Candour is cool

'By now, you've probably noticed that a corporate culture which values candor and a free exchange of ideas comes with a price tag!'

If you work at Michaela, it would not be unusual to get an email like this from the Head:

Today is Thursday. Before the end of the week, you must say something to someone that you would not have otherwise said. Start with, ‘So Katharine said that I should say, so I’m saying it…’

And then the email will remind them to give themselves a star on the Candour Start Chart in the staff room and to give a star to the person with whom they’ve been candid.

Wherever you work, I guarantee there will be misunderstandings and miscommunication. I guarantee people around you will do things that will make you raise an eyebrow. It is the nature of working with others. So if you want your organisation to run well, you need to address the issue of candour, or the lack of it will CRUSH your organisation.

I think staff probably think, ‘Oh no… here she goes again…’ when they get emails like this from me. But they do as I ask and they raise all sorts of grievances with their colleagues as a result. What happens next? The grievance gets resolved. No one feeling awkward about stuff, wishing they had said something but never quite mustering up the nerve.

The Headmistress at Michaela never gets any stars on the chart. And that’s because she is always candid. Hard to take? Perhaps. But people get used to it.

That’s why our so-called ‘PM Management meetings’ with me tend to go like this:

ME: “Is there anything that we could do to support you better?”

STAFF: “Well no, because had there been, I would have told you.” Pause. “So is there something I should be doing differently?”

ME: “Er…No. Of course you would already know if that were the case…”

See my last post on abolishing targets. You should only abolish targets in a culture of candour. When everyone speaks freely to each other, then you don’t need the tick box exercises that pretend to improve people when in fact they only make an organisation feel as if that’s what it is doing.

Every half term, the top 3 star earners on the chart get a reward of chocolate in front of the whole staff and a clap. Hurrah for speaking your mind! Hurrah for the bravery, for the honesty, for putting the success of the school and the children above your own feelings of awkwardness. Hurrah for being candid!

Candour creates a culture of trust. And a culture of trust allows you to abandon all the nonsense that wastes teacher time, like targets, PRP, book looks and marking. Oh, and all the crazy data input… There is so much I could write about!

All a load of nonsense if you ask me.

That’s why I don’t get stars for being candid.

I just can’t help it. 🙂

Targets don’t work

'Believe me, targets are essential!'

To SLTs out there…

Who ever came up with the idea of targets? They are worse than a waste of time.

Targets take up valuable time, concentrate people on the wrong things or too few things, and lay the basis for a pseudo-performance-managment experience: ticking a box.

They don’t make people better. They make them worse. And they make your school worse. In fact I’d argue they make most organisations worse and any leader who wants to do something radical for the better, should abolish them.

At Michaela, we don’t have Performance Related Pay. God no. And we certainly don’t have its mirror cousin: targets. Targets & PRP create a culture in schools that is pernicious. They destroy teamwork and ensure that no one can trust each other. Give targets to staff who are failing, sure. You need something to hold them to account. Give targets to everyone at your school and trust is obliterated everywhere and your teachers begin to play a game.

In any given day, teachers are making thousands of judgement calls that make a massive difference to the school. Why not set targets for those too? Because of course that would be impossible. Set them 3 targets a year and you move your teacher’s attention to the wrong thing. Must get X number of C grades with “everyone-had-given-up-hope-for class” and your teacher will either do whatever is necessary to hit that target to the detriment of everything else, or they will forget about it until the PM meeting comes round at the end of the year.

If they take their target seriously, they’ll suddenly refuse to take in naughty kids from other classes to help out colleagues, or they’ll stop doing that extra-curricular club for Year 7 in order to pour all of their energies into their target.

If they forget their targets, it is because no one takes targets seriously at the school anyway, so then, erm, what’s the point of having them and going through the joke that is the performance management process?

SLT should distinguish between teachers who are failing and those who are doing well. By all means, hold those who are failing to account with targets and let the others go free from the restrictive stranglehold that is performance management dictated by targets.

Stop wasting everyone’s time.

Break free from the mould!

I know what you’re thinking: But how will we know who is good?

Are you really telling me you need targets to know who is good??

You already know! Everyone knows. It is just that on one wants to admit that they know. The teachers know. The SLT know. The kids know. Come on! Just admit you know and you’ll be half way there.

I know the business world uses them. I know.

But might it be possible that they too have got it wrong? Especially for those jobs where there isn’t a bottom line to judge by?

Targets work in an environment where you genuinely only want staff concentrating on achieving 3 things.

Teaching isn’t one of them.

So I know it might feel scary to do it, but my suggestion is to take the leap: get rid of targets. Get rid of the things that waste people’s time.

Your staff will love you for it. And your school will run all the better for it.

What is Leadership?

 

leader-clipart-leadership-clipart-picture.jpgMy top three characteristics that I believe are absolutely crucial for excellent leadership are below. Clearly not everyone will agree with me. This is just my opinion.

Teachers lead their pupils in their classrooms and the best of them have these 3 qualities. SLT lead in their schools as do middle managers. Again, the best of them will have these 3 characteristics.

ONE:

Having a clear vision about which you are passionate. Every leader says they have a vision. But do they? If they cannot say what distinguishes their organisation or classroom from most others in a few sentences, then I’m not sure they have one. They should have a USP.

If you are just doing what everyone else is doing, then something is seriously wrong, especially when the British education system is in such desperate need of a revolution.

And remember, no vision ever has bureaucratic tasks attached to it. EVER! Bureaucracy kills vision.

Step away from the bureaucracy… run for your lives! If you ever catch yourself consumed by it, you need to ask yourself what you’re doing, what it’s for, who is benefitting from it, and would the world blow up if you just didn’t do it?

TWO:

Owning the vision/organisation and being able to make hard decisions and hold the line. This might mean being hated & targeted. It might mean vilification and attacks from all sides. I know fellow Heads who have made hard decisions on uniform will know exactly where I’m coming from on this. It might mean excluding a pupil from a classroom, or putting the pupil isolation. It means not allowing unreasonable parents to make unreasonable demands.

It means having standards and not allowing excuse-making to get in the way. It means supporting those who fail to meet those standards precisely by refusing to lower those very standards.

It means holding the line, even when Ofsted stands in the way.

THREE:

Having the ability to inspire ACTION and TRANSFORMATION. This might come from leading by example, by being efficient and organised or hard-working. This might come from using one’s emotional intelligence or knowing how to get a bunch of disparate people to work as a team, to feel as if they are part of a family, to understand loyalty, trust and commitment.

If staff or pupils won’t act for their leader or won’t change for their leader, won’t reach for that vision with their leader (whether that is to master French verbs in silence or to step out into the ring and dare to do things differently), then something is wrong with the leadership. And I’d say this means the leader needs to change something in what they are doing.

As Antoine de Saint-Exupery says, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

Tasks, work, collecting wood… all part of the never-ending bureaucratic nightmare that can consume a classroom or a school.

My advice?

Jump overboard and swim forwards with all the energy and determination you’ve got so that you and your staff and pupils can master and bathe in the endless immensity of the sea.

The Detention Director

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All good schools run detentions. They would not be good without them. Michaela also runs detentions, but we centralise them in order to have consistency across the school.

Centralisation is supportive of both pupils and staff. It removes the possibility of pupils choosing whose detention to attend and which teacher to ignore. It ensures fairness across the board so that all pupils feel that they are always treated in the same manner. Our centralised detention system is one of the reasons you will never hear a Michaela pupil say, ‘It’s not fair! SHE didn’t get in trouble for the same thing!’ Our centralised detention system is one of the reasons our children are so happy.

If teachers are not running their own detentions, then someone else has to do it. We’ve had teachers on a rota in the detention hall and they are pretty good at it. Of course they are. They know how to give a naughty pupil a stern eye, how to demonstrate their presence, how to inspire the pupil to regret their actions and not to repeat them.

At Michaela, we care about work/life balance for teachers. We want our teachers to spend their time thinking about teaching instead of manning detentions. So rather than have teachers do this, we advertised for a Detention Director.

A Detention Director gives teachers back their time to do what they ought to be doing: teaching. If the Detention Director were unable to imitate what teachers do all the time, then he/she would be a poor Detention Director. A good Detention Director needs the qualities listed in our advert. These qualities are held by any good teacher.

We want someone who will analyse data, organise detentions, line-manage staff, be a sergeant major in the detention room, ring parents, be extremely efficient with time and paperwork, have heart-to-heart conversations with pupils and be inspirational.

While lots of what we do at Michaela is unusual, this one isn’t. Schools have detentions. I’d hate to work in one that didn’t.

When the facts change, I change my mind

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I am writing this post because some people have asked for clarification of some of the quotes in the recent Guardian article by Richard Adams on Michaela.

First the context: the journalist sat in on half a day’s tour and talk with 17 visitors from the Middle East. Some spoke good English, others did not. I had to explain my thinking in many different ways throughout the day. Because their guide from the British Council had chosen to show them Michaela, (rather than take them to a school that was more representative of a normal school) I had to explain how different we were to other schools in general, either in Britain or elsewhere. I had to explain how we were trying to ‘escape from old ideas’. This does not mean that we are the only ones doing this, or that we have nothing to learn. We change our minds about things everyday because when the facts change, we change our minds.

To my surprise, they asked why we didn’t have collaboration, group work, ICT lessons etc. I had wrongly assumed that in Abu Dhabi, traditional lessons would be the norm: not so. I had to explain in very basic terms (English being an issue) what I meant when it comes to the normal discussions conducted on edu-twitter daily.

Can I remember precisely what was said over several hours? No. Did Richard Adams deliberately look for the most salacious things said to quote out of context so as to get a rise from his readers? I just don’t know.

All I can do now is say what I believe to be so.

IF people are interested in what our school believes, then they will listen. If they are not interested in our real beliefs, then they will continue to obsess about our school and the beliefs they would prefer we held. Having said that, some teachers have embraced some of our ideas and are in regular touch with us to say how much they feel some of our ideas have helped them to develop their practice.

The idea that I would suggest that we are the ONLY school on the planet doing anything is just absurd. Mind you, I’m not entirely sure Richard Adams is saying this, but certainly some people are interpreting his article in this way. If Richard Adams believes this, I wish he had asked me for clarification. I did think how funny it was that he should point out that other schools do some of things we do and then in the same breath talk about our line in the carpet down the corridors. Yes Richard, I know that they do. That line idea comes from KSA (King Solomon Academy). So does our family lunch idea come from KSA and our Appreciations come for Dixons Trinity in Bradford. Our corridors are silent because we got the idea from Mossbourne and right now we are implementing another one of their ideas where groups of pupils should never be larger than 4 at break time. This is an example of us changing our minds about something, given the good practice we saw at another school. Some of the ideas we are going to use for our Sixth Form come from St Thomas the Apostle in Peckham and so many of our back house ideas come from various schools, whose Heads have either been kind enough to invite me into their schools to learn from them or whose Heads are my friends. As schools have graciously allowed us to steal from them, we have opened our doors for people to learn from us.

Do I think that in most schools in the UK it is possible for every teacher to ask every child to pick up other children’s rubbish without fear of the reaction? No I do not. Certainly there will be some schools where this is possible. I do not believe they are in the majority. Though whether you agree with me on that point or not is not really the issue. The more interesting issue is whether it is necessary to teach ‘picking-up after others’ skills to children, or whether they will do it naturally. Is it necessary to create an environment where to do otherwise would be unthinkable? I believe it is necessary. I understand that not everyone will agree with this. And guess what? That’s ok.

The other issue about which people wanted further explanation was the comment on pupils knowing as much as their teachers. Of course I don’t think teachers think this! What I do think is that there is a pernicious culture in our schools which suggests this is the case: that pupils and teachers are equals. So that when teachers need backing over behaviour, they do not get it, because they are not considered to be ‘an authority’ and when they teach, they are under pressure to entertain and be facilitators, instead of just being teachers.

Some teachers say this environment does not exist in their school. Great. I do believe it is prevalent in our schools and you might disagree with me. And guess what? That’s ok.

You could say that it is just the experiences of all of my staff, without exception, in past schools and in the schools of their teacher friends. Maybe all of these schools are exceptional and are not representative of the norm.

But I don’t think so. I think we have a real behaviour problem in our schools that has resulted in one third of new teachers leaving the profession in the first few years. It is partly responsible for the situation where 20% of our children leave school functionally innumerate and functionally illiterate.

But I could be wrong. I am wrong about much every day. And the day these facts change, I will change my mind. Until that day comes, we at Michaela will continue to seek to escape from the burden of old ideas. Some of our new ideas will come from other schools, some of them will come from our staff, but I believe all of them are worth listening to and giving a chance to, instead of rejecting new ideas simply because they fly in the face of what we have always believed.

Sometimes what we have always believed to be true is wrong. I once believed in all of the progressive ideas that Michaela now rejects. Life taught me I was wrong.

When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do Sir?

Happy New Year!

 

Santa is destroying our schools

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I went with a friend and her son to see Santa at the Westfield centre and it made me feel ill. Maybe it was the fact that Santa’s grotto was decorated in Kung Fu Panda. Or maybe it was the zillions of stores in Westfield, rammed with people buying God knows what. Or maybe it was all the elves talking about how we were going to the North Pole, and while waiting in a room, watching the little children being directed into one of three doors, presumably each with a different Santa behind them. Or maybe it was my own description of Santa as omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. Santa knows all… I said. He knows whether you’ve been naughty or nice. He can even fly to every child’s house in the world in one night.

I’m not particularly religious, or indeed religious at all. But even I felt uncomfortable describing Santa as I might describe God. Doesn’t God mind, is what I kept thinking? Someone is playing at being Him! Isn’t what I’m saying blasphemous? I half expected a bolt of lightning to strike me down dead in the moment.

But the lightning never came.

Instead, we went on a trip to the North Pole (3D film while sitting in a sleigh in glorious technicolour and Kung Fu Panda leading the way). And then we met Santa who rubbed the 4-year-old boy’s palm saying that if his palm were to light up, then behold, it would mean that he had been good all year. Funnily enough, his palm lit up when Santa cleverly shined a light on it through his white glove. ‘Oh jolly good my boy! You’ve been beautifully behaved all year and I’m so looking forward to visiting you on Christmas Eve!’

Presents requested and photos taken, we left the grotto. The boy turned to us, confused, and said, ‘But Santa is wrong!’ He looked heartbroken. I asked what he meant. ‘Santa said I’d been good all year, but it isn’t true! Sometimes I’m naughty!’

I was lost for words.

He’s right, I thought! This 4 year old knows better than all the rest of us put together! We tried to distract him with promises of ‘putting in a good word for him with Santa’, but you could see him thinking, this doesn’t make any sense, you told me Santa knew everything and he so clearly doesn’t know anything at all.

And neither do we know very much.

It isn’t the story of Santa that is so destructive. Like everyone else, I smile at the idea of small children believing in the fat man dressed in red. I can even live with him being likened to God. But there is one thing I can’t see past.

From a young age, children learn that no matter how naughty they are, they’ll never get a lump of coal. Not only that, but we’ll all pretend that they’ve been ‘good all year’, no matter how naughty they’ve been. And while this boy voiced the recognition of the discrepancy, most others will not. They stay quiet, year after year, as we lie to them, learning that they can be as naughty as they like, and that we’ll all pretend that they’ve been well-behaved.

Why do we do this? Because we don’t want to ruin Christmas. I can imagine the headlines now… Katharine Birbalsingh KILLS SANTA!

And the truth is that I love Santa as much as the next person. But should I?

If we told children that all children, whether they have been naughty or nice, will be visited by Santa, then there wouldn’t be a problem. It is the dishonesty that says only nice children will be visited that clinches the destruction of the child’s ability to judge his own behaviour as either naughty or nice. After years of us never holding them to account for their own behaviour, is it any wonder that in school they expect more of the same?

All NQTs are told: Mean what you say, say what you mean. Don’t tell a kid that XYZ is bad behaviour and later go back on your word.

And yet, Santa’s existence requires exactly this.

I have always said that schools are fighting various societal trends that let children down.

This is exhibit number one.

 

 

To all the teachers out there…

istock_teacher_supply_crisis_3I remember what it was like… feeling under siege, trying to do things differently in my own little classroom, rolling my eyes on inset days where power point, sugar paper and ‘fun’ ruled…

That isn’t necessarily everyone’s experience of course. But it happens enough, even now, for teachers to write to me, to approach me, tears in their eyes, so happy that Michaela is as loud as she is, giving them hope that an alternative is possible.

Here is one message I got today that brought tears to my own eyes.

Hi Katharine, firstly, well done for Saturday – it looked like a great event. And I loved the ‘We Are The Adults..’ message.. Yes, this is the natural order and we need to firmly reestablish this as a key social force.
That’s not why I wanted to contact you though. I wanted to thank you for the book (which is amazing, yes, I knew it would be), but not just for the messages of this book: I want to thank you for something that happened in my school, with one of my colleagues today. She has had a hard time recently, for a range of personal and professional reasons. She’s heard about Michaela and she ordered the book. It arrived yesterday. She bounced into school this morning, having “stayed up really late” last night to read it.
She’s happy again, Katharine. She’s smiling and inspired and feeling that she can regain some control.

To all the teachers out there fighting the good fight – I take my hat off to you. You do the most challenging, most rewarding, most frustrating, most exhilarating job in the world. The tougher your classroom, the more resilient and omnipotent you are. You are what our society depends on – to sacrifice your peace of mind – to give so much of your lives – so that the future of our country might stand a chance.

Nuff respect my friends – You are extraordinary.