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.

People don’t think the same

Proverbs 18v6
Proverbs 18v6 (The Message)

One of the lessons I learned in ending my previous job was that people don’t think the same as each other.

It sounds obvious, doesn’t it? People are different, so clearly they think differently from each other. But I had made a presumption that we were all at least on the same bus as each other. But I was wrong. We’re not.

In my last post I mentioned I had read Henry Cloud’s book ‘Necessary Endings‘ and how helpful that had been. As I read through Chapter 7, entitled ‘The Wise, the Foolish and the Evil: Identifying which kinds of People Deserve Your Trust’, I realised I had made a couple of catastrophic errors in how I related to various people who were working with me to improve the school. Firstly I presumed that others thought the same as me and secondly I presumed that all the advice I received would be wise.

Henry Cloud says this:

“The truth is that not everyone on planet Earth is like you. Not all take responsibility for themselves or care about how their actions are affecting other people or the mission. Moreover, some are even worse than that. Some people are actually out to do you harm.”

Necessary Endings, p120

Reading this chapter was vital to me because it made me realise where I had gone wrong in my communication with other people. Cloud is clear that one of the main differences between wise people and foolish people is how they receive feedback – wise people listen and respond, whereas foolish people shift the blame and make it your fault. I was in the position of seeking feedback in how to do a couple of parts of my job that I hadn’t done before. But when advice and feedback was not forthcoming I began to lose hope. When I was told I had to improve without advice or feedback entirely in my own strength the hope drain continued. By admitting my errors and failures in the journey of the school from ‘good’ to ‘requires improvement’, I had expected to be advised on how to put things right. Instead my failure became part of the narrative of the school. Now I was hopeless.

Up to this point I had mainly focused on how well I was performing at the various functions involved in my role as Deputy headteacher. Now I was confronted with the fact that my communication to others had contributed to a narrative in which my position was increasingly untenable.

Cloud’s solution about dealing with foolish people is to stop talking. “Talking about a problem with a fool does not help it all.” Cloud writes. At the end of the chapter, he talks about getting to a ‘good hopelessness’. I mentioned earlier that I had been beginning to lose hope. Now as I read ‘Necessary Endings’ I realised that actually that hopelessness was a good place – I was hopeless for my role at that school, and that meant I could venture into the unknown of finding an exciting role somewhere else.

And that’s what I did.

There once was a dream that was Birmingham

There once was a dream that was Birmingham.

It was a city where children from different communities would be welcomed. A place where different cultures, languages and faiths would be celebrated. It was a place where people of every different colour and creed would rub along in friendship.

In Birmingham schools, all children would achieve, no matter what their social background or their ability. Schools would work together in a learning gestalt, where in collaboration the sum of the whole would be greater than the sum of the parts. Tolerance would meet opportunity; diversity would meet purpose; together Birmingham would be great.

But then great people left: important leaders who had held the vision. Following this, private companies became involved with public services and decisions became based on bonuses, not benefits. Rather than addressing the ignorance of each other to benefit Birmingham, ignorance was abused to win bonuses. New leaders put reputation ahead of risk. Opportunity was stunted by blame; purpose was replaced with excuse; diversity was withered by predatory capitalism.

The dream still exists. But it is close to becoming a nightmare. So Brummies: rise up. Express hope where there was none; stand up when you feel cowed.

Together we can make this city great again.

The elephant in the purpos/ed room

Elephant in the Room
The elephant in the room

Having signed up early to the 2012 #500Words campaign for Purpos/ed, I was very kindly sent a book with all of the posts from the 2011 campaign. Thank you Andy and Doug. So naturally I did with the book what I am reluctant to do with my various devices I normally read blogs on – I read it in the bath.

I noticed something that interested me – there’s an elephant in the Purpos/ed room – our beliefs.

While many wrote eloquently and persuasively concerning what they thought the purpose of education really is, very few touched on issues of faith. There are a few oblique references, a mention of a stained glass window, a Bible verse quoted and even one contributor who almost seems to apologise for moving on to spiritual matters.

Yet only one blogger, Nick Dennis, actually hammers his colours to the mast called belief when he announces that he is writing from a standpoint that is “unashamedly liberal and deeply humanistic.” He explains in his post that we need to be clear on our principles if we are to better answer the question ‘what is the purpose of education?’

This got my me thinking about my own post – The Purpose of Education is Hope. I realised that I have some core principles, or beliefs, if you can call them that, that lie behind my post that I should expound upon. My view that all people need hope in some form comes from a Christian perspective. I could go on. I could explain how the joint experience of Jesus’ teachings and Jesus Himself have led me to this belief, but I won’t – that’s another post for another time.

What shocked me was that I felt somehow ashamed to blog such a thing – how could I admit it to my peers? What if some amazing atheist philosopher was waiting around the corner to shoot my beliefs down in flames? And I felt envious of Nick Dennis, who could so boldly write ‘unashamedly’ in his post. And it made me wonder how many other people had done the same thing.

I often hear comments that we are trying to do 21st Century Education on a 19th Century model. And yet the purpose of the National Education League as the driving voice between UK 1870 Elementary Education Act was to create an education system that prepared students for the work place, wresting it from the Church who had become to dominate education the UK education system. Is that much different from the pressures we have on today’s education system? And for that reason, it is even more important that we analyse the principles behind we why educate, both individually and corporately.

And so I would encourage future Purpos/ed contributors to follow Nick Dennis’ advice. Do be clear on your principles. Tell us about your beliefs. Let’s not be ashamed about things we hold dear. It will only make the elephant bigger.

Image courtesy of Madison Guy on Flickr – “You’ve heard of the Elephant in the Room

Hopes, Dreams, Aspirations, Ambitions, Fantasies, Nightmares and Regret

Hope is a funny thing.

I was chatting to a colleague a few months ago about my #purposedu post of 1st May, where I pronounced that the purpose of education is Hope. While I see my role as bringing hope to children, he saw hope as a more negative thing. For him, hopes were things he once had, that he could now no longer achieve. Hopes for a different kind of family, hopes for a different kind of career. Hopes that were now unattainable. Hopes that were now regrets.

I’ve been listening to people since then and have noticed that whenever people mention a ‘hope’ word, they mention it in pairs. Each hope word has a partner to help explain it together.

I think people say words in pairs when they don’t really understand what they mean. For example you hear people say: “teaching and learning”; “monitoring and assessment”; “morals and ethics”… It is when you’re not completely sure of a word’s definition that you have to pair it with another word.

Hope words are the same.

Think about this – how different is it to say “dreams and aspirations” from “dreams and nightmares”, and indeed “dreams and fantasies.” Each one has entirely different connotations.

A hope is something that you wish would happen, a fantasy is likewise, but has more negative connotations and for most people achieving your ‘fantasies’ is contrary to achieving success. An aspiration is something you would like to become, but so is an ambition – but the former has more positive connotations about achieving within an ethical framework, whereas ambition speaks of drivenness.

Regrets too can drive you onto succeed – that is certainly true for my colleague I mentioned above. While he has seen his ‘hopes dashed’, he has used his regrets to drive him on to become a quite marvellous headteacher.

Hope for me is important. Bringing hopes into families where there is none, is important to me. But I recognise that the words around the subject can both be used synonymously and can have radically different meanings to different people. Funny really.

The Purpose of Education is Hope

Contributing to this year’s Purpos/ed 500 word campaign.

Education is how a society maintains and improves itself. Yet, while education is a relatively straightforward process, that very definition causes problems for discussing its purpose. Depending on whether you have a traditionalist or a progressive perspective, you will either place more emphasis on educating for the maintenance of past standards or educating for a brighter future. Add that to the various cultures, sub-cultures and expectations that exist within a modern multi-cultural society and there exists a vast complexity of purposes for education.

That’s my cap-doffing to the broader debate.

In my own setting there are roughly three groups that we educate, each with their own perceptions on what education is for:

  1. Education for success – these families believe that the school system will give their children opportunities. Despite limited success at higher education themselves, they want that for their children.
  2. Education for happiness – these families just want their children to be happy. Often with negative experiences of their own time at school, they want their children to feel safe and content within school. Success is often linked with celebrity and being able to get the latest DVD before it is out at the cinema.
  3. Education for hardship – these families want their children to be able to survive. They tell their children “if someone hits you, hit back harder”. They often see school as that annoying place that phones the social worker too often. Sometimes there is illiteracy in the family.

While each of these groups have radically different expectations of society, and therefore the purpose of education, they do have one thing in common – they all need hope.

I am aware that for some, the word ‘hope’ has negative connotations. They think of ‘hopes dashed’ and this leads them to regret. However this is not ‘hope’ as in the aspirations you may have had, but the Hope that things can be better, or at least as good as they once were.

So how does this translate into teaching? The obvious answer is to start a new core subject of the National Curriculum and start running ‘Hope classes’. I’m joking.

Group 1 –  they need so much knowledge at the end of primary school that they can fly into secondary school and perhaps become the first in their families to go to university. Good teaching helps these children love their learning.

Group 2 – good teaching again leads to happiness. The families are surprised at how their child can be both happy and doing well in reading, writing and mathematics. They start to believe that maybe their child can learn enough at primary not just to ‘get through’ secondary school, but to do well there.

Group 3 – good teaching brings success for the child. The family is (in the main) proud of this success and begins to gain a faith in a previously-despised school system.

In each of these groups good teaching produces hope. Hope that things can be better than they were.

So, when I’m stuck I remember: bring Hope – teach well.