exist for people based on the sex, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, whatever the multifarious categorisation that exists that causes these barriers. This is why I am shoving my white-privileged nose into the group of people now committed to forming the #Educolour movement in this country. And I trust each and every one of them to speak truth to me at any point.

One of Stonewall’s diversity champions once told me, when I was concerned whether I could effectively look out for the rights of others, that there is no better advocate for diversity in a workplace than someone who might outwardly represent the accepted norm. “People might listen to a black guy talking about racial equality in the workplace, but if a white person is a passionate advocate, that will get people’s attention for sure”.

The biggest problem I have encountered is that people don’t want to talk about it. This is probably mainly because they are worried about saying something wrong and causing offense, But many don’t want to accept even the basic fact that subconscious bias and racism is rife within our society. Or worse still, people pretend to be “colour-blind”. Unless each one of us is willing to admit it is our problem, nothing at all will change. Unless each and every one of us just connects with the places where we do assume, discriminate, overcompensate, skirt around, feel uncomfortable, behave differently to people, then we will just perpetuate the problem.

Here are some uncomfortable moments I have had while on recruitment panels that might make your jaw drop:

Situation 1: 

Panel of two white women, one white man. White, male, middle-aged, middle-class interviewer goes off script and asks young, Asian woman: “Are you spoilt?”

She, unfazed, quick as anything says: “No, but my brother is! Have you met an Indian mother who doesn’t spoil her son?! He is her sunshine. I don’t get to be spoilt!”

We all laughed and moved on to the next question. I died inside. When we got out of the room, I challenged my senior colleague. “What was that all about? Why on earth did you ask that?”

“Oh” He said, completely nonplussed by my obvious disdain. “I once knew an Indian woman who was really spoilt. I didn’t want you to have to deal with that on your team”

I liked her, I wanted her on my team. She is personable, she has already proved herself to be quick-witted and feisty. She has got through to a face-to-face interview based on passing several stages of the recruitment process including three written tasks. The standard of her writing is excellent and she has displayed a creativity of thought in her responses. The second woman on the panel is worried about her ability to represent the organisation because she has a lilting, Delhi accent. I remind her that according to the job we have advertised, she needs to be able to write quickly and accurately, using a high standard of English. She has proved to be able to do this and moreover, seems like she could fit in really well with the rest of the team, our values and so on. “Some aspects of writing are just there, they can’t be taught” I was told by my colleague by way of explanation of her doubts about this candidate.

I can feel myself fighting for this person and fighting through assumptions, prejudice, all dressed up as genuine concerns but moreover, all based on subtle discrimination and not on the facts before us. She turned out to be one of the best members of my team.

My colleagues weren’t bad people. They saw themselves as very open-minded and committed to diversity. But there are boundaries to all of our ability to really challenge ourselves and ask honestly what subconscious bias could be playing out here.

Situation 2:

A white, male colleague and I are waiting for two candidates to show up for an interview. One has what could be described as a non-English, Arabic name, the other has a very “English” standard male first name and surname. The first to arrive is a black man, and we both assume this is the one with the Arabic name. It is only when the second candidate shows up for the interview that we realise that we are wrong. She is a woman and cannot possibly be the one with the standard English male name.

After the interviewees have left and knew nothing of our silent confusion, I can’t contain my embarrassment and say to my colleague: “Woah, massive racist assumptions there from both of us!” He claps his hand on his forehead and said “How many discriminatory stereotypes went into that little misunderstanding?!” Awful, but at least we were aware that this actually happened and at least we could openly talk about it and think what we would do next time to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

Situation 3:

Some years ago, I keep hearing some of my colleagues declare proudly, openly and frequently that we have a team that is predominantly made up of young, Russell Group university-educated men and women. It takes me a while to understand why this makes me angry. I challenge them on this and ask why this makes us a good place to work. I am not young, nor Russell Group educated, and I am the only person to have recruited not one, but two people onto my team who don’t have a university degree at all. The first hire sparked consternation when my boss realised that they didn’t fit the ideal standard, but once they had proved themselves to be superb at their job and display a lot more intelligence and resilience than some of our more “thoroughbred” members of the stable, it was easier to get the second one through. They both had a maturity and solid work ethic that ensured that we got things done and to a high standard.

My challenge to my previous workplace was a challenge to this idea that having people who have made their way through a path of privilege means that they are necessarily better at their jobs than others. In my experience, some of the best-educated and holders of the highest accolades from Oxbridge were the weakest staff members in terms of their teamwork, resilience, creativity and initiative-taking. I was told time and again, “we need the best candidate for the job, and the easiest way to see that is through their qualifications and work experience”. What is not clear here is that there are so many barriers to people who don’t have access to the level of privilege needed, that they may not be getting a shot at the places of education and work that others may be able to just glide in to.

We really have to create a recruitment process that both sorts people’s ability to do the job advertised but that also can sort between things that are trainable skills and things that are essential to have inbuilt. This is where we have an opportunity to halt the assumptive wheels of institutional prejudice and actually create a step for people to take.What I mean is this. Faced with two potential candidates, I must look to see where I can challenge myself and my own assumptions. I must also look to see if with a small amount of effort on my part, I might be able to provide an opportunity for someone who has proved that they can do the job well but may not have the standard set of traits of privilege that we lazily may assume make them the “best candidate” for the job. If I can take someone on and invest an extra few hours of training in them to fill any gaps, which may cost the organisation slightly more, I will. I know that through doing this, I have diversified the workplace, shifted the accepted norms about what pathways people need to have followed to land here, and have broadened my own and my colleagues’ horizons about where good people can come from, I must do this. And if I need to fight a bit to do it, I will.

There are simple things that we can all do, and that we all must do. We must embrace our own prejudice and never avoid an opportunity to delve deeper into it to understand it better. We must call out prejudice when we see it (including our own!) but not in a confrontational and aggressive way, we need to champion growth-inducing challenge and whenever possible model a better way through as many channels as possible – such as recruitment processes as I have tried to illustrate here. This is what I mean when I say, change begins with you.

Joining the grammar school debate

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Grammar school class photo in 1981

 

Weighing in on the grammar school debate

It seems that everyone has a story about their experience of grammar schools, be it going to one, or not going to one. It is a charged subject and we oldies love to draw on our own childhoods on this, as we often do so many topics around education and childhood. But this is one area that has changed so much since we were young, that we need to be really careful not to make up our minds, or heaven help us, make policy, based on our own frame of reference from the past.

That said, I will talk about my own grammar school experience later as a way to illustrate just how life has changed. First though, let’s look at some of what is being debated.

There have always been grammar schools, so what’s changed?

Prime Minister Theresa May has apparently decided to challenge the notion that she is a safe pair of hands bringing us stability and status quo in uncertain times. She has, almost out of the blue, decided to lift the ban on new grammar schools being opened. May has said that it is a good idea, for the sake of choice and to ensure that the brightest children are not held back, that we expand grammar schools so that in every area in the country families have better access to a wide range of schools, including grammar schools.

May points out that at present, there is a certain level of social selection around secondary schools as those that can afford to live in the posh postcode areas will have access to the better schools. This might be true, but will grammar schools change anything around that? And doesn’t going back to an 11 plus means that schools will be either selective grammar schools or secondary moderns? Or if the idea is that every school can be selective, how will that work exactly?

What does this choice mean in practice?

In some areas of the country, especially those that are more rural or sparsely populated, there is little or no choice of secondary schools because there are just very few schools in the area at all. However, in areas like London, the choice debate is highly relevant. And we need to make sure we aren’t making national policy based on a narrow, London-and-the-south-east-centric frame of reference.

In my catchment area for example, there are schools in three boroughs we can access within walking distance or that are a short bus ride away. We have a pick of academies, and maintained schools, faith schools for all the major religions, schools with different specialisms in arts, media, languages, tech and more, single-sex and mixed schools, grammar schools, schools with and without sixth forms. There are also plenty of different special schools catering for a wide spectrum of needs, and even three pupil referral units. There are schools with over 2,000 students and others with only 600. So chucking in a new grammar school wouldn’t make much difference would it? Most schools do really well by their students, are rated good or outstanding by Ofsted and cater for all kinds of vocational and academic interests and abilities. But there isn’t this choice everywhere in the country.

But when does choice become social segregation? I want my children to rub shoulders with the real population of the area in which they live. But I also know that with streaming, they are already experiencing a form of segregation for much of the school day in many subjects. I wouldn’t want to segregate them completely, no matter how bright I thought they were, from other children from all walks of life. Many parents however, really don’t want that. They want their children to be sheltered from the potentially distracting influences that might be experienced by fraternising with families that are not “like us”. Is that what some of us really mean when we talk about choice?

Do structures make a difference?

We already know that there is no evidence at all that structures make any difference to how well children achieve or to closing the gap between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and those that are not. We have seen the government insist that the academisation programme is what will ultimately improve education for all, despite all the evidence showing clearly that the structure and governance of a school makes little or no difference to the outcomes for children that go there. What does make a difference is the teaching and the leadership in those schools –and resources. We know this and yet, it is a massive elephant that we don’t seem to be able to acknowledge in terms of the way policy setting goes. We are told we are pressing ahead, regardless.

Does selection make a difference?

The OECD has stated categorically that in countries in Europe, such as Germany and Switzerland, where selection has been widely used, these schools were not more likely to produce high-achieving students. The OECD education expert, Andreas Schleicher, said that access to selective schools was often unfairly biased towards wealthier families – and that contradicts the aim of stretching the most talented that Theresa May highlights as central to her call for new grammar schools.

What is needed, Schleicher says, is greater meritocracy in the school system. In fact, he goes on to say that what we call academic selection in this country, is actually selection by social background.

Back in the day, the 11 plus may well have identified the more academically inclined or brighter students because it tested a particular way of thinking and learning that could be built upon and stretched. Nowadays, with a huge army of private tutors and an entire shadow education sector that is thriving, the 11 plus does become something that more parents with money can push their children through regardless of their actual academic ability – or ‘talent’ as May likes to refer to it as.

Is education necessarily better in grammar schools?

This to me is just like the conjecture that private schools provide a better standard of education. We need to be really careful with this assumption as it is known that many private schools survive well on reputation, a host of private tutors after school, and in-built high expectations rather than having better teaching or a superior curriculum (as do some state schools, indeed).

Grammars, like private schools, will find it easier to attract and retain teachers and are likely to therefore have more experienced teachers. It’s hard enough to attract and retain teachers in the state sector but imagine what it would be like if there were more secondary moderns struggling to recruit well-qualified staff who will be motivated to stay in the profession.

Do disadvantaged students benefit from grammar schools?

This is where the romanticism of days gone by comes into play for many. The original tenet for grammar schools was indeed to provide equal opportunity for highly academic education for children from deprived backgrounds. And they did for a while but only for those that were accepted to grammar schools.

The DfE asserts that grammar schools provide a good education for their disadvantaged pupils, and that they want more pupils from lower-income backgrounds to benefit from this.

But what about the students from deprived backgrounds who don’t go to grammar school? In the old system, the sorting sheep from goats at age 11 is understood by many to have achieved its aim by releasing potential and it created in some cases a mobile population of young people from deprived backgrounds. But it also had dire consequences for many children, not least those who did not pass the 11 plus exam and were relegated to the secondary modern and to social segregation from their peers they had known from primary school. The psychological and motivational fall out of such an experience has been talked about at length recently.

There seems to be consensus that the picture would be different nowadays. But there really isn’t a level playing field on entry for grammars and successive studies have shown that poorer pupils are generally much less likely to get places in grammar schools.

According to the Sutton Trust for example, only 3% of entrants to grammar schools are entitled to free school meals, when in selective areas the average proportion of free school meal pupils is 18%.

However, Theresa May is emphatic that anyone criticising the lack of social mobility of grammar schools also has to face up to the inequalities in other ways of admitting pupils. And this is where she brings in the notion of a sort of postcode social apartheid caused by the system of catchment areas deciding school places. You only have to look at some of the successful comprehensive schools’ catchment areas and house prices to see how this social segregation plays out already in some parts of the country. But on the flip side, there are schools with extremely high intake of FSM children in deprived areas that do incredibly well by all their students.

And now for the personal story

I went to a top girls’ grammar school. How I got there is a bizarre thing indeed. We had a pretty gruelling home life and as a result we each reacted differently at school. My older brother was an angry and disruptive student at one local comprehensive, and my bright, quiet and well-behaved older sister opted for the other local comprehensive when her turn came.  When I reached the final year of primary school I was adamant that I didn’t want to be under the shadow of either of my siblings. A friend from my class was taking the 11 plus so I went along too. We got the afternoon off school and watched Bollywood movies at her house and drank Ribena in milk to celebrate. I didn’t really think much about it after that as the whole exam was completely baffling to me.

It was a real surprise to learn a few weeks later that I had gained a place although little did I know that I had in fact failed the 11 plus because my ability in maths was so poor. My mum only told me this humiliating fact a couple of years later, in a rage, when it was clear that things weren’t great for me at the school. The headteacher had decided to take me and another girl who had just moved from Yorkshire as her experimental students. I was the only one on free school meals, having to trot up to the till at lunchtime and present my while the others stared in curiosity. I hated every single moment at the school, feeling like an imposter with the well-off girls who were there. I had no resources or support at home for the academic level expected of me and the already significant gap between myself and my peers widened over time. There was no pupil premium to encourage extra support and the school did not feel any particular responsibility for whether I succeeded or not. They repeatedly told me that they had taught the material and it was up to me to try harder to make up the widening gap.

I left just before my 16th birthday with 5 O Levels and a CSE. After burning my books in the back garden, I enrolled to an FE college where I took my A Levels. I also re-took my maths O level each year until I passed it with the help of a maths tutor funded entirely by my own Saturday job money. I left home at 17, took a year out so I could work and fund the rent of my sub-let room in a shared council flat where I lived with two blokes in their 20s. I finally went off to university to read Social Anthropology against all the odds at the end of that “gap” year. I am where I am today because of a combination of stubbornness and luck, and not because of the wonderful opportunity that grammar school provided me with.

My brother had already followed a similar path to me but skipped university in favour of an apprenticeship at a recording studio and today is a successful professional composer for films. My sister did really well at her comprehensive, got 10 great O Levels and 4 A Levels and gained a place at Cambridge, where a combination of imposter syndrome and a series of awful life experiences meant that she never could complete her course. She is happy and successful now but like for all of us, it has taken time and effort to get where we are.

The grammar school issue now is often described as divisive. There seems to me to be a real divide between people when it comes to their child’s education. We all want the best for our children but for some more than others, there seems to be a real passion for equality of opportunity that stops us from wanting to buy our children a place at the front of the line at the expense of those that cannot afford it. I still come back to the same place whenever these issues are up for debate. What we really need to do is invest our time, money and passion into ensuring that every local school is a brilliant place to work and to learn in. That within each school there is the expertise and resources to cater for all kinds of children from every walk of life. What an exciting place it could be to have at the heart of every local community, a well-resourced, vibrant place of education with many pathways to happy, successful and fruitful adult lives.

 

A letter to future you: strength-based leadership and development

letter writing Alma

Picture taken by Penny Rabiger

The tree of hope and a letter to future you

At the start of term, I used to get my new intake of Year 7 students to do two things: I would create a tree of hope on the display board and give every child a cut out leaf. They and I would write messages of hope and wishes for the coming year to ourselves on the leaves. These were sometimes declarations of intentions to work hard, do homework, listen, or to respect others. Whatever they were, they were deliberately intended to be for all to see. These leaves would stay pinned to the tree throughout the year for the class to refer back to and browse whenever seemed appropriate. There was great learning to be had through referring back and reflecting on what was written.

The second thing I would do is to get my students to write a letter to their future selves.  We would spend some time imagining and discussing what we thought the coming year at school would mean, what they would need to achieve, learn, understand, overcome, and conquer. It’s also important to use this time to help students understand their own strengths and the opportunities, support and challenge they should expect during the year to help them make sure their ideas of what might happen to them are grounded in reality.

Each student would then write themselves a private letter, seal it up and hand it over to me for safekeeping. And I would do the same. As part of the ceremonies for the end of the year, we would open the letters and the children would laugh at how innocent and naïve they were, or gasp at how well their wishes for their future selves had been fulfilled or not. I liked this exercise as it created the feeling of a full circle and it challenged the children to connect deeply with themselves as individuals and as learners – trying to imagine what lay ahead of them and how they would respond to new things, react to challenges, overcome difficulty and seize opportunities. I am a firm believer in the idea that learning is as much about process, self-awareness and personal development as it is about the acquisition of knowledge.

Investing in strengths

It’s time for performance reviews at my workplace and I often feel like objective-setting can be a form of letter to one’s future self. It certainly should be done on the same backdrop of self-awareness as well as taking a realistic view of the needs and aims of the organisation where you work and what opportunities for development and growth there are within it.

There is much evidence to show that at school and at work we are all too often encouraged to invest time and effort on the things that we are clearly not skilled at or interested in and not enough time developing and building on areas of strength and interest. Of course we should not be subscribing to the view that we should only occupy our time and effort on things we think we are good at – some things are important to get to grips with, whether you like them and are good at them or not. One example I am really proud of is that I did my maths O Level/GCSE three times and got two U grades before I got the prized C grade. I even got a Saturday job to pay for my own private tutor the third time. I didn’t know it then, but dyscalculia made this hard for me. My determination made me the only member of my family to get maths GCSE and to go on to get a BA and and MA. My strength may not have been in maths but somehow even at that age, I could see that maths GCSE was a ticket to the future that I needed. Coming from a low-income, single-parent family and with a mother who had significant mental health challenges, I really wasn’t going to give up on it!

The Strengths Finder tool

This is why I really like Strengths Finder as a great way to connect people to their own leading strengths and to help them understand how they can build on these at work and in their out-of-work lives too. I have previously been asked to do Myers Briggs and other personality tests at work and felt that these were akin to horoscopes. It was hard to unravel how to share and implement what they described. I also feel that people need to take confident ownership of their own strengths, make these clearly known in the workplace and find opportunities not only to hone their skills but also to use them for the maximum benefit of the organisation where they work.

Strengths Finder measures the presence of 34 themes or strengths. These are people’s naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling, or behaviour that can be productively applied. We often talk about talent when speaking of students and colleagues and it is key to remember that your talents are indeed the building blocks of strengths.  Combining your talents with skills, experience and knowledge is what creates your strengths.  With Strengths Finder, the more dominant a theme is in a person, the greater the theme’s impact on that person’s behaviour and performance. The Strengths Finder test is thorough and the results are presented in such a way that they are easily shared. You are given a short summary, a longer and more in depth overview, and an action plan with suggestions of how you could be using your strengths, how others should make use of them and how to work with people with different strengths. *I have included my short summary at the end of this post to give you a feel for what it looks like. It was very affirming for me to see my strengths described in this way and to see the tangible ways in which I really do have an impact in the workplace through using these strengths. Rather than seeing them as a rather quirky part of my personality, it fell into place for me the power and value my strengths represent to my workplace and to people that know me. This can give incredible confidence and enhance one’s creativity and decision-making abilities when you know you are building on a strength that is tangibly valuable.

We have all recently completed our Strength Finder profiles at work and have started to map them out on a simple matrix of where each person’s strengths lie. We will continue to explore how we should work together around these and it will be an integral part of each new employee’s induction to do the Strength Finder test and share their results. I believe that all organisations should be moving towards strength-based leadership rather than the often humiliating and punitive methods that we can unwittingly subscribe to through performance management.

Strength-based leadership

While I find that a lot of focus in work and education can be on identifying and working on mending weaknesses, in their book of the same name, Strengths Finder writers Tom Rath and Barry Conchie describe what strength-based leadership can look like:

  • The most effective leaders are always investing in strengths. In the workplace, when an organisation’s leadership fails to focus on individuals’ strengths, the odds of an employee being engaged are a dismal 1 in 11 (9%). But when an organisation’s leadership focuses on the strengths of its employees, the odds soar to almost 3 in 4 (73%). When leaders focus on and invest in their employees’ strengths, the odds of each person being engaged goes up eightfold
  • The most effective leaders surround themselves with the right people and then maximize their team. While the best leaders are not well-rounded, the best teams are. Strong, cohesive teams have a representation of strengths in each of these four domains: executing, influencing, relationship building, and strategic thinking
  • The most effective leaders understand their followers’ needs. People follow leaders for very specific reasons. When asked, thousands of followers were able to describe exactly what they need from a leader with remarkable clarity: trust, compassion, stability, and hope

It certainly makes you think doesn’t it? So, tying this back to a letter to the ‘future you’ exercise, at work we have been thinking about giving feedback and about our performance objectives in the light of our strengths. When setting objectives you are in fact trying to future gaze and describe a snapshot in time in the future. But if you are working these around what you already know, and creating a formula of strengths + organisational goals/business need + opportunities to use and develop strengths for the benefit of the organisation, you should be able to pretty accurately describe your objectives and planned outcomes.

Similarly, if you can spend time getting students, colleagues, employees, team members, people you coach or mentor to really focus in on their strengths, understand what the aims and goals are for the coming few months to a year, and to consider how they will build on their strengths to move forward, your letters to the future you will be inspiring when you write them and delightful when you open them a year later.

 

*Strengths Insight Guide: Penny Rabiger

 

Individualization

Shared Theme Description: People who are especially talented in the Individualization theme are intrigued with the unique qualities of each person. They have a gift for figuring out how people who are different can work together productively.

Personalized Strengths Insights: What makes you stand out? By nature, you derive much joy from assisting people in need. Instinctively, you are hardwired to do exactly what you said you would do. Your word is your bond. You are likely to earn the respect of many people. You even win over those who have a hard time trusting anyone. Why? You rarely disappoint them. Because of your strengths, you derive much satisfaction from doing things that benefit people. You typically work as industriously on big projects as you do on everyday chores. Driven by your talents, you are compelled to help people. You yearn to leave the world in better shape for those who will follow you years, decades, and centuries from now. It’s very likely that you help individuals acquire knowledge and gain skills. You are a fine instructor, tutor, and/or trainer.

Relator

Shared Theme Description: People who are especially talented in the Relator theme enjoy close relationships with others. They find deep satisfaction in working hard with friends to achieve a goal.

Personalized Strengths Insights: What makes you stand out? It’s very likely that you are naturally open and honest about who you are, what you have done, what you can do, and what you cannot do. Your straightforward explanations and stories help listeners see you as you see yourself. You reveal your strengths and limitations. You are forthright and plainspoken. People generally seek your company and want to work with you. Many are impelled to move into action by your words and examples. By nature, you have the ability to instruct, train, or offer suggestions to people who look to you for assistance. Driven by your talents, you are determined to share your knowledge and skills with people you coach, mentor, or train. Chances are good that you are comfortable being open and honest about who you are. Often you intentionally avoid people who are less than truthful. You prefer to spend time with individuals who speak as candidly as you do about their strengths, shortcomings, hopes, disappointments, failures, or successes. Because of your strengths, you enjoy the companionship of individuals who tell you what they plan to accomplish in the coming weeks, months, or years. Once you know their goals, you can help them reach their objectives. Few things please you more than this.

Arranger

Shared Theme Description: People who are especially talented in the Arranger theme can organize, but they also have a flexibility that complements this ability. They like to figure out how all of the pieces and resources can be arranged for maximum productivity.

Personalized Strengths Insights: What makes you stand out? Because of your strengths, you naturally choose to work in groups rather than do things by yourself. This preference for partnerships reflects your willingness to welcome into the team many different types of individuals. By nature, you automatically notice what people do well. You pay attention to their individual interests, too. Combining this information, you are likely to understand who should work and should not work together. You probably create partnerships where one person’s talents complement those of another person. You tend to match people to tasks they enjoy. Instinctively, you embrace a wide array of people. You honor their differences with ease. You identify specific things each one does quite well. These insights help you mix and match one person’s talents, skills, and knowledge with those of others in the group. Ultimately, you position individuals in such a way that cooperation becomes the norm rather than the exception. Driven by your talents, you are known as a reliable and dependable person. You are motivated to work diligently. You cannot rest until you have completed what you told someone you would do. Chances are good that you periodically think about what you need to upgrade or do better. What you discover may help you determine the number of things you can handle simultaneously. Perhaps you produce some of your finest results when you have more than one thing to do.

Achiever

Shared Theme Description: People who are especially talented in the Achiever theme have a great deal of stamina and work hard. They take great satisfaction from being busy and productive.

Personalized Strengths Insights: What makes you stand out? Chances are good that you push yourself to meet high standards and reach important goals. Your feelings of success or failure likely hinge on the way others judge your results. Your keen awareness of people’s moods motivates you to work even harder. You want to please them. You want to earn their approval. You often just want to make them happy. Because of your strengths, you critically examine the essential elements of the current condition. You toil tirelessly to identify the basic parts of various plans, problems, opportunities, processes, or ideas. Instinctively, you ordinarily take time and exert extra effort to comprehend what you are reading. You probably refuse to rush through written material. Why? You likely intend to commit to memory as many facts and concepts as possible. It’s very likely that you exhibit the physical and mental endurance needed to continuously toil long after others have stopped working. You are hardwired to pursue goals until they are reached. When obstacles arise, you become even more determined to succeed. By nature, you likely have a reputation for being a hard worker. This explains why you tell individuals they can accomplish a lot more than they think they can. You repeatedly pressure people to excel rather than settle for mediocre results. You probably have a very difficult time associating with people who do only what is expected and who whine when they are challenged to do much more.

Connectedness

Shared Theme Description: People who are especially talented in the Connectedness theme have faith in the links between all things. They believe there are few coincidences and that almost every event has a reason.

Personalized Strengths Insights: What makes you stand out? It’s very likely that you sense you are not all alone in the world. You probably feel linked with every person and living thing. This openness explains why you invite a vast array of people to participate in conversations, activities, social events, or groups. By nature, you occasionally help people realize they are part of the human family. With your guidance, perhaps they understand that their lives are intertwined with people they will never meet. Because of your strengths, you have no doubts about being linked in some way with everything in the universe. This includes all creation and all humankind. Driven by your talents, you routinely isolate facts that link ideas, events, or people. You are especially sensitive to how one person’s optimistic or negative thoughts can affect the entire human family. This prompts you to pay close attention to what individuals and groups think and do. Chances are good that you may underscore what people have in common even though their backgrounds, experiences, languages, cultures, or interests may vary. Sometimes you facilitate dialogue between individuals. Once in a while, you create peace within groups or between people by pointing out links between them.

Great teachers don’t give up on anyone

It’s nearly the end of the academic year and we are all exhausted – teachers, students, their parents, every member of the school staff. I am hoping that this post will give some sustenance to remind us why we do what we do.

Teaching is a vocation for which you must be well-trained and highly skilled. There are those that believe that it is also a calling. I certainly haven’t met a teacher who has stayed in the profession more than a couple of years who doesn’t feel a strong sense of moral purpose driving them.  I would go so far as to say that teaching can take you to a higher spiritual place of intense self-discovery and incredible connection with your students and your colleagues.

It can be increasingly difficult at times to connect to this moral purpose when the education system, indeed society as we know it, seems to be in immense pain. Writer and long-time teacher Parker Palmer writes in his 1983 book To Know as We Are Known: A Spirituality of Education:

“I call the pain that permeates education ‘the pain of disconnection.’ … Most [educators] go into teaching not for fame or fortune but because of a passion to connect. We feel deep kinship with some subject; we want to bring students into that relationship, to link them with the knowledge that is so life-giving to us; we want to work in community with colleagues who share our values and our vocation. But when institutional conditions create more combat than community, when the life of the mind alienates more than it connects, the heart goes out of things, and there is little left to sustain us.”

Palmer’s solution is to turn to spirituality. His interpretation of spirituality however is different from religion or the ‘spirituality of ends’ or those that have been apparently hijacked for obstructing rather than encouraging enquiry.  He says:

“A spirituality of ends wants to dictate the desirable outcomes of education in the life of the student. It uses the spiritual tradition as a template against which the ideas, beliefs, and behaviours of the student are to be measured. The goal is to shape the student to the template by the time his or her formal education concludes.

But that sort of education never gets started; it is no education at all. Authentic spirituality wants to open us to truth — whatever truth may be, wherever truth may take us. Such a spirituality does not dictate where we must go, but trusts that any path walked with integrity will take us to a place of knowledge. Such a spirituality encourages us to welcome diversity and conflict, to tolerate ambiguity, and to embrace paradox. By this understanding, the spirituality of education is not about dictating ends. It is about examining and clarifying the inner sources of teaching and learning, ridding us of the toxins that poison our hearts and minds… An authentic spirituality of education will address the fear that so often permeates and destroys teaching and learning. It will understand that fear, not ignorance, is the enemy of learning, and that fear is what gives ignorance its power.”

As a teacher, it was important to me to try to connect, deeply and openly, with each of my students. I wanted to use my subject to awaken them spiritually, help them meet with their own struggles and triumphs not only through the subject but also through the very communal and simultaneously deeply personal business of learning. I wanted them to find the words to create an open dialogue about themselves as learners and to grow. I wanted this for myself too and felt that I was really living a deep spirituality through being a teacher. It was a magical time. It wasn’t easy but it was extremely rewarding and I still believe that it was the right attitude to have towards my teaching – aside from the fact that I couldn’t have done it any other way.

Ann Lammot in her book Stitches, a Handbook of Meaning Hope and Repair sums it up well when she says:

“To me, teaching is a holy calling, especially with students less likely to succeed. It’s the gift not only of not giving up on people, but of even figuring out where to begin.

You start wherever you can. You see a great need, so you thread a needle, you tie a knot in your thread. You find one place in the cloth through which to take one stitch, one simple stitch, nothing fancy, just one that’s strong and true. The knot will anchor your thread. Once that’s done, you take one more stitch — teach someone the alphabet, say, no matter how long that takes, and then how to read Dr. Seuss, and Charlotte’s Web, and A Wrinkle in Time, and then, while you’re at it, how to get a GED. Empathy is meaning.”

Giving up on people isn’t just about those that are less likely to succeed. I wanted to challenge myself to give as much attention, opportunity for growth and stretch to students that were successful academically as those that were struggling or indeed those pottering along in the middle. The quiet, well-behaved and high achieving students are often those we unwittingly give up on because they don’t seem to need much from us. At parents’ evenings, I would make sure I had identified and communicated a growth pointer for each and every student of mine that was possibly new to them or extending the boundaries of the usual academic commentary. I wanted them to find their bliss and connect to it wholeheartedly. I wanted them to know that their being seen as a success wasn’t dependent solely on their academic success. That’s a message usually reserved for the students that struggle but it is an equally important one for those that excel.

The very ‘Marmite’ educationalist Sir Ken Robinson speaks sense in my opinion of this ethos which is at the heart of his writing The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything . I think this is especially important when we are working with teenagers. It is such a time of confusion around identity and self-belief that connecting to your bliss and holding onto it can be a rudder in the choppy seas of teen-dom and adolescence. And we can model this and embody it through retaining a deep connection to our calling as teachers.

We need to be careful with this though and not confuse finding your strength and passion with simply making them the criteria for success. Among Robinson’s many observations is also one about our socially distorted metrics of achievement, in line with Alain de Botton’s words of caution about ‘success‘:

“It’s not enough to be good at something to be in your element…We’re being brought up with this idea that life is linear. This is an idea that’s perpetuated when you come to write your CV — that you set out your life in a series of dates and achievements, in a linear way, as if your whole existence has progressed in an ordered, structured way, to bring you to this current interview.”

He also says:

“One of the interesting things about success is that we think we know what it means. A lot of the time our ideas about what it would mean to live successfully are not our own. They’re sucked in from other people. And we also suck in messages from everything from the television to advertising to marketing, etcetera. These are hugely powerful forces that define what we want and how we view ourselves. What I want to argue for is not that we should give up on our ideas of success, but that we should make sure that they are our own. We should focus in on our ideas and make sure that we own them, that we’re truly the authors of our own ambitions. Because it’s bad enough not getting what you want, but it’s even worse to have an idea of what it is you want and find out at the end of the journey that it isn’t, in fact, what you wanted all along.”

This calling, this spiritual connection to our vocation as teachers is reflected in  the Reverend Victoria Safford’s beautiful essay titled “The Small Work in the Great Work” from The Impossible Will Take a Little While: Perseverance and Hope in Troubled Times. This is a stunning collection of reflections by wise sages such as Pablo Neruda, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker and Nelson Mandela. It is named after Billie Holiday’s famous song lyric, “The difficult I’ll do right now. The impossible will take a little while.”

Safford says:

“We stand where we will stand, on little plots of ground, where we are maybe “called” to stand (though who knows what that means?) — in our congregations, classrooms, offices, factories, in fields of lettuces and apricots, in hospitals, in prisons (on both sides, at various times, of the gates), in streets, in community groups. And it is sacred ground if we would honour it, if we would bring to it a blessing of sacrifice and risk…

Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of Hope — not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower; nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense; nor the strident gates of Self-Righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges (people cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through); nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of “Everything is gonna be all right.” But a different, sometimes lonely place, the place of truth-telling, about your own soul first of all and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle. And we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we are seeing, asking people what they see.”

This I believe is our calling, and it is our duty to continue right until the end of the academic year and into the next and so on for as long as we have decided that we will not give up on anyone.

I am indebted to the incredible research, writing and newsletters of Maria Popova and her Brain Pickings for this post. If you would like to subscribe to these please visit the Brain Pickings website HERE