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Why you remember things people said, even a long time ago

Former teacher and SSAT editor Peter Chambers trawls through his personal and professional past to pick out the brief conversations that stick with you, often because they signal major change…

You know how there are things people have said to you, maybe many years ago, that for good or ill you always remember? Perhaps we can all learn from those memories: words and phrases to use in certain situations – with family, friends, children, and at work with colleagues, those we report to and those who report to us.

For example I remember, from decades ago when I was a management trainee, the personnel manager saying to a group of us, who were expecting to be handed interesting new projects: ‘You’ve got to learn to paddle your own canoe.’

In my early days as an editor I had a boss who was a former sales guy, not editorial. But brilliant. Bob would toss a just-in copy of the magazine I had edited on my desk with lines through headings/introductions and scribbles in the margin, such as ‘I’m no editor, but wouldn’t it have been better if…?’ And he was always right, largely because he had a very clear idea of the publication’s aim and target audience.

Needless to say, when I became a business journalist I met and interviewed a number of prominent, powerful and articulate people (as well as many others). I think some of their phrases that have stuck with me have relevance to how people in education relate to each other at times. For example, from a management consultant, who was testing my understanding: ‘I’m saying wrong to hear right.’ I’ve met a number of teachers who use this tactic.

In schools, too, so often brief interchanges between teachers and students, or senior leaders and teachers, can have a powerful impact, as I have noted for myself many times when developing case history articles in schools. Often, but not always, this relates to a perhaps small but significant change in the way the school and its leaders are behaving.

And perhaps that’s the point. These brief messages are remembered only, or mainly, because they relate to a bigger message. Good communicators use them to drill home the key lessons; behind that is the skills and judgement to make changes that are worth remembering, because they make a difference.

Some examples.

‘You can’t say, “done that. Now I’m teaching ok”’

In 2005, the early days of the widespread movement towards assessment for learning, a deputy head in one school said: ‘some of these questions (used in class) imply that it’s a sort of finished business: you just do rich questioning, do the self- and peer-assessment, do whatever it might be, feedback without marks and that’s all sorted. Well it isn’t, it’s a development of permanent reflection and refinement. You can’t reach the stage where you can say “OK, done that, got there and now I’m teaching OK”. The profession should never be like that.’

You can change the culture ‘if you get parents talking’

Again in 2005, the head of a school with a high proportion of students with behaviour issues noted ‘meeting parents and getting them on your side is the most important vehicle for change.’ When he first became head he insisted on meeting personally the parents of every one of these children. Some were very reluctant to come into school and many were hostile. But the head pressed ahead, and did meet at least one of each set of parents. ‘It puts you in a position to change the culture if you get parents talking to you,’ he said afterwards, when the vast majority of parents had been persuaded to come round to a new way of thinking.

‘It’s all about getting people to come in and get to know us’

At Hadley Learning Community, prices for community use of the extensive and high-quality sports and leisure facilities are kept deliberately low. This is not just allowing for low average incomes locally – it’s more that the primary aim of the community facilities is to gain and maintain community support for the school and the children’s education. ‘It’s all about getting people to come in and to get to know us,’ said principal Gill Eatough. ‘Building relationships. Then, later, if you have to say to a parent, “your child is a pain…” they accept it and work with us to solve the problem.’

It has become much more widely recognised that part of the focus on students’ self-management of their learning is they have to be persuaded not to worry too much about ‘doing it right’.

‘If you ask, “is that your best work?” they’ll answer honestly’

Still at Hadley, head of primary Nicola Scott-Worthington found it helpful to use the common Ofsted question ‘what have you been learning today?’. ‘From year 2, the teachers regularly ask children, “What do you think you need to do your best?” And if a teacher says, “Is that your best work, then?” they’ll answer honestly, yes or “… well, no…”. They’re fairly accurate about themselves. Our teachers are now very reflective, asking: what can we do better? They follow the process: change – reflect – improve – move forward.’

‘Sometimes I set up failure’

At Hasmonean High School, art teacher Lee Bazen said: ‘Sometimes I set up failure – for instance I allow students to do a photo shoot, which they’re keen to do, but I know they’ll fail in one way or another. Then the next day we reflect together on why something didn’t work.’ Similarly, he would stop a class when someone had spilt some paint and ruined their painting: He advised: ‘Don’t clear it up straight away, but get them to discuss how the mistake could be avoided next time.’

Let students know teachers make mistakes too

It’s important to let students know that teachers make mistakes too, according to Lee Bazen’s colleague, humanities teacher Ava Shirazi. ‘I sometimes say about some technical point, “I don’t know why this happens…” and even suggest one of the more expert students might come back next week with the answer and teach the class.’ (See Celeste Hedlee’s TED talk for the value of ‘I don’t know’ and other tips for better conversations).

‘The friend I’m studying with might say: “That’s absolute rubbish!”’

In reporting for an article about Hasmonean in 2013, I was struck many times by how robust and yet good-natured conversations were, both between students and between students and teachers. ‘We’re developing our own way of thinking, bouncing ideas off each other,’ said head boy Alex Jaffe. ‘For instance I might make a suggestion and the friend I’m studying with might say: “That’s absolute rubbish!”’

School leaders can also gain great benefit from such robust mutual critiques.

Being assessed by your peers ‘is a bit nerve-wracking’

In an early example of an umbrella trust, at Ossett Academy in 2013, the trust members – the chairs of governors of the four schools – and the four heads went into great detail about their own and each others’ performance, ‘scrutinising RAISEonline and post-16 ALPS (advanced level performance system), and doing something about what we find,’ explained principal Martin Shevill. ‘It certainly puts you on the spot, and is a bit nerve-wracking. But we agreed to go for it. They’re asking: “Why is that? Is there a clear explanation? Is the problem temporary or is there a trend? What can you do about it? If you can’t sort it on your own, what are we collectively going to do about it?”’

‘I’m petrified at the thought of you lot coming to find my truths’

The Oxford Primary Education Network (OPEN), an umbrella trust, does something very similar. Former head of St John’s primary school, Jane Ratcliffe, recalled an occasion when two fellow heads identified the need to differentiate lesson planning more thoroughly at St John’s. ‘This development feedback hurt me more coming from colleagues whom I trust than it would from Ofsted. But a crucial point is to know the truth. Top-down hierarchical accountability systems encourage organisations, including schools, to hide the truth. Instead, we have trust and honesty: we can research in a safe environment for the truth in our schools.’ Fellow OPEN head Heather Haigh agreed: ‘I’m petrified at the thought of you lot coming to find my truths. But we owe it to our children. We’re all in this together.’ Clearly, it’s harder to reject or ignore criticism that comes from people you know and respect.

School staff dealing with behavioural and other pastoral issues have often developed an approach, and a vocabulary, to deal with distressed children in extremely sensitive situations.

‘I understand why you feel like this, but I want you to look at it in a different way’

In 2008, at St Saviour’s and St Olave’s girls school in Southwark, inner London, I met the team of pastoral leaders who provided vital support for the many girls with behaviour problems. When girls were referred for a ‘conference’ (behaviour discussion), they had to discuss with a pastoral leader what they had done to get into trouble. Often the first response would be ‘nuffink’, but senior pastoral leader Chris Taylor added, ‘we often say to them, “when we’re in a hole, let’s not dig it any deeper”. We talk through with them how it happened, how they can improve the situation. We say: I understand why you feel like this, but I want you to look at it in a different way.’

Again, there can be more to apparently straightforward discussions than meets the eye. Students visit the PLs if they’re ‘not feeling well’, which can open doors to other conversations – sometimes it’s emotional concerns that are making them physically unwell. Then the PL will look at the attendance record of a girl who is ‘sick’ with her, to find out the true cause.

So these brief and seemingly simple statements often relate to changes and understandings that can make a big difference to young people’s lives, now and in the future. That’s what makes them memorable.

Peter Chambers is publications editor for SSAT. A former teacher, school governor and governor trainer, he has worked for SSAT and its predecessor organisations for some years, writing and editing a large number of reports, newsletters, case histories and pamphlets. He is also a coach and trainer in writing/editing for professional audiences.


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