The ‘hard’ is what makes education great

Tiffany Beck

Everyone is always so bloody tired by the end of the school year, that’s just a given. It’s a crawl to the last day of term. But usually there’s a holiday booked, things to look forward to – the sorts of things you know will recharge your batteries and set you up for a fresh school year.

Right now, we’re all crawling to more unknown and autumn is going to present yet more new challenges. Maybe we’re hoping there’s some socially-distanced Pimm’s between now and then.

I was on a Zoom call with trust leaders just before the end of term. Everyone on that call shared two things in common. One, they were absolutely shattered and overburdened. And two, they showed no signs of giving up and were determined to do the very best they could for their schools, no matter what.

It made me worry for everyone, knowing how hard it is for them to switch off, how bad they can be at self-care despite exceptional levels of resilience and knowing how much they need to have a summer break.

But it also made me feel so lucky to be part of something most people aren’t able to get under the skin of the world of education, the personal backgrounds that drive the people within it and the tremendous endurance, dedication. Indeed, to steal a phrase from Barack Obama, the audacity of hope: “Hope in the face of difficulty, hope in the face of uncertainty.”

Hope that, whatever comes next, whatever noise is out there, at the end of it there are improved opportunities and life chances for pupils.

I’ve been thinking a lot about leadership, governance and education during COVID-19. About how they might evolve over the coming months and years. About how plants eventually bloom on earth scorched by volcanic activity.

When anyone asks how I ended up becoming chair of a school trust, I talk about how the then Executive Head, now CEO, ran after me in the school car park to ask me to stand for chair, just days after becoming a parent governor.

“I have no idea what any of this is about or what I’m supposed to do,” I said.

“I can tell you’ll figure it out,” he said, followed quickly by, “It’s just half termly meetings.”

LOL.

I frequently remind him of that, particularly when challenging situations arise.

I’ve learned so much through the years since, including about the very singular nature of schools – how huge the potential for impact is, how there’s never the same day twice, how just when you think you’ve seen it all something else happens, like, say, a global pandemic that topples the very idea of school on its head.

Lockdown has reinforced some of the key things I’ve learned about leadership and governance. These are things that seem obvious but sometimes require a reminder, things that will serve us well, either as executives or non-executives, to reflect upon as we try to make the difference that we have the audacity to hope we can.

  1. Leadership and management are two completely different things. Doing one well is a skill. Doing both well moves mountains.
  2. A team is strongest when everyone thinks differently and has different strengths, filling gaps not a mould. One of the first things I learned in education was how important the balance between a headteacher and deputy headteacher is, and the profound impact that has on the development of the school, staff and pupils – and on the ability to navigate challenge. That balance holds true at any level in the organisation, including on the board, and between the chair and the executive leader.
  3. Strengths and weaknesses are linked. Recognising that in yourself is important; having someone you trust who can point it out to you, even more so.
  4. Leading with empathy should be the default. The most memorable, insightful and inspiring speech by a politician in the midst of all this wasn’t about the importance of social distancing or lockdown and it wasn’t about facing adversity, it was about the Easter Bunny.New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern spoke directly to her nation’s children, explaining that the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy are both essential workers – but that it may not be possible for them to reach everywhere during lockdown. Reassurance for the world in just a few sentences.
  5. Time is the greatest thing you can give, whether you’re the high-pressured boss or a voluntary non-executive devoting so much of yourself around the demands of your own work and life. Knowing, understanding and listening to people builds better teams and better organisations, builds an instinct for people and builds the foundations for resilience when the going gets tough.Early on in lockdown, I was struggling, a lot. One afternoon our Maritime CEO phoned me. I knew his schedule that day was particularly chock-a-block, so my instinct was to ask what was wrong. “Nothing,” he said, “I was calling to do your supervision.” I was instantly in tears. Sharing his time in that moment meant the world and it refocused me. Only the next day I repaid the favour, ringing him up to say, “Now I’m calling to do yours.”

We never expected to be dealing with what 2020 brought. We are anxious about what lies ahead. I shared reasons for optimism in a blog I wrote in the midst of those nerve-wracking weeks leading up to wider openings. Now, there are good reasons to have hope for September and beyond.

We can take comfort in knowing we now have in-depth experience leading through a global pandemic.

We know what we were able to achieve with no notice – now we have the benefit of hindsight and some planning time to prepare for what’s next.

We’ve broadened and deepened our support networks.

We’ve empowered ourselves to do what’s right for our contexts.

It will be hard, there’s no denying that. But…

There was a definitive moment in A League of Their Own, the American film about professional women baseball players during World War II.  Dottie, played by Geena Davis, quits the team just before the World Series.  The conversation about the sport with her coach, Jimmy, played by Tom Hanks, is education in a nutshell, and why I put so much of myself into it as a volunteer.

Jimmy: “Sneaking out like this…quitting…you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.  Baseball is what gets inside you.  It’s what lights you up.  You can’t deny that.”

Dottie: “It just got too hard.”

Jimmy: “It’s supposed to be hard.  If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it.  The hard is what makes it great.”

Getting through this much hard should make us all proud, and make us optimistic for what we will be able to do next.

Bring on the 2020/21 school year.

After that socially-distanced Pimm’s.

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