That space

Aren’t we lucky to have the opportunities that many of us do as modern educators. The choice of colleges to study education, the specialism that we select, the kind of school, the location – perhaps country – in which we choose to teach, the career path – all of these are such rich opportunities. Wonderful.

And yet, whilst we can freely choose which opportunity to pursue, each is very expensive. Economists call this: opportunity cost. For example, as we rise in seniority in our school, we sacrifice opportunities to directly and deeply nurture the learning of individual students. As we become Faculty Heads and Deputy Principles and Heads of School, we no longer get to inhabit the exquisite hubbub of the classroom – a place that was once our ‘home’. Our interaction with students and, therefore with education, becomes quantitatively and qualitatively different.

As we become decision-makers and budget-holders and managers, we have the capacity to scale our influence. But, we give up the privilege of having 20 or 30 young minds to mould – each lesson – at the ‘chalkface’.

We, at once, grow and shrink in our impact.

School leaders create and enable policy and culture and expectations in their communities. School teachers ignite and enable learning, passion, curiosity, empathy, love, hope, and wellbeing in their students. Both of these roles matter. And both of them come with sacrifice.

Ultimately, whilst school leaders undoubtedly have the power to impact the lives of both students and educators, there is nothing more powerful than that beautiful space between a teacher and a student. And when a school leader propagates that space with culture and professional relationships based on forgiveness, integrity, trust, compassion and hope – that space between a teacher and a student is lit up.

That space is where great education truly lives.

 

[P.S. This is my 201st daily post. And my last daily post…for now. I will continue to post here sometimes – but not every day. I need to turn my attention to another writing project. Thank you to everyone who has read my posts, shared my ideas, and kept me going. Lots more to come…]

Mine, mine, mine

There’s a well understood convention in baseball whereby the fielder who is in the best position to catch a ball that is high in the air yells: “Mine, mine, mine!”. It is a signal to the other fielders to relax because their team mate has taken responsibility for the catch. Mine, mine, mine is an acknowledgement that something important needs to be done and that a single person is taking responsibility.

This protocol also helps mitigate one of the risks of team sport – diffusion of responsibility. There’s nothing worse than the ball landing on the ground between us because I thought you were going to catch it and you thought that I was.

And there’s nothing worse than a student in need slipping between the gap because I thought you were going to catch her and you thought that I was. Unfortunately, it happens in schools – often when we’re so busy trying to do our part for the team that we lose touch with the bigger picture or we lose touch with each other.

We can’t be expected to catch every ball. And it’s certainly not about solely ‘owning’ a problem. That’s what a team is for. But we need to keep our eyes up. And when we are in the best position to do something to support a student in need – to coordinate a response, to provide resources, to refer to an expert, or even just to check in – be loud and clear: mine, mine, mine.

Words also matter

The children we teach are young ­– new to the world. But they have brains that are running two-million-year-old software.

Long before we had written or even spoken language, our ancestors relied on emotional interaction, eye contact, posture, facial expression, and body language to communicate and to catalyse and sustain our connection to our tribe.

These days, we have written and spoken language to help shape our students’ learning and their educational environment. But our students’ sense of safety, connection, and their emotional, physical and neurological state remain heavily affected by our ancient programming that instinctively scans more primeval forms of communication.

We should be careful, planned and deliberate with our words. They matter.

And so do all the many other forms of communication at our disposal.

This is safety

There’s a scene in pretty much every horror and thriller film when one of the characters walks slowly towards the darkness, their heart thumping, not knowing what lies around the corner…

This is fear.

I remember a boy that I went to school with who was bullied relentlessly – he didn’t know what was going to happen to him each lunchtime.

This is fear.

I remember a teacher I occasionally had in primary school who was very unpredictable – we never knew what to expect or who he was going to interrogate.

This is fear.

And in the best classrooms, students feel at home and connected. There are no unseen dangers around corners. There are social norms and a group dynamic that nurture certainty. Whatever happens – especially if I show vulnerability, take a risk, or fail – everying is going to be alright.

In these classrooms, students feel a sense of belonging. They know it’s okay to be less than perfect. They feel listened to and cared for. And their performance is optimised.

This is safety.

They learn from how we are

“The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion.”

Paulo Coelho, Brazilian novelist

In classrooms around the world, students are learning, from their teachers’ wisdom, about: science and mathematics and language and the humanities. They’re learning about asking questions and solving problems and creativity and teamwork.

And they are also learning, from the way their teachers are, about: compassion, forgiveness, professionalism, power, caring, integrity, trust, love, and hope.

The way we are in a classroom is at least as important as what we teach.

Fear or love

If you are one of the 100 million people in the world who have already seen the  penultimate episode of the final season of Game of Thrones, you will know that the dragon queen does a pretty good job of crudely summarising human motivation theory. To galvanise the people, she says, there are really only two options: fear or love.

[Spoiler alert!]

She chooses: fear.

Whilst, unlike the dragon queen, educators don’t have fire-breathing dragons, we do have other powerful tools available including: tests, exams, competition, ranking systems, humiliation, shame, punishments, failure, calls home, exclusion, detention, judgment.

Importantly, not all of these are inherently fear-inducing or, even, necessarily unpleasant. There are potential positive benefits from formal assessment, for example. But they can, and often do, leverage fear.

When we use these tools as a form of coercion, to generate compliance or obedience, we weaponise their potential to produce: ‘consequences’. And the mechanism underpinning the use of ‘consequences’ as a motivator, threat or deterrent is: fear.

For an educator, like it was for the dragon queen, fear is a choice.

The other alternative is love. That can be a harder choice – often requiring much greater levels of skill, patience, acceptance, nuance, time, respect, relationship, support, and care.

[Spoiler alert!]

But when we choose love instead, we choose a completely different form of education – one with a very different ending than an education fuelled by fear.

Careful, not too far

When you get the chance to experience true innovation in schools or organisations, it feels exciting. It’s not just the novelty, it’s the sense that this new way of doing something is qualitatively better.

This kind of development stems from an intimate knowledge of the system in which the innovation is occurring. When we have this level of understanding, we know how far the constraints and conventions of the system can be pushed or bent before they break.

But when we fail to respect the system, or we push too hard or too fast against its foundations, it doesn’t give people time to adjust or adapt. When people feel too challenged or destabilised, we can end up simply causing frustration and/or being dismissed as someone who “doesn’t get it”.

Innovation will, at times, be disruptive and stressful for some people within a system. But when done well, carefully, professionally, and respectfully, innovation can nudge behaviours, reshape constraints, and energise the system without upsetting the apple cart.

The children we mean to raise

How important is it to you that your children and / or students develop into ethical, caring adults? In one study from the University of Virginia, 96% of parents said that the development of a caring orientation and moral character in their children was pivotal; more important even than high achievement.

Yet, in a 2014 Harvard study involving 10,000 middle and high school students, 80% of the youths reported that their parents and teachers “are more concerned about achievement or happiness (feeling good) than caring for others.”

The researchers suggested this data might reflect a “rhetoric/reality gap”. Perhaps what we, as influential adults, say we value isn’t reflected in our behaviour.

Closing that rhetoric/reality gap isn’t easy, especially for high schools who are, for the most part, subject to a system that rewards test scores more than character or caring. But it’s not impossible. You only have to walk into a school that is genuinely committed to wellbeing and character to see that their reality and rhetoric are more closely aligned. These schools celebrate and highlight behaviour and images and displays and artwork and physical spaces that reflect a prioritisation of character and caring.

Some other schools, however, choose to highlight their trophy cabinet. That reflects a different priority.

Railbirding

In the game of poker, the mildly derogatory term, Railbird, is used to describe a person who watches games “from the rail” rather than actually playing. They are generally viewed as a nuisance by actual players and add little, if any, value to the game. Yet many Railbirds feel justified in commentating on the game or critiquing the decisions of the players.

Every school and organisation is made up of players and Railbirds. And so, we have a choice to make. Am I willing to sit down at the table, accept the risks, know that I might get burned, but give myself the opportunity to make a difference? Or do I want to watch the game from the rails?

The upside of Railbirding is that it’s safe; you never lose. But then, you never get to play.

What if we work together instead?

The International Space Station (ISS) is, arguably, the most incredible feat of human engineering ever. It is also the most expensive single item ever constructed – costing over US$150 billion to construct. It is also, potentially, the most valuable tool available to humanity. Already, medical and environmental discoveries have been made onboard – and the scientific research that the ISS enables, may one day lead to us populating other planets. Amazing.

And it has only been possible because of cooperation instead of competition. The ISS is a joint project involving four countries; Canada, Japan, Russia, USA. The ISS was realised because these four countries worked together (along with the European Space Agency) to fund, design, and construct it.

It simply would not exist in a competitive environment.

It’s interesting, therefore, to consider the widely accepted notion in schools that competition is critical because it ‘builds character’ and ‘produces excellence’.

Actually, much of the evidence relating to schools suggests that competition tends to: suppress innovation, reduce standards of excellence, harm self-esteem, reduce teamwork, limit empathy, and increase anxiety. And numerous studies have shown that, when students are cooperating and supporting each other rather than trying to beat each other, they not only perform better but enjoy the activity more.

If you delete competition and other forms of extrinsic motivation, all we have left as a motivational catalyst is meaning and purpose. When a child or adult is doing something that they feel inherently makes sense and it matters, competition becomes redundant. In fact, when we’re doing something that feels like it really matters we are instinctively compelled to work with others, not against them, because we know the force-multiplying effect that cooperation unlocks.

Ultimately, the building of character and production of excellence requires, not competition, but the fostering of cooperation, empathy, interdependence, and a sense of united purpose. When we get this right, amazing things happen in schools and International Space Stations get built.

How to destroy a culture

There is a really important place in schools and organisations for critical analysis, constructive criticism and, even more importantly, constructive conflict (a blog topic for another day). Lazy consensus and blind compliance are the enemies of progressive, dynamic education.

But whinging and complaining are entirely different. Unfortunately, whinging can be quite a social endeavour. People who, for whatever reason, feel that they don’t have a voice or can’t speak openly to their colleagues or don’t feel empowered to have difficult conversations with their managers often tend to seek out other whingers to huddle with. Most schools have one or two groups of whingers.

Here’s the thing, whinging – especially about people behind their backs – is one of the few unproductive, maladaptive, culture-harming practices that can be eradicated instantly. Because it’s a choice. If people choose not to whinge, it doesn’t happen. Or if organisations choose not to tolerate it, it doesn’t happen.

In an interview on stage at an Inc. magazine conference, media mogul Ariana Huffington explained that:

“Going behind someone’s back is the way to destroy a company…Now during interviews, there is a speech I give to everybody…I give you full permission to walk into my office and scream at me. But I want you to consider this as my last warning. If you complain about any of your colleagues behind their back…you would be let go.”

Imagine what schools would be like if whinging was replaced entirely by open, honest, fair, equitable, forgiving, growth-orientated, empathic conversations. In part, it is the responsibility of school leaders to work hard to create such a culture. And it part, it’s up to the whingers to make a different, braver choice.

Mis-take

Sometimes at school, children mess up, they get things wrong. And the way that we, as educators, handle that moment of erring is far more important than many people realise. In that moment, having been caught in the wrong, the stakes are high for the child, their immediate future is uncertain and they experience an elevated emotional state. And, as a result, the educative potential is maximised.

How you, as an educator, respond in this moment and others will have a lasting, cumulative impact on the child. Arguably the most important lesson the child will learn is: how do people with ‘power’ (modelled by teachers) use their power to treat others? Is power to be used to suppress, control and coerce behaviour (punitive discipline)? Or is it possible, even at times of erring, for power to be used to nurture, grow and enliven others?

When we view children through a genuine lens of optimism, hope and goodness, we must choose to view errant behaviour as mistake – literally a mis-take. Children come to school – a world where they are pushed, challenged, excited, and growing – and they give their best take at muddling through it all. Often, their first take is good, great even. But sometimes they make a mis-take.

And through that lens, of a child trying hard to work things out, coming to school with their whole heart and having a go at life, the only truly human response to mis-take is not ‘punishment’, but compassion, kindness and forgiveness. When we take this stance, power is used, not to do something to students (eg detention, suspension), but rather to do something with them (eg help them learn to rebuild damaged relationships and trust).

This type of approach to student behaviour is helping to transform schools in both independent and government settings and high and low socio-economic settings.

This simple word, mistake, has immense power to shift the way we think, talk, and care about the children in our schools.

One in, one out

Have you ever queued up to get into a bar or club that has a one in, one out policy? When a venue reaches capacity, the one in, one out policy is a very simple, effective method of regulating the number of people inside. The only way for a new person to enter is for a current person to leave. The bar never gets overcrowded. Brilliant.

Imagine how different schools and other workplaces would be if they applied a strict one in, one out policy to new programs, initiatives, or procedures. Wouldn’t it be great if the only way for a cool new idea to be adopted was if an equivalent redundancy or inefficiency could be hunted down and deleted.

Not only would our organisation become more refined over time, but the system would never get overcrowded or bloated. Brilliant.

 

The power of externalities

The primary outcome of beekeeping is the production of delicious honey. One side effect of beekeeping is that surrounding crops get pollinated which increases the yield for crop farmers. The beekeeper receives no direct income from the healthier, higher value crops but the whole community is better off because of the bees.

In economic terms, this phenomenon is referred to as a positive externality.

We see externalities occur in almost all interconnected systems. In schools, a student’s experience in Lesson 1 with Teacher A can have a huge impact on that student’s approach to Lesson 2 with Teacher B. When Lesson 1 is full of positive emotion, engagement, meaningful connection, achievement and purpose, students walk into Lesson 2 with an optimised psychology and a neurology primed for learning.

There are also negative externalities – such as when pollution emitted by a factory spoils the surrounding environment or when Teacher A allows negativity, disengagement, or disempowerment to fester in Lesson 1. In this case, Lesson 2 feels very, very different for Teacher B and the students.

This is a big part of the reason why wellbeing needs to be placed at the heart of a school or organisation for it to really transform a culture. The more of the community that embrace and ‘live’ wellbeing, the more likely we are to experience the dynamic upward spiral of wellbeing that positive externalities can power.

I’m one year older – level me up!

You may not have heard of the concept of ‘social promotion’. But it describes what my three-year old son is about to experience in the Australian school system.

He will enter kindergarten and then primary school at the same age as everyone else in his cohort – regardless of his abilities. And then, he will then go through 12 successive years of promotion into the next Year level – regardless of his abilities.

Of course there are rare outliers, students who leap Year levels or who are ‘kept down’ to support their development. But assuming nothing extreme happens in his learning trajectory, he can’t move up a level before he turns a year older, even if he has mastered all the intended learning outcomes of his current level. He just has to wait until he has sat in class for a year. And conversely, even if he doesn’t master all the intended learning outcomes, he will be promoted anyway.

Does it seem a little weird that skill and content mastery have relatively little to do with ‘levelling-up’ at school? Is it a little bit strange that, pretty much, the only criteria for ‘levelling-up’ at school is: another birthday.

Is this just another case of convenience dictating strategy? Or a kind of perverse-ageism? Or is there really some rationale here? There are certainly alternatives – such as ‘merit promotion’ – the philosophy that we see at tertiary-level education (and in pretty much every other context of life). Couldn’t we just wait until kids achieve the stipulated level of competency and then send them onto the next level?

We could…but according to key research in this area, there are significant risks including: increased school drop-out, little evidence of long term academic benefit, and increased rates of mental disorders, drug-use, and teenage pregnancy.

Although merit or competency based promotion seems logical in many ways, it interferes with the age-based, social stability of traditional cohorts. Moving through school with the same group of kids of the same age has inherent social-emotional benefits that are linked to healthy, natural development.

While, certainly, some of the mechanics of the classical school system need to change, we need to be very careful not to interfere with what is working.

 

Interstitial space

There are approximately 37 trillion cells that make up the human body. Between and surrounding these cells is interstitial space. This space contains a fluid-filled, life-giving microenvironment, full of proteins and ions and nutrients that allow our cells to flourish.

Humans, like the cells of which we are made, clump together and depend on each other for survival. And like cells, we exist within our own little interstitial space.

Wellbeing is only partly about the individual. If we really want to make a sustained, positive impact, we need to be acutely focussed on the physical, psychological and social environment in which our students and colleagues are living their lives.

Does the classroom furniture foster cohesion? Do your students feel psychologically safe at school? Do your actions allow colleagues to feel connected and that they matter?

When the microenvironment around a cell is healthy and rich, there is every chance for the cell to thrive. But when the interstitial space becomes toxic, even the healthiest cell will die.