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A Tribute Act Or The Real McCoy?

Last week schools were on half-term holiday across most of Scotland. I headed south to the warmer climes of Majorca and it was whilst there that I began to mull over some issues for school leaders. My thoughts were stimulated by some of the entertainment that was being provided by the hotel we were staying in. This consisted of one night with a tribute act to Rod Stewart, complete with gravelly voice and mullet wig. Another with 'Los Bitles', another tribute band, this time to The Beatles. Then finally a tribute to the Blues Brothers. All of these acts were very entertaining, though that judgement might have been influenced by the sangria, and they certainly new all the words and all the tunes. 'Los Bitles' even played all their own instruments, which also looked like the authentic equipment of the Fab Four. However, good though they were, myself and probably most of the rest of the audience of a certain age, were left still thinking a certain something was missing. That vital, spark that the original performers had and which had made them unique and popular to so many, was missing. They were still just copies of the originals.

This got me thinking about similarities in schools and education, where we are often encouraged to share good practice and, dare I say it, copy what others, judged to be successful, have done. My thoughts on this are that if we only aim to copy the practice of others we can end up just like all the tribute acts I saw last week. We might learn all the words, we might be able to replicate the tune but we still remain a hollow shell of the original. When 'Los Bitles' sang 'Get Back' last week, they had all the words, played all the notes but still that something 'extra' was missing. They lacked authenticity. They hadn't sweated and collaborated to write the words, make mistakes, rewrite, retune like the original performers had done and, as a result, their rendition lacked the authenticity of the work produced by John, Paul, George and Ringo. Therein lies the rub for us in education when we are being told and encouraged to copy the good performance of others. We may replicate their actions, but without their journey to get to where they are, we too lack authenticity and understanding of how they got to that point.

As a Headteacher, do I want a copy of a teacher from another school, or do I want an original and unique individual who has grown and developed over course of time in my school and others? Myself, I want individuals who are reflective and committed to career long development in order to improve their practice. I want them to think about their practice and really understand learning. To do this, it is no use if they just copy the practice of others. That is not to say I want teachers who do not collaborate, engage and support collegiality, these too are essential qualities. But I do want them to have minds of their own and to understand what they are doing and why? This, in my view, can only be achieved by struggling with the complexity of learning and of being a teacher, with colleagues and support, in order to discover the way forward for their own practice and therefore the schools they work in. I want originals not copies, or tributes.

The same goes for my own role and that of other headteachers. Do we want clones or do we want individuals to lead our schools? Can we go into another school and copy what has worked for another school leader, and get the same results? I don't think so. We can certainly learn from each other and we can collaborate and support each other, as we all struggle with the complexities of our own roles. But each leader is different, as is each school and our performance as school leaders has to reflect this too. We can learn and develop a lot in collaboration with colleagues, and I would argue this is an essential requirement of thinking school leaders, but we too should resist the demand to copy the behaviours of others. We haven't walked in their shoes or travelled their journey of development and copying their behaviours will only result in our audience, teachers and others, detecting a missing spark in our performance. If we sing someone else's song, to someone else's tune, we too run the risk of being seen as unauthentic, or worse, false. Learn from each other, by all means, but don't try to be each other, or someone you are not.

Schools too risk the same difficulties if they seek to copy the successes of others. What has worked so well in the two schools I lead by no means that the same strategies and developments would work the similarly in two other schools. Where we are is a result of our journey over many years, much of this before even I arrived in the schools, and that journey, whilst similar to others, will be different  to every other school, or schools. We have collaborated, and continue to do so, with many different schools and settings but we have avoided trying to copy what any of them do. That would be wrong. What we have done is shared and discussed principles together, we have found common aspects and worked on these together, with each putting our unique stamp on them.

'Los Bitles' had all the words, all the tunes, but they hadn't wrote the songs. They hadn't spent over twelve months in Hamburg honing their craft. They hadn't performed in pubs and clubs of Liverpool, including the Cavern. So, whilst they may look the same, and sound similar to The Beatles, they weren't the same. Their journey was different, their history was different and, as a result, their impact was different, and was less.

So it is in education. We need to stay true to our journey, we need to embrace and recognise our uniqueness if we are to remain authentic. We need to be our own originals and not jus a copy, however good, of somebody else's identity or performance.

Be the real McCoy, not a tribute act!

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