The tigers who came to tea

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I’m sure you all know the story about ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’. A family are perfectly happy, going about their day, when a tiger rocks up to the front door and starts behaving in a way that, quite frankly, beggars belief. He wanders around their house as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. The sheer brass of the giant feline causes the family to accept his demands without question. He wants a drink. They make him a cup of tea. But that isn’t good enough for the tiger. He has slightly higher expectations. So, they let him drink the entire contents of the teapot. But even that hasn’t quenched the beast’s thirst. This is only achieved after he has drained all the water from the taps. And the family, who now have no means to hydrate themselves, keep clean or maintain any decent levels of sanitation, don’t question it. They don’t protest. They just let the tiger behave in this way because, well, he’s a tiger, isn’t he? A big, loud, confident tiger. Victims of the tiger’s gall, the family continue to cater for his every whim. He eats their dinner, their food in the fridge and all the tins and packets of food in their kitchen cupboards. And all the time he has a look on his face that suggests this is all quite normal, and, hadn’t the silly family realised what it took to entertain a tiger properly? And then, he leaves. You would think the family would now report this gross invasion into their world to the authorities, or, at least take some preventative measures to safeguard against it happening again the future. But no. They are, apparently, enthralled by the tiger and his incredibly high standards of entertaining. To the extent that they buy in some special tiger food in case he pops around again! It is an unbelievable story and one that never fails to shock me no matter how many times I read it.

I read another book recently. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers’. It tells the story of a group of teaching tigers who have opened a school. The story is written by many of the tigers who teach at the school and they each have much to say about how they teach and run their school. It runs on similar lines to the children’s story mentioned earlier, insofar as these tiger teachers have higher expectations than everyone else. They are the tap drainers to our tea drinkers. If you expect your children to walk quietly into assembly, they expect silence. If you run a residential trip, they run a boot-camp. If you have high expectations of behaviour, they have no excuses. If you have happy children, theirs are happier. It’s like reading a story written by that friend who must always go one better: you know, you’ve got a headache, they’ve got a tumour, that sort of thing.

The way in which their storybook presents their approaches to education is incredible. I found myself drawn to paragraphs where, after whatever it is they’re writing about (homework, marking, kindness, behaviour, lunch), they write about how this makes their school so special. Paragraphs that begin:

‘One of the things that may strike you when visiting Michaela is how happy the children are.’

‘At Michaela, we highly value adult authority and children’s politeness and respect.’

‘Our mantra is ‘work hard, be kind’’.

It was during these passages that I kept thinking back to the ending of the ‘The tiger who came to tea’. The bit where the family buy a tin of tiger food. These guys think they’re feeding their kids tiger food whilst the rest of us are spoon feeding our pupils ‘whiskers’. They seem unable to grasp the notion that – and forgive the expression Team Michaela – there is more than one way to skin a tiger. These tiger teachers really believe that they are special. I mean, I know we all think our schools are special. But these cats really believe that they are more special!

And I’m not sure why, when, so much of what they’re actually doing is pretty unremarkable. I hate to break it to you, tigers, but a lot of the ‘Michaela Way’ is just a normal way to run a school. That’s not to say that, in my opinion, you seem to lack a level of operational subtlety that I personally feel is vital for running such a complex organisation as a school. I also find the ‘top of the pyramid’ drills a little over zealous for my tastes but, hey, I’m not your target reader am I? Who is I wonder? Is this book’s publication part of your recruitment drive? Is it a ‘Michaela Way’ SEF? Or is it a fairy tale that you can read to yourself at bedtime to help you forget about all the anti-Michaela tweets out there?

Whatever the motive, you’ve written a bold and passionate story about your school. And, do you know what? Loving yourself is not a crime. Being excited about where you work is great. Believing you’re doing good, and making a difference to the world, is what helps get us all out of bed in the morning. But guys, seriously, couldn’t you have kept it to yourself for a bit? Saved it all for your newsletter? Uploaded it onto a blog? Did you really need to write a book about it? Don’t get me wrong,  your school may be fabulous. You may be proved completely right. But not yet. What you’ve done is, you’ve written a gospel when it should have been the first part of a case study.

In writing your book you’ve invited yourself around for tea, presuming that we will gladly give up all our food and drink for you, just because you’ve told us that you are tigers. You have declared superiority through your evangelical self-righteousness and you expect us all to listen and take heed. You can’t see that you are, in fact, sucking on an empty tap as we observe you from a distance, drinking our tea, waiting to see if you’ll make it to breakfast.

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Poor leadership? It could be you!

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Leadership is beset with barriers. Sadly, the biggest barrier is often the leaders. Schools can provide the perfect environment for ineffective leaders to develop, and, for my money, there are three main causes: fear, hope and time.

I call these the Holy Trinity of poor leadership choices. Wherever there is poor leadership, at least one of these factors will be part of the problem. The fear that you will be judged to be ineffective by your colleagues, your governors, or Ofsted can derail even the most experienced leader. Who can blame them? We are trying to run schools in a world where the bar is being raised in such extreme and unknown ways that it seems, at times, impossible to rely on your experience and professionalism to guide the way. We’re living in the brave new world where previous knowns are now no longer existent. It seems so improbable that you do in fact have the answers, so, you better start doing things differently and, more importantly, you better be seen as the one instigating it all.

A little bit of fear is fine; it can keep you sharp. However, too much fear blunts your ability to lead effectively. You can become fixated on the minutiae of what’s going on in your school rather than what impact it’s all having. You begin to be motivated by the hope that whatever you’ve implemented is going to be the answer. The fear that it might not be the answer debilitates your ability to evaluate it effectively. The fear that you may be held accountable to the failure of the initiative distorts your perception of success.

Consider the possible answers to this question:

What impact have you had on raising children’s achievement through effective feedback?

  1. A) I introduced a set of symbols that are used consistently across the school.
  2. B) I regularly monitor the books to check that the school systems are in place.
  3. C) Children are now expected to respond to feedback.

None of these answers address the actual point in the question and they reek of desperation. The desperation of a leader who wants to prove that they changed something. They have convinced themselves that this is important and, I’ll wager, they wrote a development plan that stated a success criterion would be that the system was different at the end of the year, rather than being able to report that the children are achieving better and that the teachers can implement the changes without having to work until midnight.

There is often a key character trait that these ineffective leaders display: arrogance. They tend to swan around convincing people that they’re Teflon coated super-educators. The only reason their plans could fail, they’ll say to themselves in the mirror, is because their school is full of deadbeat teachers who are unable to carry out their demands. Arrogant leaders have these neat and tidy action plans – that provides them with a much needed false sense of security that they are brilliant – but they are normally unrealistic due to being ‘actions’ driven as opposed to developmental. These leaders desperately want to be seen as the key drivers of change. But scratch away their fragile ego and you’ll see that they are being driven by fear which is skewing their perception of how they can be effective. Fear and false hope fuel their arrogance and prevent them from investigating the impact of implementation and learning lessons from failures, of which, if you are in a school inhabited by humans, there are likely to be many of during the year. What you are left with, is surface level leadership which exists only on the pages of their poorly designed plans.

Then there is the issue of time. I blame ‘smart targets’. This smug ideology that everything has to be broken down into neat little boxes which should all be ticked off by the end of the year. Whoever came up with that phrase either didn’t work in a school or was, quite frankly, a rubbish leader themselves. I’m not saying that having massive unwieldly goals is a responsible thing to do. What I am saying though, is that leaders who shy away from long term (and I mean two-three year) objectives are often those leaders who work in schools where common phrases heard in the staff room are ‘Are we still doing that thing from that inset last year?’ or ‘Oh, we used to do that five years ago.’ Every plan needs a set of checkpoints, and there may be some initiatives that have a definitive entry/exit criteria or indeed a limited shelf-life, but most things keep on going and going and going and going.

Effective leaders need to constantly re-engage with teachers to check how things are going. A teacher’s capacity to teach well can change year on year depending on a variety of contexts. Leaders shouldn’t judge teachers on this, they should expect it! They shouldn’t be surprised when a teacher, or child, is struggling; they should simply find out why and help. This is hard to do if you’re crippled by the fear that by end of the year you will be judged a terrible leader because you didn’t make sure everyone was marking in green.

It’s hard to maintain perspective when you’re in the moment. It’s so tempting to write a beautiful action plan ready for September. It’s so easy to monitor semantics rather than impact. It’s safer to attribute blame rather than face the barriers and help even when it means deviating from your plan. It’s forgivable to be scared and hopeful and worry about the time it’s taking to improve things. But it’s poor leadership to let that govern your instincts and take over your professional judgement.

In short, don’t let the biggest barrier be you.

 

Don’t believe the hype

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Lea owned a car. The car worked. It could go forwards and backwards; it could go slowly and quickly. The mechanic helped Lea look after the car. The mechanic made sure the brakes worked and the gears were smooth and the exhaust was healthy. The mechanic did this for all cars. Lea really liked the car and knew how to look after it. She put petrol in it and regularly checked the oil. She took it to the car wash every third Saturday of the month and occasionally she even cleaned the foot-well with a mini vacuum cleaner she had once bought from a service station. Lea liked her car.

Lea had a friend called Matt. Matt had just bought a shiny new car. Matt told Lea that his car was better than hers because it was shiny. Lea questioned him about why it was so good. Matt claimed that his shiny car could not only go forwards but that it could also go backwards. Lea said her car could do that too. Matt said yes, but his car did that and was shiny. Matt said that he could make his shiny car go really fast. Matt said he could drive at 120mph. Lea asked if he ever had. Matt said he hadn’t because you’re not allowed to drive that fast but he was sure his shiny car would find 120mph a breeze.

Lea didn’t think much of it until she read a review of Matt’s car in a car magazine. The review was written by a man who really liked fast and shiny cars. The man in the review said that Matt’s car was one of the shiniest cars he’d ever driven. The man in the review said that it could go forwards, backwards and that it could go 120mph. He even said that the gears were smooth. The best thing about this car, said the man in the review, was that it was shiny. The man in the review said that one day all cars would be shiny and therefore one day all cars would be great.

Matt was really pleased with this review and shared it with Lea. Lea said that she had read it and was pleased for Matt. Matt said Lea should get a shiny car because then her car could go forwards, backwards and 120 mph. Lea said her car could go forwards and backwards and that, for all she knew, her car already could go 120mph. Matt said he didn’t think this was true because her car was not shiny.

After that Lea started to see loads of adverts for shiny cars. The man who had reviewed Matt’s car started writing other reviews saying that all these shiny cars were amazing feats of engineering. They could all go forwards and backwards. Some cars, when you put petrol inside their tummies, could keep on driving for ages. Lea thought that this had been the case for a while, but the man in the review was pretty sure we were entering a new age of the car. Old cars could not compete with the new shiny cars.

Lea started to think that maybe her car wasn’t very shiny. She found herself dreaming about driving a shiny car at the legal speed limit but knowing she could go faster. She began to think how good it would be to have a shiny car that could go forwards and backwards. Lea went to car shop and asked to see the shiniest car for sale. She was shown a very shiny car. She asked what made this car so good. The salesman said that because it was shiny you could put petrol in it and that would make the car could go forwards and backwards. Lea asked about how smooth the gears were. The salesman said that what was amazing about these new shiny cars was that they used oil to make everything work properly. The salesman said that in his experience, what made these shiny cars so unique was the fact that the shiny cars could be looked after by a mechanic. Lea said that sounded really good and the salesman laughed and said that he knew it sounded good.

Lea walked home from the car shop. She rang Matt to talk about shiny cars. Matt said that if it wasn’t for shiny cars, people would literally be walking on motorways pulling their unshiny cars behind them with massive ropes. It was as if car builders didn’t know what they had been doing until they had invented shine. Then, suddenly, the cars were able to go forwards and backwards and possibly 120 mph. Lea agreed. Lea thought she might have to buy herself a shiny car.

On her way home she passed her own mechanic’s garage. Out of curiosity she popped in to ask what her mechanic thought of shiny cars. Her mechanic laughed and said that shiny cars were the same as any other car and that what made a car go forward and backwards was putting petrol in it, checking the oil regularly and generally looking after it. Lea asked about shiny cars going 120mph and the mechanic said that no car was allowed to go that fast so it didn’t really matter. Lea said that she had read a review saying that these new shiny cars were the best because they were so shiny. The mechanic said that this was nonsense and what made a car good was what had always made a car good. Lea asked what that was. The mechanic said that as long as a car had oil in it, a place to put the petrol in and an owner who didn’t try and drive at 120pmh, it would go forwards, backwards and as fast as you would ever need.

Lea couldn’t help but feel disappointed. Lea went home and went on the internet. She searched for stories of shiny cars. So many shiny car owners believed their cars to be good because they were shiny. Could they all be wrong? Even the man who reviewed all the cars said that shiny cars were the best sort of car. But she couldn’t stop thinking about the advice her mechanic had given her about all cars needing the same things in order to go forwards and backwards. Lea was so confused.

In the morning she rang Matt and asked if he could drive round. Matt said he’d love to but that his car was in the repair shop. Lea asked what had happened. Matt explained that he had tried to drive his shiny car through a small tunnel. Unfortunately his shiny car was a bit too big. His shiny car had made an awful scraping noise as it squeezed through the tunnel and when he had got through he had stopped his shiny car and got out. To his dismay all the shine and had been removed and his car was now all dull. Matt said that this was a disaster and that now it was completely undriveable. Lea asked how he had got his car to the repair shop. Matt said he’d driven it. Lea sounded surprised and asked if the car had driven alright. Matt said yes, in fact he thought it had gone a bit faster but that was probably just the shock. Lea asked him how much it was going to cost to get the shine back. Matt said about a million pounds. Lea asked him if he thought it was worth getting it re-shined. Matt said yes because without the shine his car wouldn’t go forwards or backwards and it certainly wouldn’t possibly go 120mph.

Lea hung up.

Matt was an idiot.

Lea got into her car and drove, perfectly well, to work.