Leadership lessons from the Greeks

A couple of years ago I wrote an article for UkEdMag on lessons for teachers from the thinkers of Ancient Greece. Recently I have been thinking a lot about the strange nature of leadership in particular the question of why I – an experienced middle leader who has at times applied for more senior roles – would want to lead at all. Here again I want to look to the Greeks for help

1. Aristotle and right ambition.

When we enter the teaching profession it seems to be drilled into us that being ambitious for promotion is a good thing; the new ‘get into teaching’ ad supports this. It may well be good but it is not the only good. Aristotle develops a theory of human virtues or goods in which he argues that the virtue – or good character trait – lies at the middle of two extremes. Hence Aristotle talks about ‘right ambition’ – the midpoint between a complete lack of ambition and a ruthless over-ambition. I think it is possible to be overly ambitious. I remember working with one teacher many years ago who applied for every assistant head position that came up within a two hour radius. He spent over 20 days out of school on interview one year. Whilst he alone knew his motives I worry at someone so desperate to achieve a promotion. It is important that we are careful when it comes to ambition as often this is more about our ego than a desire to do good.

2. Plato – only the best will do

Ultimately a better reason to lead is the recognise that we are in a position to much greater good and have more of an influence than if we did not. This brings us to Plato’s point. Plato argues that the philosophers should rule his ideal theoretical state – the republic – as they have greater knowledge. However one problem Plato discusses philosophers will not want the job; they would rather spend their days thinking about life, the universe and everything. Nevertheless Plato thinks that they would be persuaded as they would see it as their moral duty if the alternative was to be led by someone who was less competent and skilled. Of course I’m not arguing that philosophers should run governments or schools (even though in some cases they couldn’t do a worse job) I am suggesting that the is something in Plato’s argument. If you don’t want to be governed by idiots and you have the ability to do a good job then perhaps you ought to step forward.

Of course this is easier said than done. I have discovered that some of the cleverest and best leaders I know have bouts of self-doubt and often wonder moe about stepping down rather than stepping up.

3. Diogenes – allowing others to shine

Finally, one of my favourite stories from Ancient Greece is the story of Diogenes who reportedly, despite being the greatest thinker in the Kingdom, lived his live in a barrel. When the king addressed him asking what he would have him do for him, Diogenes according to legend merely replied ‘Get out of my light’ to the King who had dared get in the way of the sun. If as a leader we want the light for ourselves- and we all have an ego whether we like to admit it or not – that is not a good thing. Others that we lead are often shining and we need to get out of the way if they are doing a good job.

So, if you do aspire to leadership can I encourage you to check your motives before stepping forward and, if you are in a leadership post, periodically review why you are doing it. Recognise that periods of self-doubt are normal particularly for those who are deep thinking. And if you don’t aspire to leadership, that is also fine.


New Year proverbs

This year rather than a series of aims or goals – and I do have a few of those – I offer a few proverbs and principles as I head into the new year. Some are cheesy, most are borrowed but each in some way is pertinent for the year ahead. Perhaps some of them will resonate with you also – hence the ‘we’ rather than the I.

2017 was a difficult year but also a good year. It is likely that 2018 will offer more of the same. Perhaps this is true of all years. So here are

Success is the sum of small efforts repeated day in and day out – anything that is worthwhile tens to require long and sustained effort. There are those who look to make an impact with high profile projects that are more style than substance but I have always been a bit more of a plodder. Yet I do get there in the end and I generally outlast the hares that I’m racing against. I don’t propose to change this; there is a value in longevity. This year it is important to just keep doing the right things regardless of what others are doing of whether the things we do are flavour of the month or not. Linked to this …

Do something your future self will thank you for – this is one I often say to my students. Whether it is fitness related, study related, a career goal, or involves our relationships, it is important that we think long term not short term. May we focus on the long term in the year ahead and not get distracted by those things which are quicker or easier.

Get out of your own way – a song title borrowed from the new U2 album! As I get older I become more aware of my character flaws and realise that I am my own worst enemy. The main barrier I face is me! I am prone to imposter syndrome and can retreat into my shell when pressured – and those are just the two I’m admitting to! Being aware of our issues is the first step to overcoming them. May we in 2018 get to know ourselves more quickly so that we can master ourselves.

This is not my circus and these are not my monkeys – perhaps a surprise addition to the proverbs – and nearly omitted as I’m aware it sounds harsh. One further character flaw I have is becoming burdened with other people’s issues and trying to be responsible for and fix things that I can’t fix. I think it is a teacher trait – we often care far too much. Perhaps each of us acquires unnecessary baggage this way. The holiday has enabled me to reflect on a couple of areas where I need to step back so that others can take responsibility for their own actions and more crucially I can actually use my time on things I am responsible for! May we in 2018 take responsibility for the right things and step away from other people’s dramas or unreasonable demands.

Dogs bark when the sun shines but the sun keeps on shining – I love this saying which I think originates from an old Welsh Pastor. It is about criticism. It seems that the brighter we shine and the more good we do, the more criticism we attract. Criticism often says more about the person criticising than it does about us. Whatever we do, we are likely to upset someone so we may as well do what we believe to be right. May we in 2018 have the courage to keep shining anyway!

You can only play one ball at a time – like many of us when we look ahead, the year with its challenges both in and out of work looks overwhelming. We feel quite inadequate in the face of its challenges. Fortunately the year comes to us broken down into 365 chunks called days. We can’t do everything all at once but like the cricketer playing a long innings I intend to focus on doing the best with each day that I have. May we ensure that we don’t become so overwhelmed by the future that we forget the present.

Hope some of the proverbs strike a chord with you also – and best wishes for the new year.

A teacher’s Christmas Carol

‘It’s Christmas Day’ said Scrooge to himself, ‘I haven’t missed it.’

I wonder how many teachers resonate with Scrooge’s fear that Christmas will pass them by. We are probably not in the ‘bah humbug’ mean spirit of Scrooge but we are often so absorbed with work that we fail to be fully present in the rest of our lives. We are sleepwalking to the end of term.

I remember a few years ago as described in ‘Elephant in the staffroom’ (chapter 8 to be exact) an evening where, having had such a mauling in a review meeting, I barely noticed my son’s Christmas concert. Yet truth be told each countdown to Christmas is a battle to make sure that the important things in life aren’t missed in the chaos at the end of term. I don’t think I’m alone in sometimes only beginning to think about what presents to buy once I’ve broken up for the holidays or arriving home to find that some of the Christmas preparations have taken place without me

In the past seven days and in the week to come there are all sorts of important events that I need to be at, not just physically but mentally present as well: the funeral of a friend, fulfilling a promise to take my son to the cinema, two Christmas concerts, a couple of church events and a family celebration. As I do those things I want to be fully present in the moment not mentally turning over one of the many things from my to do list.

So the challenge for the last week or so of term, whether we are celebrating Christmas or not, is to stop, breathe and notice what is around us. This may involve a few strategic decisions about things to let go in the last week – they can be tackled when we are fresh in the new year!

Our friends, family and our own wellbeing require that we are fully present in the moment. May we learn the lessons (past, present and future) of managing the seasonal workload and …

‘as Tiny Tim observed, ‘God bless us, Every One’’

A brief guide to handling emails

In my book ‘the elephant in the staffroom’ I briefly mentioned dealing with email, citing one interesting statistic from John Freeman’s that American corporate workers spend up to 40% of the day dealing with email, in the last few weeks I have been thinking a lot more about the teacher’s relationship with email and would like to extend my thoughts.

Email is almost always a disruption.

– You are in the middle of a lesson and you get an email reminding you of something you haven’t done.

– You are productively working through your to do list in the office when emails keep pinging – you just check because it may be important.

– You are sitting down to watch TV with your family and an email arrives at your device. Your mind is transported back to work.

Email is always a distraction from the thing that you are actually doing at the time. No one ever sits down and decides that their number one priority, the thing they are really working on at the minute, is answering email. So when an email pings in it stops us from what we are actually doing. How can we prevents email from wrecking our efficiency?

1. Like all other addictions try cutting down first. Check email first thing in the morning and at the end of the day. And perhaps at lunchtime if you really must.

2. Turn off email when teaching- don’t set a precedent of being constantly available and more importantly it is not fair on the class you are teaching. They need your full attention.

3. One of the reasons we feel we need to answer emails immediately is that we worry about forgetting them. In order to avoid this, create a ‘deal with me’ folder and move important/urgent emails to it so you don’t forget them. Deal with them when you have time.

4. Try to avoid email out of hours. If you do read them you don’t have to reply. Model work-life balance to staff and students; in some cases waiting will mean you give a better and calmer response. This week I received an email from a senior colleague that annoyed me. It was tempting to fire off an angry reply. By the morning I had decided he was right and was able to respond more logically.

5. Think about others. Don’t send email after hours (6-7pm) If you are tempted to email, use timed delivery or press save. I frequently draft emails on Sunday, save them and send first thing Monday morning.

6. Be polite. I have a friend who is a senior manager in a school. He operates by the rule that if an email asking for something doesn’t contain a please or a thank you, then he ignores it. I rather like this.

Bonus : The other great interruptor is the telephone. A typical phone conversation in the staffroom involves the phrase ‘no, he/she’s teaching, can I take a message?’ I’m not sure what people think teachers are doing all day! (I wonder if there is a clue in the word ‘teacher’) One difference between teaching and other professions is that people’s lunch breaks are sacred in most jobs. How often do you ring an office to be told ‘Sorry, X is on lunch.’ Yet often in teaching phone callers get told ‘X is teaching. They have lunch at 12pm. Ring back then.’ Let’s stop dropping each other in it and actually respect each others lunch breaks.

Delivering RS Linear A level – entering Year 2

I have thoroughly enjoyed the first year of teaching the OCR A level. As well as rediscovering my love for theology – topics on Jesus and on Bonhoeffer have gone down particularly well – we have particularly got into Business Ethics which helped to dispel the idea that RS is full of old ideas that have no real relevance in the modern world.

The idea for Year 1 was to get through as much content as possible to allow time to slow down, review, and practice skills in year 2 – thus avoiding the trap of rushing to finish the course. We aimed to get through 18 of the 28 topics – we managed 17 but that was OK. I am all set to start with liberation theology – good links to Bonhoeffer – and theology and gender.  Our main thoughts entering year 2 are around teaching and learning; what is written below is by and large the key messages that I will be giving to the Humanities team at the college as they begin the year at various stages (History has had its first results, RS is midway through, Philosophy and Classics are beginning their linear journeys)

As I have been thinking I am guided by a quote from Stephen Tierney at Northern Rocks 2015. Good teaching and learning is ‘Finding out what students don’t know and then teaching it.’ (Stephen Tierney @leadinglearner) Hence a key question is – do we know what each of our students’ strengths and weaknesses are? If we do, this is the first step to being able to do something about it.

  1. Content and Linearity

In the second year of RS and History we are beginning by using a Google form and asking students to RAG rate themselves against each of the first-year topics. This will help us to plan how to review first-year content and can be updated as we quiz students on what they claim to know.

Obviously we will be checking students learning on the new topics and questioning in class. In an effort to combat the difficulties of linearity.

Quizzing: By the end of this year we should have a pre-prepared quiz on each of the topics in the first and second year, whether this be a Kahoot, Socrative or pen and paper. For the electronic versions it will be possible to revisit these quizzes and by announcing the quiz schedule in advance and having a quiz league it will enable students to always be reasonably warm on past topics by virtue of their competitive natures.

Poor performance by individual students can lead to support or challenge as appropriate. If most students are struggling on a quiz – that gives us a priority in terms of our teaching.

  1. Skills and Linearity

In an effort to bridge the literacy gap we have introduced a reading program where students and staff will read silently for around 20 minutes towards the end of the last lesson of the week. The link to the reading program for RS in Year 1 – an anthology of key chapters and articles-  is here.

In terms of exam technique we have to recognise that alongside the scheme of work for content there almost needs to be a parallel scheme of work for skills. (or if you are clever this can be one document!)  This includes

  • Improving students’ metacognition – one strategy will be to do modelling of how to answer exam questions in a similar way to John Tomsett’s walking talking exam
  • We will also be making use of actual exam board scripts that we will talk through together in class. (Past scripts are fine and OCR are currently getting senior examiners to annotate some sample answers – coming soon to a website near you!)
  • One other useful strategy before students hand their own essays is to get them to annotate their essays in terms of which assessment objectives they think they are fulfilling. It is often quite enlightening to see that what they think is AO2 is actually AO1 or completely irrelevant; interesting discussions can then emerge.
  • We are also explicitly teaching paragraph structure using PEE for AO1 (Point Explain Example) and PEA (point explain assess) or PACE (Point, Assess, Counterargument, Evaluate) A more advanced structure (DISC + PEREL) and discussion is found here in courtesy of @missavecarter.
  1. Feedback

Our primary forms of assessment are the taking in of typed up notes after every couple of topics (We are using Google classroom to help with this) and regular timed essays. This will enable us to see how students are progressing with both content and skills.

  • We aim to do most of our feedback in class through verbal feedback – sometimes live marking an essay with the student present is far better than written comments
  • That said, for timed essays we will also be developing a feedback sheet that enables us to highlight phrases from the exam board mark scheme, jot down a couple of key messages and, most importantly, leave space for the students to write down action points. Once we have action points it is important that we give students time and space to write improved sections in class.
  • There are also some excellent ideas of feedback here from @MrsHumanities which I have blogged on before. HERE

All of this might mean that some of the content gets pushed outside of class. One of the key messages of the new A-levels is that students need to be doing more outside of class.

Finally : The final thing that we are doing an RS is that we aim to have all of the content covered by early March. This leaves us at least 10 college weeks to review topics in class, practice essays and get ready for the exam. During this time I would like my students to be doing at least one timed essay in class each week. They are in a national competition so needless to say the messages about Mindset, Work ethic and organization that we deliver in induction have to be constantly reinforced.

If you’ve managed to read this all the way to the end, I hope my ramblings have been of some use and that you have an enjoyable and fruitful year of linear RS.

Top Ten Interviews

Had an interview this week for an internal promotion. I didn’t get the job but had some kind and positive feedback, so all good. I have had a lot interviews over the years – good, bad and ugly. Here in reverse order is my top ten.

10. Raising my hopes twice! Having been encouraged by a colleague who was a governor at this particular high school I spent a long day interviewing for Head of RE. I didn’t get it and they didn’t appoint. 3 days later I received a letter in the Headteacher encouraging me to reapply and suggesting what he wanted to see next time. Great! A month later and a re-run of the interview with several of the same candidates. I didn’t get it . . .

9. You’re my best friend. Turning up to one of my first interviews and seeing my closest friend from my PGCE there was tricky. The day went well but he got the job and I didn’t. It wouldn’t be the last time that our paths would cross in such circumstances

8. The internal candidate. On several occasions I have arrived at interview to find that there was an internal candidate, and on one occasion I was the internal candidate as my temporary position in my second school became permanent. The internal candidate has always got the job in interviews I have been in. (Yes, I know it’s not always the case)

7. The Remote interview. Imagine my excitement at doing a web video conference interview with the exam board for a Principal Examiner role just last year. Predictably the technology fell over and the next half hour or so was spent shouting down a crackly phone line to Cambridge. Got the job.

6. Are you really sure? My first permanent job was offered to me after a fairly brief interview procedure and I accepted with enthusiasm as Christmas was coming and I had just purchased a £500 guitar. The Head’s response to my acceptance was ‘are you sure? Do you not want time to think about it?’ I should have read the signs regarding the challenges that were to come. . .

5. A bird in the hand. As several years later I made an effort to leave the school mentioned above, I found myself with two interviews in 2 days shortly before the May deadline. The day 2 job was the better job. Half way through Day 1 and seeing that I was up against a friend (see 9) I withdrew to focus on preparing for the dream job the next day. The day at ‘dream school’ went well and I almost got it. ‘You don’t have experience of working in a large team’ was their reservation and why I came 2nd not 1st. ‘You knew that when you called me for interview’ was my curt reply.

4. Salt in the wounds. Several years ago I applied for a senior internal role and was eliminated at the end of day 1. A colleague within my area managed to get through to day 2. (and ended up getting the job) My prize was to cover his lessons whilst he did the second day interview!

3. The walk of shame. During a bleaker time at my current college I made an external application to be Head of Sixth form at the high school where one of my children attends. After performing reasonably well in the morning the field was cut from 6 to 3 for the afternoon and, despite their sympathetic noises about how well I’d done and the tough field, I was dispatched home. There is something about having to physically walk the mile home that seems to add indignity to not getting a job!

2. At least I teach in English. I came to interview at my present college for a position teaching RS and Philosophy. There were 2 candidates: myself and a colleague who also taught languages as well as RS. The interview went well and I was delighted to be offered the job. Clearly I had mastered this interviewing thing! It was only after I had been in post for a couple of months that my new line manager revealed that the colleague in question had argued that Kant should be taught in the original German and was proposing to spend time in A level RS doing just that. As he bluntly put it, ‘when you walked in, we were desperately hoping you would say just one vaguely sensible thing!’

1. Second in a field of one! The most bizarre interview I went to was my very first. I had applied to teach RE in a high performing high school. As I arrived on the Monday morning, a senior manager in a panic informed me that all the other candidates had got jobs and withdrawn over the weekend. Nevertheless they would proceed with the day. After a tour of the school and an informal chat about ‘National Records of Achievement’ among other things, they paused and told me that they were not going to appoint. They had major misgivings that someone who was a little unclear on NRAs should be allowed near their students. The sense of deflation when you are the only player and you still lose the game cannot be overstated!

By the way, I got my first job whilst 300 miles away on honeymoon. The school where I had done my PGCE placement had an RE teacher depart suddenly. Was I still available and could I start in 3 weeks time? The Lord provides and he moves in mysterious ways…

What is your time worth? Thinking out loud on pay

A chance comment I read at the weekend referred to ‘the 1265 hours we are paid for’.  

(YesI realise it is not that straightforward. I would actually be unimpressed if my colleagues or the teachers at my children’s school insisted they were only going to do 1265 hours. – 32.5 hours for 39 weeks

But please indulge me whilst I go on a few thoughts. 

Firstly, teachers may in fact be working a lot more than 32.5 hours a week – 56 hours was the average in one recent survey, this would mean 2180 hours a year. (assuming they do absolutely no holiday work!) By the way, an average worker in a standard non-teaching job would work around 1800 hours a year (37.5hours x 48weeks) 

Now consider 3 hypothetical colleagues

Teacher A is an experienced middle leader and earns £40,000 a year. If he/she sticks to the 1265 hours their hourly pay is £31.62 per hour. If they work as hard as the average teacher on 56 hour weeks then this drops to £18.35 an hour

Teacher B has been teaching for around 5 years (so is part of the 60% that survive their first 5 years) and earns £30,000 a year. If he/she sticks to the 1265 hours their hourly pay is £23.72 per hour. If they work as hard as the average teacher on 56 hour weeks then this drops to £13.75 an hour

Teacher C has qualified this year and is an NQT earning £22,000 a year. If he/she sticks to the 1265 hours their hourly pay is £17.39 per hour. If they work as hard as the average teacher on 56 hour weeks then this drops to £10.09 an hour

Yes, I realise that if you are earning minimum wage doing an unpleasant job then some of the sums of money above sound generous. There are people worse off than teachers although given that the UK average salary is £28,000 there will be actually many teachers under this average figure. 

How do the figures above compare? Teaching is a highly skilled job. Consider the following hourly rates that skilled persons may charge . This is what you would have to pay for the following skills:

  • £10 per hour for a handyman 
  • £30 per hour for a plumber
  • £50 per hour plus for a garage mechanic
  • £100 per hour plus if you require a solicitor or a private medical consultant

The minimum wage is £7.50 an hour and the average graduate hourly rate is £16 per hour (assuming the 1800 hour year and the average graduate salary of £29,000 per year) 

Consider also the following hourly rates we may get in any second jobs we do

  1. When we do exam board work such as attending meetings £15-20 per hour is generally the going rate for our expertise. In cases where we are not paid by the board but our school or college is paid to release us then a daily rate of £150 for a 6-7 teaching day is standard
  2. If we offer our services as private tutors the going hourly rate seems to around £25 per hour. In fact some of the those who have left teaching have discovered this is a worthwhile alternative. 

So how does a teacher’s hourly rate compare to other professions? What would be a comparable profession in terms of skill? Should teachers be paid more? Should they work fewer hours than they do? Although we cannot put a price on what teachers do, financially what should it be worth? I’m not sure I know the answers but I think the questions are interesting and important

Over to you!