One of the reasons I enjoy history, and became a History teacher, was my capacity to enjoy and recall events with reasonable accuracy and ease. Thinking of a theme for my blog this month, I was reminded of two training sessions I attended – one as a delegate many years ago and one as a presenter only last year.
About twenty years ago, I attended a training event on the future of technology in schools. There was a phrase on a PowerPoint slide (then still something of a novelty) that took me aback: “We will be the last generation that will ever be lost.” The presenter argued that the new technology of satellite navigation, that was increasingly commonplace in the maritime world but still highly exclusive for motorists and other ‘land lubbers’, would become so cheap and so small that GPS navigation would soon feature in our watches and on our phones. Consequently, we may well be the last generation on Earth that feels the sense of bewilderment, and even anxiety, of being genuinely lost.
The second, more recent, training event was when I was invited to speak to a group of middle leaders who were all aspiring for senior positions as their next career move. A question came from a colleague in the audience asking me to amplify how my ability, as a Trust CEO, to direct and shape an organisation strategically was different and more rewarding than the time when I too was a middle leader.
I’m not quite sure why in recent days these two events came back to me, but in both cases I reflected that both the presenter and the questioner were, quite simply, wrong in their assumptions.
Whilst we may all have access these days to GPS that works, there is a clear and popular perception that right now we are more than a little ‘lost’ in our world. Many of our old assumptions, tried and tested ways of working, and our points of reference have been challenged and found wanting. I have written before that during turbulent times it is more important than ever to hold true to one’s vision and one’s sense of purpose. We have seen last week our primary phase leaders extending their provision to enable the return of more children to school, and this they have done with great consideration and an enormous amount of love. Our ten primary schools are each finding their own way, conscious of the approaches of partners within the Trust and beyond, but thinking first and foremost about what is most effective and practicable for their own communities of children, parents, staff, and governors.
In this context, I’m reminded of the final verse of a Robert Frost poem which was first brought to my attention by a Deputy Head I worked alongside who read this poem (most fitting, with him being an English teacher originally hailing from The United States) as part of his retirement speech:
Great leadership is about finding a way through, especially when the path is far from clear – and even diverging. All our schools – primary and secondary – through their leaders are doing just that each day.
With regard to the second training event and the request that I describe the opportunities presented by my role as CEO, the answer I gave surprised the individual who asked it. I stated to the audience then, and I maintain still, that I had most control to shape my own work when I was a head of department. As a Head of History, I could determine syllabus choices, recruit staff and support their development, order stock and manage my budget with relative ease, and create a culture and environment for learning all within a vision for the subject within that of the school. Crucially, I was largely immune from the buffeting of policy changes and ministerial decisions. In short, I had genuine, albeit localised, power.
Today, I find myself far more at the mercy of the changing policies we see coming over the horizon, and also issues that can seem to appear from almost nowhere. Whatever the title of my role may be, it is far from the level of genuine, autonomous, power I was able to wield as a subject leader. Some CEOs, and headteachers, local authority leaders and even ministers may advise you differently. But I’ll end with a quotation from the boss of a mafia crime family in response to a question from a congressional committee: “Senator, being powerful is the same as being ladylike. If you have to tell folks ya is, ya probably ain’t!” Throughout these times of major challenges, understanding the limitations of our influence is no bad thing.
Thanks for reading. Take care, and stay safe.