Rolling the raisin around in our mouths

This is the time to pause and capture the essence of what matters most

Jeremy Hannay

Headteacher, Three Bridges Primary School

Look

If you had

One shot

Or one opportunity

To seize everything you ever wanted

In one moment

Would you capture it

Or just let it slip?

Eminem

 

A few years ago, well before the lockdown, we began rewriting the curriculum at Three Bridges.  While it was a complex and challenging journey, it started with some simple events that changed the course of our journey together.  It was an autumn evening, the staff sat, exhausted, in a classroom upstairs about to engage in an INSET about one of our new curricular elements – mindfulness, mental health and well being. I sat in the back of the room watching the staff engage in the topic before having a rather emotional moment during one of the activities.

After a short break, we all came back to a raisin on our tables.  Not raisins, plural. One raisin. Each.

It was an odd gesture to say the least. After a moment of everyone making jokes about what happened to the rest of the raisins, the staff became quiet as the trainer spoke.  She asked how many of us were mindful. The staff remained quiet, heads turning slightly left and right, to quickly lock eyes with one another, assessing whether everyone else felt as awkward by the question as they did.  She continued – how many of us notice the small things, the seemingly insignificant?  How well do we stop? Pause? Take in the world around us? And how often are we rushing from one thing to the next – living life like a never ending ‘to do’ list, never really taking a break, simply shuffling from one job done to another? When was the last time we actually tasted a meal or smelled a flower? You could see the staff reflecting on their busy lives as teachers, parents, carers, husbands, wives, mothers, fathers. You could feel the air begin to thicken with deep exhales of realisation: we had all – younger, older, teacher, TA, office staff, leaders – been caught up in the next lesson, the next conversation, the next meeting, the next email.  As a school that speaks loudly about mindfulness – about well being – we had all drifted. 

Then she asked us to pick up the raisin.  Place it in our mouths.  Don’t chew it.  Don’t swallow it.  Just roll it around in your mouth.  Notice the texture, the flavours. Notice how it feels to shift it from one slide to the other, to press it to the top of your palette, hold it under your tongue.  And everyone did.  A pin dropping would have been an atomic bomb. We needed to practice being mindful. Stopping. Pausing. Capturing the moment. It was a defining moment in our journey as a school – both professionally and personally.  The room was silent and the point became salient: the most important moment is now. What will you capture from it?

The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair. - Walker Percy

Schools closed on the 20 March to most pupils. The everydayness of our work – the planning, meetings, phone calls, emails, lessons – came to a grinding halt. The external factors paused: Ofsted, SATs, GCSEs, league tables. Who were we now? What was our purpose? What is the role of a teacher if they cannot teach? The role of a school if it is empty of all children? When everything that had us running from pillar to post stopped abruptly and the pace of life shifted from sprints to crawls, what would we capture?

When the narrowness of Ofsted was paused; the pressures of national testing lifted; the heaviness of what often consumes schools, leaders and teachers transformed; an examination of what remained was natural.  While the focus of primary schooling throughout the last decade has been highly academic and standardised, monitored and scrutinised, data driven and roboticised, what became clear was how insignificant those metrics are in detailing the complexities, strengths and challenges of schools. A school narrative is a lived one, between people. It is relational.  It is organic and changing.

 The risk of the present is losing the discovery of the pause to the chaos of the return: rushing back to the way things have always been to fit the system, rather than emerging slowly into our new position as we ensure the system fits us.  The catch up, tuition, boosters, and often carceral approaches to leadership and learning will only take us backwards. We need more asking, less telling.  Greater questions, fewer answers.  More thinking and discussing.  More collaboration, more connectedness, and more community in learning and working.

If we have learned anything from lockdown, it is that schools provide so much more for the community than courses and content, knowledge and skills.  And more than this, we must continue to see the children beyond our own school gates and our adults beyond the front of the classroom.

Education is a practice of freedom - Santiago Rincon Gallardo

What is certain coming out of the lockdown is the importance and deep need for human connection.  We have all now felt the depths of isolation on our lives, our mental health and well being.  And there is something big to capture here: incredible schools are built on connection, collaboration and relationships – adults with themselves, adults with each other, adults with children, children with themselves and children with each other.  Sustainable, engaged whole school improvement is truly about creating the kind of environment that aligns, inspires and challenges our professional people catalysed through meaningful relationships.  School improvement and professional development is not an observation or course, it’s not in an inspection or the books or the data.  It is in each other.  Lesson and learning study, teacher research groups, learning rounds, teacher led learning, lines of enquiry.  This is the social capital – the human connection – that fuels our greatest moments and our greatest schools. Because it speaks to each of us deeply.  Connection is how we must move forward.  Yet, connection is not limited to our professional interactions – it must also be about how we each connect to our curriculum and how we want our young people to connect to their future. 

And this is the second capture: the curriculum of our school is both in the content we teach and the way we interact – adults and children – in the presence of that same content.  The explicit and hidden curriculum.  Who we are as an organisation and how we go about educating each other and our young people is curricular.  Furthermore, the climate we create in our school through prioritising connection – the professional relationships, professional challenge and collaborative learning, also creates the conditions under which people feel comfortable to speak up, challenge us, and improve our schools.  But not only about teaching and learning.  The other side of the same hand is that compliant and disconnected teachers that don’t have interwoven, meaningful opportunities to speak up about learning and teaching, also won’t speak up about the systemic racism, bigotry or sexism that can silently invade organisations, often quietly and incrementally.  When we create the conditions under which only some can progress, only some can contribute, improve and flourish, we unintentionally grow a school that resembles us more than the community and people we serve.  That is colonisation at its core.  Decolonising our curriculum also means decolonising our leadership.  Connection must be to each other.  It must be content.  And it must also be to our minds and (in)actions.

This is the third capture: we must fight injustice at every level and support the development of professional understanding, research, and practice for those communities and peoples that are marginalised, racialised and excluded from much of education and society.  We must examine our curricula, seeking to build one that is global, muti-ethnic and inclusive.  We must examine our practices for their alignment with our longer-term goals.  How are we promoting criticality, oracy and a deep sense of community for our adults and pupils?  What is the relationship between teaching social justice & equity and didactic teaching?  Or sitting in rows? Or tolerance? Cultural capital?  When we realise that relationships and connection are at the heart of incredible community schools, this must be a relationship with every community, not only the ones we see.

In our new world, we must not succumb to the rhetoric of getting back to normal or ‘catching up’ on what was lost. In that deficit speak, we must shine with our strength – our capture.  Our profound and innate necessity to connect.  The way we connect with each other in schools; the approaches we use to grow, develop, challenge and change.  The way we connect in the presence of knowledge; adults and children alike as leaders of their own learning, present in pedagogy and practice, knowledge and content, and in our own minds and (in)actions.  We have a moment – before the rush back to normal – to roll the raisin around in our mouths. To define the future.  To stop, pause and learn from the moment. What will you capture?

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