Building #oneBigteam

Learning without rushing into the content

Head of CPD, Big Education

Planning any group learning experience is challenging. Meeting the needs of the group, and every individual within the group, can be difficult – even more so if there is a wide disparity of expectation, experience, knowledge and skill. 

So when we decided to plan an INSET day for the whole of the Big Education Trust, I knew we would have to think long and hard about how to make it work. Attending the day would be every member of our 300 strong staff body – head teachers, the finance team, teaching assistants, experienced teachers, new teachers, catering staff and the facilities team and many more. Throw into this the mix of all of the different school phases we teach, from nursery to sixth-form as well as staff who had worked for the organisation for many years and some who had not yet started.

We were also really keen to make use of the precious time. Like in all schools, time is perhaps the most important resource. Taking all our staff away from their ‘business-as-usual’ work has to be worth it. Closing our schools to students means we have a duty to the children and their families to make sure that we use the time effectively.

No pressure then!

Initially, our conversations centred around the content we wanted to cover. We knew that our organisation had ‘gaps’ which needed filling. All of our schools and staff are on a developmental journey which requires us to think about how we train our people to ensure high-quality outcomes. When given the time, it is natural to want to rush in and cover as much as possible.

However, we decided to take a different approach. This approach had three strands:

  • Moving out of the day-to-day space
  • Connecting with the people in the organisation
  • How we can all have purpose in making our organisation great

In this piece, I will explain why we took this approach and what implications it might have for you in your MAT, school and classroom.

Moving into a new headspace – ‘Ohhh it’s fancy innit!’

The first decision we took, and one which I had initially opposed, was to hold the INSET in a fancy hotel conference venue. Some of the more obvious benefits of this approach (mainly, we didn’t have to worry about having enough tea cups and tidying-up) did not persuade me that it was worth the cost or the trade-offs we would have to make due to the constraints of the room – for example, there was not enough space for ‘breakout’ sessions.

Three arguments changed my mind:

  1. All of our staff are incredibly busy people – if we were based in our schools, there is a strong chance that thinking about the day-to-day grind of the work would dominate, rather than some of the more long-term strategic points on the agenda which we wanted to get people to consider.
  2. We wanted the day to be inclusive. Lots of the feedback I had received from our non-teaching staff is that all training is focused on the classroom. Moving us all out of a school not only levelled the playing field, but it also ensured our IT team were not finding cables for us and our catering staff could relax and enjoy being served meals for once.
  3. We wanted it to feel like a bit of a treat. All of our staff work so hard, so we wanted them to be served lots of tea and coffee, have nice food and be in a posh room. This may sound trivial, but it gets right to the heart of something we believe – the best learning will happen when people feel ‘well’. Wellbeing is not an add-on, it is key to academic success.

In our current system, the pressure is to rush into learning as quickly as possible – ‘every second counts’. Every second is important, but it doesn’t mean every second needs to be filled with facts. Thinkers as old as Confucious and as modern as Cal Newport talk about how being in the right frame of mind aids the thinking process. How often do we give ourselves, our staff and our students a chance to step-out of the day to day and look at things through a different lens?

Less is more – connection, connection, connection

We believe that learning is a social act. Yes, we all need input from experts, but we also need the space to discuss this new learning. Dialogue encourages a higher engagement with content.

With this in mind, we decided to not pack the day with all of the things we wanted to cover. Rather, we wanted to strip it back to the basics – organisations are just a group of people, so our focus was to facilitate connections between our colleagues. We created spaces for all of our colleagues, from all of our different departments, schools and phases to make personal connections. 

However, to be clear, this was not thoughtless chat. We gave focus to the conversations, we encouraged people to make new connections and, as leaders, we joined in and listened. It was also not networking for networking sake – it was deliberate. Over the coming months and years we plan on facilitating communities of learners across our organisation and in the wider education community. Building communities based on people who know and trust each other seems like a stronger foundational starting point.

We also wanted to give people the opportunity to reconnect (or, in some cases, connect for the first time) with our mission and vision and why each individual joined our team. This is particularly important when trying to do something difficult, like challenging the status quo of education. Reflecting back on our purpose, Pink would argue, helps motivate us and reminds us all why we head to work each day. For this reason, we broke into mixed groups and all had time and space to reflect on our own motivations for joining the team – as well as, most importantly, hearing other perspectives.

Again, in our current system, this thinking is often lost in the rush to cover curriculum content or address perceived deficits. How often do we allow a chance to step-back, have open-ended conversations, build relationships and reflect on our values? Giving people the opportunity to talk about themselves and their values also humanises us – something much needed in education and schools.

A moving cacophony 

Finally, we wanted to stress the importance of our team. Every single person in our organisation plays a role in making sure we deliver an excellent education to our students. These roles will be varied and diverse – but all important. 

We started the afternoon with some music. We performed a rhythm which required each person to play a particular beat. At first, it was messy and discordant. By the end, we all played in sync and a clear, unified beat emerged. This served as a metaphor for our organisation – at times, it is hard to see the big picture and it may feel messy, but if we all perform in our roles, it will result in clarity and harmony. 

We explored some of the work of Syed about how having diverse teams makes for better decision making and we heard from each of our schools about what they are doing and what they are working on. It was an opportunity to spread the learning across our organisation as well as, again, encouraging a connection between our schools and our different staff bodies. 

After having a chance to reflect in groups on the role each person plays in our organisation we came together for a team photo!

Perhaps, in education, we have moved away from the human and the collective, to an overly data-driven individualist approach? Should we spend more time building a sense of community in our schools and classrooms so that, when things get tough, our people and our students have a supportive network to fall back upon. 

Conclusion

Like all journeys in learning, you have to start somewhere. I am glad that we started with our people, our values and our team. This is our base and it is a strong foundation to build upon. Yes, we did not cover some of the meaty content, but when we get to that, we believe our colleagues will be in a better place to learn and develop. Sometimes, doing less now can result in doing more later.

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