30 Dec 2016

You never know the good you do...

‘I believe that every human mind feels pleasure in doing good to another.’ Thomas Jefferson

There’s an assumption that we need to have hard evidence that something has ‘worked’ and that we have had an impact. We usually expect this to be in fairly short order. But it might be helpful to think about impact over the longer term. When we think back to those who have had an impact on us, it is not just those who we interacted with today, but also those in the past who have given us encouragement and hope.

This is not about a fanfare. There was an interesting post from English leader Chris Curtis about how he does not make a song and dance at the GCSE results day - no public displays of affection. Why not? Well because this is not his style. And he is mindful of those students whose results were not as brilliant as some of their peers. The crowing and loud jubilation can be hard to swallow for those who did not get the results they wanted or needed. Instead, he remains inscrutably the same, whatever the outcomes for the students in his subject. There are a number of reasons for this: first, it is because they are the students’ results, not his or his colleagues’ and second, because he knows what it is like when things have not gone so well. So he takes both great results and less than stellar results in his stride. However, the interesting thing is that he acknowledged in his post that his students know what he really thinks, that he has their best interests at heart and that he encourages them quietly. Having met Chris, he has an understated warmth and integrity which draws people to him. He isn't showy but he has a quiet aura - of someone who knows what they are about, who listens carefully and who gives thoughtful responses. He writes brilliantly about what he does in his classroom. My guess is that he has huge impact on his students, their love of his subject, just by the way he goes about his business. It is likely that hundreds of students who come into contact with him, will have been and will continue to be influenced by him. It is also likely that he will never really know the extent of the good he is doing, and the good he has done. And he probably doesn't much care. Which is kind of the point.

The gist of this is that it is the way we go about our business, the tenor of our conversations, the kindness and firmness with which we speak to others, does have an impact. We just won’t get the feedback. The feedback thing is a double-edged sword. If we are constantly looking for it, we can become needy. Equally, if we pay no attention to it, we are less likely to learn lessons from it. And by lessons, I mean good lessons. If we understand that people are watching us, and how we conduct ourselves, we are more likely to make sure that our conversations, our dealings with people are always courteous. That we quietly acknowledge the contribution that others are making and reflecting back to them the difference they make to us. It is as simple as saying ‘I really admire you for that…’ And importantly when someone says the equivalent to us, we shouldn't brush it off, through modesty. It is an opportunity to reflect on why that might be so. Without hubris or pride, but because if we are adding value to relationships, to the success of the setting, then we are mindful to do more of it.

The converse is also true. The throwaway remark, the dismissive comment can cut the soul. It might not be meant that way, but the person on the receiving end might be discouraged, diminished and less likely to make a contribution in future. And this is why we should be so careful about what comes out of our mouths. It is possible to agree to disagree respectfully, to note the other’s position. And things might even get heated, which is fine. Because we care about things. But the underlying respect for another’s point of view is the critical thing here. When there are tough discussions going on, the way they are conducted is likely to leave a legacy. Where there is a sour note of scorn or contempt for the other’s point of view, this is likely to linger on. However, the same conversation might be undertaken in a spirit of respect and where appropriate, a lightness of touch and some humour.

The end of year cards and presents to teachers often reflect this idea of ‘not knowing the good you do’. Teachers are often surprised by the warmth and the details which students and pupils give them: the difference they have made to understanding difficult ideas, the way they helped them to get better at their subject, the increase in confidence which they now have. And the warmth with which they conducted their lessons. The important thing is to take note of these carefully, to deposit them in the bank of ‘good things’ about our practice, rather than take them as superficial compliments. If we think hard about what these young people are saying, we are likely to ensure that our practice in future builds on these strengths.

The bottom line here is that we all have much more influence than we think we have. This is nothing to do with rank or seniority. It is all to do with the way we are. No bells, no whistles, just an honest engagement with work and with the people, young and old that we interact with. The good we do, can go on, and on…

From 'Hopeful Schools'

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