All strategy is logistical

I admire logisticians because logistics are very hard.

When my wife talks to me about her work consulting for international charities it is always the logisticians – those on the ground doing the work – I feel most in awe of. It is one thing to come up with a grand plan to feed a drought-stricken area but making it happen is another thing altogether. Those implementing the plan have to know so much. How many trucks are there and where exactly do they need to go? Where can they get fuel? What state are the roads in, and will they still be passable in a month when the rainy season arrives? Where is need most acute and where is delivery of any aid made more complicated by inter-group tension?

This thinking has to be meticulous. It is exhausting and it is done by people who are often tired in a way those of us who’ve never worked sixteen-hour days for months on end without a break on something that matters can really understand.

Those at the sharpest of sharp ends understand that without logistics – implementation – there is nothing at all. They get while it is important someone comes up with a big plan and a goal if this isn’t turned into operational strategic stuff with spreadsheets, phone-calls, maps, budgets and fail-safes then people die.

Luckily for us in schools the stakes aren’t nearly so high, but this doesn’t mean lessons learned from where things are most urgent should be dismissed – while it can appear simple to devise a powerful strategic plan in the garden in August this is very likely to fail if careful thought isn’t put into the operational, logistic stuff that needs to happen to realise it. What seems straightforward in the calm of summer appears very different on a rainy Tuesday in November after half your team has just called in and just staying in the game feels an achievement. This is something I think those who don’t work in people facing jobs struggle to understand – schools are inherently complex and unpredictable and strategy can often feel like trying to build a cathedral on ground that shifts and moves every day.

These challenges do not means strategic thought should be abandoned or seen as impossible in a school context. It’s my belief the key to making strategy more than an empty wish-list that burns up on re-entry is in making strategy operational. This isn’t always easy to do and it isn’t as fun or exciting as imagining a world transformed by a buzzy initiative –  but –  without it all we have are pipedreams and fantasies.

Here’s an example of how this might work.

Tiegan is Head of English at Gasworks High and towards the end of the academic year becomes concerned about the inconsistency of KS3 homework in her department. After some reading and conversations with her colleagues she makes the bet the highest leverage action step English could make would be to introduce high quality knowledge organisers and then base homework on them. This isn’t the first strategy she considers – far from it – she knows there are a great many things that would lead to improvement and considered and reluctantly dismissed other options knowing how little time she is likely to have once the school year begins.  

Her bet might be right or wrong. Without knowing more about her context it’s impossible for us to know and not our place to judge. Whatever our opinions we can probably all agree how effective or not this strategy will be very dependent on actually making it happen.

Tiegan understands this well and begins by making a list of all the things she and her team need to do. She does this with her team and time budgets it with them – there’s an agreement the creation of the knowledge organisers will take time so agrees with her SLT link that the English team can be excused from providing extra-curricular activities for the first two weeks of the first half term. 

Her rough first logistical plan looks like this:

Half TermActions
1Source examples of great knowledge organisers in English from other schools. Produce sample knowledge organiser for Romeo and Juliet. Plan and conduct training on creating knowledge organisers. Divide texts to be taught in half term 1 and 2 among team and ask them to create knowledge organisers for these topics.
2Quality assure knowledge organisers produced by team and give feedback. Organise visit to another school to see how these knowledge organisers are used effectively. Share findings from school visit with team. Organise printing of knowledge organisers and distribution to all classes. Meet with team to agree on consistent homework approach using these knowledge organisers and how this will be communicated to students and parents. Communicate strategy to students and parents.
3Monitor homework completion. Organise quality assurance to assess impact of knowledge organisers. Feedback to team on areas of strength and for development. Adjust strategy based on results of quality assurance.

If Tiegan’s strategy is to become sufficiently operational to work it will need to be much more iterative than even this; just about every item will have more actions sitting beneath.

But it is enough to make a start.

Next she goes to her planner  – she’s a bit old school and doesn’t use outlook as well as she knows she should – and in conjunction with her timetable and personal and school calendars, writes in what she will do and when for the first half term. She’s been in schools long enough things won’t go to this exact plan but also knows writing her actions in means if they don’t happen because she’s put on emergency cover or has a terrible headache she’ll be aware of when something slipped and needs to be rescheduled. She is also alert to unexpected opportunities to get ahead – for example she’d clean forgotten that her Y7s are out on a museum trip until two days before but when she twigs she’s quick to get a few of her operational jobs done ahead of original schedule.

Having the details written down also makes it easier for Tiegan to turn down requests that make it harder for her to achieve her strategic aims; for example, in the second half term she regretfully but firmly turns down a request from the ECT lead to run a series of workshops on lessons starts because she sees this will make it very hard for her to quality assure her department’s knowledge organisers or visit another school.

While things don’t always go to plan and there are a couple of weeks when Tiegan feels close to despair she gets there in the end – because she understood without logistics there is no such thing as strategy.

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How I plan

Five Types of Production Planning

Start with the curriculum. Decide what will be taught in the lesson. This could be one thing, less than one thing or more than one thing. It depends on what is to be taught and the group.

Identify the resources you’ll use. This could be a textbook, a book, a booklet or a worksheet. If there isn’t a resource that adequately supports the curriculum develop one. This is time consuming, which is why centralised resourcing can be a godsend.

Be wary of using loads of resources as this can get messy and can easily lead to pupils losing focus navigating reams of paper.

Decide what format pupil work will take. For me this is predominantly work in exercise books which mirror the format of my own planning exercise book which I display using a visualiser.

Use the curriculum to identify what is really core in the resource. What is it essential students leave knowing? What gaps in knowledge will prevent them progressing?

Decide on the best way to teach the core knowledge. Most of the time for me in history this is reading prose, elaborating and clarifying, discussing questions and then answering them. But not always – for example using a map to learn about the events of the Abyssinian Crisis could be better.

Identify any particularly tricky concepts and decide how best to explain these. Sometimes this might mean thinking of a metaphor or analogy. Or it might involve using a diagram drawn on board or under visualiser. Sometimes it might involve listening to a piece of music or looking at a photo. If something is very tricky or new then consider scripting.

Decide what tasks students will do and how these will demonstrate understanding and consolidation of the core knowledge. This might involve answering questions verbally, bullet point notes, spider diagrams, tables, cloze text or extended writing. Sometimes there may be a choice (e g bullet point notes or spider-diagram). Avoid tasks that allow simple copying or replication of what is in a resource. This is a recipe for busywork but low thinking ratio.

Decide upon timings for each task. Which may need more time depending on how things go? Build potential for increasing time into timings.

Decide upon check for understanding methods based on the core knowledge. When should this happen and how? How can I be as sure as I can be that everyone in my class knows what they need to know? This could involve sampling work while circulating the room (who to especially check on?), cold-call questions (who to ask what?), hands up questions (who to avoid asking all the time?), choral response and mini-whiteboards. Knowing a class becomes very important here as you need to know who should be hitting your core and who should be operating well above this ‘floor’. You need to know who needs more thinking time and who you need to check is paying attention. You need to know if anyone has anxiety which will make them freeze if you cold call and who will thrive on having a question sprung on them with no warning.

Anticipate areas that are likely to be hard to understand and grasp and consider how to re-teach these if pupils struggle. What will you do if they don’t get it?

Plan for less than you think you will get through but have more glorious hinterland in reserve. This allows time for the lesson to breathe and for plenty of time to properly check for understanding and re-teaching without feeling panicky about the time.

If you do finish earlier than planned teach deeper (not beyond) your plan or stick in a quiz based on what was learned in the lesson or before. Time on retrieval is never wasted.

Decide what core knowledge should form the basis of future retrieval practice, why and when students should retrieve it. Make this logical. For example if a lesson is about the impact of the Wall Street Crash on Germany it would make sense to make the Dawes and Young Plans focus of retrieval. Retrieval shouldn’t really be random – it should be informed by what you’re about to teach.

Planning in an exercise book makes this really neat as if tasks you’ve set are based on what’s really core then you can flick back and find content for retrieval pretty easily. Don’t worry too much about having a consistent pattern for how far back you go for it but probably a good idea to audit yourself every now and again to make sure you are covering all the stuff that needs to be remembered.

Don’t be too precious about your plan (exercise book or whatever) use it to make live notes of what worked, what didn’t, what you need to follow up on etc. You can then refer back to these easily when planning future lessons.

All of this is much easier to do if you know the curriculum well. The reason planning takes me a fraction of the time it used to is I just know more history now from reading, going to lectures, podcasts etc. There’s a line in Peaky Blinders when someone complains about paying for a service that only takes ten minutes. The response is it took years to learn to do the task in ten minutes and the payment is for the years not the minutes.

A long term investment in improving subject knowledge is a good investment.

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Learning Vs The Exams

Every now and again I am rocked by something on twitter.

Most recently it’s been Soloman Kingsnorth’s thread on the tension between the goals of examinations and proper learning. Their thread identifies similarities between mathematics exams children sit at the end of Key Stage 2 and those they sit at the end of Year 11.

Bluntly a lot of the content is the same, which means that a significant number of children are not really progressing much in the five years they are at secondary school and may not have learned much at primary school either.

This is very concerning for lots of reasons.

Firstly it calls into question the effectiveness of mathematics provision at secondary school. What exactly is going on in lessons if the sum of what children know at age sixteen isn’t much more than what they knew at eleven? Kingsnorth suggests a reason for this might be that the domain – the secondary curriculum – is so ambitious many children are simply not given enough time to master things they need to master in order to progress to latter content.

The most obvious solution to this – in the absence of wholescale curricular and associated examination reform – would be for secondary maths departments to simply spend more time – perhaps a lot more time – on the basics. This appears quite logical. What does it matter how big a domain is if children aren’t learning most of what is in it?

Surely it would be better for teachers to concentrate on their pupils mastering more of less than it is to expose children to things they simply do not have the prerequisite foundations to understand?

Things are not so simple.

The children who make little progress attend the same schools as those who make a lot of progress. Sometimes they are in the same classes and taught by the same teachers at the same time. If a teacher chooses to spend a lot of time teaching and supporting practise of basic content how will the children who have already learned this make progress? A school adopting this approach might well find while the examination grades of their weaker mathematicians improves, those of their most able gets worse.

The big issue is the tension between learning and the requirements schools prepare all their pupils for exams that are used not just as measures of learning but also as evidence used to sort them for different post-16 destinations.

This problem is particularly pressing in hierarchical subjects like maths – which probably explains why maths teachers tend to be so supportive of setting –  but exists in other subjects too.

It’s an issue in even the most cumulative subjects like history, where the vast scope (and recently expanded) exam specifications mean the volume of what needs to be learned is now so huge those who struggle to keep up can find themselves further and further behind after every lesson. A teacher who chooses to teach to mastery for every child in their class will – almost certainly in most contexts – find they run out of time to finish the course and so hobble the outcomes of their most able pupils.

This is not just a maths or a history problem. Every teacher in just about every subject must make a compromise between what is best for their highest flyers and those in their classes who find things hardest and as children get older this becomes more and more difficult to do.

When I first began teaching nearly twenty years ago this problem was addressed by an ethos in which the aim was for children to work independently with their teacher supporting them on their individual areas of weakness. In these utopian classrooms all children would make progress from their unique starting points. This is why – I think – children were supposed to be able to parrot off personalised ‘targets’ at the drop of a school leader’s or inspector’s hat, and why whole-class instruction was often frowned upon. This usually proved impossible to practically implement and often resulted in the academically weakest pupils making the least progress. It made behaviour very hard to manage and – in my painful experience anyway – made for weird Kafkaesque environments in which children were able to say things like “I need to explain in more detail” without having the faintest idea of what this meant.

The crux of the problem was this approach really needed a fundamental restructuring of the way the entire education system worked to have hope of success. It needed small groups of children to be tutored intensively by polymaths in the way Alexander the Great was taught by Aristotle.

While such a restructuring might indeed lead to better education for England’s schoolchildren it is not a practical or even serious option. Without dramatic changes to taxation and associated funding – and then all the associated risks of such a huge change – there is simply no way to realise this vision.

We are – for better or worse – stuck with what we have.

So how do we make the best of it?

We should begin by acknowledging of the large group of children who don’t make much progress at secondary school there are many – probably most – who could make much more progress than they do. This is not pie-in-the-sky idealism. From Michaela in Brent in London, to Bedford Free School in the midlands and up to the Dixons Academy Chain in Bradford we have lots and lots of examples of places in which children learn more than might be predicted by their demographic.

The failure of large groups of pupils to learn lots of the curriculum is not inevitable. Good schools can change the stars of the children who attend them.

We should also acknowledge there is nothing in any exam specifications which definitively precludes any child from learning more of it. While many exam specifications could be improved to make their content more interesting and relevant there is nothing on any of them which simply can’t be learned, and there is something on every specification every child could learn more of.

High expectations – as ever – remain of inestimable importance. We must not allow the great struggles of some to push us to the sort of hopeless passivity that makes improvement feel impossible.

We should look to places – like Michaela, BFS and Dixons – where children do learn more than might be expected elsewhere and find out why. We should do this without ego and without defensiveness. When faced with great achievement elsewhere it is temptingly human to explain it away in terms that make it irrelevant to us and so miss things that are actually very relevant. It is easy to say ‘oh they were a start-up’ or ‘that school is in London’ or ‘their children come from a different demographic to ours’.

While all these things might well be true and even significant none of them should mean we avoid looking for how we might be able to do things better.

My hunch – I think my educated hunch – is a thing which unites the schools I’ve mentioned and probably hundreds more I haven’t is high participation ratios in classrooms. My hunch is an important thing that marks these schools out from those in which struggling pupils are not as successful is the extent to which children are properly engaged in lessons; how hard they are listening, how much they are properly paying attention and how committed they are to the tasks their teachers set for them. This is something many visitors to such schools seem to find surprising – lessons are not monkishly quiet – there is lots of talking and when a class responds together it is loud!

It is also my hunch – again I think educated, based on years of teaching now – that in schools where struggling pupils are less successful these children have become too accustomed to not learning very much in their lessons. It is my fear there are a great many struggling children who believe they are colluding in a game in which their role is to be physically present in a classroom and to make a pretence they are learning in it, but that nobody really believes anything meaningful is ever accomplished and this doesn’t really matter. I fear for some of these children school is simply somewhere to be while they wait for their real lives to start.

In the classrooms where struggling children learn the most teachers break this paradigm.

They change the goal of the game to be learning what was taught and not getting through an hour without being noticed. They know what they expect all children to know by the end of each teaching sequence and plan techniques that give them certainty they do. They check for understanding and respond to what they learn from this all the time, both live in the moment and when planning the next lessons. They ask loads and loads of questions – both quick questions on things they’ve just said to check everyone is paying attention, to planned longer more involved questions that demand deeper thought. They target questions at children based on what they know of them. They read the written work of their pupils and change their planning based on what they learn from this. They don’t allow some children to sit quietly doing nothing because their attendance is bad or because they are often poorly behaved. They do not have children on their register they have implicitly given up on.

They use whole class techniques like choral response. They train their classes in the use of mini-whiteboards. When they find a child can’t answer a question they rephrase it and if the child still can’t answer they stop and they re-teach even if this means they won’t move on to things they’d planned to move on to. If all their information gathering reveals a really significant gap they may abandon the lesson they had planned completely and teach a different one. They never allow children to think it’s OK not to know and not to try and find out.

At these schools leaders respect the ability of their teachers to work out what their pupils don’t know and respond appropriately. They do not make knee-jerk judgements about competency based on how far on through a curriculum they are.

None of this – of course – can solve the systemic tension between learning for all pupils and the sorting function of examinations. However well we teach we will always have the persistent problem of what to do when faced with children who know varying amounts. In the past I’ve written lots about this and won’t go into it again here. Soloman Kingsnorth is right – for many children the curriculum might well be too large and they might well be better served by learning less, better.  

But this is not an ideal world and we must not allow the constraints we work in to crush us when there are things it is in our gift to do something about. There is much in our gift. It is possible to be more effective even when working within flawed systems. While we will never eliminate it we can reduce the gaps between what our academically strongest and weakest pupils know by expecting more from those that struggle most. There may indeed be thousands of children who are disadvantaged by the way we have chosen to organise assessment but there are also thousands who could learn more than they do.

I – of course – am a long, long way from cracking this as a teacher and will not conclude this piece by suggesting I’m anything but a work in progress. I am human and have been teaching long enough to know how tempting it is to avoid asking a struggling pupil a question because I fear a dispiriting “dunno” on a rainy, depressing Tuesday afternoon.

I still fall to bad habits too often.

But I also know this isn’t good enough and my failure – for example – to properly learn how to use mini-whiteboards means there is much still left to do. My pupils have a long way to go before their biggest problem becomes the content and organisation of the courses I teach.

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Removal System

Schools without a centralised system for removing children from lessons should consider introducing one.

Removal systems are procedures teachers use to remove a child from their lesson after a warning or two have been given.

I tweeted about this earlier today as if schools without these were things of the distant past but the number of people replying suggested not being able to remove children from lessons is still a problem for some teachers.

I thought it worth a blog post.

For years I worked in schools in which removing children was pretty much impossible unless there was an emergency. Even in these instances there was no real system – there would be shouting and the commotion would prompt someone to ring someone and eventually that someone would arrive to take away perpetrator and victim.

Other than situations like that I was on my own.

I find this hard to comprehend now. What on earth did I do if a child chose to talk constantly while I was? Or if they flat refused to open their book? Or if they began humming and dragged half the class in with them? I honestly struggle to remember.

I think this is because a lot of the time I did nothing.

Or in the words of the time ‘strategically ignored low level disruption.’ I tried my best to teach those who weren’t behaving badly while the others did what they wanted. I’d attempt to encourage, reason with or even plead with those who were disrupting others. If those choosing to behave really badly became a very serious distraction I’d get angry and argue with them which almost never worked and usually made things even worse. Sometimes I’d form a sort of informal buddy system with a colleague and we’d help each other out which was lovely in a sort of ‘we are the resistance’ way but always felt more of a workaround then genuine strategy.

In some places I’ve heard about but – thank goodness- – never had to work in there are quasi-removal systems which slyly allow removal but make life unpleasant for teachers who use it. There are some real horror stories about these places – children being returned to a class because someone disagrees with their reason for removing a child or being interrogated afterwards as to what they did to cause the child to behave badly.

I think a defence of this sort of thing is that it forces teachers to build relationships – a fear teachers who are allowed to remove children from their lessons will do so aggressively to avoid having to ever deal with children they don’t like. I don’t think this is true and for me the absence of a removal system certainly did not help me make productive relationships. The ongoing attrition and daily low-level rudeness and surliness I had to endure made retaining positive regard for the most challenging children in my classes a gargantuan professional effort which I’m sure was regularly seen through.

The impact of all this varied wildly.

Some classes presented me with few problems as there were almost never behaviour issues and on the rare occasions there were a raised eyebrow or a disappointed look did the job. At the other end of the spectrum there were some classes I just hated teaching all year and wrecked evenings and weekends.

The most insidious effect was how it changed the curriculum and the way I taught it. My planning had to be informed by the likelihood there would be many children in many of my classes that wouldn’t engage and there was little I could do about it. I needed to plan sections of my lessons which allowed me to spend time one-on-one with disruptive children trying to de-escalate behaviour and encourage better self-regulation.

It meant not trying to talk much to the whole class or planning tasks which required silent concentration. It meant reducing challenge for everyone because the deep concentration and support challenge needs to be successful simply wasn’t available in my classroom. This changed what I taught as well as how I taught. Some topics were simply too complex or sensitive to go near.

The cumulative effect of all this was a general deflation of standards and expectations.

Everyone behaved worse than they should have so everyone learned less than they should have. Those rare children who concentrate as hard as they can all the time (and bless these) couldn’t concentrate hard because they were distracted. Poor behaviour and slow progress were so I stopped even recognising behaviour was poor and progress slow. When the sharp end of exam season approached we’d try to fix the problem by running extra intervention sessions for those pupils who were most behind and almost invariably these would be the least engaged and most disruptive.

I suspect a root cause of it was the demonstrable nonsense being physically present in a lesson meant something was learned by a sort of osmosis – as if a pupil who’d just spent half an hour making paper aeroplanes would absorbed their quadratic equations had they not been removed from the second half of maths.

It was all very depressing.

Moving to schools where there were simple and clear systems for the removal of pupils from lessons if they misbehaved was revelatory. Suddenly behaviour management became possible. Suddenly was able to construct and re-enforce positive working relationships with challenging children. Suddenly – almost overnight in fact – my planning became unrecognisable.

There is nothing special about me. I am certain there are thousands of teachers who would quickly discover they are much better teachers than they think they are if they moved to a school with a removal system from a school without one.

Nothing is a panacea. Removal systems won’t solve all problems.

A teacher who struggles to build and maintain relationships with their pupils is likely to find this hard regardless and a teacher who struggles to explain and model well won’t magically improve just because they can remove a child from their lesson for talking while they do. But despite these limitations teachers are more likely to improve if they have control over what happens in their rooms and behaviour is likely to be better when children know there are limits to what they can and can’t do in lessons. Deregulated children are far more likely to get the support they need in a space away from where the flare-up occurred.

The overall effect of this is game-changing. Things become much simpler and the way forward more obvious. Support can be properly targeted and used more strategically. At my school we do have a mature removal system. Today I was delighted to walk into a wonderful lesson to see one of our brilliant Year Managers helping a lovely but sometimes hard to manage young man concentrate on his work so he would not behave badly, would learn something and wouldn’t be removed.

I checked later and pleasingly he did, he didn’t, he did and he wasn’t.

This is exactly how things should be.

So who knows? Perhaps your school’s biggest lever is simpler than you think.

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Fear, bravery and courage – an assembly

Good morning.

Today’s assembly is on bravery. I thought about it all last week.

My first plan was to make a slide show of lots of brave people – maybe a video –  and celebrate their achievements but my thoughts went in a different less comfortable direction.

I began thinking about what bravery and courage are and the difference between them.

I thought a lot about why we need them and realised we can’t really understand these words without beginning with something much less pleasant.

Fear.

So today I want to talk to you about fear and bravery and courage. I hope you find what I have to say interesting.

First of all we must consider – think about – fear. Fear is not a pleasant emotion. It is the feeling in your stomach something bad – perhaps something very bad – is about to happen. It comes accompanied with a sense of losing control. When we experience fear we find it much harder to think straight. We can behave defensively. We can shut down. We often get angry – often with the people we trust the most and those trying to help us.

In response to fear we talk about being brave a lot.

When my two year old daughter falls and scrapes her knee – after cuddles, kisses and reassurance –  we tell her to be brave.

When someone suddenly gets nervous before singing a song in front of the whole school their Head of Year might tell them ‘be brave! You can do it!’ When our Y11s go into their final exams as a school we will wish them well and we might say to them ‘we know it’s hard but give it your best shot! Be brave!’

I think a lot of the time when we save ‘be brave’ what we really mean is ‘don’t make a fuss.’ We mean we know something is hard but the best way to deal with it is to, in the words our school poem ‘just buckle in with a bit of a grin,’ step forward and confront it head on.

This is not always bad advice. Life is not always comfortable. There are lots of things in the world we don’t want to do but have to.

Some things – like exams and driving tests and presentations at work – are scary but unavoidable. In those cases – for most but not all of us – working hard, mastering our discomfort and doing our best is the most positive step we can take.

This is something understood by many cultures in the world. When I lived in Ethiopia my friends used the phrase ‘Iszo, ambessar!” when I was poorly or had a lot of work to do or was really tired. It means ‘be brave, lion!” and was meant as a positive affirmation of my ability to deal with my problems and the faith of my friends that I could.

But it is interesting we only seem to say ‘be brave’ in situations that might be very uncomfortable but don’t fill us with deep dread. We tend not to say ‘be brave’ to people diagnosed with a very serious disease. We don’t say ‘be brave’ to someone who has just lost a loved one or to someone who has been in a terrible accident resulting in life changing injuries.

I think this is because we know ‘be brave’ often really means ‘get on with it’ and when things are very serious this become inappropriate and grotesque advice. When things are at their very worst – when we feel the bite of life’s jaws most – we do not want someone to tell us not to moan or complain.

I know this well and so do many of you.

When life is at its stormiest – when clouds make it feel as if there is no hope, we need courage, which is a word with a different heavier feel.

Courage is frightening because it comes wrapped in pain, sorry, shame and loss.

It is what we hope and pray for when we question our capacity to cope with the things terrifying us. It is uncomfortable and disconcerting because it means looking into our hearts and acknowledging the weaknesses and flaws inside. It means admitting we doubt our ourselves and feel scared, small and alone. It means wishing what was happening wasn’t happening to us – perhaps even wishing it would happen to someone else –  and fighting the urge to run and hide or to let someone else take on our burden.

This feeling can be actually physically disabling.

Once – in a hospital facing news too big to take in – I found myself hunched on the floor of a stairwell struggling to breathe and unable to stand for quite a long time

I did not need someone to tell me to be brave then. Oh no. I did not want that. That would not have been welcome at all.

At terrible times when we need courage the start of comfort is knowing we are not the first people to feel like this and will not be the last. Fear and the courage we need to master it are part of what it means to be human and as we are all human it is in us. It is.

In Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings Frodo, Bilbo’s nephew from the Hobbit – who some of you have met in form time reading – confides to the wizard Gandalf he wishes he could live in a different time.  Gandalf replies with one of the most well-known passages in the trilogy.

He says:

So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

Like all great fiction it is true.

Courage is small day-by-day, minute-by-minute and second-by-second acts. It is making lots of small, hard decision with uncertain outcomes not because they will result in a happy ending but because they are the right thing to do. This is also something understood by Frodo’s best friend Sam Gangee, who encourages him in a dark moment by saying the reason the most important stories are different to everyday stories is because:

“Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going, because they were holding on to something. That there is good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.”

This is courage. It is the putting of one foot in front of the other even when at the time it appears futile to do so.

This is something also expressed well – beautifully actually – by one of my old students who as an eleven-year-old wrote an essay in which she said “I know I am not naturally a very brave person so I have to try really hard every day to do the things that scare me.”

This has stayed with me ever since.

In her honesty about her fears she defined courage better than I have ever seen done before or since

True courage is the recognition we are small and weak and cannot carry our burdens all alone. It a scared, exhausted voice saying to a friend ‘I don’t think I can do this. I need help.’

Fear is different for all of us. What some of us find just uncomfortable others find terrifying and it is not our place to question what other people say they feel. Some nurses who specialise in helping those in great physical pain measure it in their patients by saying ‘it hurts as much as they say it hurts whenever they say it hurts, for as long as they say it hurts’.

I think this is a helpful way of thinking about fear in others too.

We should not gaslight or question or doubt what people say. Instead we should pay respectful attention and believe what we are told.

What then should we do?

Encourage.

The word encourage – to give courage –  is what I would like you to leave this assembly thinking about. When someone we know in our community at home or in school is feeling fear and doubting themselves what can we do to give them courage? How can we be Sam to Frodo to our own family and friends? What can we do which is better than saying ‘be brave’ and walking away? What can we do to show them that while the road they walk might be twisting and dark and uneven and have no end in sight they are not all alone.

And actually I will finish with a video. I tricked you by suggesting we would not be watching one at the beginning because I didn’t want you distracted by thoughts of what was to come. Sorry about that. The video shows true courage. You may have seen it before – I am certain your teachers will have – but if you have I hope you will see it differently after this assembly.

The video shows 400m sprinter Derek Redmond -a talented athlete unlucky with injuries – in his last Olympics . All the athletes running were brave of course. To train that hard for that long and to put yourself up against the best in the world requires great bravery. But there is much more than that in this video. Half-way round the track Derek Redmond’s hamstring goes. He goes down. There is no hope of victory. He drops to his knees – his dreams in tatters around him. All his worst fears have been realised in front of the whole world.

Then –  for no reason but it is the right thing to do he gets up and he hops round the rest of the way. This is courage. He can’t win but carries on because it is the right thing to do. And then what happens? His father – knowing what this means and the courage his son is showing runs onto the track to help him. To encourage. And what do the crowd do? They see this courage and they respond. They are on their feet cheering not because Derek Redmond will win but because they know they are witnessing something even more important.

They too encourage.

Here it is.

So what will you do to encourage? Perhaps there isn’t a more important question.

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Good news

It is unfortunate bad news gets lots of attention while good news usually gets much less.

Bad news gets delivered formally.

You get it in small scary offices with tissues on the desk.

It is given by people with long job titles and concerned, serious faces. It comes accompanied by paperwork and appointments. This is how people are told their disease is degenerative. This is how people are told they are being made redundant or that they aren’t pregnant. This is how parents are told their child has a condition that is certainly lifelong and could be grave.

Bad news is an event that brands dates onto the minds of those receiving it.

Good news is more of a process and easily slips unnoticed into the wash of life.

It starts with faint glimmers the worst case might not be the actual case – too faint to really trust or believe in. Then – like mountain rescue appearing from thick fog – it solidifies and becomes real. Eventually without anyone ever saying so the facts coalesce and becomes the truth; an undramatic all-clear letter. A negative test. The realisation you may never need to have a certain type of appointment again.

Good news is a message from a wife to a husband saying a daughter’s heart condition has improved to such an extent she might be discharged from cardiology.

We got this news on Friday and – well timed – on Sunday we celebrated with the Williams Syndrome Association Christmas Party.

On the dancefloor a man of about my age drew a spontaneous standing ovation from a hundred people with a dance to The Circle Of Life. A teenager flattered my wife by asking her to be his girlfriend. Our two little girls were delighted by Father Christmas presenting them with snuggly Koala Bear Hot Water Bottles. Everywhere we saw Bessie’s face in the faces of others with her condition – a look that makes them part of a family beyond those of their blood – a family familiar with hardship but filled with life and thrilled to see each other.

In the midst of this happy chaos and afterwards driving home in the snow I made space to think about our journey and how much we’ve all changed in the last few years.

When Bessie received her diagnosis I did not want any of this. Thinking of days like today was frightening.

I did not want to be a parent who had appointments with doctors and educational psychologists.

I did not want to do EHCPs or attend parties for people with genetic conditions.

I did not want this sort of life.

But I also did not know there would be great news and new interests and important new friendships. I did not know I would change and I would love the sort of parties we attended today.

There are still things I do not want to do and things I’d rather not have to deal with, but I know this to be true of everyone everywhere. More importantly I now know nobody gets to swap bits of a life for bits of other people’s lives and that were this even possible it would mean exchanging things I love beyond words for meaningless and immaterial hypotheticals.

Sunday was one of The Best Days. There will be Bad Days in the future but I cannot do anything about these.

They cannot even be predicted.

So I won’t try. Instead with inevitable human stumbles and ill-tempered frailty I will try to be vigilant for happiness and to mark it when it arrives. I will try to be ready for those moments when suddenly I realise this is it and it is happening now! I will try not to let the good news slip quietly into the night.

I will mark it.

At the party both my daughters wanted to dance.

There I was, as enthusiastic as I was clumsy, embarrassing and poorly co-ordinated. “First on the dancefloor! You’ve changed,” my wife said to me, laughing.

She’s right. I have and I am glad.

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Remembrance Assembly – Lodge Park Academy

The image on the board is my Grandad. He was a member of the Royal Artillery during World War Two and fought in the Battle for Hong Kong. He was captured by the Japanese on Christmas Day 1941 and spent the next four years as a Prisoner of War. While I was growing up I spent lots of time in my Grandad’s company. We would talk about what happened in those fateful years, he would regale me with stories of how his unit fought bravely until forced to surrender. As I got older the stories developed into ones concerning the bravery of some of his comrades that didn’t make it home. Men that had made the ultimate sacrifice. It was in these stories that my fascination with World War Two and the people who fought in it started.

Every year on 11th November, across the whole nation, people stand and observe a two-minute silence. This has become a normal event; one we know is going to happen and one that we take part in without necessarily thinking what it really means.

At its most basic level Remembrance Day is about remembering those who have died fighting in wars and conflicts. Throughout history people have remembered those who die in wars. Overwhelmingly the people killed have been men. While women can now serve in front line rolls in the Armed Forces this is a recent development.

In this country’s history hundreds of thousands of men have been killed in wars all around the world. Looking back, we can say some of these wars were for just causes whilst others were not. But whether these wars were just or not does not take away the pain and sense of loss felt by those that these men left behind. Parents mourned their children, wives their husbands and children their fathers. Churches throughout Britain have plaques inside them dedicated to people who have been killed in wars going back hundreds of years. Rich families paid for these memorials to their fallen sons to commemorate them. We can only imagine the grief that poorer families felt when they realised that the men they had waved off to war were not coming back. They didn’t have the money to pay for elaborate memorials for them, but their sadness and sense of loss would have been the same.

But Remembrance Day is something different, it’s something bigger.

Remembrance Day dates to 1919. It was inaugurated as Armistice Day by King George V as a way for the country to honour the sacrifices made by soldiers in the First World War. It is celebrated in Commonwealth and other countries around the world. As the First World War had ended “at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month” this was chosen as a suitable Day for remembrance.

It is impossible for us to comprehend the shock that the First World War was to British society at the time. Nearly 750,000 British soldiers were killed and very few places in Britain didn’t suffer the death of some of its residents. As men from communities were allowed to sign up with their friends and then to fight together in many cases towns suffered huge losses. This overwhelming sense of community grief felt in village after village, in town after town and indeed across the whole nation was something new that hadn’t been experienced before.

Another aspect of the outpouring of grief concerned the numbers of dead soldiers whose bodies were missing and would never be found. The violence of new weapons such as machine guns and heavy artillery meant that in many cases no identifiable remains were left behind and so soldiers were buried in graves with no names. Over 70,000 Allied soldiers killed in 1916 at the Battle of the Somme were reported as missing with no body ever being identified. Even those whose bodies had been recovered and identified were now buried far away in Military Cemeteries in France or Belgium where few families could hope to visit.

The following year, on 11th November 1920, the body of an unidentified British soldier was buried in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in London. The idea behind this was to commemorate all the soldiers who had died. The bodies of several unidentified soldiers from different battlefields were brought to London and one was chosen at random. This soldier was given a State Funeral and buried in Westminster Abbey. The coffin was covered with soil brought from various battlefields of the First World War. Tens of thousands of people silently filed past the grave paying their respects. The ceremony served as a form of collective mourning on a scale not previously known. Finally, the tomb was covered with a slab of black Belgian marble bearing the following inscription:

Beneath this stone rests the body
Of a British warrior
Unknown by name or rank
Brought from France to lie among
The most illustrious of the land
And buried here on Armistice Day
11 Nov: 1920, in the presence of
His Majesty King George V
His Ministers of State
The Chiefs of his forces
And a vast concourse of the nation

Thus are commemorated the many
Multitudes who during the Great
War of 1914 – 1918 gave the most that
Man can give life itself
For God
For King and country
For loved ones home and empire
For the sacred cause of justice and
The freedom of the world

They buried him among the kings because he
Had done good toward God and toward
His house

It is the only tomb in Westminster Abbey that visitors are forbidden from walking on.

Across the country War Memorials were built in cities, towns and villages. The names of the men from each settlement proudly displayed on them. They were built in prominent places where they could be seen by people every day. They were not hidden away in the corners of parks or cemeteries. There was a real determination that the sacrifices made by the men who died would not be forgotten. Armistice Day slowly evolved into Remembrance Day. Each year veterans from the war would proudly march through their hometowns and villages to a service held at the War Memorial where the entire community would turn out to remember their dead.

The features that we associate with Remembrance Day took shape as well. Poppies were worn. The poppy was the first flower to appear on the shattered battlefields after the fighting ended. Its bright red colour representing the blood shed by the men whose remains still laid buried beneath the ground.

The service would include the playing of The Last Post by a single bugler. The Last Post was normally played at the close of the military day. In wars that took place before the First World War after a battle had been fought soldiers would have been assigned the duty of watching over the battlefield. This duty continued throughout the night after The Last Post had sounded. This was not just to ensure they the bodies were indeed dead and not just badly wounded or unconscious, but also to guard them from being mutilated by the enemy or dragged off by scavengers. This makes the ritual of playing The Last Post more than just an act of remembrance it is also a pledge to guard the honour of the war dead.

That brings us to how we could view the act of remembrance. We are guarding the honour and the memory of the dead. By taking a few moments out of our lives each year to remember the sacrifice that these people made we ensure that their collective sacrifice is not forgotten.

Indeed, the famous poem “For the Fallen”, a verse of which is read out before the two-minute silence as part of the Remembrance Service, talks of this:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

We will remember them. We will remember what they did. We will remember what they gave.

It is the collective nature of Remembrance Day that gives it its power. It is not just about individual mourning, as important as that is, but about the whole community joining together to acknowledge and remember. We are all members of many different communities. Where we live, where we are from, our friends, our families and of course the school community which we refer to as our LPA Family.

We should all be thankful for the fact that there were so many people willing to face the danger of death to defend what they believed in. Both in the First and Second World War millions of British people left their civilian lives behind and entered the Armed Services to fight for what they felt was an important cause. Hundreds of thousands of these people lost their lives while others were wounded and bore the scars of those wars for the rest of their lives.

I’m sure if you were to look back through your family histories you would find relatives who served in the World Wars. My Great Grandad and both his brothers fought in the First World War. My Great, Great Uncle George was killed in the Battle of the Somme. Like thousands of his comrades his body was never found. His name is on the War Memorial in Aldeburgh in Suffolk. It is also on the Thiepval Memorial in France alongside the names of 72,194 other soldiers who were killed in 1916 but have no known grave. His photo and medals are proudly displayed in my home.

Many of you will have family who have served more recently or indeed are still serving now. Some of these family members may have been killed, wounded or be suffering from the after-effects of having seen active service. I do not see that there is any problem with you extending your thoughts during the two minutes of silence when we remember the dead to also think about the service of those people as well.

From our local community of Corby many men went off to war and never returned. The total population of Corby was about 1,500 during the First World War. The War Memorial in the Old Village records the names of 28 men who were killed in action in that conflict. Twenty-eight families for whom life would never be the same again. Twenty years later Corby had grown to a town of 12,000 people. Many of the men of Corby were not allowed to go and fight in World War Two as their jobs in the Steelworks were considered too important to the national war effort. Despite this the names of a further 47 Corby men would be added to the War Memorial when the war ended in 1945.

Whilst the world has thankfully avoided another global conflict on the scale of the two World Wars, British Forces have still seen action around the globe. Between the end of World War Two in 1945 and today there are only four years that haven’t seen a British soldier killed in action. They are 1968, 2016, 2017 and 2019.

It is in these more recent conflicts that our LPA Family has suffered. Many students from Lodge Park have gone on to join the Armed Forces having completed their studies. Of these many students, two paid the ultimate price for their service and were killed in action.

Before I talk a little about these two men and the heroic actions that led to their deaths, I want to talk about how I feel as a current member of the LPA Family. Whenever I talk about the two of them, read about their exploits or indeed write about them in the school’s history newsletter I find it strange to think that they walked these very corridors, they sat in assembly in this hall, they played football on the same field outside and they went to lessons in the classrooms that we will all use today. They had good days and they bad days, they had lessons they enjoyed and others that they didn’t. They were no different to you and you are no different to them.

Alex Shaw was born in Glasgow but moved to Corby when he was nine. He went to Lodge Park school where he was the captain of the basketball team. Having left Lodge Park Alex joined the Royal Marines and quickly fell in love with the Military lifestyle. When he was due to get married, Alex felt that he needed to leave the forces and to spend more time with his wife. He got a job as a postman and soon after had a son. But at the back of his mind was a nagging feeling that he missed the life and camaraderie of the armed forces. Alex decided to rejoin and became a Craftsman in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers.

When Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in April 1982 Alex was sent as part of the Task Force to retake the islands. Alex would serve alongside the 3rd Battalion of The Parachute Regiment (3 Para) during the coming battles. On the night of 11th June 1982 3 Para was assigned to capture Mount Longdon, a mountain overlooking Port Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands.

The fighting on Mount Longdon was vicious. By the end of the night the British had 23 soldiers killed and another 50 wounded. However, the peak was now in British hands and the remaining Argentinian troops retreated to positions around Port Stanley.

Even having suffered heavy losses and been forced from the mountains the Argentinians didn’t surrender and instead started to shell the British troops who dug in on the mountains.

 The day after the heavy fighting on Mount Longdon, Alex was flown on to the mountain by helicopter to give support to the mortar platoon and machine gun platoon. Some of their weapons had become inoperable during the heavy fighting on the mountain and the fear of an Argentinian attack meant they needed to be fixed quickly.  Having left the helicopter Alex moved to the exposed front-line positions to fix the broken weapons. Shortly after he arrived the position came under fire from Argentine artillery. Alex was hit and fatally wounded, despite the gallant efforts of the unit’s soldiers and medics to save him.

The next day the Argentinian forces surrendered.

James Ashworth was killed in 2012. He also attended Lodge Park. Indeed, he is well remembered by the teachers who were here when he was a student and still work here now. James joined the Army after finishing school. He became a member of the Grenadier Guards, one of the most prestigious units in the British Army. It was with this unit that James was deployed to Afghanistan to fight against the Taliban. The action in which James would lose his life has become well known. For the exceptional bravery he displayed James was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest honour that can be bestowed on a member of the British Armed Forces.

On 13th June 2012 Lance Corporal Ashworth was part of a Reconnaissance Platoon on an operation to destroy a dangerous Taliban sniper team. As the helicopters they were in landed they were hit by enemy fire. Unflustered, Ashworth ran 300 metres with his team into the heart of the enemy village. After a brief fire fight Ashworth’s unit was called forward to engage the enemy. Ashworth insisted on moving to the front of his unit to lead the pursuit. Approaching the entrance to a group of buildings from which enemy machine gun fire raged he threw a grenade and surged forward. Ashworth quickly drove the enemy back and into a small building from where they continued to fire at the British soldiers.

 Ashworth’s unit was now being attacked from all angles by Taliban forces desperate to save their prized sniper team. The platoon needed to eliminate the final sniper and then get away quickly as possible. Ashworth realised that the situation was becoming critical. He spotted a low wall that would provide him with just enough cover to get sufficiently close to the enemy to accurately throw his final grenade. As he started to crawl behind the wall and towards the enemy, a fierce fire fight broke out above him. Undaunted by the extraordinary danger Ashworth continued to crawl forwards. After a few minutes he had moved fifteen metres and was now within five metres of the enemy position. Desperate to ensure that he could accurately throw the grenade, he then deliberately crawled out from cover into the full view of the Taliban. Spotted by the enemy, bullets struck ever closer to Ashworth.  Finally, in the act of throwing his grenade he was hit by enemy fire and killed. Ashworth’s brave actions spurred his platoon on to complete the clearance of the buildings and to defeat the enemy forces.

Having started this assembly with a story that is personal to me it is fitting that I can end it with the story of these two men, who as part of our school community, is personal to all of us.

When the Two minutes silence on Thursday starts you should now have a better understanding of what it represents. While we stand together in silence as a school community you can think of those countless young men who died fighting to protect the United Kingdom in the two world wars, you can think of your own family members who fought or who served in the country’s Armed Forces, or you can think of Alex Shaw and James Ashworth, two fine members of the Lodge Park Family, who made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their country.

By Mike Murray

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Mission to the Moon 4: It’s not important whose fault it is

I missed the release of the second season of the BBC World Service’s “Thirteen Minutes to the Moon.”

I’m catching up on it now.

The first season – about the Apollo 11 Moon Landing – is very good.

I ended up writing a short sequence of blog posts about what I felt I’d learned from it, which came down to the advantages of leaders devolving problems to those closest to them and then removing obstacles which make these difficult to solve.

The second series – about the rescue of the doomed Apollo 13 – is even better.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Apollo 13 was supposed to land on the moon. Things went badly wrong after an explosion set off a chain of associated problems that quickly ruled out any possibility of a moon landing and then made the survival of the astronauts on board deeply improbable.

The facts – perhaps dulled a little by time and familiarity – are terrifying.

Hundreds of thousands of miles from home drifts a stricken tin can with barely any power, air or water. It is lost. It doesn’t even know which direction it is pointing in. It can’t use its telescopes to get bearings on stars because the whole dying ship is surrounded by a shroud of frozen glittering leaking gas. There is so little fuel left any burn of the rockets must be measured in tenths of a second.

Nobody – on board or in mission control in Houston – has trained for anything like this. There are no manuals or procedures and even if they existed there probably wouldn’t be enough time to consult them properly. Every minute decisions need to be made.

To be blunt and to steal a phrase from one of the Flight Commanders – the team is in ‘deep shit.’

While few of us working in schools have to endure such extreme challenges with stakes quite so high, we do know what it is to be under a very high amount of pressure in circumstances that feel untenable. This could be a spate of resignations leaving a maths department with no teachers or dramatically lower than expected GCSE results. It could be an Ofsted inspection calling into question things leaders had never questioned or it could be the sudden realisation a key piece of work such as arranging an options process simply hadn’t been done.

It could be lots of things.

When things like this happen in schools we can see very defensive reactions. Often – too often – at the point at which a crisis is most acute time and energy is used up by people trying to prove whatever has gone wrong is not their fault.

The Apollo 13 team mission was completely unconcerned with who to blame.

Whose fault the explosion was just wasn’t talked about. At all.

Instead, everyone involved focused on fixing the problems.

I think this goes beyond the immediacy of the situation at hand. It feels more like an embedded culture than it does a response to a particular crisis. It’s possible to see this in how sub-teams and individuals are so quick to give way when they think others have a better chance of coming up with a solution. You get the sense that defensiveness or concern with individual status just wouldn’t be compatible with being part of the team at all.

For NASA at that point it was not important to know who was to blame. Trying to find out would be a waste of time and effort.

None of this – of course – means that those working for NASA did not have to be accountable for anything. Nobody puts human beings into space and brings them back without clear goals and an expectation these will be achieved. I am certain underperformance was not tolerated. When things went wrong a great deal of time and effort afterwards went into finding out what, why and how to prevent similar problems occurring again.

What NASA did understand was that it was trying to do extraordinarily complicated things and any fixation on finding one cause– for example a mistake by one individual – would be to distort the truth and reductively limit the scope of what could be learned.

This is quite logical – if the answer to a complicated problem is artificially simplified – as in one person’s incompetence – then the investigation into it will stop at improving or sacking them, which then misses important learning points about why the person made the mistake they did, why it wasn’t picked up on and how the organisation could avoid putting someone else in a position that makes messing up more likely.

Like missions to space schools are very complicated and when things go wrong the reason isn’t usually down to one person’s mistakes. Too often in my career I’ve seen schools fail to recognise this and how this – like the explosion in Apollo 13 – creates a cascade of other problems. For example, a decline in GCSE results in one subject could be down to timetable changes, changes to staffing, a deterioration in general behaviour as much as it is down to the subject leader; to blame the subject leader would be to miss other necessary improvements and so make better results in the future less likely. It would also incentivise the subject leader to pass the blame on elsewhere and look to minimise their own culpability, which makes it less likely they’d improve at the things they genuinely needed to.

It also sets a dangerous momentum with staff learning survival – necessary in some contexts – is dependent on never admitting to mistakes or tolerating vulnerability. This can be a very hard mode of thought to break

Working somewhere that culturally doesn’t look to blame people –  as I am lucky enough to do now  – makes it much easier to improve. In such cultures energy goes into how to do stuff better, not wasted in things like desperately searching deleted emails for evidence you really did ask that person to do that thing that wasn’t done and is now a big problem.

This seems pretty obvious and clear, which invites questions as to why schools don’t always work like this. To just blame leaders for being mean and creating toxic environments would be to fall into the blame game again. It would be far more productive and useful to look at why some leaders are prone to making overly simple judgements and applying accountability measures in crude ways. This – almost certainly – is partially a result of the very blunt accountability measures placed upon schools and how our system responds to a failure to meet these. It may also often be a result of leaders simply not knowing enough to question their own hot-takes and generic leadership models which privilege fast decisive decision making as a virtue in of itself. It’s my hope the new suite of NPQs helps with this.

There are probably a lot of other reasons too.

But it doesn’t change the most important lesson from Apollo 13.

In complicated situations it is not good practice to spend a lot of time working out whose fault something is. There isn’t enough time and we don’t have enough energy. Schools should first try to work out how to fix problems then – later – find all the causes of the issue to create a stronger organisation less vulnerable to similar mistakes again.

My bet would be many schools – indeed many organisations in general – would find blame culture itself a major obstacle.

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Qualities of silence

At Lodge Park Academy we have lots of silence. We are silent at morning line up and in assemblies. We are silent at the beginning and end of lessons and we are silent when working independently.

We are not afraid of silence – we embrace it.

We like the calmness and stillness it brings and the opportunity for us to spend a little time in our own heads – opportunities to momentarily escape the stuff of the day and centre ourselves.

We like how silences are different – how some are filled with peace and some are prickly with pleasant anticipation. We like to be able to listen to what we are being told properly and we like our moments of thought and reflection.

And we like noise too.

In drama and music, when it’s break and lunch, when it’s sports day, when it’s time for our #LPAdance and when we sing happy birthday to members of our school family we are loud!

We recognise silence and noise need not be in tension. We understand they serve different purposes and there is place for both in every school day. Silence and noise are comfortable colleagues; the qualities of each allow us to appreciate the other.

This is not always the case.

Silence can be unpleasant. It can be tension filled and oppressive. When silence is used as punishment or simply to impose order for its own sake it can be stressfully charged. When members of a school community do not know why they are asked to be silent, looking at a silent class or assembly can be nerve-wracking – a contest of competing wills.

It happens when schools are uncomfortable with silence. It happens when there’s a cultural view something has gone wrong if everything is quiet. There are understandable reasons teachers feel this way. When I trained the silent classrooms were frowned upon and the ideal was a sort of mostly unattainable ‘working buzz’ in which everyone got loads of work done while chatting, sometimes about the work and sometimes not. The imposition of silence was viewed as an indication this had gone wrong and the teacher and class had failed.

I think this sort of belief persists in some places and this leads silence to be viewed as a punishment, which inevitably makes if feel horrible.

It should not be like this.

Today our Y11 filed into the hall in silence. They stood in front of their chairs without talking and waited quietly for an assembly to begin. In the comfortable, pleasant silence one student caught my eye and smiled with her eyes over the top of her mask.

I smiled back.

It was a good silence.

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Always Moving

For busy teachers having your own classroom is much better than not having your own classroom. It is much easier to stay organised and to begin and end lessons crisply when you are in charge of your own space.

I have not had my own classroom for many years and nor do I expect one.

As SLT with a comparatively light teaching timetable it is quite right I fit in around those with heavier loads than mine. I move between lots of different rooms and do my best with clear routines and forward planning to make things work smoothly.

It’s fine. I am not complaining.

Moving between rooms gives me privileges. One of these is insight into the day-to-day working of those teachers who have much busier timetables than I do. Using lots of classrooms means I get to see how lots of teachers work.

Highlighted timetables stuck next to their computer next to a handwritten note that says, “Be Seen Looking!” Teacher planning folders neatly laid out in chronological order from first lesson to last. A planner left open showing when homework has been set and when it is due. A carefully crafted system of stationary storage.

It is inspiring and humbling – a reminder beneath all the top-down strategies and policies and new visions there are hundreds of professionals whose ways of doing things are the only reason anything gets done at all. It is a reminder every time we make a change at school level – whether it’s a reordering of the school day or more time for reading – other have people to make changes too. When we ask our teachers to focus on something new, we are also asking them to adapt and shift what they do – to write new reminder post-its and to effortfully think about things they weren’t thinking about before.

Their classrooms show just how busy they are and how little slack there always is. They impress upon us how important it is we do not waste the time of those working in them – that when we do ask for change we must be as sure as we can be this will be for the best.

My migrations between other people’s classrooms in different schools reminds me to see our teachers as complete and complex human beings; sometimes tough and confident sometimes fragile and vulnerable. Sometimes walking through a private personal hell and sometimes joyfully living the best years of their lives.

The evidence is everywhere.

The dogeared copy of a poem stuck to the wall closest to the teacher’s desk. The wall of cards from colleagues and grateful pupils. A mug printed with the picture of a proud father and newborn baby. The incomprehensible in-joke notes from one work friend to another. The flowers that appear in a vase for reasons I will never know.

Once – years ago – I accidentally read what a card blue-tacked to a wall of a fortysomething year-old maths teacher said after it flapped open when I brushed against it. “Dear James. Good luck in your new job. You’ll be great. We are praying they are kinder and fairer people. All our love, mum and dad.”

Although it is not my business I still wonder what humdrum low grade horror lay behind that short message.

Those we work with are multi-dimensional, hardworking and of value beyond what they do for us.

We must be careful with their time and honour them as people. While what they do is important, they are always more than what they do.        

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