We have to remember to go against our learned instincts.
My learned instinct is to hold my children back. We’re walking along a footpath in Cheshire, in the UK, beautiful fresh stream rushing across ancient stones. Children utterly excited to be there… and they want to run ahead, and my learned instinct, my new instinct that I’ve got from life, somehow, by mistake, is to hold them back. My first response is “no… we’re not here to run”.
Well, guess what, Daddy… you’re wrong.
These kids are here to run. And there’s no reason to hold them back.
It’s a lot like learning. We’ve just got to let them go, just run. And, I’m standing here now watching them. It’s raining, they’re full of zest. They’re excited by the space, the freedom, the flowers and by the fact that they can just run.
Yes, they make a few mistakes, get stung by nettles, make their shoes filthy in mud. But they are learning, first hand, from and about the environment. They will not forget nettles. They will identify the squelchy, marshy patches of land and – maybe – avoid them next time!
I created this context – in my role as “teacher” – by bringing them to this place. I knew it was important, special and rich with opportunities to discover. But then I have to let them be free within the context, only that way will genuine questions emerge from them, and they did:
“Why is the water and the rocks orange?”
“Why are the cows lying down?”
“Where does the water come from?”
“Why is there wool on the branches of that fallen tree?”
“Who does this land belong to?”
“Why are people allowed to walk through here?”
“Where does that path go?”
“What is making that sound?”
“Who made that rope swing over the river?”
And then, of course, many attempts at holding on to the piece of wood hanging from a tree and swinging out over the water until they had all had many successful goes!
Instead of being a controlled walk, with adults determining the path and pointing out the things they thought should be of interest or worthy of learning about (i.e. the ones we had the answers to!), it becomes a child-driven walk, a haphazard route, endless questions – many unanswered – unpredicted experiences, private thoughts and moments of personal growth and self-actualization that we – the parents – are not even aware of.
Many powerful and transformational ideas emerge in the world of education, become trends and then vanish. This is sometimes because the vast majority of educators never fully understand it in the first place.
The latest example of this is “provocations”.
All sorts of educators are using the word and they believe they are planning them for their students. Sadly, very often, these so-called provocations are turning into missed opportunities, throw-away activities that really don’t transform the subsequent pedagogy in the slightest.
I find this really frustrating, and I find the fact that educators are unable to see both the simple and the sophisticated information that students are revealing to them almost impossible to comprehend. As I try and wrap my head around this, I see the following patterns:
- Some people, if they were being honest, have little or no interest in changing their pedagogy. They want to do what they’ve always done and see anything that threatens that – regardless of the source – as a threat. As a result, they develop a sort of selective blindness to any of the fascinating information their students reveal. It may well be impossible to move people away from that mentality and so it may be necessary to move them out of our schools instead.
- Some people are – perhaps unwillingly – so caught up in teacher-speak, written curriculum, standards and old habits they too are blinded – they can’t “see the wood for the trees”. Some of these people may still be rescued, but only if you can still see the glint in their eye that indicates some interest in who their students really are and enough curiosity to want to find out.
- Some people are – fortunately – poised, ready, willing and able to plan and carry out provocative experiences that give their students opportunities to reveal powerful and useful information to them. However, they may not know how to use that information to transform their pedagogy and, of course, there is no single, universal answer. Instead, what is powerful, is the teacher’s determination to find ways to do so.
A very useful analogy is Shana Upiter’s Ping Pong approach. When you provoke your students, you are hitting the ball to them… then, they hit it back to you – in all sorts of directions! Now it is up to you – the teacher – to figure out what to do with the ball and how to hit it back to them again, and so on… If you can view provocations that way – as the ongoing exchange of stimulus and response, ideas and action, thinking and questioning – you will start to understand how to use the concept in your teaching. You can also liberate yourself from thinking that provocations need to be huge, overly-planned extravaganzas!
For this to happen though, the teacher must be fascinated by the words their students write or say, the choices their students make, the way their students think, the patterns of their students’ behaviour, how their students react in different situations and the questions their students ponder.
When provocations create the conditions for inquiry – by teachers into their students – there is nothing more powerful. When they just lead into a series of activities and a whole load of teaching, they may just be another buzz-word.
We all know that modeling is perhaps the most powerful aspect of teaching – that we might tell students to do something 1000 times with no effect, but do it ourselves for them to see and the effect is palpable.
Yet, how often do we genuinely model the things we are constantly expecting our students to do, become competent at and comfortable with?
Speaking in public is a classic example. We expect it of our students every day… we expect them to respond to questions or contribute ideas in whole class discussions – yet how often does silence fall in staff meetings or workshops when teachers are expected to do the same? “Oh… I’m not comfortable speaking in large groups…” Hypocrisy. And what of assemblies? Putting our students in front of 100s of other students and expecting them to cope yet hiding away in fear if the same is asked of us? “I’m terrified of public speaking!” Hypocrisy.
Its the same with openly sharing our mathematical thinking… “Oh, I’m not comfortable with that, I’m terrible at maths” or drawing “Oh, I’m not doing that in front of anybody… I am so bad at Art” or publishing their writing “I’m scared about putting myself out there.”
It is an endless stream of hypocrisy that culminates in the ultimate hypocrisy – teachers who talk constantly in meetings, presentations or workshops yet lambaste their students when they do exactly the same thing in their lessons.
So, to redefine schools, we should get teachers well out of their comfort zones, or fill schools with teachers who are ready and willing to step out of their comfort zones or just remove the whole idea of comfort zones completely. Unless, of course, we’re going to respect the comfort zones of our students and allow them to be limited by them (after all, how do we know that isn’t the right thing to do?) And, maybe we should be up front and call people out on hypocrisy and remove the “do as I say not as I do” mentality permanently.
Our schools could be full of teachers who are sharing their talents, who are putting themselves out there, who are giving it a go despite not “being comfortable with it”, who are willing to recognize their shortcomings and addressing them, who are leading by example.
There is a misconception in life, and particularly in schools, that “speaking my mind” – or honesty – is a euphemism for being a bit of an arse. Either I don’t “speak my mind”, which must mean that I bottle everything up, conceal my true thoughts and never share what I genuinely think or believe, or, I feel like I can just go around being rude to people and make “speaking my mind” a kind of license to make all interactions highly personal and confrontational.
Both of these dichotomous positions are damaging to a school culture, and people who adopt them can be equally toxic in different ways.
Person A, the type who never “speaks their mind”, usually makes it clear to everyone that they have made a conscious decision never to “speak their mind”. With this constant declaration of self-censorship comes an implicit declaration of disapproval, judgment and criticism. It translates, basically, as “if I could speak my my mind it would be negative and I would tell you how useless this, that and they are”. The dangers of people like this are:
- They do actually “speak their minds” in small circles of people, sharing their bottled up negativity with those people they have decided they can confide in, and forming little clots of people in the organisational flow. These clots, like real clots, cause all kinds of awful things to happen – others become wary or paranoid of them, good ideas or initiatives get blocked or people who excel at their jobs have their confidence chipped away at until they leave but the clot remains.
- At times, opportunities arise for Person A to express themselves with anonymity, and this is like a dream-come-true for them. They feel liberated to “speak their mind” and unleash their thoughts onto people with no fear of having to take responsibility for their words or actually talk about or think it through with another human being.
- Person A may often also just go about their business, interacting only rarely with other people, but still walking around with their dark cloud hanging over them. People avoid them for fear of being caught in the storm – dragged into a negative conversation that has the potential to ruin their day or forced to listen to toxic gossip. This sort of isolation does nobody any good… particularly as Person A is responsible for the education of young people.
Then, there’s Person Z, the one who has taken it upon themselves to educate everyone else by just being an a$#@%$#e. They shoot people down, they belittle people, they interrupt, they opt out of conversations that need to be had, they refuse to take part in any positive initiatives, they make the discussion of ideas personal, they see things only from their perspective, they struggle to focus on student needs rather than their own, they talk when people are trying to address a group, they criticize meetings or workshops that don’t quite live up to their high standards (which are rarely reflected in the way they teach!), they have stopped learning, they get angry about things that don’t really matter, they write people off and give them no chance of redemption… the list goes on.
Fortunately, schools are also full of People C, D, E, F, G, H… the people who occupy the grey areas. These people:
- understand the value of exchanging thoughts, opinions and ideas
- are able to discuss things without making it personal
- are able to remain free of judgment
- value open and positive relationships
- are conscious of the effect of their attitude on others
- can see the big picture by “zooming out” of situations
- feel uncomfortable in gossipy situations
- try to get along with everyone in a way that is not artificial, because they know it matters
- give people the benefit of the doubt
- are respectful listeners
- are open-minded and ready to learn from any source
- don’t sulk
I know these are all generalisations, so please don’t comment and tell me that! Instead, please think about whether Person A and Person Z exist where you work, how they affect your school culture and how we can move beyond such polarised behaviours. Until that happens, the potential for the evolution of schools may well remain in their hands.
I once worked for a school principal who, when about to give me a telling off for my latest perceived crimes, would start the conversation with “I’ve heard through the grapevine that you…”
Which basically means… “I listen to gossip, I’ve heard some about you and I am allowing it to shape my behaviour towards you.”
Gossip is rife in schools as, I suppose, it is in many workplaces. But does that mean we have to accept it? Schools are the places in which the future is shaped. The people who work in schools should – technically – be modelling the type of behaviours that will guide young people to a better future.
A better future is not created in a culture of gossip. Cliques of people who spend their time annihilating, judging and stabbing people in the back are not really going to pave the way for humankind, are they? The funny thing is… it’s really hard to talk about those gossipy people – and we all know who they are – without becoming a gossip yourself!
Furthermore, by refusing to take part in gossip, you can end up isolating yourself from your colleagues. In the same school as the one I mentioned before, my wife refused to enter into a conversation in which one particularly gossipy person was verbally assassinating a mutual acquaintance. Within weeks, she was a social pariah… the forked tongues wagging away until their work was done. Meanwhile, the gossipy person came out smelling of roses – much like the little prisoner in the comic strip above who becomes Caesar’s secret gossipy weapon and whose effect can be seen as people’s words become more and more green!
A school without gossip would be a school with a better chance of avoiding misunderstandings, petty conflicts, resentments, misconceptions, jealousy, loneliness, paranoia, judgment, assumptions, depression, toxicity, cliques, divisiveness and so on… all of which are extremely destructive human behaviours.
Its not like we’d be trying to pretend gossip didn’t exist in the real world, but instead acknowledging that it does exist, that it is poisonous and that we won’t stand for it.
So, teachers, some advice for you:
- don’t allow yourself to get sucked into talking badly about other people
- make it clear to gossipy people that you have no interest in it
- discuss gossipy habits with students and work with them to grow above it
And, people in leadership positions, some advice for you:
- make it clear you have a zero-tolerance policy on gossip
- don’t allow the evolution of a culture of people coming to see you to complain about other people
- make it very clear that you shape your own perspectives about people
- when you become aware that you have some toxic gossip happening, knock it on the head straight away
- when you have observed patterns of toxic gossip amongst certain people, deal with them directly
“In order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen.”
“Lean into the uncomfortable.”
“Having the courage to be imperfect.”
“Letting go of who we think we should be and be who we really are.”
“What makes you vulnerable, makes you beautiful.”
This all sounds very nice. Very easy to say, yet quite difficult to actually do – especially, for people who work in schools.
Schools are very good at developing the head. We spend so much time thinking about thinking and developing ideas and perspectives. While there is a strong argument that this is important and thinking has an important place in what we do, we need to also develop the heart in terms of our interactions with our peers and students.
We can think about things and solve problems, but it is nothing unless we are developing feelings and emotions to connect every one of us.
It is this deep connection that is inside of us all. This allows us to be compassionate and also have the courage to be more vulnerable.
This made me think about how I could deepen my connection with the people I work with. This would ultimately improve our relationships, trust and as a way of being better at what we do.
How can I strengthen my relationships with those that I spend so much time with?
The answer is being more vulnerable. If we reveal more of ourselves at work, so that people get to know us better, wouldn’t this spur on others to be more comfortable around us too?
As teachers, we really do fear letting other people see us. We hide so much away and keep it locked up. We sometimes get to see people differently outside of school, if we are lucky.
We don’t want our students to hide away, do we? Of course not!
We all need to get better at being playful at work, lower the walls and bring in the real you to work. Show your personality, share things beyond the transactional stuff that is meaningless and empty. Otherwise, we just take things too seriously. We become too stiff at work because we are too busy to get to know each other better.
Being more vulnerable gives others permission to also drop their guard a bit. Schools would be so much more fun to work in if we could develop more compassion, connection and courage by being more outward and vulnerable with one another. How else do you get to know each other?
Do you hide yourself or show the real you in the work place?
Over the last few years, I have seen amazing teachers get dragged down and raked over the coals for “not sharing what they do”. This accusation is often made as a way of labeling a teacher as “uncollaborative” – a really serious crime in modern schools, it seems.
“I just don’t know what she’s doing… I wish she would share” they say.
And yet, it is often more about the person making the accusation than the accused.
By saying you don’t know what they are doing, you are basically admitting that you have made zero effort to be curious enough to find out! Weird.
But then, it does make me wonder about that sense of entitlement many teachers have… and a tendency to operate from a transactional perspective rather than a transformational one. How many times do you hear things like:
- “I would do more inquiry if my students were more curious”
- “I would use maths manipulatives if the school ordered more”
- “I would do play-based learning if we had more time”
- “I would take my students out there if there was more equipment”
- “I would do that if you show me exactly what to do”
“I would know all the wonderful things that teacher is doing if they shared them with me”
There is one, very quick, very easy and very powerful way to find out what people are doing. Go and take a look. Walk in the door. Speak to the kids. Listen in. Take some photos.
Its not threatening – it is flattering.
Let’s face it, most of the best teachers we know are not 100% sure what they’re going to be doing with their students until they are doing it. Also, most of those teachers do share their ideas with us during planning sessions… but other people often just don’t get it until they see it.
The best way to share is to show, not tell. The best way to have something shared with you… is to go and take a look for yourself.
Whose classroom are you going into today???