CEO’s Blog: Front and centre: “The Sage on the Stage”

Welcome to the 2019/20 academic year to you all.  At John Taylor Multi-Academy Trust we particularly welcome Church Gresley Infant and Nursery School to our family, our tenth primary phase partner.  As with a new school to the Trust, I also welcome all colleagues, children and families that have become part of the JTMAT community this year.  I am excited about what you will bring to us, and what you will share alongside us. 

The content of this Blog was prompted when hearing feedback from colleagues – both within JTMAT and beyond – on tests and examinations that our children and young people sat in the summer of 2019.  A consistent theme was how new test requirements, new syllabi and specifications, all demanded from the teacher a considerable level of specialist subject knowledge – arguably more so than the tests and examinations sat, say, ten years ago.  Comments such as “this used to be covered in the second year of a degree, and now it’s in the A Level” have been forthcoming with such regularity as to make them more than mere personal opinion or anecdote.  From compulsory and lengthy essay questions through to synoptic papers based on more subject material than previously, the imperative for the teacher to be highly knowledgeable is clear.

Perhaps by way of reinforcement, we know that the new Ofsted inspection framework will promote a “deep dive” into curriculum content at subject level, whereby a triangulation will take place between lessons observed, work produced, and the planning from the teachers that has underpinned it.  For those colleagues who have undertaken the planning, delivery, and assessment the justifications for their choices will inevitably be framed in their understanding of the subject area being considered. 

To many readers, all of the above may appear very obvious: Teachers know “stuff”, and can do things, that children cannot – and it is therefore their role to impart to the children the knowledge and skills they possess.  However, in my opinion there was a “corruption” of this message for a number of years that created a misconception that somehow this wasn’t so important. 

You may well be familiar with the now-clichéd expression that the teacher of the future will be the “guide from the side” and not the “sage on the stage.”  This sentiment, often appropriated by technologists, suggests that in the Information Age the role of the teacher is little more than a curator: to navigate the child through the myriad of YouTube sites, Internet pages and web packages in order that they learn what they need to know.

In an attempt to find the origin of this cliché, I (ironically) looked online for the earliest reference I could find to it.  Stumbling upon an article by an American educationalist from California State University from 1993, Alison King implores teachers to move beyond mere ‘lecturing’ to embrace ‘active learning’, which she defines as high level questioning, problem-setting, peer work and hypothesis generation.  Her article was far from a prediction that specialist knowledge would be any less important.  Those of us who’ve taught know that in order to ask meaningful questions that move learning forward, one has to have command of the subject being studied.  Technology has its place as a tool for learning of course, but it was not envisaged as a substitute for the expertise and knowledge of the teacher by King.  In a previous blog (May 2018), I wrote about my cynicism for ‘one-size-fits-all’ technology in schools, in which expensive hardware is shoe-horned into lessons irrespective of whether the learning lends itself to it or not.

This week saw an announcement regarding the starting salary for teachers being raised.  Recently we have seen the advent of the Chartered College of Teaching (of which I am a Fellow).  Both of these, together with many other instances, are ways in which we can show the value that the teacher brings to learning.  We underestimate the impact of great teachers, whose knowledge is as considerable as their joy of working with children, at our peril.  At John Taylor MAT, it’s my privilege to work alongside so many.

To conclude, teachers don’t all need to be a Confucius – and nor can we be.  But teachers can and should be proud of their academic credentials and the credibility it affords them when teaching.  There is still room in schools for a “sage on the stage”!

Thanks for reading.

Mike

CEO’s Blog: July 2019 Letter to Year 13

Before I commit this blog to print, a confession:  What you read below is both from a professional and personal perspective.  From the professional view, I have worked alongside hundreds of amazing young adults in Sixth Form settings for many years.  From the personal, my eldest son has just completed his A Level studies at his school’s Sixth Form.  My letter here is to them all.

Dear Year 13,

I want to take a few minutes of your time to share with you some of my thoughts about the times you’ve had at school, and the time that is to follow.  You’re well beyond clichés of “crossroads” and “milestones” by now.  However, if you’ve got your head screwed on, then you won’t be beyond some plain old advice – dolloped out in a spirit of humility and love.  Like so many things in your life, you decide what to do with the contents of this letter.  You have attained an age, and therefore a right, to make those decisions yourself.  You also bear a responsibility for those decisions too –  the accolades of accomplishments and the ownership of problems are yours.  May you be thoroughly prepared and equipped to deal with both. 

So, here goes.  I’ve written you a list.  I hope it makes sense.  If it does, that’s great.  If any of it resonates with you – even better.  The list is in no order, other than that in which the ideas came to me, which has little bearing on their importance.  It’s also by no means exhaustive, as you’ll see, but it is based on some of the challenges I know that some of you will face.

  1. Your identity is your most precious asset.  Don’t trade it for conformity, but neither parade it for provocation.  It isn’t a hairstyle, a tattoo, a fashion sense or a particular taste in music.  All those things are other people’s creations that you may admire to the point of emulation.  But, they’re not you.  Treat them as the superficialities they are.  What your identity actually is, is something for you to discover for yourself.
  2. The predetermined groups of which you are a member don’t define you.  Don’t be taken in by the misconception that there are traits or characteristics you should exhibit or actions you should take because of a group you are deemed to be a part of:  your gender, your ethnicity, your age, your abilities, your background.  Do not allow others to place guilt upon your shoulders for the actions or opinions of others in your ‘group’, or place expectations upon you for a ‘cause’.  This is the worst form of identity theft, and should be resisted.  And don’t judge others by their predetermined groups either!
  3. In an age of polarisation in so many parts of our world, do not confuse abstinence from debate as agreement with you.  Descartes wrote that “he who hid well, lived well.”  More recently, university students in the United States have coined the phrase that “silence is safe”.  Encourage dialogue with others as a means of finding truth.  There is a difference between legitimate and civilised debate over issues that matter and the deliberate intention to cause offence.  Don’t ever do the latter, and don’t ever allow those with differing views get away with accusing you of it as you engage in the former.  There are plenty who’ll try to.
  4. Read.  Read opinions that will challenge you, and those that will be affirming too.  Don’t believe all you read to be true, but do believe that you can find truth through reading. As with all things, don’t sell yourself and your abilities short when choosing what to read. Nothing is “beyond you” – but you may need to read something else first!  Be prepared to be profoundly moved by what you read. 
  5. It is better to live with remorse for your actions, than regret for your inaction.  So be active.  The world hasn’t agreed to give you anything, or make anything easy for you.  But statistically if you’re reading this blog, you’ve already been given chances in life that most of the planet’s other seven billion residents have not.  Don’t be a confirmatory embodiment of the stereotypical “entitled, snowflake, millennial”.  Your actions can change the world in as profound a way as those of previous generations, and they will.
  6. Never write lists with more than five key points in them.

Thank you for reading, especially those young people who will have read the above with consideration and scepticism.  Equal measures of both will serve you well in education, and in life.  If you’re able to do so, then my colleagues in our schools have served you well.  Time for you to “pay it forward”. 

I wish you success, happiness and fulfilment.

Mike

CEO’s Blog: May 2019 Know thyself

In a previous blog (February 2018), I wrote about John C Maxwell’s “Five Levels of Leadership”, and the privilege I have of working alongside other leaders at differing phases of their professional and personal development.  Maxwell compels us to devote time to the coaching, mentoring and supporting of leaders in that their development generates a ‘multiplier effect’ as they impact more meaningfully on those with whom they work and those who depend upon them.

Over recent months I have been asked to work formally with several colleagues across a number of organisations, in addition to the regular and occasional times I spend with leaders within our own Trust.  Initially I found this work a daunting prospect, filled with self-doubt of my own limitations (Michelle Obama’s “imposter syndrome”) combined with a profound burden of responsibility to help in a meaningful and positive way.  In reality, the main antidote to the doubt is via the affirmation and feedback from those colleagues I am working to support, together with others who notice the impact from our dialogue.

One of the first areas usually explored with a colleague on their leadership journey relates to their explicit efforts towards self-awareness and self-development.  The extraction of solutions from within is almost a definition of coaching, and so it makes good sense to engage in dialogue that relates to the learning they have undertaken, if any, relating to their own sense of self.  When considering the future, it is so important to have as clear an understanding as we can of ourselves and how we relate to our contexts.  The argument is a simple one:  If you are going to buy a new house for your future, with a complex range of features and a history of change over time, you would inevitably want a detailed survey of its current state before you move in.  Likewise, we should want a “structural survey” of ourselves even more.  We can always reconsider the house purchase, or move elsewhere.  We have no such luxury with ourselves, where our personality and our preferences and prejudices are very much “sitting tenants” with whom we co-reside!

Until I undertook several myself, I was quite cynical of personality profiling or diagnostic testing.  However, I was convinced otherwise once I’d sat the Kolbe A test, and the Gallup StrengthsFinder survey.  Working several years ago with a group of students each of whom by their own admission “didn’t have a plan” and an external facilitator, I took the tests (as much to make the point that I wouldn’t expect them to do or share anything that I wasn’t prepared to).  Through both the initial results and then through deeper reflection and discussion with others, I gained a huge amount of self-awareness from them.  I recommend such tests to others quite frequently, and certainly to those with whom I’m working in a developmental capacity.  Not only do the results give rich conversation themes for us and reduce the ‘imposter syndrome’ risk on my part, but they also signal the willingness of the colleague to look at themselves as a starting point before looking at their career development.  As Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, a long time before Simon Sinek, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

Such diagnostics are also useful in that they are inherently positive.  They highlight what we’re good at, scenarios that make us productive, situations that make us happy.  All too often, we focus on comparison with others that can almost inevitably leads to disappointment at falling short.  On a planet with seven billion residents, there will always be someone “better” – stronger, richer, wiser…  Self-improvement is the putting away of the childhood comparisons with others that psychologists argue is necessary for children to generate rapid learning, and turning to the much healthier pursuit of comparing oneself today with oneself yesterday.  Here, our ‘structural survey’ lets us know which features of our personality are going to withstand the tests of time and the elements, and perhaps where we need to get our tools out.  Working with young people, we know only too well that the tools we all have for such improvement are those readily to hand, and of our own making.  Faulty or inappropriate tools will lead to a faulty outcome.  Using the same faulty tools repeatedly will create an inherently unstable and unsustainable building of a life in which to live.  Arguably then, our key responsibility is to be there to help those whom we care about, and care for, to fashion and then select the best tools they can – and the positive outcomes will follow.  Sounds easy, doesn’t it?!

Finally, the phrase “know thyself” dates back to the temples of Ancient Egypt at Luxor, and was perhaps placed into more common usage by the Ancient Greeks.  It has stood the test of time through its openness to interpretation and universal application.  Its earliest meaning related to a rejection of the adulation and criticism from others.  Later, it became a compulsion to seek enlightenment and peace from within.  Alexander Pope wrote: “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan.  The proper study of mankind is Man.”  The phrase even endures into the modern age, with the phrase in its Latin form temet nosce inscribed on the Oracle’s door in the movie blockbuster The Matrix (see below).  But of all these cultural usages, the one that resonates the most with me – especially having worked with so many young people – is Benjamin Franklin’s assessment that “There are three things extremely hard – steel, a diamond, and to know one’s self.”  We can but try!

Thanks for reading.

Mike