On Thursday 11 June 2020 I was pleased to be invited to give the closing keynote at Priory Witham’s annual #TeachFest.  Having spoken at previous face to face events at the school, I was interested to see how this would translate to an online platform.  Many thanks to Micelle Garner and Lizzie Crean for asking me to be part of it, and for ably hosting the session.

Micelle asked me to speak about ‘WISDOM: What this means in the context of the challenges schools are currently facing’.  Wisdom is one of the Academy’s core values, so it was particularly appropriate to focus on this, and exploring what we are learning at the moment – as professionals and as human beings – is something I have been giving considerable thought to in recent months.  This post is a summary of what I said during the keynote.

“I do not in any way underestimate how tough the lockdown has been, including for everyone within a school community – closing schools, managing remote learning while looking after the children of keyworkers and vulnerable learners, now reopening for some primary aged children and preparing to increase the numbers of pupils in our schools gradually over the coming weeks and months.  However, I have to say I have been impressed and humbled by how well schools have stepped up to this challenge, and I have seen so many examples of courageous, committed, wise professional practice and wise leadership throughout this time.  I have also read a number of blog posts and articles about what we are learning in lockdown – about leadership, about pedagogy in a remote learning context, and about pastoral care at a distance, about community, and about humanity, and I will share at the end of this post a few pieces which I have found especially insightful.  What I have to say is partly based on this reading.

So I want to say what I think wisdom is, and what it isn’t.

I’ll start with what I think it isn’t.

  1. WISDOM isn’t about knowing all the answers. Sometimes it isn’t about knowing ANY of the answers.
  2. It isn’t about always getting it right.
  3. It isn’t about being definite and firmly decisive, making promises and giving people reassurances to make them feel better when, in fact, the situation is constantly changing and we may well find the ground shifting under our feet. It’s never wise to over-promise, and under-deliver
  4. It certainly isn’t about sticking to a structure and a schedule we have initially decided upon and failing to adapt and recalibrate that when new information comes in which shows how the landscape is changing. We have to accept that sometimes changing direction is the wise thing to do.

On 2nd June I was very pleased to be involved in a Teacher Development Trust online Book Club session based on ‘Making the Leap’ – the book I wrote for Crown House in 2016, primarily about moving from deputy to head but, in fact, relevant to all leadership transitions: becoming a Middle Leader, becoming a Senior Leader, moving to headship or moving beyond headship to whatever might come next.  So it’s actually about making any kind of leadership leap.  Throughout the book I suggest questions for the reader to consider, to help them to tune into their own context and their own stage of their professional journey.  One of the questions I was asked in the Book Club session was: “What question should teachers, leaders, governors and everyone in schools be asking themselves now?”

And my answer was: The key question now is ‘What Matters Most?’

Discussing, reflecting and acting upon our conviction about What Matters Most is, I think, where wisdom starts.

There was a good piece in The Guardian a few weeks ago where Geoff Barton, the General Secretary of the union ASCL, said it’s all about “the human stuff”. We mustn’t forget the human stuff.

So this is what I think WISDOM is, based on what I have seen, what I have read and what I have thought in the last four months:

  • WISDOM is being clear about what matters most, and having strong values which underpin our actions, and the difficult decisions that we are having to make at the moment
  • WISDOM is about ensuring you support, lift and inspire others so that you are moving in the same direction and not using up vital energy fighting one another when all of us in schools are, in fact, on the same side
  • WISDOM involves admitting that you can’t offer guarantees, there is no such thing as eliminating all risk, there’s only gauging what is reasonable risk, and what matters is how you manage that
  • WISDOM means you don’t have all the answers, you will make mistakes, inevitably, as we all navigate these extraordinary times, but you will listen, and learn, and change course if you need to in the light of new information, and you will communicate with clarity, to the absolute best of your ability, so that you can take others with you
  • WISDOM is collaborating, and sharing, and looking outwards so that you contribute to, and benefit from, the experience of others who are negotiating the same challenges.
  • WISDOM is never forgetting the human stuff.

I wish you well as you continue to step up and face the demands and difficulties that lie ahead, while at the same time you embrace the opportunities, take every chance to learn and ensure your own positive growth, the positive growth of your learners, and of your school.

These are some of the things I have read in the last few weeks which have inspired me, and which I hope you may find interesting and useful.

‘Why your school is a beacon of hope in the darkness’, Jennie Devine (International Principal), tes magazine, May 2020

‘Lockdown leadership’, Professor Alma Harris, Chartered College ‘Impact’ magazine, May 2020

‘Towards recovery’, Sally Apps for the Cabot Learning Federation, May 2020

‘As likely to be wrong as to be right’, David Bell for Big Education, May 2020:

Thank you for listening.  Thank you for inviting me.”

And thank you for reading.

Photo montage credit: John Berry

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