Experienced people need to keep a beginner’s mind

Highly experienced people can do with remembering what it’s like to start out.  Keeping a beginner’s mind can help with humility, joy and fresh perspectives. (3 min read) 

I’ve just finished helping my 6 year old son, G, with his homework. I won’t lie, initially I used to get my partner to do his maths homework with him. I’d sit with him while he did his English or reading work instead. I taught maths at work and I didn’t want to come and do it more at home (also why I’ve never tutored). Additionally, I didn’t want to be a pushy teacher parent and put him off it for life.  However, since he started Year 2 last September I’ve been getting more involved.

Today’s was about different ways that he could fold a rectangular piece of  paper and make it into a halves.  We had fun experimenting and trying new things. Eventually G wanted to do “halves of halves.” Then he wanted to try some triangles. Eventually he proposed something that I knew, with the benefit of experience, wasn’t going to work. I was about to mention it, but then I thought ” well why not just let him try and see what happens?”

G was trying to fold his rectangular paper to make a square and then half that to make triangles. Because of the dimensions and how he folded it I knew it wasn’t going to work but I kept it to myself while he tried it.  At first he was disappointed. Then we explored what had happened.

The result reminded me how wonderful it is to discover a new thing for the first time. G had folded his paper in half 4 successive times when he opened it out to count he was so excited to find that he’d made sixteenths. He’d never made them before. He was so excited that he ran to tell my partner, then he and grabbed each of his 3 year old sisters and told them that he was about to show them “some magic” and got them to to the same with their own bits of paper.

He then spent a further 10 minutes of folding into more halves and discovering 1/32 and 1/64 without any real input from the adults in his life.

Why am I sharing this? For experienced people we can easily take things for granted or become jaded. I’ve  known about fractions for a long time. I have an engineering degree and have taught up to A level and taught other teachers how to teach maths. It would be easy to dismiss this homework and G’s discovery as a trivial thing.  This morning I remembered there is something special about the allowing somebody the space to learn and discover something new for the first time. There is also something special about seeing a familiar task or outcome through beginner’s eyes.

Equally, I’ve spent almost a a decade managing and leading people. For the first time in ages I’ve now chosen not to. It’s good to see things from the other side and remember what it’s like starting out. It’d recommend it to everybody. Especially those in charge of others. Be like Paul Fisher “The Undercover boss” and go back to the floor. Even if it’s only for a short period. Beginner’s mind is essential even for the highly experienced. It keeps you grounded, gives new insights and can be an easy source of joy.

No advantages?

I attended a conference event recently which had the most diverse range of speakers of any event that I can remember attending.  What made it especially interesting was that it was aimed at a mainstream audience and was not specifically marketed for a particular minority or gender. It was also located outside of the obvious cities like London, Birmingham, Manchester etc where you’d naturally expect (but not always get) a diverse lineup. I noticed the gender, age and racial mix of the speakers whilst I was there as it was so unusual but it was only after I got home that I realised that it was the first event/conference that I’d ever been to where there was a speaker who was obviously disabled.

This after living in London for the first 25 years of my life, after attending a variety of educational conferences for the past 11 years of my working life and attending events that were keen to promote diversity in other ways.

It certainly gave me pause for thought. Sometimes our advantages in life are so ingrained and part of the status quo that we don’t even know what advantages we have.

Random things I’ve learnt recently about school leadership

I’ve had the opportunity to spend time in schools over than my own over the past few weeks and have been treated generously by Heads and other SLT members who have given me part of their time. I’m still reflecting on specifics that relate to the particular context of my school and responsibilities but below are some general things that I have picked up and may be of use to others.

When applying for an SLT position, choose your head teacher . It’s easy to fixate on getting a particular role or the promotion but its better to choose a head teacher whose ethos you respect and who you think you can work with. You’ll be working closely with this person for sereveral years and need to be able to reflect their views and vision in the wider school. This relationship with the head is less important in other roles but more important the more senior you are in the school.

Nobody truly knows what they are doing in their first leadership position, especially in the early days and months. The more I talk to people I respect in senior positions the more I realise this is true, via their own admission. They just give the impression of knowing and ask a lot of people so that they can learn really quickly.

What is needed to get a school to become good is different to what is needed to make it become outstanding or even great and different schools are on different positions on that journey.

Sometimes you can be a good candidate but not right for a particular position. Head teachers need to consider the whole picture, how do you fit in with the leadership team? Is your thinking in line with where the school is right now? You are just one piece of a larger jigsaw that they have in their mind.

Build and maintain networks from early in your career. They are invaluable sources of advice, resources and information.

Effective heads spot and nurture talent. It’s not always about money or creating substantive roles. It could be CPD opportunities, secondments or fixed term contracts focussed on particular whole school projects related to the School Improvement plan. These not only develop staff and distribute leadership but they also create extra capacity, which is essential.

Great heads have a clear ethos which permeates every pore of the school and can be summed up or embodied by anybody in any position in their organisation.

Placing the classroom back at the centre of the (leadership) universe

This blog post could be considered a response or maybe even a companion piece to one written by Christopher Waugh (@edutronic_net), a teacher  and thought-provoking educational blogger.  Chris’s article was about the need to evaluate and constantly improve what happens in the classroom in order to improve outcomes for students.

The bit that stood out for me as a school leader was

Let’s face reality. As teachers, we are at the front-line. We work for our students. We are paid by the taxpayer. Everyone else in the chain; the support staff, the SMT, the Headmaster, ofsted, ofqual, the examining board, the Department for Education and the politicians work for us, to support US to do a better job in ensuring the best possible outcomes for our students. If any of these agents are getting in the way of this, we must work to mitigate their impact. This is our responsibility and our gift. Impertinent as it may seem, my internal monologue when engaging with those support agencies is “Your work is designed to support mine – how effective are you at this?

I whole heatedly agree with what Chris says and want to rephrase it from the point of view of a school leader…

As school leaders, we are paid by the tax payer to ensure excellent outcomes for people’s children. However we can not do this alone. We have to inspire, enable and coordinate many people in a chain including  support staff, teaching staff, parents and outside agencies to work to together in order to achieve the best for every student in our school.  It is our duty, our responsibility, our privilege. Everybody in the chain is important but the class teacher is our foot soldier, our infantry- nothing great can happen if we do not give them space and support them. My internal monologue as a school leader needs to be

 “My work is designed to support and enable yours- how can I enable you and provide the structures to allow you to be as effective as can be?”

Many school leaders, including myself at times, get caught in the monitoring and accountability cycle.  These things have their place. it is important to be aware of where your team, department, school, authority, country is but only so that you can build on that and become better.  Accountability should never be an end in itself, nor should it get in the way of the main thing- creating conditions for long term excellent learning.

Teacher quality is the number one driver for improvement in schools. It is followed by the quality of leadership.  As leaders we need to remember that we are there to allow teachers to do their job well and to provide the resources and tools for them to do it better.

If we are not sure what this involves- as a start we could try asking our staff.  If they don’t know then we could look at everything that we do and consider “How does this impact on teaching and learning? How will this help my staff to become better educators?”

I am new to senior leadership and still run a department but I intend to look at everything through this prism.  The most obvious thing for me was meetings.  I came out of many meetings  that I chaired feeling disappointed and depleted and unable to say how the past 30 min- 1 hour would have any impact on students, so I changed them.

I decided that every meeting with my department  would have a teaching and learning focus, decided by them. I used my informal learning walks to identify strengths of every teacher and then approached individuals privately to lead a session regarding that strength on a weekly basis.  This had a dual effect of sharing good practice whilst letting staff know that I valued them. At the end of last term our final meeting was a reflection and “Thank you” session that I amended from an idea that Tom Sherrington (@headteacherguru) had tweeted.

Reflection meeting

Meetings had gone from a dreary, pointless habit done in the same way that had always been done to a dynamic exchange of ideas which directly impacted on teacher’s work in their classrooms. We will be changing the format again this term to suit our changing needs.

The positive feedback from staff ( 9 teachers generated 30 diff post-it notes in about 7 mins) suggested that I had done my job and I will continue to find ways to ensure those I am responsible for and equipped to do theirs in increasingly better ways.