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Bursting bubbles!

When I first stepped away from my busy life of work as headteacher of two primary schools, I started to notice different things I was either unaware of, or perhaps had just lost sight of, whilst so much of my focus was consumed by my leadership role. Joni Mitchell sung 'you don't know what you have got till its gone' in her song 'Big Yellow Taxi' and I was experiencing something similar, now  that I was released from the busyness of my professional role. Only, for me, it was more a case of me finding out 'what I didn't know was there, till I had the time to notice.' Would have made for a slightly different song, but the sentiments were similar. Whilst Joni pointed out in her song the sort of things we all take for granted, and don't realise we have them till they disappear, I was discovering a whole new world of existence that had little to do with work or schools. It was only now that I had the time and space to notice them. I hadn't lost anything, I was just re-discovering things that were always there, had I had the time to notice them. I had emerged from the 'bubble' of my previous existence to discover lots of other 'bubbles' that I never had time to appreciate before.

One of these was that there is a whole world of people and activity that goes on each day, which is outside of the routines and world of work, schools and education, but which is an important part of millions of peoples' lives. When you are enmeshed in the world of work, schools and education, it is very easy to slip into the mindset that thinks 'so is everyone else.' They are not. Far from it. It was when I was freed from the day to day fervour of my role, that I began to recognise that there was a whole other way that many people spent their time and lived their lives. Shock! I now had time to get out and about during the daytime, and no longer had to squeeze other activities into the end of another busy day or precious weekends. I expected to find shops, cafes, galleries, the countryside a lot quieter than I was used to, whilst trying to fit them into my busy work patterns, but they weren't. They were just different.

Whilst I existed in the 'bubble' of my demanding working life, when I found the time to fleetingly think about the world outside, I tended to think everyone else was also inside their own particular work 'bubble' with associated routines, actions and thinking. What I discovered now, was that there was a whole different world of existence that had nothing to do with work or busyness. Places I wanted to visit were still busy, but now the people in them tended to fall into two different age groups. There were the older members, who had obviously retired or semi-retired like myself and were enjoying their new found freedoms, and their were younger, usually female, members who had very young children, too young for school yet. Obviously this is a gross generalisation, but I think it generally holds true, except at holiday times when the population becomes more multi-generational again.

However, this did set me thinking about the 'bubbles' we spend our lives in,  either deliberately or due to circumstances, whilst we are at work, and elsewhere. One of my mantras to staff when I was still a school leader was 'never assume what goes on in your classroom or school, or even what you think, is the same as what goes on in other classrooms and schools.' We can be very guilty, as teachers or school leaders, of existing in a  professional and personal 'bubble', which assumes what we think and experience is the same as what everyone else is thinking and experiencing, after all we are all in the same profession delivering similar curricular experiences. Teachers and school leaders are all different, as is their thinking, practice and context. Yes, there are lots of similarities, but each person and context brings a different dynamic, perceptions and behaviours.

When I began to think more about this, I recognised that we all carry around with us our own personal 'bubble' of thoughts, perceptions, views, experiences and internal voices, and that these can be difficult to break out of at times. Our personal 'bubble' of existence shapes our actions and our engagement with other 'bubbles' we create, inhabit or come into contact with, as we go about our professional and personal lives. Each person's is unique, ensuring each one has different perceptions and understandings about everything. Even when we experience the same activities and stimuli at the same time, each persons perception and understanding of those will be different.This is why life and social interactions can be so complicated, and why school development can be so complex, with no guarantees of success. It is also why we need to engage with as many different people and organisations and their particular 'bubbles' of existence, in order to make our own better informed and more collaborative in nature, if not obsolete.

Recognising the 'bubbles' that exist and which we inhabit, through our thinking or our actions, is the first step in being able to step outside of them, to help us develop different perceptions, thinking and action. As a school leader, I always encouraged collaboration and openness to help individuals explore different ways of being. It is only through exposure to different thinking and practice, whether this be through direct contact or through reading and research, that we can hope to develop and expand our own. After all, we are all standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before us, as well as with each other, and to do that we need to engage with and consider the actions and thinking of others, so that we can become better versions of ourselves. Doing that requires us to break free from the 'bubbles' that exist, give us comfort, and stop us from growing. Fullan characterised this as the 'silos of practice' in education, which need to be broken down so that we can engage in powerful and focused collaborative practices.

We will all still have our 'bubbles' but some are larger than others, with more connections. I think we will retain these as a way of dealing with the complexity of life, and not be overwhelmed by all that is happening and all we have to do, but that we should look to enhance them rather than using them solely for protection purposes. Knowing they are there and seeking to step outside of them, should be a healthy disposition for us all, personally and professionally. If we stay inside our own particular 'bubbles' we constrict ourselves in so many ways and may well miss opportunities to grow and to develop informative and helpful new connections. It is only through growth and development of each individual school teacher and leader, that our schools and systems can hope to grow and develop. For that to happen, this needs to be a co-operative and collaborative endeavour.

Just as I discovered a whole new world when I stepped away from day to day engagement with the schools I used to lead, so can individuals and schools discover new possibilities by stepping outside of their own particular 'bubbles' and begin to build connections and practice for focused collaboration with others seeking to do the same. Many of the most important insights I gained as a school leader occurred when I was able to step away from the busyness of every day, and visit other settings or engage with colleagues and other educationalists, who all had their own perceptions and insights to share, to help enrich my own. Life is for living and professional development is for growing. You let yourself down by staying inside a 'bubble' of comfort and safety. We all need to step outside of those 'bubbles' to grow bigger and better ones, which support everyone to live, grow and to release their full potential, individually and collectively. This is just as true professionally as it is personally.

What are the 'bubbles' that support and constrict you and what you do? It may be time you burst one or two.



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