On being the change.

I’m not a naturally positive person most days. Teaching teenagers generally makes me happy, but I spend the bulk of my time in more of a crisis management type of role, dealing with other people’s problems and providing support and guidance for those in need. That role takes up a very significant amount of my time, so when I spend time in meetings that don’t actually require me being face to face with people, I get a bit resentful of the time I see being wasted.

How many times have you taught all day and then had to attend a meeting where you’re talked at for a couple of hours, for the sole purpose of dissemination of information and handing out of photocopies that you’ll likely never look at again once you’re released from captivity? I’m going to go ahead and guess that it’s far more hours than you can count. We’re really bad at having a meeting just because it’s on the calendar, or using a meeting just for administrative purposes. So it was a pleasant shock to find myself unintentionally leading a meeting at my school this week that, whilst it went far longer than scheduled, left me feeling invigorated and motivated about the future.

I’m a prolific reader of pretty much whatever I can get my hands on. I read all kinds of fiction from the classics to the trashy – the trashy more so when my workload is drowning me and I need some pure escapism. I love non-fiction long reads that I find online, often from the suggested reads that Pocket throw at me in their regular newsletter. One of my favourites was about a company and the process they went through for bottling and selling their cold brew coffee. I don’t even drink the stuff, but it was a fascinating process. I also engage in my fair share of professional reading; everything from blogs to news reports to journal articles find their way into my reading list at some point, as well as a number of books on varying topics.

A couple of weeks ago I came across the Achievement Unlocked project from North Yorkshire. I read the paper and several of the case studies and realised that there were an awful lot of similarities between the schools involved and my school, and that it would be useful to discuss with our Extended Leadership Team (ELT) to see what we could take from it and develop for ourselves. I checked with the boss to get it on the agenda and then copied it for the SLT and ELT, asking them to read it and bring it with them to our meeting. I must admit, in the back of my mind I felt like at least half of the people I gave it to wouldn’t read it before the meeting. Negative mindset, I know.

I hadn’t realised that this was going to be essentially the only thing on the agenda. I’d envisaged maybe 10-15 minutes of conversation about it, but actually we talked for a couple of hours. And it was positive discussion – it wasn’t a chance to berate individual colleagues for not having the right attitude to the improvements that need to be made, or anything like that. It was a genuine, engaging discussion about the key themes from this report and how we can adapt it to build and rebuild teaching and learning in our school so that ultimately we can improve the outcomes for the students we teach.

We’ve had a hard five or six years with multiple rounds of redundancies and three years of falling results. As a consequence to that, we’ve perhaps become a little too insular, a little too risk-averse, and a little too reliant on doing the same things again and again in the classroom. We’re working hard, but we’re not always working smart. We’re not talking about teaching and learning on a regular basis and sharing the good practice that we know is happening in every classroom. That need for a culture shift is one of the key themes in the report. If our time spent together is about admin, or is simply an opportunity for a few more vocal colleagues to complain about anything and everything, then we’re not only bringing ourselves down – we’re not focusing on our core business. If our results aren’t good enough, and haven’t been for a couple of years, then what we’re doing now isn’t working.

The need for a culture shift wasn’t the only key theme to the report. I also pulled out recurring mentions of better use of teaching assistants, the need to overcome literacy poverty, and perhaps more importantly the need to engage parents and the community in more effective ways than we currently do. That need to engage the community is also perhaps part of a culture shift.

I left the meeting buzzing. We’re looking to revamp our meetings for next year – not our calendar, but a shift in focus from disseminating information to sharing of good practice. We’re going to look at building in more discussion of teaching and learning in morning briefings, whether this means changing one of the two from admin to pedagogy or adding a third one per week. We were already reintroducing action groups, but we’re renaming them as Teaching and Learning Action Groups so that teaching and learning is at the forefront of their purpose.

Personally, I won’t be in school to attend most of these meetings but I’m taking responsibility for providing pre-reading material for various groups of staff, so that they can then discuss them at the appropriate time. First on my list? Mary Myatt’s work and in particular the high challenge, low threat material that I’ve heard her discuss at Northern Rocks and am looking into more. For me, high challenge, low threat isn’t just for challenging our students – it’s also for challenging staff to improve.

I feel like I’ve been asking for things like this for a very long time, and now it’s starting to finally take shape. Fingers crossed the enthusiasm lasts beyond the first snow next year and that we don’t slip back into our old ways of doing what isn’t working well enough.

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