As I said last week we want our pupils to approach learning with wonder, with an unquenchable thirst and with humility. Two of my School Captains helped out with an online open afternoon for prospective parents this afternoon. They mentioned (without prompting) that you could count on teachers/ staff at Minchinhampton to listen if you have a problem; to listen to you as a learner, making the thing feel less like it’s being done to you; to be interested in what you want to learn. This was good to hear– we have a healthy preoccupation with words like trust and autonomy and agency. Sometimes I feel too much of education, like too much of life in general, has been turned into a race toward bigger and better. These two children claimed they didn’t feel ‘ranked’ (their word- not mine)- they felt quite equal with others, more relaxed.
Assemblies this term have kept touching upon the importance of humility. Today’s assembly revolved around the philosopher Socrates’s assertion that the more he learnt the less he realised he knew (ie the humbler he became). We draw on Socrates heavily when we do Philosophy for Children sessions; on the importance of asking questions which in turn harks back to the notion that the learning is never done- instead it is constant, fulfilling and lifelong. It is a privilege and a joy to be a head teacher because you are surrounded by learning day in day out- it is the food upon which we feast. Two pupils came to see me about their maths today. I always ask them, as far as possible, to tell me what they have been learning in their own words- ‘I have been partitioning– you grab the tens and put them up on your fingers and then see what they make- and write down the total tens. Then you grab the ones and put them on your fingers and see how many you’ve got and then write that down in the ones – and you have – partitioning!’ I know – it’s just two children talking about their maths- but this is what I get moment to moment. It means my days are spent holed up with learning- identifying it, celebrating it. We would love our children to approach learning with wonder, with an unquenchable thirst and with humility. I threw this quote from Eckhart Tolle at a couple of children the other day to get them thinking, ‘How can a single human cell measuring 1/1000th of an inch across contain instructions within its DNA that would fill 1000 books of 600 pages each? The more we learn about the workings of the body, the more we realise just how vast is the intelligence at work within it and how little we know.’ Here is a quote I shared in today’s assembly from Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, ‘We run this company on questions, not answers.’ I also shared a quote from a child at this school: ‘I would say that I am curious. The deeper I go, the more questions I have.’ That sounds remarkably like Socrates to me.
Graham Nuthall asserted that what happens to a young person in a classroom is, as in life, different for each person, that there are enormous individual differences in what students learn from the same classroom experiences, that, “Students interpret classroom activities in relation to their own goals, interests, and background knowledge, and they extract the information that is relevant to them.’’ If we accept that learning is a personal journey and is influenced more often than not by inter-personal factors like the level of connection and respect in the classroom, then it is easier to appreciate what a complex, terrifying and/ or deeply fulfilling job teaching can be. As John Stuart Mill put it, ‘The same things which are helps to one person towards cultivation of his higher nature, are hindrances to another…such are the differences among human beings…that unless there is a corresponding diversity in their modes of life, they neither obtain their fair share of happiness, nor grow up to the mental, moral and aesthetic stature of which their nature is capable.’ To make the best kind of connection with another human being requires, as Will Ord, (see Thinking Education Ltd) puts it, wilful attention on our part. In a classroom of 30 pupils this is quite a challenge. The art (because it is most definitely an art when you see it going well) of doing this well is creating an ethos where pupils feel positive connections with their peers as well as with yourself. To make that connection also requires that you the teacher give of yourself and project your personality and enthusiasm into the room. As Rousseau put it in Emile, ‘It is your time, your care, your affection, it is you yourself that must be given.’ This laying bare of yourself, this removal of armour in front of a class of 30 pupils, all the while running the risk that they reject what you project, can be terrifying. A third of all trainees on my PGCE course dropped out, weekly disappearances that left our ranks depleted and those left looking round nervously for who might be next, like some dismal reality television show. Though the reasons given were various, I suspect there were plenty ill-prepared for the personal challenge; for the capacity of a class to (unwittingly) unpick your personality. Teaching is a professional role that requires a most personal level of commitment and it leaves you vulnerable; it is personally risky. I’d like to say a thank you here to our teachers who daily make their way into their classrooms and give so fully of themselves.
Thank you for another year.
This school of ours seems to have become slightly eccentric; a bit noisy, a bit vivid, a bit wilful and bold in its ways. Perhaps it has always been this way; perhaps it is just Minch and the change I’m imagining is simply us giving into the inevitable and letting the current take us. Perhaps this is how it should be. Certainly if you look at the quality of the relationships in our school community and in the community beyond; the depth of commitment, the creativity and responsiveness, then perhaps there is an inevitability to this merging, this closeness of school and community, staff and pupils. I for one am proud of what we have become.
However, no one could deny that at the heart of this project is you. I potter about in my own sweet head, in my stuffy ivory tower – an appendage- but you, there at the coal face- I am in awe of you. Without you, without the quality of your interactions- your endless thinking, listening, explaining; without your many qualities- your kindness, your good humour, your courage and compassion; without your willing toil- this school would be nothing. I always maintain that children have a sixth sense for weighing up the ‘are they there for me’ question and will respond positively if they feel the answer is yes. In this school with a staff like ours I sense that positive response everywhere I go. Parents pick up on it when I take them around- it is something in the gut, something that doesn’t lie. It’s like watching a child break into a skip on the playground- they don’t do this unless they’re happy in that moment- it’s almost a physical impossibility. This is the feel of the place and this is testament to you, your relationships with the children, your endeavours day in day out. It is very beautiful thing you do- dare I say it without making some of you cringe- hell- I’m not in the habit of stopping- it is a thing of love.
Thank you for all that bring to the table and all that you do for our children; thank you for being you.
Have a glorious summer
And so suddenly here we are at the end of the year that was; another year that started and stuttered and discombobulated (sorry- I seem to have settled on that word). We seem to have (reaching for wood) come through these last weeks relatively unscathed (other local schools have not been so lucky) and for that we must be thankful. Let’s hope all is onward and upward going forward – that we can now rely on the better traction we have found with life and others and learning these last months- that at the very least. On the face of it, we’ve all done well- people have demonstrated resilience, courage, empathy etc etc in spades and the strength of community around here has reinvigorated my faith in humankind, (while we’re there- summer book recommendation – Human Kind by Rutger Bretman). However, as I have often said, I feel we should tread carefully because under the surface, not visible even to our own thoughts, there are some shaky foundations and some cracks in the walls. And wouldn’t it be marvellous or at least some consolation for what we have been through, if we managed to tread a slightly different path- for myself perhaps a gentler one and less of a race. I want to give your children time, willing attention and positivity; I want my teachers to enjoy their jobs and enjoy their pupils. I don’t believe it is a time for haste; for quick fixes and government targets. We should instead take a deep breath, appreciate all we have and move forward sensibly and humanely.
This week I have seen some written work from some of my younger pupils that has made me feel reassured, heartened. I was shown work from this week to be compared to some work from 4 weeks and 6 weeks ago. The progress was remarkable. About 6 weeks ago when I sat with one of the school’s external partners and looked at the school’s internal data, concern was voiced that our younger children were behind- that’s behind where they would have been (obviously) but also behind where other schools were. My response to this was a sanguine shrug of the shoulders. If we have spent a bit more time re-acclimatising our children emotionally and socially, then of course their ‘data’ might not be as presentable but their wellbeing and, by the by, following on from that- their academic progress -would ultimately benefit. Now I am not suggesting miracles here- we still have a way to go but I am certainly not concerned: young children’s brains have a great deal more neuroplasticity than our brains; my staff are committed and know what they’re doing. The pattern here is country-wide: children in Nursery, Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 have been academically affected the most. As I stated last week- the further you go back in a child’s education, the more formative and critical the time and the learning become so this pattern is not surprising. However, they are well able to recover, especially so if we prioritise tending to their personal, social and emotional needs properly and appropriately. Just because reading, writing and maths are easier to measure- this should not be an excuse for those of us in education to ignore the rest of the child.
In this school we try to keep ‘people’ centre stage- not data, not bureaucracy, not blind ideology- but people. One of the challenges inherent as always is to make sure an institution like ours is there for all the people in it; that we look to appreciate and cater for individuality, for difference. It is all too easy for any of us in our lives to look down on or disparagingly at those with slightly different value sets to my own; all too tempting.
A few years back I sat in my mother’s living room having a drink with some of her oldest friends. For some reason I announced to the person next to me who I would be voting for in the upcoming election. A shudder went through the room; left the good people broken off mid conversation and aghast that I had turned out to be from a different tribe. I became defensive and ended up saying rather more than was necessary, further opening up the small chasm that had all of a sudden grown between us. It is such a mistake to assume people with different values to yourself care nothing for other people let alone social justice – a dangerous habit that only serves to further polarise us as a nation. Epictetus said, “From the very beginning, make it your practice to say to every harsh impression, ‘you are an impression and not at all what you appear to be.’’ I keep telling the children we need to always keep an open mind; to treat other people and their views with the respect and appreciation they deserve but these are empty words unless I can model them.
I have been heartened this week by some of the wise words from our Year 6’s in letters written by them to their younger selves. Here is one pupil’s passionate plea to her younger self regarding appreciating difference: ‘It’s me! You! But in six years time!…Here is some great advice about your future and your life at Minchinhampton……Remember you’re amazing. You are a confident person, maybe too confident sometimes but know you don’t need to change for anyone! Use your confidence to not care what other people think – you need to stand up for what you believe in.The school will teach you it’s important to save the environment but I would say, while of course it’s important, there are so many other things we need to get right, like what is goes on between people in the world – what about racism, homophobia, sexism…we need to treat each other well. You will learn that everyone is different- you’re different, so you just have to get on with it! It doesn’t really matter what other people think. You have to do what you want and be who you want to be- that is so important. Positivity can get you anywhere! Treat other people with respect and get to know people, you might find something you agree on and stuff you share. It’s what’s inside a person that counts.’
How often have I said how much I love working in this school? As I say in my Welcome Message on the website, ‘it is because something really quite special exists in the ether in and around this village and the school can’t help but be swept up in it.’ It is a warm environment and a creative one. Perhaps it is this creativity; this constant circulation of ideas, new thinking and beautiful works; the conviction that every day is a new day; that everyone is a valued and unique individual and that what they create is equally of value and unique to them: perhaps this is what makes my/ our time in this school and in this community special.
On my desk right now is an extraordinary piece of writing from one of my Year 6 girls- it is utterly original, intriguing and far more sophisticated than you would imagine possible from a primary age child. I have had it on my desk for three days and show it to anyone who comes my way, not by way of showing off (I take no credit for work like this) but by way of celebration- that I get to work with such creative, inspiring children.
Below are two poems, the first ‘Silence’ published by a Year 6 pupil, in their Learning Journal; the second ‘Our Galaxy’ published recently in ‘Live Canon Children’s Anthology 2021.’
There was silence in that forest.
Only elephants, backs iced with red dust and warm rain,
Their heads bowed, ears curled like crinkled paper.
Only leaves, broad and waxy, bees like red-and-black beads,
Hovering groggily in the humidity.
Only wild cows, hair thick and wiry, burnt with an unceasing sun.
Only birds with bent wings, green and yellow, feathers smoothed with existence.
Only rivers, hushed by leaves clogging muddied banks, pebbles riddled with rusted minerals.
There was silence in that forest.
Or maybe it was too loud, and we don’t listen to the earth’s deep noises.
This poem came from RE work on Hinduism and in particular karma. This pupil was inspired to find out more and came across all the rich symbolism in the Hindu religion; which in turn inspired the poem. Please note the references to:- ‘forests’ seen by Hindus as the primary source of life and fertility; ‘elephants’ symbolic of royalty and democracy; ‘bees’ symbolic of Vishnu, Krishna and Indra; ‘cows’ held as sacred for their gentle nature and strength; birds symbolising all that is wholesome and free and beautiful; the ‘river’ as cleansing and symbolic of life.
A stranded society
A queenless hive
A lost explorer
A life protector
And opportunity giver
An unfinished masterpiece.
An infinite night light
The earth’s follower
The sun’s substitution
The lieutenant of stars
A search of purpose
Polaris (north star)
A diamond in an endless treasure chest
A beacon of hope shining through the darkness
A guide for those who are lost
A monument of awe-inspiring beauty
A splash of glitter on an empty canvas
A start and finish line
Creator of life
A generator of light
A puppet master in an endless show
A core of all
A leader of greatness.
This poem was inspired by learning about the solar system and some star gazing during lockdown.
The word I keep repeating/ can’t help repeating is the word ‘inspiring.’ How could my job/ our job ever be boring; ever reach a conclusion, ever feel lacking when this is the kind of reward we receive day in day out. If any of you are considering a change of career, can I heartily recommend a switch to teaching. And please don’t think these two excellent poems are somehow the exception, the exceptional. While poetry may be one of my ‘things,’ I am/ we are inspired by all our children, bar none, and by all their creativity. We are surrounded by it and awash with it.
I’m always looking for books which might change me, by small degrees, into a slightly better version of myself. Last year I read ‘Poverty Safari’ by Darren McGarvey which describes a life blighted by poverty, growing up on a Glasgow estate . When the complex causes of poverty have been considered; when everyone (including Tory politicians, Guardian readers and Darren himself) have been handed out their share of responsibility for its ongoing perpetuation; when all is said and done, he whittles his childhood dilemma back to its core, ‘Beneath everything, all I was looking for was connection; to feel understood, heard and supported; to feel respected, safe and loved.’ When I’m trying to decipher a child’s behaviour in school (or an adult’s or my own behaviour for that matter), I often find myself hacking back to a list of possibilities not dissimilar to this one. We’re people and very many of us need similar provisions in our emotional larders to get through the day. This is the human level, the basic ‘this is what I need’ level that I believe should always define our thinking and our choices in school.
Last week I stumbled into a KS2 assembly wholly unprepared. I have a significant back catalogue of scintillating advice (pity the poor children) and story-telling that I can draw on after 18 years as a head teacher but on this occasion my mind went blank so I blathered out the question most on my mind, ‘What should a school be like?’ Second note here to peddlers of the ‘children are troublesome sub-strata’ narrative: give them half a chance and they have answers full of natural wisdom and without some of the fog of adult life impeding their view. The response ran something like this: ‘A school should be fun and full of play…a place to mix with other people…to learn from and with them… a place for friendship and from that the feeling of being connected and supported…a preparation for life beyond by being a positive place.’ Admittedly the word ‘connected’ sounds like one of mine but other than that, this is a fairly accurate precis of their response.
I feel certain that if you take an average school and peel back the layers, you’ll find faith in humanity and an earnest, open-hearted attempt to create something valuable for people. They are not really places for cynicism or for the self-serving. That is not to say these things don’t exist in a school as uncomfortable folds in the layers; just that they run counter to what really counts and what makes a difference for the young people in their charge. From my experience our young people can respond positively to teachers of all shapes and sizes; of all kinds of pedagogical persuasion; strict or relaxed; traditional or progressive. They respond, as you would expect, as people. When you tap into some of the recent hullabaloo around behaviour issues in schools, the language and the thinking it reveals sometimes appears to sway away from this simple fact, away from an appreciation that children are just young people, towards the less edifying view of children as some sub-strata in the hierarchy that simply can’t be trusted. Perhaps as a teacher or as a parent, on any given day, we are all prone to experiencing this swing in perspective but as a matter of principle (we’re dealing with human beings here, not widgets) and as matter of expediency (human being require connection to function well), we need to hang onto the trust. When I see different teachers teach, the ebb and flow of pupil responses often seems dependent, not on any given strategy, but on whether the answer to the pupil’s question, ‘Are they there for me?’ which flutters just under the surface of the lesson, is answered in the affirmative. By the same token you can beaver away, as a school or an individual, at implementing the most up to date, evidential teaching strategies but if your personal or collective mindset is preoccupied with too much ‘stuff’ other than the pupils themselves, you may look the part but you may well also be failing them as people.
As the head teacher, I look up to my staff. They are the people who do the job here, hold our children so well and make the hard yards at the coal face. They are a creative, committed, humane group of people and I do believe that, for the most part, their thinking and their time is consumed by the children and their strengths and their uniqueness. Your children are a joy and yet again I thank you for them. I hope they enjoy coming to school – this being our primary aim. I sense the whole experience of the last year has reaffirmed for many of them the value of school and that most have returned this term raring to go, especially given the outside world is improving but not quite back to normal. One of our Year 2 pupils wrote this week, ‘My Easter was a bit boring. I wanted to come to school to lean!’ Let’s hope they do a bit of learning too but leaning is fine if that’s what floats their boat.