They’re annoying, disruptive and always seem a little bit unnecessary.
Until there’s a fire.
And then everyone is suddenly very grateful that the system works as it should. Would it have worked without the tests? Probably.
There are many situations when ‘probably’ is fine. Should I take a coat – it looks like it might rain? Probably. Is it worth getting an extra loaf of bread – in case we run out? Probably. Do you think it’s time to get some sleep? Probably.
And there are times when ‘probably’ isn’t good enough.
He’s unconscious – do you think we should call an ambulance? Probably. Yes. The road is icy, do you think I should slow down a bit? Probably. Yes. My friend / student / colleague / sister seemed to be struggling a bit today – should I check that they are okay? Probably. Yes.
Sometimes, it can seem annoying, disruptive and unnecessary to check in with people around us who appear to be struggling? And surely they’ll be okay without us checking in won’t they? Probably.
Is probably good enough? Probably Definitely not.
Last summer, my friend and I built a wooden play house for my kids. Somewhat surprisingly, seven months later, it’s still standing and getting lots of use.
I noticed today that a couple of the nails fixing the weatherboards (clapboards) to the frame are bent over 90 degrees near the head – they weren’t hammered in straight. They look a little bit shabby compared to the other nails and I was tempted to pull them out and replace them with straight nails.
But I checked, and they’re holding firm. In fact, they’re just as effective as the straight nails. They’re not perfect, but they’re doing their job perfectly well.
When we hold ourselves to high standards in our work or home life, sometimes it can be difficult to remain focussed on the bigger picture – on what really matters. Our lives can easily become full of little tasks and errands and seemingly-important repairs while the most important things become neglected. We can end up fixing nails that don’t need fixing, and miss out on playing a game with our kids.
It certainly feels good to hit the nail on the head doesn’t it! Bang. Straight in. We can stand back and admire the beauty and bask in the sense of achievement. But sometimes, it’s enough to hit the nail near the head. Whoops. A little bit wonky. But fine. Effective. Enough. Go play.
How many people will you engage with today or tomorrow? 5, 10, 100, more? How many of them are close friends or family members, and how many of them are merely acquaintances?
One study conducted at the University of British Columbia in Canada, found that adults over 25 years of age directly interacted with an average of 6.7 close ties and 11.4 acquaintances daily.
Interestingly, not only did the number of interactions with close ties predict wellbeing and belongingness, but even the number of interactions with weaker ties predicted a person’s sense of belonging
The simple act of engaging meaningfully with another human helps us feel connected to our larger community.
So, imagine this.
What would happen if you and each person in your community was just a little bit kinder tomorrow? What would happen if everyone just conducted one additional, simple act of kindness with each of the 18.1 people they interact with tomorrow? What if you just complimented them on the cool shoes they’re wearing or picked up a dropped pen or asked about their recent vacation?
This is what would happen…
In a school or organisation with 100 colleagues, there would be nearly 2,000 additional acts of kindness tomorrow. And if that was maintained over the week – just one simple act of kindness per interaction – we’d have 10,000 additional acts of kindness. And in a school year, we’d have close to half a million extra acts of kindness. Imagine what that could do for the wellbeing of a community…at zero cost.
And here’s the thing. Kindness is highly contagious. When you smile at a friend, colleague or acquaintance tomorrow, when you choose kindness, you might just make their day. Or you might trigger an unstoppable cascade of kindness. Who knows?!
The celebrated management consultant, Peter Drucker, once described by BusinessWeek magazine as “the man who invented management”, rightly had a lot to say about growth and development.
But one of his clearest and most poignant messages was this: ‘Don’t confuse motion with progress’.
Schools are busy places. And in amongst all the organisational and relational ‘noise’, and sometimes-vague performance criteria, even the most experienced educators are at risk of conflating efficiency with effectiveness; motion with progress.
This is why clearly agreed goals and professional accountability are so pivotal. By marking a bearing and checking in regularly we have the best chance of moving forward systematically.
The lazy, wishful alternative is to cross our fingers, set off and hope that things work out. And it might. Or we might spin our wheels, go around in circles, or worse, go backwards.
There will, of course, be occasional detours and bumps in the road to navigate. But as educators, with such precious cargo on board, progress isn’t just the preferred option. It’s the only option.
Sasha and Jamie are both 15 years old and are in the same class at the same school. They are both aspiring to make a positive difference in their world.
Sasha has never missed a deadline for an assignment. He is the often the first kid to raise his hand to answer a question. He is a straight ‘A’ student. He is highly intelligent and equally compliant – sitting quietly in the front of the class, keeping to himself, and doing exactly what he is asked to do.
Jamie is less obedient and less intelligent. But Jamie is more: incisive, inclusive, innovative, inquisitive, independent, intuitive, and inquiring.
Sasha will go on to win the school’s highest honour – ‘The Academic Prize’ – and maybe that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong intelligence is there?
But I’m more interested to see the impact Jamie will have. Intelligence is nice, but other intangibles are not always inferior.
Looking back, most things from the 80s seem pretty suboptimal by today’s standards. VHS video was terrible quality. People were smoking on airplanes and in teacher lounges. And mullets, perms, and animal print parachute pants…say no more.
It’s impossible to imagine how 2019 will look in 2049. But today’s status quo is guaranteed to look old, suboptimal and kind of ridiculous. What we are doing now, the way we are living our lives, the way we are delivering education is, possibly, the best we can do at the moment.
But it’s not ideal. There are better ways. The people of tomorrow will live this enhanced experience.
And if we genuinely open ourselves up to possibilities, there’s a chance for us to not only glimpse the future, but to help create it.
There’s a great idiom in French that says: “Les carottes sont cuites!” – The carrots are cooked! – There is nothing that can be done to change the situation.
There are times when this is true. And there are times when it just feels true.
Sometimes, the carrots are in the water but haven’t actually started to cook. Sometimes, the carrots are half-cooked but still crunchy. And sometimes, the carrots are cooked, but they’re still carrots – different but okay.
When unexpected change happens, there is often a kind of concussion – we feel stunned and stilled. But eventually, we have to make a choice. We can lean back, longingly, into the past, hoping to ‘unchange’ the situation. Or we can step forward, hopefully, into future possibilities.
It might not change much, but even one step causes a slightly shifted perspective, a slightly changed situation.
[PS In 2015 an Australian scientist won a Nobel prize for his discovery of how to uncook an egg. I imagine it’s much harder to uncook a carrot.)