One thing I’ve learnt during my time as a headteacher is that compromise is king. Back in the day as a new headteacher I naively always saw compromise as a weakness – that staff would see me as being a lame and indecisive leader if I didn’t insist on doing things my way. I felt it was incumbent on me for example, to show my authority by laying down a vision – a road map – that would lead staff unto the Promised Land. It was always the one thing that every headship interview panel looked for and that as a prospective new head, you sensed that you would either live or die by your vision. It became the Holy Grail.
In fact, it wasn’t even worth applying for headteacher posts unless you had a ready-made vision to trot out. Unfortunately, when I took up my first headship we didn’t have Google so I really had to make one up. I remember coming across a story from an American Principal bemoaning the agonies of trying to come up with a vision: ‘Years ago, if I declared I had a vision I would have been locked up. Nowadays I can’t get a job without one’.
All of us have a vision of what we believe education stands for. We may not know it, but we do, and we do for one very simple reason: That we all possess a set of values and beliefs that make us who we are. These values and beliefs provide us with our goals and moral purpose that drives us day in, day out. We were born with these and it’s often very difficult to change them as they were shaped by our formative years. So strong are these values that without knowing it we try to create emotional conditions that enable us to be in the right mood or state of mind that allow such beliefs to flourish. Our beliefs are usually located at a deep sub-conscious level serving primarily to determine how we behave. It’s this behaviour of course that then determines our results and if we want to change the results, then we need to change the way we behave.
All of this leads us back to our beliefs and that if we want to change the way we behave then we need to change our beliefs. This is not easy, although it can be done especially when we consider that most of our beliefs are ones we hold about ourselves. As individuals we hold the key. Gandhi once said that ‘If I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have had it at the beginning…’ The challenge for leaders therefore appears to be to try and convince staff to change their beliefs – their own self-perception of what they are good at – so that vision and goals become a reality. It all sounds rather Machiavellian but at its core it’s about developing in staff a growth mindset.
This is where compromise comes in, as the above task can be rather like an immovable force colliding with an unmovable object – something’s got to give. It is the real art of leadership to be able to manage this process in order to assimilate the values and beliefs of an entire staff into a vision that meets the needs of a diverse and dynamic organisation. This has always been a bit of a conundrum for heads taking up new posts. What happens if your shiny brand new vision doesn’t fit in with the values and beliefs of the staff? Do you change your vision or do you change their beliefs? I’m certainly not going to change my vision, so this is where I’ve learnt to compromise.
Teachers and educators are very passionate and principled people. We all have deep-seated beliefs about what education stands for and quite rightly so. You only have to take a look at Twitter to see for yourself. Entire timelines and blogs are devoted to extolling the virtues of humanism, cognitivism, constructivism and any other –ism you can think of. By and large each and every one of these has a place in school as they are well-established, tried-and-tested versions of learning theory. It’s quite likely that in any one school, most of these bases are covered by members of staff whose beliefs and values are firmly planted in a particular camp, myself included.
So how is it possible to assert a vision that accommodates such a wide spectrum of beliefs? How in a school would we ever agree on what good learning and teaching looks like? How for example would we gain consensus on how best to teach creativity, meta-cognition, emotional awareness and critical thinking if the head’s vision was built around the acquisition of core knowledge? As a young teacher I believed strongly that my job was to teach knowledge – to instruct pupils on the content of a prescribed programme of study. I started teaching at the same time the new national curriculum was introduced so you can imagine how pleased I was. As far as I was concerned, any attempt at teaching the soft skills that allowed children to become critical thinkers denigrated the true purpose of education. I wanted to teach, to impart knowledge, to be the sage on the stage.
As an NQT I was influenced – among others – by the work of Jerome Bruner whom I liked very much and who wrote a book in 1960 called ‘The Process of Education’ (long before I trained as a teacher, I might add). Bruner said that ‘you can teach anything to anyone in an intellectually honest manner by translating it courteously for them.’ In other words, no matter how complex or difficult the content being taught, providing it was skilfully differentiated, the children would be able learn it regardless of age or ability. I was very clear on how instruction worked in my lessons and how each lesson built on the knowledge acquired previously.
I no longer have this belief. It has evolved over the years and even more so since Gove began imposing his own beliefs on the national curriculum. In many ways this reminded me even more of the need to compromise, which brings me back to the purpose of this post. Namely, that the real art of leadership is to know which bits are worth keeping and to then blend them into some kind of approach that works in your school. It really is a case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts – a bit like trying to get a tune out of a room full of random instruments that when performed together sound like a musical masterpiece.
So why am I writing about this? Because I’m sitting in my office thinking about how I will get my own beliefs, values and vision to resonate with the staff of the school that we are about to sponsor in a few weeks time. The school is in special measures and we have a training day organised for the first day back and I am trying to capture my vision and values all in one or two slides. I’m even going as far as trying to see if I can capture my vision in 140 characters or less. (#Tweetyourvision. No mean feat let me tell you.) We are also going to come up with a teaching and learning policy, complete with 10 non-negotiables. I have no idea what these might look like as I want them to come from the staff. But with the right vision in place, and with a set of beliefs that are aligned, or at least in the process of being aligned, the art of compromise should be so much easier.
Whether we ever agree in September on how best to teach anything to anyone remains to be seen. With there likely to be as many different values and beliefs among the staff as there are musicians in a full symphony orchestra, the odds of getting a tune out of us all at first may appear remote. However, the likelihood of success is increased significantly if we can ensure that we all have the same piece of music in front of us. Having this played out as the soundtrack to your vision is music to anyone’s ears and perhaps something we shouldn’t compromise on after all.