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.
Putting a pre-made frozen lasagne in the oven on a really low heat so that that it takes five hours to warm up doesn’t make it ‘slow food’. Slow food isn’t as much about the time it takes to cook as it is about the traditional, structured methods involved. Unlike fast food, slow food requires patience and commitment, over an extended period, to a proven strategy that produces a qualitatively better product.
Similarly, implementing an evidence-based, self-sustaining, whole-school approach to wellbeing requires a slow, systematic approach. The slow part – expending a bit less energy today – is easy. The hard part is the long-term commitment to a carefully designed sequence and strategy.
You can’t make a delicious, rich, creamy risotto by letting it sit on the back-burner – it requires constant stirring. And you can’t transform a school’s culture and behavioural norms without a lot of carefully planning and methodical execution over time.
A typical classroom educator will deliver between 800 and 1,000 hours of teaching in a year. That might equate to around 1,000 lessons. Whilst each of these 1,000 lessons is unique, it is also relatively similar in many ways, to all the others. The structurally repetitive nature of teaching provides a wonderful opportunity – more than in many professions – for iteration.
The English word ‘iteration’ derives from the latin ‘itemum’ – meaning ‘again’. Doing something again and again is the foundation of skill development.
However, I type on my computer keyboard for a couple of hours everyday and I’m not getting any better. I still make the same number of mistakes. This is because repetition doesn’t guarantee iteration.
Iteration is enabled when we do something repetitively and we have a specific focus on improvement towards a goal and we learn from the previous trial.
As a classroom educator, iteration is a choice. The alternative is stagnation or, worse, decay.
One of dilemmas faced by dynamic professionals is where to focus and prioritise their energy. This is often the case in early and mid-stage educators. And it is certainly the case for outstanding educators who tend to be pretty good at, and passionate about most areas of education. There is an increasing smorgasbord of options available for growth, professional development, specialisation, and post-graduate study.
But there’s a danger here…
There’s an old fable about a donkey who is both very hungry and very thirsty. He is standing halfway between a stack of hay and a bucket of water. He keeps looking to the left at the hay and then to the right at the water. He is equally attracted to the hay and the water but is unable to decide on an option. Eventually he falls down and dies of both hunger and thirst.
There are many exciting, emerging opportunities and platforms for education practitioners to make an impact both in their classrooms and beyond. But real impact requires expertise. And expertise requires a choice and a commitment. And this, in turn, requires courage and a long-term perspective.
Otherwise, the three alternatives for enterprising and progressive educators are:
- Deciding to remain more of a highly-skilled ‘generalist’ rather than an ‘expert’ – which is perfectly fine.
- Deciding to try to become expert at many things and burning out in the process – which isn’t fine.
- Not deciding at all. (But that didn’t work out well for the donkey.)
As an educator, can you ever become good enough?
Last week, I met a career teacher in his final year before retirement. He was one of the most engaged, interested and committed participants in a high quality professional development workshop.
I imagine that some of his colleagues do think that they’re good enough. But I can’t be sure, I didn’t get to meet them. They weren’t at the workshop. They gave up on commitment to systematic growth and development the day they decided they were good enough.
Feedback, especially critical feedback, often isn’t pleasant to receive. And it’s really hard to hear it when it’s about our work. So why do we put ourselves through it? Why do we go out of our way to seek high-quality, genuinely constructive feedback from peers or mentors? Because it helps us grow. Feedback drives learning.
But when you give feedback, your intention matters.
Is your intention to deconstruct a performance from the past and give your view on what would have been better or what you would have done instead? Because that’s hard to listen to. That’s the kind of feedback that can easily demotivate someone or make them defensive.
Or is your intention to help illuminate someone’s future by highlighting inherent strengths and tools that can help them be even better? When we show that we genuinely care by walking beside someone in the process, helping them see a new path, that feels really different.
Some people call this feedforward instead.
Systemic changes, fundamental shifts, philosophical pivots – these are all big journeys to go on. And so a comment we often hear from school leaders and educators who are attempting to adopt a whole-school approach to wellbeing is: ‘I don’t know where to start’.
Although we now have a pretty well-honed roadmap that provides support and direction for schools, each journey is different because each school is unique. But each of these journeys always begins the same way: with a first step. This is often the hardest and most important step of all because it leads to the next step.
The poet Rumi perhaps said this best when he wrote:
“As you start to walk out on the way, the way appears.”