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.



How do you measure eternity?

Why are teachers so frantic? One reason is that they went into teaching for one thing, and discovered it was something else. Edward Burton got me thinking about this in his comment on a previous post about the measurement community, which you should really go and read.

Meanwhile, a Henry Adams quote, though usually taken out of context, comes to mind:

“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where their influence stops.”

Henry Adams 1938-1918.

Whether you take that positively, or negatively (as it was first written), it is the fact that measuring eternity is a very hard thing to do.

And surely here’s the problem.

Teachers go into teaching expecting to positively affect children’s lives. They want to teach them so that they can have better futures. But when they get into teaching they find that they are measured half termly on arbitrary progress numbers that have more to do with performance than learning. They find they are given a raft of non-negotiables that they have to comply with. As Edward Burton points out:

Things which are easy to see are easier to measure.

And so managers measure the easy stuff and forget that the true measure of a child’s education is what that child is doing in twenty years time, or the kind of person they are forty years from now, or their impact on eternity.

And you can’t measure that stuff.

It’s no wonder that we’re frantic. Desperately trying to meet goals that we don’t believe in. Desperately trying to prove that we’re doing a good job. Distraught at our lack of perfection. Frantic.


Goals, Roles, Processes, Relationships.

  1. Goals
  2. Roles
  3. Processes
  4. Relationships

In that order. Don’t forget the sequence.

It’s basic leadership theory. You can learn about it easily by doing the NPQH or pretty much any other leadership course. But putting that theory into practise is a little harder.

When something goes wrong in schools it’s normally because somebody didn’t follow that order.

Maybe they put relationships as their top priority and forgot that the school is there for something – it should have a goal.

Or maybe they defined the goal brilliantly but then didn’t define roles too well, so that the conscientious teachers went above and beyond their duty and ended up burning out and growing bitter.

I think the problem I’ve seen and experienced first hand recently is that we have become a ‘process-led education system’. In my previous post I asserted that too many non-negotiables take away any sense of control a teacher has. They then lose hope. Non-negotiables are an example of a process-led system. Setting non-negotiables says: this is how we do things. Now do them. Setting them without a goal and without defining roles is a symptom of a ‘frantic’ leadership team. They have become too busy to explain their actions or to think carefully about who is best suited to carry out them. And relationships: well, forget those.

If we are to get back to a collective emotional state that is calm and purposeful, without being frantic (my first post on this subject), then leadership teams are going to have to be brave and set their goals first, then define their roles for achieving the goals, then the processes by which the different roles can be fulfilled and finally work on the relationships so that everyone can get on and work positively with each other.

Easy really.

TEAM: Together Everybody Achieves Mediocrity

‘There’s no I in TEAM’.

‘Together Everybody Achieves More’

These are phrases that are thrown about to justify why we need good teams in schools. However these are phrases that initially came from building effective teams in the business environment. And as I suggested in my previous post, not everything is the same between schools and business.

The essential difference is that most teachers spend most of their time working with their students, assessing (by themselves) and planning, which is often done alone, although sometimes with others. Teachers spend very little of their working day with their colleagues, which is something I suspect is different from most other work environments.

In short, while there is no I in TEAM, there is an I in TEACHING.

But to develop the picture, I think that many school leaders make the mistake of trying to over-conform their teachers to a single model of what a good teacher looks like. They set too many ‘non-negotiables’ some of which are important and some of which aren’t, but the net result is that many teachers are denied from working to their strengths because they spend so much time trying to fit the picture set out by their leaders. It’s like the Pareto Principle in reverse – trying to work so hard on the 20% that will make them into the ideal teacher, but then losing the focus on the 80% which they are actually good at.

Schools are strong when teachers are individuals. Of course, there needs to be a bottom line. But when we’ve all agreed that we need to raise standards for our students in a safe and healthy way, do we really need to mark in pink, write a post for the class webpage or ask at least 3 open-ended questions in our plenaries (those of us who do plenaries)?

And it’s true that there are educational systems where teamwork is highly valued and effective. Take Shanghai, where the maths teachers teach 3 forty minute lessons a day and have time to plan with their colleagues every day, and meet with other schools on a regular basis. There teamwork is built into the timetable. The resources are already there in the system.

In our system teachers have far more contact time with students, so there is far less time to ‘be team’. That’s why we need independent, unique and sometimes quirky individuals to be teachers. And there’s a strength in that, so long as we remember not to dumb down our teachers to the mediocre by enforcing a range of meaningless non-negotiables.

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