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Two More Professional Development Opportunities 1/2

In September last year I wrote two posts about two different experiences I had at a couple of professional development meetings, 'Professional Development: A Tale of Two Meetings' (12/09/14 and 13/09/14), and two very different experiences. I have just had two more experiences and found both of these inspirational, but through two completely different approaches.

The first was with Sir John Jones and happened in the Borders, where I work. Sir John Received his knighthood for services to education and through his leadership of schools in some very challenging circumstances in Liverpool and the North West of England. He has also been a member of various national leadership bodies in England, including the being on the board of the National College for Educational Leadership, and has worked for a number of universities. In short, he has immense credibility as a school leader. But he is more than that, because he is also an inspirational speaker who believes in the moral imperative of leadership. When you combine knowledge, passion and enthusiasm  you have someone who can inform, inspire and challenge leaders as they look to their own practice and thinking. This is what he did on a recent Friday afternoon in the Borders of Scotland.

Sir John arrived in the Borders by train at Berwick and made his way to the school, where a range of educators, and elected members, waited to hear him speak. He started by stating a simple truth that we, as educational leaders and teachers, should not be expected to have all the answers, but we should be able to ask 'brilliant questions'. These are questions which force our learners, and those we lead, to think deeply and to develop new understandings and improved practice. He talked about 'crucible moments', when you faced your greatest challenges, as the opportunities to grow most. I have always believed that you find out most about yourself and your team when things are not going well, rather than when things are going smoothly and with few hitches. He went on to argue the need for courageous leadership from all within the system and how we should see one of our key roles as that of 'keeping hope alive', school leaders need to be 'the public face of optimism.' If we lack hope for the future and for our ability to provide the very best experiences for our learners and our staff, how can we possibly expect the same for those we lead? The next essential requirement was to ensure we put world-class people in front of the children in every class. We do this by recruiting the right people in the first place, then working hard to support and develop them throughout their careers.

Sir John moved on to consider in more detail the qualities and dispositions that are essential for twenty- first century leaders. He noted, as we all know, that we live in a rapidly changing world and a world where we, and our learners, require creativity, ingenuity, portability and flexibility in everything we do. We have to embrace change and stop clinging on to what worked in the past, but which is no longer appropriate. He posed a question, 'why do we live and work the way we do? ' He said too often the answer we came up with was 'habit'. We have to think differently. He talked about 'single loop' or 'double loop' thinking. We should embrace the second of these as we constantly look closely at what we do, why we're doing it, the impact for learners and what we are going to do next. All of us have various mental models in our heads and, to move forward, we need to recognise that many of these are inaccurate and can't be trusted. We need to use data to inform what we do, not drive it. He talked extensively about Carol Dweck's work on mindsets and the importance for us, and our learners in working hard and being persistent in our learning and development. For our learners, they require opportunity, desire, time and excellent teachers, and our role is to provide the optimum conditions for these and provide them with the 'potential avenue' of development.

He then turned his attention to look at excellence. Firstly, we should recognise that we can all make the difference, and I would extend this to say that it is our professional responsibility to make such a difference. He echoed Aristotle in saying that excellence is a habit and should involve us all in committing to a relentless search for marginal gains in our practice. It was all about 'doing small things brilliantly', and for a purpose, in Sir John's eyes, and in mine too. That purpose is to improve impact for all learners.

What are your leadership or teaching habits? Are you able to articulate what you or your school have as your core purpose quickly and succinctly? You should be able to. Are you able to 'keep the main thing the main thing?' Are you an actor or a reactor? Do you have resilience? Do you lead with your head or your heart? Were some other brilliant questions Sir John posed. He asked us to use NAT as school leaders. This stands for notice, appreciate and thank. We should think of this acronym as we walk around the schools or organisations we lead. It is important that we are sincere and authentic in such interactions. We should promote and model 'appreciative enquiry' by seeking out the high performers and those developing and imporving their practice. Notice this and show that you have, and that you appreciate what they are doing for their learners. 'Our job is to build giants' is a phrase that particularly sticks with me. Leaders need to lose the need to be certain. If we wait till we are certain about any course of action or development, either nothing will happen or change will be too slow. Realise and release the power of the imperfect, and the power of small change.

Sir John did then go on to caution us about work/life balance and he talked about a new 'sickness'  that he often sees amongst school leadership. He called this the 'hurried sickness' and said this was characterised by headteachers who he sees almost running as they moved around the school, often turning round as they thought of something else, or worse forgot where they were going and for why. Sometimes he has seen them do a complete 360 degree spin, all at speed, as they grapple with all they are trying to do. He and I agree that we need less of this in schools and we actually need to monitor this and slow down to achieve more. His unique solution was to sing, in your head or out loud if you must, Moon River, as he said it was impossible to rush with this in your head. It also gave you a good tempo for the day. Try it. It works!

John Hattie was the next reference for us all. Sir John said that Hattie had identified the three most important factors for the greatest impact for learners in schools. These were staff commitment we need staff who are committed to making a difference and overcoming barriers to learning. Next is the quality of our teachers. We really have to understand that the right people are our greatest asset and treat them accordingly. He spoke of a school he visited whose motto was 'come as you are and leave us great' which he thought was a wonderful mission statement. The final aspect that is going to make a difference is the relentless pursuit of excellence. He repeated his mantra that excellence was a habit, doing small things to improve in a relentless way. Creativity starts with challenge.

Sir John brought his address to a conclusion with some more key messages. 'There is always a better way.' Just think of what used to be considered as 'good practice' that has now, deservedly, fallen by the wayside in your own career. You will never have this job of leadership, teaching or school development cracked. New data and research can point us in the right direction and we need to engage with this critically to better improve what we do. 'Be what you want them to be.' Our learners and teachers are watching us, so we need to model the behaviours and attitudes we seek to develop and promote in them. 'They will be smart enough if we are good enough.' Our learners and our teachers deserve the very best leadership and support to achieve all they can be, so all of us have to commit to  developing excellence habits. Finally, 'have fun!' We know all learning isnt fun, but Sir John and I both agree that we are in an excellent profession and to which we can only bring our best if we are enjoying what we do. Many teachers and headteachers I know like to dwell on the negatives rather than to celebrate and build on the positives of what we do. We have a great job and, if we love doing it, why shouldn't it be fun? 

Finally, consider our legacy and the impact we have on our learners lives. We have to be committed to breaking the cycle which links attainment and achievement to family income and parent education. Yes this is a societal issue but schools and education have the major role in addressing this issue.  If you don't think you can make a difference for all learners, then perhaps you need to consider whether you're in the right profession, was one of his hard messages. He finished with a video about Sir Nicholas Winton who was awarded his knighthood at the same ceremony as Sir John. Sir Nicholas had rescued hundreds of Jewish children from the Nazis ahead of the Second World War. The video showed him on the Esther Rantzen show being reunited with a whole audience who owed their lives to him. 'Now that's a legacy' finished Sir John to a hushed room. We could hardly speak and there were many tears. I suggest you Google this and watch yourself.

With that he put on Moon River and thanked us all. He had touched heads and hearts and really challenged the people who were with me on that Friday afternoon. But, what a way to go into the weekend. Everyone I spoke to had been inspired.

My next post will be on Alma Harris and her appearance at the Aberdeen Learning Festival, which I attended yesterday. Alma was equally inspiring, but for different reasons and we will look at them in my second post on this theme.


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