Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Arthur Prufrock
It’s been a hard week, hell, it’s been a hard term.
That’s the cliche. It’s true though. And I could have started every blog that I managed to grab some time to write in the past three months with the same phrase. The tapestry of schools is such that they are a viscous entity, hard to grasp sometimes and just when you think you’ve got a firm grip they slide away again and leave you feeling “new” again. Not inexperienced or incapable or not “having the stomach” for it. Just new and a bit perplexed, perhaps even a little punch drunk or at least “on the ropes”.
It was wisely put into context for me by a comment this week: “if the worst thing you can say when you go home at the end of the day is that you’ve done your job, then that’s a good day”. More so, this is the job. What I’m doing. It’s the job. It’s not exceptional. It’s the job. This helps me to rationalise the bad days. The days where, as well as dealing with the day to day grind of those students in school who gravitate more quickly to SLT, we are dealing with being the word “no” and, sometimes, forcing an agenda forward when I’d rather be tugging it gently and beckoning colleagues along with me. When you’re a middle leader you pass the bad news back to your team as someone else’s agenda, as SLT the agenda is ours. It’d be nice if it was everyone’s. But it’s clear from some conversations I’ve had in the past weeks that that isn’t always the case. As I said to some confused faces just the other day, “I’m not in Kansas anymore”. Then I had to explain myself. Wish I’d never opened my mouth really.
In my job I’m lucky in that I get to consider the big questions:
How do we grow great teachers? What CPD will have the desired impact, rapidly, to consolidate great practice amongst the good and to clarify the path for those amongst us who need the message more clearly? It’s the improving teacher quality question.
How do we challenge and support teachers whose practice is consistently and persistently requiring improvement?
How do we balance both of these items in a climate under which Unions are growing a power base with some merit to their complaints?
How do we ensure, in the context of all the above points, that Performance Management is a securely challenging and rigorous process, grounded enough in our day to day practice and yet, at the same time, challenging enough to ensure that we grow professionally?
How do we gather information, monitor and evaluate practice in fair ways that promote high performance, encourage accountability and spur us on to be even better by showing us what good looks like?
How does a school, an institution, a building even, communicate its culture and ethos and values about language and literacy? If a guest was just to take a walk through the building, how would it communicate these aspects?
How can we get kids to read? To read well, and widely and invest in the power that it will give them beyond the walls of school in a context in which over half of them have reading ages well below their chronological age?
How can we do all of the above before the next Ofsted?
There isn’t a shorthand and there certainly isn’t a silver bullet. There are the exceptional people that you work with in all areas, there’s the plan and there’s the days that knock the stuffing out of you. The days that, however clichéd this may sound remind you of where your moral compass is set. The days when a child leaves the school building to go to care, the day when you discover the background of other more challenging students and the days when there is clear futility of a future already clear for some students. A bleak one. This is the job. It’s not exceptional. It’s the job. As a member of SLT now, it’s clearer than ever before that the move for rapid improvement, the need to ensure outstanding outcomes is not for Ofsted, it’s a necessity for our constituents and for our colleagues. To feel good in your skin, your professional skin can only improve everything for everybody. Ofsted will simply measure how well and to what extent it has been achieved.
Speak Softly…and carry a Slide Rule
I was dragged to a vintage fair recently and almost bought my Dad a “throwback” gift for Christmas. I recognised it, the box, the same as the one Dad showed me when we were kids, it was a classic slide rule. Dad was a precision engineer by trade and moved into time and motion or “work study”, all areas that required a forensic eye and an intricate eye for detail. He’s still the same now, vegetables are cut in a very particular fashion. It made me think about work and the attitude and approach I want to engender.
I want middle leads to reflect on their curriculum areas in particular with a forensic eye for detail. A realism and specificity about what they want from their teachers, communicated through actions and evaluation. I don’t want them to tell me to stay away, I want them to pre-empt the questions that, they should know, I will ask. I want them to be strategic and operational, making it work, challenging and supporting and importantly, holding to account when standards aren’t where they need to be. For this, they need the support of their Assistants and the other colleagues in their areas who move and shake everything forward. These aren’t just the young and excited and the new, these are the experienced reliable old stagers who have seen it all before too. It’s another cliche but it’s more than the phrase, distributed leadership. For me, this means all colleagues understanding how they “fit” into the big picture. What their little corner or classroom represents in the grand scheme. For some, this may mean persuading them that there is a grand scheme. We’re working on that too.
It’s dull and it’s necessary but it’s the opportunity that can begin to crystallise for individuals how they fit into the bigger picture of how the whole school achieves the position that we want and need: good and more. It’s Performance Management.
My school is and has been well led, and in many ways, pulled forward, dragging and screaming by a determined group of dedicated leaders. We can’t continue to do this to the same extent. We need to find ways to ensure that all colleagues pull the school forward and Performance Management my be a lever through which we can do this.
This will be a culture change which is becoming obvious to me daily. Many colleagues haven’t seen PM with the seriousness that it deserves, it has just been something that happens on a cyclical basis and is necessary but no-ones completely sure why. It becomes clear when a colleague can ask if I have a copy of their PM targets. In my bemusement I ask them why they don’t have a copy?!
This is where precision is important. Whatever the target, the area of improvement that is to be worked on, it has to be precise. Which class? What aspect of practice or attainment? Why? How is it relevant? How will success be measured? What are the milestones along the way? How will it be exemplified in observation? (If appropriate).
There have already been disagreements. It’s been a messy week for that but what it does mean is that the level of professional dialogue has risen to a level that, I’m told, hasn’t existed for some time. If that’s the case, then I’m reasonably happy. Because then I’m doing my job. Nothing new, nothing exceptional. Just my job.
(We have just invested in a system called Schoolip http://www.schoolip.co.uk , if you haven’t come across it, check it out, it’s designed to bring together improvement planning, Performance Management, lesson observation, work scrutiny, learning walks and more. I’m geekily excited!)