Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Pope Francis on TED: Lessons for Schools

Today the first Papal TED talk was published. Recorded in the Vatican rather than with the instantly recognisable black backdrop, Pope Francis shared his "idea worth spreading". He touched upon ideas of solidarity, hope and tenderness. Some have suggested our world leaders were at the forefront of Francis' thinking when he wrote this, however, I think there is genuinely something for everyone in the talk; my focus is looking at a message for schools and school leaders.

"None of us is an island"

The first point is a reminder of how we all need one another. As someone who has lead teams within schools, it's been made evident that you need to be working together, always. To be a year team, a department, an SLT, you need to stand together. Francis points out, we need to "restore our connections to a healthy state" - connection and interaction makes us happy; this is in our human nature.

I enjoy our short weekly morning briefings as an RE Dept, and as an SLT we meet on the other four mornings. At first it seemed like lots of meetings, yet it drastically cuts down on many emails over smaller matters. It also means we get a catch up, know everything that's going on - and share personal news too... we even have a laugh and share a joke on occasion! It means issues are dealt with quickly.

As a department, it can help with 'buy-in' and ensure a shared experience. I try to speak in person to every member of my department every day, but it doesn't always happen - that's the life of a teacher - it's always busy! However, if I don't talk to them, I won't know if they are happy. And this is important. Anyone who feels like a island in a school is unlikely to be working as the best teacher they could be.


"How wonderful would it be if solidarity, this beautiful and, at times, inconvenient word, were not simply reduced to social work, and became, instead, the default attitude in political, economic and scientific choices, as well as in the relationships among individuals, peoples and countries."

I believe that, in general, schools do have the 'default attitude' of solidarity - we fight for equality and social inclusion on a daily basis. Yet Francis goes on to say that each person is "not a statistic or a number." - and this is something we do need to fight in schools. A culture has been created (Ofsted? DfE?) where we have little choice but to focus of getting students to a 4 - or a 5? It is vital we don't lose sight of the individual human being..."a person to take care of."

Pope Francis then retells the story of the Good Samaritan; familiar but often overlooked despite it's richness. The paths of our students are riddled with suffering - anxiety, bereavement, housing issues, self harm, divorce. As are our colleagues too. School leaders need to ensure they are not like the "respectable" people in the parable; we cannot 'walk on by' ignoring the suffering, we cannot leave anyone on the side of the road. School leaders need to be constantly looking to the 'side of the road' - who is there? Students? Staff?

Thankfully, I think schools are genuinely places where we do we do not let the system "nullify our desire to open up to the good". Schools do show compassion, every day.

This leads to hope:

"Feeling hopeful does not mean to be optimistically naïve and ignore the tragedy humanity is facing. Hope is the virtue of a heart that doesn't lock itself into darkness, that doesn't dwell on the past, does not simply get by in the present, but is able to see a tomorrow. Hope is the door that opens onto the future. Hope is a humble, hidden seed of life that, with time, will develop into a large tree. It is like some invisible yeast that allows the whole dough to grow, that brings flavor to all aspects of life. And it can do so much, because a tiny flicker of light that feeds on hope is enough to shatter the shield of darkness. A single individual is enough for hope to exist, and that individual can be you. And then there will be another "you," and another "you," and it turns into an "us." And so, does hope begin when we have an "us?" No. Hope began with one "you." When there is an "us," there begins a revolution."

Schools are places of revolution; it happens every day in classrooms everywhere.

The Revolution of Tenderness

The third and final point from Pope Francis is one of listening. One of the most important things for school leaders to do. Listen: intently, carefully, attentively, relentlessly. 

One group that stuck out to me was, "listen.. to those who are afraid of the future". This is our students - do they need a 4 or a 5? What will it mean having a mixture of grades and numbers? What do universities want? Employers? Will I be able to afford a house? This is also our teachers - what do budget cuts mean? Will there be redundancies? Will I have a heavier workload? These worries are real. 

Francis points out the language of tenderness is one of shared communication. How do we speak to the students? How do we speak to those in our team? How do we explain complex concepts? How do we share difficulties without over burdening? 

This particularly resonated for me, as a relatively new school senior leader, "the more powerful you are, the more your actions will have an impact on people, the more responsible you are to act humbly". There is a real importance to ensure you connect your power with humility and tenderness. Power may seem like an over-exaggerated term within the school context, but in every moment we have the power to make or break a students day, and likewise with colleagues. Francis hints at the model of servant leadership, evident in Jesus' ministry (see more on this in a previous blog post  <here>).

He concludes with more hope: "the future is, most of all, in the hands of those people who recognize the other as a "you" and themselves as part of an "us."" - this is our job; as teachers, leaders and human beings. 

Read the script in full <here>

Watch the video in full here:

Image courtesy of TED

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Jesus Was An Only Son

"One of the first things that is shocking when you have a kid is that suddenly there is this thing inside you... that says there is nothing, nothing you wouldn't do to keep them safe and protect them from what the world is going to deliver, which of course you can't do... the choices that we make are given a value by the things that we give up for them, the parts of life we pass by..."

Bruce Springsteen may not be a practising Catholic, yet in his own words, "he is still on the team" and "once a Catholic, always a Catholic". His songs present a relentless optimism, hope, redemption and resurrection. Bible imagery often features heavily. If you are interested in reading a little more on this, try these: Catholic Herald or Christian Today .

The Holy Family, Mary, Joseph and Jesus are introduced to us in the Nativity narratives. They present a model, an ideal - God could have picked any woman, and any man - in the whole of history - to bring up his Son; He picked these. By Jesus' Passion, Joseph seems to have died and is no longer there to support his son, and his wife, through the pain and torment. Mary was there, and this is her story, according to Springsteen:

A mother prays, "Sleep tight, my child, sleep well
For I'll be at your side
That no shadow, no darkness, no tolling bell,
Shall pierce your dreams this night." (Full lyrics)

This song is not just about Mary and about Jesus. It is about fatherhood, motherhood and all that goes with that. My life changed on 8th October 2015, when my son was born. I underwent the transformation Springsteen describes in the introduction to playing 'Jesus was an only son' live. A friend of mine had his daughter just a few months before us, and when I asked how it felt, he simply said, "ontological" - a phrase that has stuck with me. In his Confessions, St Augustine describes ontological feelings as being beyond conception, without condition... and connected to the heart.

Naturally fatherhood changes your working outlook and practices.

Instead of getting into work at 6.30am each day, when I can I like to stay at home and spend a bit of time with T in the morning. I try to get home as early as I can too, especially one or two nights a week. This usually means a few late nights catching up on work at home, something I never used to do when I did 6.30/7am to 6pm in school each day. Yet the trade off is worth it - getting home and giving T a bath, putting him to bed is a highlight of my day. 

I'd only ever left school once in the middle of the day in 12 years teaching, the day my grandmother died, but I've already had to do it once this year when T had been sick at nursery. The students at school remain important in my life, but they are not my own son. The needs of my wife are also greater than ever before, I need to be there to help and support her too. 

There are many reasons your colleagues may be finding life tough outside of school (bereavement, illness, divorce to name but a few). Although I never fully appreciated what colleagues who were parents may be going through. When you son is ill or teething, you may have got one or two hours sleep. You may have been woken on the hour, every hour. You may have been sat in the nursery at 3am. These things naturally have an impact on your ability to function on a given day! Especially as it so often happens when you have that 5 period day.

Your evenings and weekends become far more precious. I am reluctant to give up my Saturday morning to do a revision session, as this is when I take T swimming. I will be very selective on which Saturday conferences I will attend, as that is one of my full days with T. I try to avoid too many evenings out as I don't get to see T and put him to bed, plus it makes a very long day for my wife.

Importantly, it has changed my outlook to dealing with students at school too. You look at the students differently knowing how you care and protect your own child. I think I speak to fellow parents a little differently. I am not softer, if anything tougher, as I would want my son to be treated - I wouldn't want his teachers to tolerate mediocrity or have low aspirations for him. I would want him to be loved, cared for and treated fairly. I now always try to make it even clearer to parents that this is why I am trying to help, this is where I am coming from - even if it means the use of sanctions. 

Working in schools is a great privilege because you know exactly how great kids are already. The other day I read this by Matt Coyne who blogs on Facebook as the brilliant Man vs Baby:

When my son Charlie turned one we took him to a wildlife park. While we were there we taught him the noise that a lion makes... and he hasn't stopped "rraaahhhhrrring" ever since. And every time he roars, it occurs to me that we could just as easily have taught him that a lion "moos" or "quacks" and he would have accepted that as truth. And it further occurs to me that there is real power in that and a responsibility that comes with it. (BREXIT! TRUMP! ISIS! TERROR! HOW FATHERHOOD WILL FIX THE IMPENDING APOCALYPSE)

This is the power and responsibility that we share in as teachers. We are already in loco parentis for a significant part of the day - maybe we even feel we do more parenting than the actual parents! Certainly our pastoral responsibility can often go beyond the basic teaching of our lessons. This can be a rewarding and really worthwhile part of our jobs. Those with pastoral leadership roles will (hopefully) real feel this - we do make a difference. We also get to share in the many of the joys, laughs and happy moments.

Does becoming a parent mean you should be treated differently at work? Not really, but you can hopefully expect a little compassion and understanding on occasion. Does it mean you are a better teacher? Not necessarily, but I feel it has helped me be even better. Is it great fun? Absolutely. Is it for everyone? Not at all. 

I do now know that although my job is important, and that it still feels like a form of vocation, that my own family is my highest priority. I have undergone that 'ontological transformation' whereby there is nothing, nothing, you wouldn't do for them. I'm a husband, dad... and then teacher.

Image courtesy: Intensity Advisors