Jerry Maguire – a parody on teaching

It’s 7pm and this might be the bad night sleep I had, coughing and spluttering away but I believe I have something to say. Or rather, I have something to say that I believe in. A wise man once said, “Get the bad news over with first. You be the one to say the tough stuff. Well, here goes. There is a cruel wind blowing through our business. We all feel it, and if we don’t, perhaps we’ve forgotten how to feel. But here is the truth. Those of us who have completed more than 15 years, maybe even 10. We are less ourselves than we were when we started as teachers.

Jerry Maguire said in his mission statement after a consultation with someone in an elevator “You and I are blessed, he said, “we do something that we love.”  – I feel the same way about teaching. I genuinely love my work. I love the relationships, the camerarderie, the buzz of explaining and interjecting in my classroom. That I still have Y11 students reminding me of my lessons I taught them in y7 fills me with nothing but pride, joy and happiness. I absolutely love my job. Ironically I didn’t set out to be a teacher, I wanted to be a solicitor. But a 6th form teacher whom at this point shall remain nameless actually told me in my admission interview – forget it. Your GCSE grades aren’t good enough. And that was that. A shy 16 year old believed her. I would never dream of telling one of my students that. But you know what – she did me a favour – because it made me look for what I could do – and having a large (ish) family I was used to children – why not think about teaching. And here, 27 years later I am a Deputy Headteacher in probably the best school I will ever work in. I have been blessed to both have this job and to have been the Acting Headteacher for a year whilst my boss was on maternity leave. It truly is a fabulous place. I left work on Friday 9th March 2018 still buzzing that that Y11 had called me over at lunchtime. The truth is though that I am fighting something else inside. I won’t call them demons. Its more an awakening.

Tonight, I find those words “we do something we love” guiding me back to an important place, and an important truth. I care very much about the fact that I think we have learned to care less. Not in my school per se. I’m thinking the whole of our system. Not care less about our students, I think students today have more care than ever. I am thinking about each other.

There are 18 schools in my LA. I have worked in two. I know people in a few others. The business of teaching  has never been bigger, or tougher, or more written about. And we are at the forefront. But I wonder tonight, as we prepare for another week at the chalkface  I dare say that not one of us have said what we really think.

I’m talking about something they don’t write about. I’m talking about something we don’t talk about.

We are losing our battle with all that is personal and real about our business. Every day I can look at a long line of emails. I pride myself on trying not to use them, but to talk to my colleagues and those I line manage. Even then there is still the long list of requests, deadlines and reminders that I give. Driving home, I think of what was not accomplished, instead of what was accomplished. The gnawing feeling continues. That teachers and leaders are heading home not to spend their precious time with their families but instead to do the mountain of bureaucratic things we as teachers do. We are pushing numbers around, doing our best, but is there any real satisfaction in success without pride? Is there any real satisfaction in a success that exists only when we push the messiness of real human contact from our lives and minds? When we learn not to care enough about the very staff we promised the world to,  or to let it bother us that a teachers children, husband, wife or partner wont really see them until the next holiday.

We are now at a point of transformation with this system.  But this is not something to fear, it is something to celebrate. Because I come to you tonight, looking out at the darkness that pervades Hull not only with a challenge. I come to you with answers too.

But first let us define our position.

Right now we are a breaking point with our business.

Even in my own life, after 43 years, I feel that I have never done that one thing, that noble thing that defines a life. Even writing this Mission Statement is odd for me. I am used to flying slightly below the radar, enjoying my life and my job but not being one of those “people” who have to lead or volunteer for everything at every LA meeting.  But I have not been truly tested. I have not gone very far to explore my life. I was born in Hull. I was raised in Hull. Aside from four years at university I have remained in Hull. I have fathered a child. I have created a life, and she is without doubt the most precious of beings to me but I still feel I have not lived or explored enough. But I have not taken that step, or risk, that makes the air I have breathed for 43 years worthwhile.

And yet, as I sit here in the wonderful top floor of my 3 storey house, I have never been so happy to be alive. I have said “later” to most anything that required true sacrifice. Later I will spend a weekend reading real books, not just magazines. Later I will cycle or get fit. Later I will visit the few very close teachers whose careers are maybe over, but of course I promised to stay in touch. Later later later later. It is too easy to say “later” because we all believe our work to be too important to stop, minute to minute, for something that might interfere with the restless and relentless pursuit of forward motion. Of greater success. Make no mistake, I am a huge fan of success. But tonight, I propose a better kind of success. I could be wrong, but if you keep reading and I keep writing, we might get there together.

Random Fact #1:

A Happy Life.

When I became a teacher in 1997 I took my first job in a tough inner city school in Hull. My first lesson I arrived to find Y7 studnets throwing plants out of the window. I endured the toughest and most brutal of introductions to teaching. No extra time for being an NQT, just a mountain of subject material to teach myself (I was teaching RE and Music but was a History teacher!)

I secured my first job proper job in January 1998. Teaching history. The irony was I had to teach myself some of the stuff before I taught it.  There are many periods of NC history that one hasn’t come into contact with in the history degree! But I loved it. It was fast and furious. I had chalk, some textbooks and my personality. There were two photocopiers for “emergency” use – the queue for these was long every Monday morning. I had no computer in the classroom. Just a huge roller board. I taught, I wrote, they listened (sometimes) and I marked their books. We sometimes did group work, we sometimes did “project” work but my best and most sustained success was when I simply stood at the front and went through the material and then questioned the hell out of the students. And you know what – it worked. Results were good. Actually for the school they were very good. Numbers studying history went through the roof at GCSE. We had to take on more staff than just the two of us who had been there full time. Don’t get me wrong, this was not a halcyonic school. We were bottom of the LA for GCSE results. Not in history but in pretty much everything else!

Apparently, Dicky Fox always said the same thing when asked for his secret. “The secret to this job,” he said, “is personal relationships.”

We are teachers. To some, that brings with it the image of a genius, to others it reminds them of authority maybe even their own time at school.  Somehow all this has been bubbling up inside me. A man is the sum total of his experiences. And it is now that I am interested in shaping the experiences to come. What is the future of what we do? Give me a goal, and I will achieve it. That has been my secret design for most of my life. Perhaps you are the same. We’re all goal-oriented, so I hereby present a goal.

How can we do something surprising, and memorable with our lives? How can we turn this job, in small but important ways, into a better representation of ourselves? Most of us would easily say that we are our jobs. That’s obvious from the late hours we all keep. So then, it is bigger than work, isn’t it? It is about us. Some of us will say we already do the memorable. Some will think I have lost the few marbles I probably still have.

How do we wish to define our lives? So that when we are sixty, or seventy, or eighty and we’re heading off to play golf, travel or just relax with our family, perhaps we too can know that we led A Happy Life? Is it important to be a Person and not just a slave to the commerce of  a ruthlessly controlled and directed education system ? Do we want to be Remembered?

Or do we just want to be the person who told the other persons to just do what “they” want us to do. “They” is an interesting concept. I was reminded of them at a DFE conference last week. “They” probably include myself for I am one of those dreaded SLT. I expect it also includes our friends from Ofsted of course.

At that conference I was asked  “what do you stand for? And what have you done to make workload better” I wasn’t  lost for an answer. I had helped remove the fear of graded lesson observations, I had re-written the school marking policy, I had helped to reduce the amount of data inputs. But is it enough? That is what is making me create this document. (as well as a healthy reminder of the inspiration of this – Jerry Maguire!)

I am one of the problems or hopefully was one of the problems.

The same thing is true of all educators. Education may never be the pure and simple thing that older men pine for. Education is a huge operation, always was, always will be.  The secret is out of the bag. Way, way out. Everyone knows that education is a machine. The accountability is now in danger of overshadowing the essence of what we do. Numbers, numbers and more numbers. League tables matter. They could trigger inspections that in their worst guise can lead to staff leaving. I know because I have experienced it when my school went into special measures. Did it work? In some ways yes. In other ways it destroyed a great number of staff who didn’t deserve it.

The question is, how do we personalize that machine? It is a question we must now ask ourselves at all levels, least of all mine.

I propose that we accept we don’t have all the answers. I maybe SLT but that does not give me infinite knowledge that is better than those at a lower current level. We deal with the future that is already here. It isn’t even the future, it is now, so let us talk to the machine and see what it says to us.

Let’s bring soul and character to what is already there.

I propose that we recreate everything that we’re currently about. Right now we’re at the top of our game. Traditionally people do one thing at this point in their success. They try like hell to maintain what they did to get there. Their personal and intense road to success, their original inspiration (which is at the heart of every success) is now lost in the pursuit to keep machine smoothly rolling forward. But there is a problem with this stage in the success game. In so doing this maintain-success cycle, they forget the original glimmer of passion that got them there.

And historically, no one successful ever pauses to think that they might tumble like everyone before them who forgot. The whole success cycle dooms the very thing that causes the success in the first place — it puts shutters on the windows of reality. It makes us all forget that success comes from something very pure. It comes from a desire to do well, to make life better, not just to do well with playing the league table game. That is simply a by-product.

It is not easy to hide a winning formula. Take a successful t.v. show. The following season, you see twenty others just like it. Same goes for school.  If we all teach like “insert subject” or like “insert teacher” than we are guaranteed success. Except there is one problem. Who is to say that they or it are truly the best way? Where has that idea come from? Is it just based on those results? But no-one or no subject has a 100% success rate?

But the great ones all do one thing at the time of their greatest success. They change the game. They make it harder for themselves. They raise the bar. They work not just harder, but they work smarter. That is why the great athletes, politicians, musicians, philosophers all got stronger instead of more weary. We must do the same. And for those wondering when I will propose an answer to these many questions, I must ask you simply to hold on. Because it’s coming.

I have just poured a pot of tea. Maybe I’m crazy, maybe it’s just tonight, but I really do think I’m onto something here. And, as I said earlier, if you’re reading this, it means that I didn’t conquer this statement with my own fears of rejection. If you knew me, and many of you do, you know that “rejection” and “fear” are not words I say easily. But this is more than a Mission Statement. This is not the equivalent of one of those magnetic “poetry kits,” you know the ones you buy at a stationery store, a mess of words so you can assemble funny poems on your refrigerator door. This is from my heart. This is a love letter to a business I truly love.

Tea tastes different at night.

Marking. Lesson Observations. Work Scrutiny. Learning Walks. Data Analysis. What are they? Do they impact on student outcomes? Let us think. Marking, we have I think begun an intolerable march towards what I hope is a better system. We are guilty, I am guilty of making teachers do things that have no real impact for the benefit of “them” or even for the benefit of “us”. All based on nothing more than rumour, conjecture and myth. And fear, fear of “them” and even parents maybe – what will they say if we don’t mark their books regularly enough?  And so begins the game of flattery, of lip service, of doing everything possible to soothe and stroke, cajole or even just force staff to do it.  It is part of our lives, and part of our jobs. The game of marking.

Don’t even get me started on lesson observations. I am glad I saw the light. I removed grading of lessons. Can you judge anyone’s performance looking at what amounts to for a full time teacher 0.0001% of their time. OMG seriously! And I was guilty of perpetuating this nonsense. I hope whilst we still observe that this becomes about developing teaching not judging teaching. Develop. Coach. Improve. That is where the future lies.

But as I sit here in the darkness of this room, the answer to the future is rather obvious. If the “tapdancing” becomes less constant, less furious, less necessary, what will the result be? The result will be more honesty, more focus, fewer illnesses, but the outcomes will be the same I’m sure of it. Because the new day of honesty will create a machine more personalized, more truthful and has a greater chance of greatness next year.

And now we get to the answer that Dicky Fox knew years ago. The answer is less marking, less judgement, less dancing. More truth. We must crack open the tightly clenched fist of accountability and give a little back for the greater good. Trust us as professionals. Trust them as professionals. We have enough insight into what happens to know that the majority of staff are hard working and want the very best for students.

Outcomes will be the same, and that goodness will be infectious. We will have taken our number oneness and turned it into something greater. And eventually smaller will become bigger, in every way, and especially in our hearts.

Forget the dance.

Focus.

Learn who these people are. That is the stuff of your relationship. That is what will matter. People always respond best to personal attention, it is the simplest and easiest truth to forget.

Love the job. Be the job.

The phone calls will still come in, so will the emails, but on the other end of that phone will be someone deserving of your time, and you will be honored to share their time. And that will be what the road to greatness feels like. A little rocky at first. But think how good it will feel to wake up in the morning and know that what you’re doing will make a difference.

Let us be honest with ourselves.

Let us be honest with them.

Forget the dance.

Focus.

I propose this as the very heart of the Mission Statement that is flying across my screen. I am not a writer but I can’t stop from writing this. It is something pure, from the deepest part of me. It has to be right, and as one of the Senior people, I ask to be heard. And if I am wrong, then grab me by the collar and tell me why you disagree. And I will happily talk with you because we are talking about something that matters.

Down below, I see a young girl dancing in the night. The simple beauty with which she cascades across the floor, the intelligence with which she uses the area  that is crowded with stuff. At night, it is hers. She owns it. I feel the same pride of ownership, owning this world that allows me to type this message to you. And perhaps save the future of this business of education.. It is a great feeling, not just that wretched desire to survive, to outswim the huge wave that may drill me into the sand below the water, but to seize this time. To set the agenda. To say what I feel.

I have the distinct feeling that what I have written is “touchy feely.” I don’t care. I have lost the ability to bullshit.

I feel so good about not erasing this Mission Statement. There is so little that we are able to feel like we have created in this business.

Most of the time, we are creating data. We are shoving digits around. But to address the growing pains of our business, and to create a new way of looking at what we do… because these growing pains could easily be dying pains. But we are meant to live at this business. Our work actually does have an effect on people. In a cynical world, we make people happy. We let them know that one person can make a difference. We send them out armed with qualifications ready to tale on the world.

It is important to tweak the greater concerns of our teachers as well. Because the ability to forget social causes happens easily, in the night. Suddenly the desire to survive obscures the quest to give back to a community. If we don’t exercise the muscle of charity, one day it is dead. It doesn’t respond, it’s just a fibre in your body that serves no purpose. And the next thing that happens is the lack of depth that comes with financial prosperity. How many rich people have said this in our presence: “I thought I would feel better when I was rich, but I don’t.”

That happens when we don’t listen to the loud sound of the quiet voice inside. Life, I believe, is not a country club where we forget the difficulties and anxieties. Life is the duty of confronting all of that within ourselves. I am the most successful male in my family, but I am hardly the happiest. I should be. I am in a profession that has a huge impact on people’s lives.

I have never been a writer, but I can see how this great lost art will never truly die. Putting words to paper is a sacred thing. It’s more than a phone conversation, it is a document. It is something you are putting on paper. The relationship between a phone call and a letter is the difference between a magazine and a phone book. One you leave on a plane, the other you save.

I am too excited to sleep. I want this Mission Statement to last to the light of day. Outside, a passing car plays a snatch of an old Pink Floyd album. “Money…

I am wondering what that exact moment is when we truly, truly love our jobs again. Is it during the day, or at the end of the day, or is it years later looking back on all we accomplished? I think perhaps truly loving something is the ability to love it at that moment. It is an elusive ability, something I have never been able to quite accomplish. I must go home, and take my experiences like a squirrel, and consider them, before I can truly enjoy them. I must work on this. The daily journey is everything. Being able to enjoy enjoyment while it is happening.

Why do I feel more alive for having written all of this? Some of you are younger than me, some of you are older than me. Right now I have one foot in each of your worlds but I’m old enough to have a past that I (hopefully) have learned from. In another hour or so, I’ll watch Phil and Kirsty, and provide a whole new set of distractions to keep me from the central issue, the issue that we have discussed all this week, in various ways and in various forums, but have we really discussed it?

I have now written far too much on the subject of our future, the future of this business. But the beauty of this proposal, I think, is that it is only a slight adjustment, an adjustment in our minds. An adjustment in attitude. An adjustment to point where we can discuss the things that really matter to us, and our many staff.

I believe in these words, and while they may not yet be true for you, they are true for me. And I ask that you read this with that in mind. I am dictating not what I want us to be, but what I wish us to be. There is a difference. You can only get there if I have written this correctly, and if you are inspired. I am reaching out to you, personally. I choose to be passionate again. I choose to reclaim everything that was once exciting about this job. I wonder if this might just be the best idea I’ve ever had. I hope you understand. In the words of Martin Luther King, whose suit I suggest you all visit before they move it from its display in the Atlanta airport: “A life is not worth living until you have something to die for.”

A life is not worth living if you are sleepwalking through it. Because that is what feels like death. That is what causes athletes to, out of despair, get drunk and wrap their cars around a pole. Or lash out at someone they love. It is the feeling of sleepwalking. Of others living life around you, keeping their fists tightly wound around whatever they can muster, caring little more than nothing about those around you. We cannot sleepwalk. We cannot just survive, anything goes. We can take control of our lives, we can quit sleepwalking, we can say — right now, these are our lives, it is time to start living it. It is time to not second guess, to move forward, to make mistakes if we have to, but to do it with a greater good in mind.

Let us start a revolution. Let us start a revolution that is not just about ipads, or how much resources we have.  I am prepared to die for something. I am prepared to live for our cause. The cause is caring about each other. The secret to this job is personal relationships.