Will We Ever Have It Cracked?

This article first appeared in HWRK Magazine in May 2022

Right now, I’m knee-deep in curriculum planning for next year. I already have a well-thought-out plan, but I’m still not happy with it. The sequence of topics needs to be tweaked again. Actually no, the topics are fine, but I do need to make sure to include more extended writing. Hang on though, will they know enough by that point to be able to write well enough on that topic? I’d better make sure they’ve got enough facts behind them first. No, actually, they need to engage with some real-world issues first to hook them and see the relevance of what they’re learning. But… but…

As Mary Myatt has already mentioned before, curriculum is a never-ending story. But it’s not the only one. Schools have a habit of pursuing more and more, no matter what has just been achieved. 

It’s a noble aim and I’m as guilty as the next person when it comes to refining and reiterating everything to try to make it as good as it could be. Our students deserve it and I, like most teachers, see teaching not just as a job but as a vocation. We’re drawn to trying our hardest for others. 

But at what point do we say to ourselves “actually this is really good, let’s just keep doing this. It doesn’t need to be improved”?

After all, there is a cost to everything we try to implement. We have limits on curriculum time, planning time, staffing, school budgets and quite simply the number of hours in a day. Add to that the fact that teachers deserve as much of a break as anyone else. We can’t just keep adding more and more to our to-do lists. Something has to give. But what? 

Here’s a list to choose from. It’s not an easy task for you, but give it a go anyway. Assuming nothing else changes in the education system, which of these would you personally ignore for two years straight, in your own school setting, giving you time to focus on all of the rest properly? 

  • Pastoral care?
  • Quality of teaching?
  • A well-sequenced curriculum?
  • Staff wellbeing?
  • Examinations?

It isn’t easy. I’d even go so far as to say that if any one of these goes missing (even if just for two years), then like a house of cards, the rest will come crashing down too.

So, we keep them all. But if we keep them and they are less than perfect, they could have a negative impact on the other pieces of the puzzle. There’s a moral imperative then to do everything we can, within our power and within the constraints of time and space, to ensure that everything is as good as it could be.

It’s a balancing act though. At this end of the year, staff are exhausted, have one eye on the summer holidays and in many cases are up to the eyeballs in exams and last-minute revision classes.  

I’d bet that your middle leaders have many of the answers though. They’re the ones on the ground who have implemented this year’s new policies and procedures, identified the crunch points when it comes to assessment data windows, parents’ evenings and deadlines for everything in between. 

Ask middle leaders what they would keep, what they would bin and what they would adapt. It probably won’t lead to wholesale change (and it probably doesn’t need to), but it might just be enough to ensure that the wheels keep turning as we journey onwards, as we’ll be in a better position than we were this time last year.

We’ll never have it cracked, but that’s ok. We’re always going to be chasing perfection, whatever that means to us, because we aren’t doing it for us, we’re doing it for our students. It does take its toll, both physically and mentally, but it’s also why we do the job.

It’s All About Culture

This article first appeared in HWRK Magazine in March 2022.

Schools can be frustrating places for staff and students alike. Everyone is busy ALL OF THE TIME and that busyness doesn’t always lead to the right place. Sometimes it’s just busyness. But great schools make that busyness work. They do it by having a relentless dual-focus on prioritising the students while also developing staff. They do this by building and maintaining an authentic school culture: one where everyone is treated as though they are incredibly valuable members of the same team. And that team is on a journey.

What is school culture?

School culture isn’t something you can define or write about easily. It doesn’t sit neatly in a folder waiting for the inspectors to arrive. It isn’t something you can always put your finger on when observing a lesson, when flicking through books, or when analysing exam results in the summer. But it is tangible. You hear it in the corridors between lessons. You see it in interactions between teachers and students. It’s something you feel when you walk around the school building for the first time.

But how do we create the right school culture? What does the “right culture” look and feel like? And why, ultimately, should we prioritise it?

Do the right work

There are always lots of things we can do when trying to improve the status quo. But which option should we choose? A good rule of thumb is to weigh up the answers to the following three questions and to do only the things you can justify: Is there robust evidence that it will work? Do we have to ditch another valuable thing in order to do this (and is it worth the trade-off)? Is it sustainable over the long-term?

Many shiny new things that schools routinely try out don’t meet these criteria and they are often the things that inevitably lead to burnout and to staff-retention issues. Ignore them at your peril.

Do it the right way

You’re all on the same team, so make sure you leave nobody behind. Leadership is always a delicate balance between pushing on to new things, in pursuit of improvement, while balancing the needs of staff who may not share your own values or priorities. This is why prioritising these things makes sense. They make a difference to staff buy-in and impact. But they also demonstrate the culture you want to build, in a highly visible sense. Nothing says “I don’t value our teachers” like the heavy-handed implementation of a new policy that doesn’t consider teachers at all.

If you want to build a culture of mutual respect and trust, you need to consistently demonstrate it in your actions, especially when it is hard. Otherwise, your mission statement, your website headlines and your wellbeing policy mean nothing. Your actions are the only things that matter. Words are cheap.

Do it for the right reason

If you want your school to thrive, you need your staff to have the energy and enthusiasm to make that happen. You might get away with ignoring culture for a while, as teachers are naturally wonderful people who try to do their best for the students. But you can’t rely purely on the goodness of teachers over the long-term without building a positive school culture where those teachers can grow.

We’re in this job to prepare our students for the world. But the world doesn’t begin when they leave school. They are part of it while they are with us. So we also need to model a good culture, setting it as the norm and enabling them to contribute to it, while giving them the confidence to replicate it beyond the school gates.

As Muhammad Ali famously said, “The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses – behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.”

In schools, that’s what it boils down to. Successful schools build a culture where constant attention to improvement over time is paramount, for staff and students. It’s about the things you do when nobody is looking, not ticking boxes for an observer. Reliance on the fool’s errand of using gimmicks or trying to game the system is to be avoided at all costs. Building the right culture is your best bet.

It’s all about doing the right work, in the right way and for the right reasons. When everyone in your school has this principle foremost in their minds and in their actions, there’s your culture.

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