Many of you will be reading this having clicked on a link via Twitter.  I don’t have a personal Twitter account but follow many colleagues who do.  One such colleague tweeted recently about a large display-sized poster that we had constructed at John Taylor High School quite some years ago that’s still there, and that she really likes:

This poster was created with messages of support that were, in the main, derived from the students and their motivations for themselves and their peers.  I believe the sentiments expressed – every one of them – still stand the test of time years on. 

However, three of the phrases displayed here pre-date the design project.  About ten years ago, I gave an assembly with the theme based on a fridge magnet I’d seen in a small gift shop: “Turn up.  Work hard. Be nice.” For some reason, the phrase resonated with me.  It’s hardly Confucian in its profundity, but it is clear and, in my opinion, works for us all.

It was the universality of the phrases that I focussed upon in the assembly – and it was this, upon the advice of a Deputy Head, that led to the phrase becoming “sticky” in the school’s ethos and culture. 

To “turn up” isn’t merely about attendance and punctuality, it is about engagement.  Turning up to extra-curricular activities, volunteering to make a difference, participating as an active citizen.  “Turning up” is also about a frame of mind.  We know that sometimes individuals can be “mentally absent” despite their physical presence.  This was a call for active participation and focussed attention.

On “work hard”, I recalled a child psychologist advising parents to send their children off to school each day with a message to “work hard.”  This, they argued, was because all children knew what it felt like to exert and expend energy, and the value of growth and learning that comes with it. Instilling such an ethic, and showing parental support for it, was seen as of great benefit to the child.  In my assembly, this was translated into putting our best endeavours into all we do.  The outcomes of those endeavours, I emphasised, will differ for us all.  With seven billion individuals on the planet, there is every statistical probability that our efforts to play football, write a sonata or solve complex mathematical problems will still not see us achieve the absolute pinnacle of success.  But there is also the almost statistical certainty that hard work will see us improve, and markedly so, from where we were before.  Our competitor is our self, and our goal is to create a better version of ourselves. 

Finally, schools are communities which thrive or fail based on how the individuals within them interact.  “Being nice” is about respect, consideration, courtesy, support, compassion and honesty. 

The overarching message is that everyone knows what it means to “turn up, work hard and be nice.” Equally importantly, everyone knows they can “turn up, work hard and be nice.” These are not inaccessible or lofty ambitions.  They don’t require intelligence, wealth, physical ability, years of preparation or experience.  Very young children can excel in them, and mature adults can, and do, fail in them.  I still believe that living one’s life whilst striving to “turn up, work hard and be nice” will be hugely beneficial to the individual and those around them.

To conclude, Ernest Hemingway in “The New Way” re-visited the quotation that “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.” The precise origins of this phrase remain unknown, but it is believed it may have emanated from Hindu teachings, where a phrase referring to “previous self” takes the place of “former self”.  Wherever it came from, those of us who believe in learning, growth, and development – of children and ourselves, individually and collectively – will subscribe wholeheartedly to the message, and the call to action that it implies.

As always, thanks for reading.