In the last few weeks, I’ve been reminded time and time again about the very human, emotional side of being a student, of being a teacher and of leading in a school. The spirit of people in our system is incredible.
Here are some snapshots.
An Oldham student with additional learning needs, working independently on his Level 3 Travel and Tourism BTEC assignment. Now in his fourth year, he’d worked up through Level 1 and Level 2 and here he was on the brink of finishing with a Distinction. His goal: a passenger services job at Manchester airport. You could never meet a young person with more pride, determination and optimism for the future.
A group of Birmingham sixth formers getting involved in an animated debate about the quality of their own education system. One girl, unhappy with the negativity of her peers, embarked on a eulogy, praising the opportunities they had all been given and bemoaning how they took their education for granted. It was an epic tour de force. She later told me how much she loved watching MPs debating in parliament and had a real admiration for John Bercow. “I just love him”. It’s all too easy to become jaded and cynical about politics but here was a student absolutely, infectiously inspired. A law career in mind, she knew exactly where she was going and what she needed to do to get there.
A team of south-coast English teachers in a dynamic school in challenging circumstances, generating an amazing team spirit and, despite some tragic personal events compounding the school improvement stresses, showing the most amazing collective resilience, determination and inventiveness to build something of real substance in their curriculum. In the classroom, they each project a fabulous sense of belief in their students – putting their pressures aside with every class that comes to the door, teaching with humour, passion and love. Love for their subject and for their students. It’s awe-inspiring.
A midlands NQT keen to be observed in a non-specialist science area, happy to be involved voluntarily in an observation process, actively seeking feedback in her desire to learn and develop. It’s always amazing to contemplate just how much there is to wrestle with as an NQT: running a room, keeping a class of kids engaged, motivated, focused…keeping up with the flow of ideas; knowing the curriculum. – the sequence of concepts and how best to present them. It’s fabulous to work with earnest teachers engaged in this process with such openness and determination to succeed, pushing through their self-doubt and making real progress.
A South-East school leader working more hours than is healthy or natural, utterly committed to the students and staff in her care, keen to present a positive improvement story given all the work her team and her MAT had put in.. but admitting that, despite all the good intentions, the community challenges remained the same and day-to-day, it wasn’t *that* different. “There are more bad days than good”. What a tough thing to say. What a tough thing to be true and then to still persevere. Our system shouldn’t be that hard…. but in some places, it really is. I meet resilient dutiful people like this everywhere. They deserve so much more credit – and more evenings and weekends off!
The school choir at a MAT conference in Sheffield. I watched the students file in, nervous under the spotlights. But then the music started and my attention was drawn to their teacher – conducting from in front of the stage. That look in her eyes – the intense eye-contact and big smile that said: “Come on guys; you can do this. You’re ready; you’re going to smash it” – and then, the most powerful three minutes of non-verbal encouragement you can imagine, willing them through, building up to the finale. The kids got a standing ovation. Of course they deserved it completely, but as the teacher humbly tip-toed out, my mental ovation was for her.
A teacher at a sixth form parents’ evening. Probably breaking ranks with the neutrality policy, she confessed to some disappointment that the student was dropping the A level to AS. ‘You know you’re really good at this – you’re exactly the kind of student that would benefit from studying further. You have great ideas and write so well’. He’d never believed that were true. “Really? Am I” – that was the look on his face. Genuinely chuffed and surprised. A potentially life-changing interaction. He changed his mind. That’s what great teachers can do… lift a young person’s horizons, give them self-belief, open doors!
I could cite any one of several teacher development teams I’ve met recently. Triads, triangles, curriculum teams – a group of professionals, some relatively new, some more experienced, engaged in the most fabulous discussion about the core of their business: their curriculum, their learners, their assessments, their teaching methods. It’s so wonderful to see this in action where teachers have been given the time, within a much wider sustained framework, to get to grips with these issues – not merely implementing some externally determined set of ideas but developing their own and working collaboratively to drive themselves forward. Motivated and empowered teachers are wonderful to behold.
And finally, a story that really choked me. A school dealing with a troubled student who had stolen her mum’s credit card. She’d spent well over £150. What had she bought? Revision guides and a duvet cover. Just unpack the implications of that for a while……that she felt that was what she had to do. That school and the amazing people in it do more for its students than the formal accountability measures will ever say. It’s what teachers do every day.
I’m a passenger now; an observer. And week after week what I see is humbling and awe-inspiring. The collective spirit in our system is magnificent, it really is.