Field Notes

Field Notes

Gratitude - a prayer for humans | 01.01.23

I was brought up to have a superiority complex. My father had the fortune of being born to parents who were deeply committed to their children and who worked hard to provide opportunity. They valued education highly. The son of a window cleaner, he progressed through grammar school and onwards to medical school.

‘Just imagine,’ Dr Leek would say, ‘that the average IQ is 100. Just think of that!’ It wasn’t that he didn’t understand the science of averages. His point was that we (ie he and his academic brood of four children) were not just above average but, by golly, how terrifying it was that so many humans festered below. How did society actually function!

So imagine my daily surprise as I progressed through my twenties to find that humans are so various in the gifts and the riches that they bring to the world around them. It became a voyage of discovery that academic intellect, for want of a better expression, was a very narrow measure.

The many humans that I met who didn’t have a GCSE to their name taught me things, and seemed far better at life than me. Interactions time and time again, with people who didn’t necessarily fit the ‘superior’ bracket, opened my heart, and showed me how to be human.

As I embraced systems and ecological ways of thinking, I saw too that measuring atomistically* was, quite honestly, a fool's game. We are all part of something quite complex. To think that value lies in any one thing is fundamentally flawed; to think in human-centric value systems is worse still and possibly the reason the earth is in such a mess. Consider the apple tree that we think we should cut down because it isn’t a pear tree (‘I want a pear tree!’) - it is interacting in untold ways with its environment, both above and below ground. What nonsense to think we can make decisions over the value of something over one measure alone, and a measure that only relates to me, the very important human.

I was struck by Stephen Unwin’s piece in The Byline Times that examines a passage in Virginia Woolf’s diary. The extract reveals a chilling point of view that runs as an acceptable undercurrent still in our society, that some i.e. a certain type of human should be allowed to value the worth of other humans. And don’t get me started on the double speak of the word ‘special’ that permeates our education system, a term that belies what people really mean - burdensome, defective, ill-fitting. And so much has been built on this way of seeing - which is defective in itself. Surely we should be embracing being with the humans that surround us, and think about building with what we have, and nurturing what we have been given.

Whilst these value systems belong in the last century it will take so much to topple the decades’ weight of the ‘superiority complex’ that I had imbued in me from a young age. Stephen Unwin said on Twitter, ‘Still relevant I’m afraid’. Not only is it relevant, I’m not sure we’ve even really started.

But back to gratitude. As the earth turns towards the sun once more, I find I am grateful for so many things, not least what my father has, through a kind of twisted kaleidoscope, given me. I grapple with all this as I sit by him, a man who has now retreated into the maze of Alzheimers. I may have had to invert what he taught me but that is no bad thing. I am because of him.

Gratitude is, according to psychologists, writers, philosophers, spiritual leaders a tonic in our search for wellbeing and happiness. A nod to Alice Walker this New Year’s Day. ‘Saying thank you is the best prayer you can say’.

It may sound topsy turvy but I am grateful, every day, for the blinkers that I was given. I am still peeling them off and what an adventure it is.


*Atomistically - separating things out into bits, to examine and learn about them, when really, they can only be understood when considered as part of a complex whole. For more on systems thinking, read this book: The Systems View of Life, Capra and Luisi

How do you wear yours? | 11.11.22

A few years ago I stepped in as an interim headteacher in the October half-term. Two weeks later, it was Remembrance Day. There was an assembly already planned, and it was led beautifully and with grace by the PSHE lead. He used the resources provided by the British Legion.

As the assembly drew to a close I stepped up, as I often do, quietly. I asked the children who they thought were the peacemakers in the world. I told them that it was them, that they were the peacemakers of tomorrow. I pointed to my white poppy and talked to them briefly about how this is what it symbolised for me - peace.

As a Quaker I find Remembrance Day very hard. I am a pacifist and I will never fight. Sadly, at the moment, when people ask me what I think makes humans different from other species, I will often reply - war. One day I hope that my answer will be art. Not yet.

It is not easy wearing a white poppy. It takes courage and I have been on the receiving end of suspicious looks, tight-lipped enquiry, and downright aggression, albeit verbal.

We walk a fine line as teachers. How to bring in our own views, and the whole range of others’ views without being accused of proselytising. The red poppy is so beloved and part of our culture now. To deviate even slightly from it may cause upset, even if that is never the intention. But surely we have a duty to open our children’s eyes to the diversity of viewpoints so that they can think critically and be changemakers in the future, in our ever-evolving society.

One way of managing a sensitive issue is to be as factual as possible. We are, after all, teachers; the white poppy is an excellent hook for learning. Here are some things that you may not know about the white poppy:

  1. White poppies were originally made by the Co-operative Women’s Guild in 1933. They have been around for nearly 100 years. Cooperatives are an interesting business model and good for discussion.

  2. White poppies are not a symbol of protest. They are a symbol of remembrance - of all victims of war.

  3. White poppies are not ‘in support of’ conscientious objectors (which is, incidentally, another excellent learning opportunity in itself, around personal choices, conscience, authority and ethics).

  4. The Peace Pledge Union that now makes and distributes white poppies, is a secular organisation. Although many Quakers wear white poppies, the white poppy is not a religious symbol.

  5. Some people wear both poppies. There are also other poppies. For example, purple poppies commemorate animals who were victims of war.

If you can talk about the white poppy with a spirit of curiosity and inquiry then there is little room for offence I think. We Quakers are all about how we do things, and how we live our life. We definitely do not seek to impose views. However, we do ask lots of questions. How will I wear my white poppy? Peacefully.

Viable | 6.10.22

Being a Senco is essentially impossible. There are too many things to do, too many stakeholders to please, and too many variables to navigate. You are dependent on so many other people as well for things that you are ultimately accountable for. And you also often (not always but often) have to pipe to a tune that does not allow you to sing your own true song - by which I mean a headteacher or a governing/trust board that does not have the knowledge and depth of understanding of what a truly inclusive setting might look like. There are structures that you have to function within (like a behaviour policy) that can be constrictive or diametrically opposed to what you are striving to achieve.

I have no silver bullet. But I think that one thing that is essential in staying alive as a Senco is systems - and viable systems at that. Stafford Beer developed the viable systems model and, whilst I do not precisely mean that in this context (although if only more school governance people knew about the VSM!), thinking about 'hands free' systems will keep your head above water.

One example could be record keeping by those delivering interventions. If an LSA has to find you for a copy of a template - then it's not a viable system. If a teacher as to ask you about where to find the equipment every two weeks because it keeps getting lost - then it's not a viable system. If you have to check in on a pupil every other day because their support is erratic - then it's not a viable system. If the nurture club that you have set up requires your regular attention because no one is in place to provide cover, and no one has the wherewithal to sort it when someone is off - then it's not a viable system.

Think of it like getting a family meal ready. If you are the meal-maker, you can only sit down and eat with everyone if - the sauces are there, there's water on the table, the cutlery is ready, the food is out of the oven. If not, you (or someone else) will constantly be jumping up out of your seat and that which should have been synched - eating and conversation - is disrupted. Now, if you can also train your children, or your other half, or have it as part of your culture that everyone is responsible for responding to a need (e.g. more water in the jug) then you are really talking. And if your fellow diners adapt and evolve over time, responding appropriately to things as they arise (the holy grail of parenting and senco-ing perhaps) then you are actually looking at something very viable indeed.

So, planning in advance, enabling initiative and setting things up properly in a way that does not require you to be present are what will keep you swimming. They are choppy waters out there. You need all the help you can get.

Taper | 24.8.22

The summer holidays are deceptive. Those of us that work in the more operational side of schools have a lot of work to do in July and August. Whilst there might be a different energy about the place, schools are beehives of activity in the summer. It is very difficult to get things done when children are in the way and so the end of July sees many things swing into action. The painters move in, often immediately, and it can be a race against time to finish things in time for end of August INSETs and classroom set-ups.

Alongside the busy-ness of the summer where I have been liaising with contractors, re-writing entire policy toolkits and laying the groundwork for a refreshed distributed leadership model for the Trust, I have also been building up to (another) marathon. This time it is the Dunstable Challenge which apparently holds in store for me 5750 ft of elevation. To put that in context, the London Marathon has about 120 ft in it.

Training for a marathon is a funny old thing. You can't actually do the thing you are training for, because it would break you. So you do all sorts of things that aren't the marathon at all. I'm (kind of) grateful for Alton Water which is a slightly mad, hilly 8 mile circular dash. That has been keeping me occupied amongst some hill repeats elsewhere and some lovely long slow runs to different train stations where I then catch the train back home.

As we near the start of term, and the marathon, I am having to slow down. In running terms, this is called a taper. As you get closer to the race, you actually start doing less. It's pretty counter-intuitive, especially for someone who gets twitchy if they don't run or work for more than about 24 hours.

However, it is foolish to push yourself when you are about to launch into the thing you have been waiting for and preparing for, which for us school types, is that thing called the autumn term. It's long, it's challenging, the days get darker and the commitments tend to stack up as you get to Christmas.

I recommend a complete taper as you turn your attention to the start of term. It is absolutely right and correct to take complete rest. If you are teaching for the first time, trust me - a few days off will be exactly what you need.

Furthermore, don't burn out too early. Inexperienced runners (me) go too fast at the start of long races. Slow down, even if it feels mad. This is, after all, a marathon, not a sprint.