As readers of my blog, or people who know me, already know, I have been out of the UK for over a decade. Still in one of my reflective moods, I have been talking to various people about the changing rôles of senior management in schools, the impact of the new coalition government and their slashing of funds for education, the disappearance or removal of various QUANGOs and ‘institutions’, and the new academies and ‘free schools’ [yes, I read the Guardian a lot, but it’s not my only source!]. These are, to say the least, uncertain times… I’m not sure yet if they are interesting though!
Having never had to run a department, let alone a school, I wonder how apprehensive the management teams are about all these sudden changes. I also wonder how those of us who are not in management positions can best support our colleagues. For some reason, I was reminded of the talk Barry Schwartz made to TED back in February 2009 Barry Schwartz: The real crisis? We stopped being wise. I dug out the notes I made at the time I watched it last year and a number of bells began to ring!
Here are my notes from the video, together with my current reflections on them as a non-management teacher:
A wise person:
- knows when and how to make the exception to every rule
- knows when and how to improvise
- is like a jazz musician – using the notes on the page but dancing around them
- uses moral skills in pursuit of the right aims – serving not manipulating people
- is made, not born
What happens when rules you have been following for some time are suddenly removed by the government? What happens if you have the responsibility of making your own rules for running a school? If wise people are made rather than born, how does that work and when does it have to start? How far can you improvise before you lose the plot?
You need the time to get to know the people that you’re serving. You need permission to be allowed to improvise, try new things, occasionally to fail and to learn from your failures. You need to be mentored by wise teachers.
How well do you really know the people you are working with, let alone the people you are serving? Who are the people you are serving: parents, governors, local authorities, students…? How do we handle failures within the system? Where do the wise teachers come from if a situation is completely new?
You don’t need to be brilliant to be wise, but without wisdom, brilliance isn’t enough.
The main thrust of what Barry Schwartz was saying about wisdom also seemed to be tied in to experience and length of time spent working with the wise teachers and mentors. Whilst many situations may be new to the management of schools, people have been managing businesses for years: running meetings, controlling budgets, hiring and firing people, etc. Perhaps the time is ripe for schools to get some wisdom from local businesses, since some of their students may be future employees or business owners. The way things appear to be headed in the UK, to me as a recent returnee, seems to be that school = small business!
“We hate to do it, but we have to follow procedure.”
This came from the lemonade story. Watch the video! Is this just an excuse? Or maybe it’s ‘passing the buck’ because:
Rules and procedures may be dumb, but they spare you from thinking.
Do we do enough critical thinking about the rules and procedures we follow or do we accept them as they are because they are mandated and if we don’t have to question them it gives us more time to…?
Tools: Rules and Incentives – better ones, more of them.
My first, knee-jerk reaction to this is unions and government. Unions are great for collective bargaining and imparting a voice to those who would otherwise be disenfranchised. I think teachers do need to be properly valued within society, but I wonder how many teachers are more interested in what funding is available for them to give up their ‘precious time’, rather than finding time to add value to what they are already doing by self-improvement. Governments tend to introduce ‘outrageous’ rules, some of the Health and Safety legislation in the UK springs to mind, because a small minority always manages to find a way around the existing rules to do what they want and to spoil things for everyone else. These people will always find a way, because they are selfish and new rules are not going to change that.
Moral skill is chipped away by an over-reliance on rules that deprive us of a chance to improvise.
Rules and the War on Moral Skill:
- the lemonade story
- scripted, lock-step curricula (don’t trust teacher judgement)
How far have you actually tested the rules and procedures in your school? OK, maybe I’m being subversive here, but I’m sure some of you who are reading this have ‘bent’ a rule or ignored a procedure because of the relationship you have with your management/parent/student. Do we highlight or discuss these situations to try to bring about a change, or do we keep quiet because we don’t want to be disciplined for ‘breaking the rules’?
Moral will is undermined by an incessant appeal to incentives that destroy our desire to do the right thing.
Incentives and the War on Moral Will:
- motivational competition (two reasons are better than one?) “What is my responsibility?” versus “What serves my interests?”
I will categorically state that if I got paid a bonus for writing a blog, I would probably start treating it as piece-work and demanding payment by the word. I know that the quality of what I am writing would suffer. If I knew that I could get extra credits for attending online conferences and moderating twitter discussions, I’d be all over it… Actually, no I wouldn’t. I would stop it altogether because it would no longer have any meaning for me. I might go through the motions if it was mandated, but…
- celebrate moral exemplars
- Aaron Feuerstein and Malden Mills
This speaks for itself, both in terms of increasing morale and introducing a moral dimension to the workplace. For UK readers, or others, who are unfamiliar with the Aaron Feuerstein story, here is a link to start with.
Unless the people you are working with are behind you, it will fail. Different people in different communities organize their lives in different ways.
Is the staff, are the parents, are the students behind the ‘vision’? What works in London is not necessarily going to apply in Halkyn, and vice versa. As one of the sources of education for the community, schools are probably well placed to decide what really works for everyone. However, schools are not the only source of education in the community. We would do well to remember this!
Paying attention to what we do, to how we do it, to structure of the organizations in which we work, so as to make sure that it enables us and other people to develop wisdom.
Well, this brings me back to the words I chose for the title. In times of uncertainty and change, it is especially important to be kind to one another. Tell someone if you think they have been unkind. I did this today, and it turned out that it was something I had misunderstood because of missing context. I could have got really worked up about it and ignored the comment and the person, but I challenged what had been said. Thankfully, everything was worked out with no blood lost! People are not psychic – they cannot guess how you feel, especially if they don’t know you! Take more care with what you do, think about things carefully and critically before taking action. And, at least, try to empathize with the people around you, whatever their position or status, if you can start to see the world through their eyes, then times will certainly become more interesting and less worrying.
Aristotle summed it up in one word: φρόνησις