The Power of Connection

This is the script of my keynote for #TMUKEduStories on 10th December 2020.

I chose to talk about The Power of Connection.

Many thanks to the hosts Mark Anderson and Bukky Yusuf for inviting me and doing such a good job of pulling the event together. And thank you, too, to Katie Hall of Classroom Cloud, for her behind the scenes wizardry!

“Good evening everyone, and many thanks to Mark and Bukky for inviting me to be part of this event.  I’ve been asked to speak for about fifteen minutes, and I’m going to focus on The Power of Connection and why I think this has been particularly relevant in 2020.

As many of you may know, I’m not working in a school now, but I connect with many teachers, leaders, support staff and governors in schools, colleges, and other education establishments of all types, and I have huge admiration for how they have stepped up in these extraordinary times.  I think the education profession has been amazing as we’ve navigated Covid as a society, working phenomenally hard to support students, their families, staff – everyone who makes up the wider community.  It’s been superb, but it hasn’t come without a cost. I recognise how exhausted everyone is, and what a strain educators have been under.  In the light of that, how incredible is it that you’re here tonight, at the end of a long day, near the end of a tough term in the year from hell… Take a bow.  

One of the things I know many have found difficult, draining and frustrating has been how the pandemic and the restrictions we have had to accommodate have made connecting with each other face to face inside and outside our organisations so much more difficult – in some cases virtually impossible.  So many people I know have talked about how they have missed the informal chats and support and the friendships which are such an important part of how the communities in our schools and other educational organisations usually operate.   And so many of our routines and our traditions, for example as we approach Christmas, haven’t been possible in their usual form, though I’ve been impressed by the creativity and the imagination which have been in evidence as people find novel ways of keeping many of those traditions and special events going.

And I also see how, in the absence of our usual channels of communication, our normal ways of interacting with each other, we’ve utilised different methods of connecting, collaborating, bolstering and encouraging each other.  I have been struck by the sense that the pandemic has led to some frenetic activity, but at the same time it’s also given us pause, in some ways, and motivated us to think about what is really important, and how that drives us.  It’s encouraged us to focus on ‘the human stuff’, as Geoff Barton of ASCL has called it – that phrase has certainly resonated this year.  And how we connect with each other is a key part of ‘the human stuff’.

So I want to share four things this evening which have made me think, and which I hope you may find interesting too.  They’re all about making connections.

The first is a piece from Nesrine Malik, who wrote about some of the lessons from lockdown which she hopes we won’t lose sight of when some kind of normality resumes.  I want to read an extract from her article, and this is the link.  Nesrine says this:

‘In the slowing of life over the past eight months, I have picked up many threads. Truncated email conversations with old friends, missed catchup calls that were never rescheduled, thank-you notes that sat half written. With the suspension of the daily activity of normal life, an entire hinterland of dormant relationships emerged…I worry something will be lost in the rush back to life as it was. Is there a way to merge what we have discovered through lockdown and isolation over the past few months with whatever comes next, rather than consigning everything we have experienced to the past?’

I know that this year I have connected with some of the people I love, and those whose company and conversation I find energising and uplifting, considerably more than I would have done under usual circumstances, when I was otherwise occupied, and I understand what Nesrine is saying here about picking up threads.  I have seen some of these people face to face – usually for long walks, occasionally meeting in the park with a bottle (yes – it has come to that!)  In other cases I’ve written more letters, had a lot more online video conversations, made more phone calls, sent more texts and cards, WhatsApp messages, and emails.  I’ve definitely spent much more time checking in and catching up than I normally would have done – perhaps because through the pandemic we’ve been more mindful about checking in with those we care about.  I’ve also had more contact with my neighbours, and the village community I live in.  I know them all better now.  And I have to say that despite all the fear and anxiety and frustration I know we’ve all been experiencing – and I don’t want to underplay that in any way – there’s still been something joyful about that connection, and picking up those threads.

Secondly, one of the professional things I’ve been involved in this year has been CollectivEd’s Knowledge Exchange event, with Rachel Lofthouse and the team at Leeds Beckett, working in partnership with Growth Coaching International, and Instructional Coaching.  This Knowledge Exchange was all about having better conversations, and that has made me thoughtful.  In one of the video sessions, Lou Mycroft and Kay Sidebottom talked about the importance of properly listening, and not interrupting, and that struck me.  At one point Lou said something along the lines of ‘Sometimes we just need to shut up!’ – that’s something that I really really need to get better at.  So as a result of that, I’ve given some careful thought to the issue of interrupting – and that includes, not only verbal interruption, but how electronic interruption adds to the problem.  I don’t know about you, but I have friends who will break off a conversation when a vibration from their fitbit tells them they have a message from someone else.  Really???

Lou recommended this piece from Nancy Kline whose new book, ‘The Promise That Changes Everything’ is all about making a promise not to interrupt, and how much stronger our connections with each other could be if we made that promise.  Nancy Kline also talks about how important it is that in our interactions with one another we seek to understand, rather than seek to convince, and that made me think of how much better Twitter could be if more of us resolved to do that.  Seek to understand – especially when you disagree – rather than to convince someone that you’re right.

So this is an extract from Nancy’s article, where she describes what might happen if we promised not to interrupt:

‘Imagine the relief, the possibilities, the dignity. You now have ground that is yours. Unassailably. This is for you. Time to think. To feel. To figure out what you really want to say. To say it, to consider it. To change it. To finish your sentences, to choose your own words. To become – because you can trust the promise – a bit bold, even eloquent. To become you.

And because you know I will not interrupt you, you will want, when you finish, to know what I think, too, even if we disagree deeply. You open your heart. And because you in turn promise not to interrupt me, I open mine.’

So I wrote a blog post myself called ‘Only Connect’, where I considered how important connection has been this year, and how we may have connected differently, but how our capacity to adapt how we communicate just reflects how crucial it is to us.  The post was inspired by the week of #teacher5aday slow chats, which began with #connect on Monday 26th October.       

In the blog, I reflected on some of the connection opportunities which have arisen this year, for example the fact that in the absence of a UK face to face event for this year’s #WomenEd conference, which would have been the sixth annual face to face conference #WomenEd has organised, they arranged a global online event instead.  And that was amazing!  We saw people connecting, across the world, who wouldn’t necessarily have been able to fly to the UK to attend a face to face gathering.  It was a classic example of how we can turn a challenge into an opportunity.

I also described in the blog how, as so many things have been put on hold because of Covid, I’ve had time to read more (and to tweet about what I’ve read), I’ve written more – about education and also some fiction, something I’ve wanted to do for some time – and this has led to more, and richer, connections.  I don’t know whether anyone will want to publish my fiction, but I’m proud of what I’ve produced, and I’ve loved the process of writing.

The last thing I want to share with you today is a 5 minute video, produced by the girls’ school in Bedford where I was the head for ten years.  It’s ten years since I left headship now, which seems amazing – I feel like I was a head forever, and it seems like two minutes since I stopped.  Blink of an eye stuff!  But it’s good still to connect with the school and to see what’s happening there now.  The school has gone from strength to strength, I think, and I feel proud of that.  Proud that my successor, and now her successor, have built on the legacy I inherited and contributed to, and the school is doing so well.

I hope you’ll find 5 minutes to watch this after the TeachMeet.  It’s a performance of Bill Withers’ Lean On Me, to which so many girls and staff across the school, Junior School and Senior School, have contributed, and apart from the fact that I think it’s an uplifting performance, the message of #StayConnected, and leaning on each other, seems so appropriate right now.  And I was interested to see that there’s a young female member of staff singing here who was a pupil at the school during my time as head, and I actually taught her in Year 7 when she was 11 years old.  She’s now a teacher there.  It’s all part of the cycle of connection! 

As many of you may know, leadership is definitely my thing.  It would be my Mastermind specialist subject, so I want to finish by considering the power of connection from a leadership perspective.  Leaders at all levels need to connect with one another – face to face when they can, but virtually when they can’t.  We can draw strength, and sometimes inspiration, from one another.  We might learn from others’ ideas and example – consider what others are doing to compensate for the lack of informal, day to day contact across their organisations – what is helping elsewhere that might be right for our context.  But it HAS to be right for our context, and we need not to feel overwhelmed that others are trying different things that we aren’t – you know your schools best, you know your staff, their capacity, and what they might need and would benefit from.  And I hope you know what you need and would benefit from, and that you’re able to find it.

So leaders at all levels – I hope you continue to be sustained and supported through the power of connection, and I know that you will support and sustain others in your turn.  This is crucial for you, and it’s crucial for those you lead.  It’s also crucial for your leadership peers, and if you reach out to them, I know they’ll reach out to you.  

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak to you all and to share a few things tonight.  I hope you really enjoy the TeachMeet – thank you to the organisers and to all the contributors.  I’ll stay to the end, and I might even release a tweet or two – you never know!  Enjoy your connections: feed them, nurture them, and just watch them grow.

Thank you for listening.”

This is the link to the YouTube video of my keynote.

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