Image

It all comes down to one thing: Trust

gray scale photography of lighthouse

As teachers up and down the country are bracing themselves for the inevitable bout of ‘flu that will take hold the minute they wake up on Saturday morning, let’s celebrate the fact that 2018 has been another cracking year.

Regardless of whether you believe this to be true or not, let me assure you that each and every one of you has made a difference to the lives of the young people that you teach, in ways that you could never imagine.

I see it all the time as I walk around schools. I don’t need to look at a set of books or pore over a spreadsheet to know that a teacher is making a difference. And not just with one child, but with every single one of them in their class.

I watch closely as teachers engage meaningfully with their pupils, noting all the time the respect, trust and admiration that flows between the two. At this time of year especially, I see also anxious and nervous children who are so excited about Christmas, but deep-down are dreading being away from their teacher.

As much as they may love their parents or carers, they know that at school they are guaranteed unconditional care, fairness, attention, support, structure, discipline, consistency and above all, a real sense of belief. Belief in themselves and belief in their teacher.

Change your beliefs

Beliefs are simply perceptions of reality. It is often said that, ‘we are what we believe’. This is a good thing because it means that if we change our beliefs then we can change reality. This is why it is so important to have a clear and meaningful set of values that help guide us on how to behave in order to make continual changes to reality.

Steve Jobs, during his early days as CEO at Apple, was a genius at changing people’s perceptions of reality by getting them to believe that anything was possible. He understood that reality was malleable, and in so doing became expert at using RDFs. A Reality Distortion Field is a phrase first coined in 1981 to describe Jobs’s uncanny ability to make other people believe in the possibility of completing very difficult tasks.

For you and me, our reality distortion field is most likely operating right now. It is through this field that we project the reality of who we are to the world in regard to our strengths, limiting beliefs, doubts, fears etc. We see the world through an RDF. It’s no surprise therefore, that on occasions our perception of reality can be distorted. This is why vision and values can sometimes help guide us.

Stick to your values

Apple have always had a very clear and compelling vision, underpinned by a set of behaviours expected of all staff. I was lucky enough to visit Apple HQ in California in April and saw it for myself. What it also did was to drive home the following point: That having a clear vision is pointless without a clear set of values to show people how to behave in order to achieve it. Quite simply: No values, no vision.

Take a company involved in shipping, for example. They have a compelling vision for excellence, but if their values are non-existent or poorly aligned, it counts for nothing. This will be evident when facing a difficult decision around missing a key shipping deadline because of concerns around quality. Staff from a values-based company would behave as expected by pulling the consignment because of the lack of high quality or precision. They would not fear reprisals from management, even though the firm may lose the contract. On the other hand, a local competitor may behave differently and ship it out, because they don’t value quality over quantity. For them, it’s about meeting deadlines on time and at whatever cost.

In order for our multi-academy trust to achieve its vision, we have a clear set of values that help us do the right thing. In short, our Trust is built on trust. The Latin word for ‘trust’ is fides – as in ‘to confide’ or bona fide (of good faith). We built our entire Trust on this belief, that if we are to become the best version of ourselves, we can only do so through high levels of trust.

Make them stick

You may not be aware, but Fides was also the ancient Goddess of trust. Her temple on the Capitol in Rome was where the Senate of the Roman Empire signed, sealed and stored all of their treaties and laws of the land. The deity Fides was their custodian and moral guardian of all that they believed at the time to be right and proper. As role models go, she is a formidable figure.

We use the acronym FIDES to help us remember the behaviours that we expect of all our adults and young people. Rather than go straight in with a googled set of abstract nouns (more often than not laminated and then displayed for all to see in the main entrance), we started first with the behaviours. Once we’d agreed on these, we then thought about the most appropriate abstract noun for each one.

We came up with five: loyalty, tenacity, kindness, courage and brilliance. Every day, we ask ourselves as we go home, ‘What have I done today that was courageous, brilliant and kind?’ I guarantee that no matter how bad a day you might have believed it to be, it was not that bad. As a teacher or leader, it’s almost impossible to go an entire day without doing any of these. You’ve probably also been extremely tenacious (not giving up on a child) and courageous (trying something new or dealing with a setback) but just haven’t found the time to reflect on it and know so.

A formula for success

Those five words though are unhelpful on their own. To someone new to the organisation, what does it mean to be tenacious? How does a young child demonstrate loyalty or courage? This is where FIDES helps us. I had the privilege of working with a cross-party group of staff to unpack all of this. It took us about a year. We wrote it all down and published it in a booklet called, ‘Trust Us: Making our Values Happen’. The children then followed this up with their own version called, ‘Trust Us Too’. You can watch a short video that they made here. The children themselves explain what FIDES means to them far better than I can.

As a Trust, our five core values are:

Focus on family
Insist on excellence
Do good as you go
Embrace innovation
Seize success

That’s it. As a teacher, if you do nothing else but demonstrate these behaviours day-in, day-out, then you will have done a brilliant job. This is why when I walk around any of our schools I can tell clearly when someone is making a difference. They live and breathe our values. For me F + I + D + E + S = a truly great school. It’s a sure-fire formula for success.

Follow the star

The beauty about values is that you don’t have to justify them to anyone outside the organisation. They will always stand the test of time and hopefully still be there long after you’ve gone. Above all, they are to be nurtured for their own sake. They are our north star and show us the way, especially during difficult times or when under pressure.

I hope your school has a north star burning bright; a compelling set of values that you believe in. If it does, then chances are you have a strong sense of purpose and self-worth. You buy-in to what it is your school is trying to achieve and understand clearly where you belong in the scheme of things. You feel valued and believe in both yourself and the moral purpose of the school leaders. Trust and integrity run deep.

If your school does not have a clear set of values or perhaps you don’t feel this way, then make it your new year’s resolution to try and put that right. You’ll certainly be doing good as you go. As a teacher with a clear moral compass, you owe it to yourself, to your colleagues and, above all to the young people and communities that you serve. Trust me.

 

(You can read more about this in my book, The Art of Standing Out, available from Amazon.)

Have belief in your vision

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.