The Servant of the Nothing

The Nothing from the Neverending Story
The Nothing, actually looking a bit like a something

On Tuesday, I quoted Gmork, the evil servant of the Nothing from the Neverending story.

Of course, when the film-makers tried to depict author Michael Ende’s ‘Nothing’ they had to choose ‘something’ to show it. So they chose stormy clouds. It looked quite effective. In 1984.

In Michael Ende’s original story, the Nothing was more sinister than storm clouds. It was an emptiness that signified the death of ideas and dreams. It was madness to look at it. It was a hole in the soul, best described by one of Michael Ende’s fantasy creatures, a bark troll:

“You don’t feel a thing. There’s just something missing. And once it gets hold of you, something more is missing every day. Soon there won’t be anything left of us.”

And here’s the thing: I was once a servant of the Nothing. I think I might have done school leadership well at one point. But then someone pointed out that my action plans needed more measurable targets. And so I chose the easy things to measure – the half termly progress numbers that are actually meaningless. Then I heard that someone else was using non-negotiables in the school, and instead of saying “well that’s a doomed approach,” I decided I could set even more non-negotiables.

My actions plans were SMART. There was no room for original thought. My teachers could all look forward to being compliant. I had contributed to the death of ideas and dreams, replacing them with, well, nothing much.

As a person that depends on creativity for my own motivation, I had actually caused more more damage to myself than anyone else, but for all those teachers who remember the staff meetings with me standing up and sharing another new document, probably packed full of non-negotiables – I’m sorry.

I’m sure I’m not the only one. I’m sure there are leadership teams out there who’ve replaced inspiration for measurement, contributing to taking dreams away rather than building them up.

The Empress of Fantasia has the last grain of sand in her hand and is about to hand it over to Bastien.
The Empress hands over the last grain of Fantasia

But there’s still time to come back. After all, Fantasia was rebuilt with only a grain of sand and some imagination. We can surely do the same with the UK education system and bring it back from the Nothing.

 

 

The Curse of the Non-Negotiable

Gmork and his infinite wisdom
“Because people have begun to lose their hopes and forget their dreams. So the Nothing grows stronger.”

Aside from the lyrical tones of Limahl singing the title track of the 1984 film ‘the Neverending Story‘, one of the memorable parts of the film is the villain: Gmork. This evil wolf fiend is allied to the mysterious ‘Nothing’ that is sweeping the land and threatening to destroy all of idyllic Fantasia.

Watching it recently, I was struck by something Gmork says as he reveals his evil intentions (as all decent villains do) towards the end of the movie.

Because people who have no hopes are easy to control; and whoever has the control… has the power!

 – Gmork, The NeverEnding Story, 1984

Non-negotiables are the Gmork of the education world.

They start off with all the best intentions…

Let’s have a whole school policy for homework. We’ll include some non-negotiables that everyone ‘must’ do. That way we’ll have a bottom line for the minimum amount of work each teacher will have to mark.

Hang on.

We need some non-negotiables for how we introduce lessons, otherwise children will be confused by different teachers.

We definitely need one for marking. Let’s all mark in green. We must write two positive comments and one improvement comment.

What about how we communicate with parents? Teachers must definitely update their class’ webpage every week.

And so it goes on.

There are many problems with this approach, not least the effort needed to monitor and manage all the non-negotiables that have been assigned to staff. But I think the biggest problem is that they dehumanise teachers. They reduces educators to a set of parameters and commands defined by senior management, when each teacher can bring so much more to their classroom.

Of course the corollary to Gmork’s assertion is that when you lose control, you lose hope. And surely a hope for the future is one of the main reasons to work in education.

Non-negotiables are one of the causes behind education becoming ‘frantic‘ – the theme for my current run of blog posts. Of course there’s a reason for school leadership teams to overdo their non-negotiables. But that’s another story, to be told another time.