Saturday, 23 July 2016

Leading With Optimism and Positivity

C.S. Lewis once wrote a reply to a letter from a girl named Joan Lancaster. In it he offered her some valuable writing tips. One piece of advice he gave has always stuck with me:

'In writing. Don't use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was "terrible," describe it so that we'll be terrified. Don't say it was "delightful"; make us say "delightful" when we've read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, "Please will you do my job for me."'

This week a member of my teaching team messaged me saying 'thank you for... keeping me feeling so optimistic and positive this year'. Receiving feedback like that is reassuring; I often worry my online persona does not align with how I am in real life. Upon reflection, I can probably count on one hand the number of times in the last two years that I've actually spoken the words 'positive' or 'optimistic' to them.

My colleague hasn't had the easiest of times this year and has come to me as phase leader for help many times. Had I have responded with something amounting to 'just be positive' or 'try to be optimistic' I don't think I'd have been much use - it would have seemed like I was fobbing them off with empty platitudes.

My reflection of my meagre two years in leadership is that I have somehow, despite all the challenges I myself have faced, managed to lead in a way that has made others say 'positive' and feel optimistic without my having to use those words. After spending time under my leadership my colleagues have themselves labeled my leadership style as optimistic and positive; if I'd have labeled myself as such they'd always have been looking out for when I didn't live up to my own standards. Using the words, as Lewis pointed out, would be lazy and unhelpful but acting with optimism and positivity as core principles has made my ethos clear without putting people's backs up; the very real danger of telling struggling people to be optimistic or positive is that they immediately write off the advisor as unrealistic and, quite frankly, a bit naive and stupid. As a leader you have to show that something works, in this case: positivity and optimism.

At this point another blogger would write a handy 10 step guide entitled 'How to lead with positivity and optimism' but I can't even figure out what I've done to ensure that I have been a positive and optimistic leader. I'm not even sure that those qualities are ones that can be gained in a self-improvement system - perhaps I am only positive and optimistic because I am naturally like that. I'm not even suggesting that everyone should try to lead optimistically and positively but if they do, it's not about what is said explicitly but what is implied by what is said done.

'Where there's a will, there's a way.' That is my motto, not that I ever really say it out loud, or try to force it on others. But having deep-seated convictions like this are the only thing I can identify as reasons for how and why I lead with optimism. In another recent affirming moment my wife reminded me that when we met, it was my optimism that ensured that 10 years later we are very happily married: I told her 'I think it will be really good' when she expressed concerns over conducting a long-distance relationship with a guy everyone thought wasn't intellectual enough for her. She obviously bought into my natural positivity then and mostly she still does! Acting and speaking with implicit optimism is key, especially when anticipating someone else's pessimism.

You see, optimism is for life, not just for clich├ęd quotes pasted over a photoshopped sunset. You have live it to be it - you can't just say it.

Which leaves me in a quandary. Is there actually any point in my blogging and tweeting about optimism and positivity in light of my musings here? Isn't writing about optimism and positivity akin to flippantly telling someone to look at the brightside? If my day-to-day actions can't be seen by my readers then do I stand a chance of them ever being able to truly say 'thank you for... keeping me feeling so optimistic and positive this year'? Perhaps I just have to heed Lewis' advice and become a better writer, ensuring that I don't simply write about optimism and positivity but write with optimism and positivity, avoiding the words completely. Now there's a challenge.

PostScript: I am aware that this blog post probably comes across as self-congratulatory but it's not supposed to. I often worry that my actions don't match my words here on my blog so, if anything, this is just a record of my relief at the fact that others do recognise that I practice what I preach (even though they don't know that I preach it here on the internet!). It has been quite personal, which I admit I don't always do (I usually try to write in order to help others), but I still hope it might help someone in some way. I would love to hear the reflections of other leaders who consider positivity or optimism as a core value of leadership.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

SATs Results - My Experience and an Optimistic Response

I'm not a stranger to SATs result day nightmares (read about it here), and if it wasn't for my past experiences I dare say today would have been a different experience for me. Our SATs results this year are alarmingly low, not approaching anywhere near the national picture.

We were expecting it really. Under two years ago, our school was placed in special measures and subsequently academised as a result (read a bit more background here). Whilst the academisation has brought about many changes it would seem that there is only so much underachievement, bad behaviour and poor attitude to learning that can be tackled in a short space of time. This year's year 6 cohort have suffered in a school that previously had low expectations and inadequate teaching, along with a whole host of other issues (really, there are many!). We have a large number of SEND children, many on the register due to behavioural needs, who have not had their needs catered to in the past. We knew we'd take a hit.

Coupled with all the changes to primary assessment arrangements this year, we were under no illusions: children who had been taught very little for years and then had been taught a new curriculum for less than two years had a long way to catch up, especially when they had to meet two sets of criteria (the NC objectives and the interim framework objectives) and sit new and more rigorous tests. The word omnishambles has been used to describe the government's operations within education this year; it's not a bad way to describe it. We knew what was coming our way.     

Despite being saddened by what has befallen these particular children, my natural optimism kept on fighting me. After calculating our dire percentages I looked for all those who nearly made the magic 100 mark - there were so many. Then I looked at all who had achieved 100 or over and felt proud of their achievements. I scrutinised the spelling and arithmetic test results and found great successes there. Comparing our SATs scores to our teacher assessment data I found that we had been very accurate in our judgments: even where we had said EXS and a child hadn't achieved the pass mark, they were always very close. This led me to the conclusion that if the SATs results tallied well with our teacher assessment (so, for example, a child with 98/99 scaled score who has been assessed as Year 6 developing) then the phenomenal progress our children have made this year (as shown by our in-house data tracking system) is something worth celebrating.

Yes, I briefly went though the feelings of self-doubt (Did I do enough? Could I have done it better? Is it all my fault?) and my mind has been full of things to try differently next year, but I remain optimistic (perhaps you think I shouldn't). I know that my team and I have done a great job this year - the progress proves it, as do many observations, book scrutinies, pupil progress meetings and external reviews (my phase working at 'Good' 18 months after the school received its 'Inadequate' Ofsted judgement). I know that the kids have worked incredibly hard; they're exhausted, bursting with new skills and abilities and actually, their conduct and learning behaviour has steadily improved - even acknowledged just last week by our MAT's executive principal. These are children who really have learnt so many things that the tests just can't test - we have set them in much better stead for their high schools, and indeed for the rest of their lives. And did I mention that their progress has been ridiculously phenomenal?!

I don't know if you can find the silver linings in your results, but I would urge you to try. There are schools out there who have done exceptionally well his year despite the changes - I intend not to resent them, only to learn from them; for the sake of the children I'm willing to humbly take any advice going and I hope you are too. Perhaps you just need to cling to the fact that our government ministers have stated that these results are non-comparative and that Ofsted should not pay much heed to them (read more about that here).

I know there will be some teachers out there who feel terribly unsupported by their school today, and I sympathise with you - perhaps next year is the time to try to move one to somewhere with leaders who care a bit more or perhaps you need to fight your corner and present the case for why results were low (there is plenty of universal evidence out there). There is definitely a time for mourning too - I'm definitely not saying suck it up and get on with it. 

And I still think we need to be optimistic about the future; maybe next year will be more settled. We'll know the curriculum better and we'll know the height of the expectations (let's face it, that sample reading paper really didn't prepare us for the hardcore-ness of the actual one). I also know I'll be receiving a much more settled year group next year - a group who've also had one more year of new curriculum teaching - that's got to count for something, right? 

If you've experienced poor results then you're not alone - please get in touch, even if just to offload - I really don't claim to have all the answers but am an open (and anonymous) ear.