“I’m sorry, so sorry” Brenda Lee
We are never very far away from our next mistake. I have learnt over the years that it is how we deal with a mistake rather than the mistake itself that is most important. From small ‘hiccups’ to ‘catastrophic blunders’ our reaction, post-mistake, is key to moving forward and learning from it.
I think that this is where the DfE are in terms of the assessment fiasco that is happening right now. I am not calling for them to apologise. “Sorry I have broken promises we made about workload”, “Sorry we have messed about with children’s learning.” and “Sorry that we have alienated ourselves from so many of you in the profession.”. These statements will not help any of us in terms of sorting out the issues we face. They might help us feel a smug, “I told you so” but for many that would not be enough. Also, even if they did the trust is such it would only make matters worse. The greatest apology the DfE can make is to make it better and to work with us in doing this. I just hope it is not too late.
Though the most important element of making a mistake is moving on; great leadership knows when to say ‘sorry’ and mean it. Apologising for a genuine mistake is easier than apologising for a perceived one. Therefore, our personal perception of what we are doing is vital. If we believe we are doing the ‘right’ things and others disagree then saying a genuine sorry is almost impossible. Saying sorry is really hard. Saying sorry means you admit that you are wrong. In positions of power this is particularly difficult. How can you be a good leader but also be wrong, uninformed, powerless to affect the change needed? I believe that this is at the crux of the leadership journey for so many school leaders.
As a head teacher I walk a very thin line when I display my vulnerabilities. There is little distance between being a good, secure and balanced head teacher and an emotionally shackled liability. This is true in any leadership. You can see it is the thing that scares the DfE most. Sorry could open the floodgates to a barrage of attacks. By admitting they have got things very wrong (systematically) they are baring their backsides for a ritual kicking (I imagine there is a very long queue waiting for this). Therefore, how do we apologise and keep our dignity and keep our core purpose?
How do we get to a place in education where we learn from our mistakes and become better for it? I see this as an opportunity for the DfE. Firstly they need to understand this.
They want the highest standards and SO DO WE. The issue is in the application.
The constant barrage of words about world class is not helpful. I feel guilty saying this because it seems like I have ‘low expectations’ by not wanting to be the best, by not knowing how to be world class… I do not have low expectations. I want every child to have the best future possible. I believe each and every year I get better at doing this. I get better at creating teams to do this. But, the distance between having a vision and having to make a vision happen is a long one. Words are just that. It reminds me of the Captain Class urging the troops over the trenches with inspiring calls to arms, leading from the back. This can work but when the call to arms is at a crucial moment you need something much more inspiring, much more strategically structured and much more visionary. I believe the ambitions of the National Curriculum are at a crucial moment. What I struggle with is the fact that schools and communities, children and teachers will be labelled failures by our Government’s policies because the vision is, at this point, impossible to achieve. I do not expect them to apologise for having the ambition. I expect them to have the vision and strategy to make it work rather than set up and create scape goats along the way. Nicky Morgan’s video was a classic example of this, blaming others for getting it wrong rather than admitting they needed to change it, not because of moaning teachers, but because it was the right thing to do for education in this country.
There is one small phrase in Jon Ronson’s brilliant book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed that keeps swirling around my brain, “…that the cure for shame is empathy” It is scary how quickly one mistake can snow-ball into a collective outrage where saying sorry is nothing more than another wound in which to tear at. If only we showed more empathy as we vent our justified outrage. I have said sorry many times as a head teacher. On every occasion I meant it. It is only human to err. I have also been urged, told and ordered to say “sorry” when I did not believe I should. That is the hardest thing. It is also a scary thing. It seems that as a human race we are very quick to pull apart other peoples mistakes, to put other people’s flaws out in the open (as we breathe a sigh of relief it is not OURS). Social media can make this even more of an issue. I think there is something here about the digital space between us erasing our ability to empathise as we could.
I empathise with ambitions to be the best, I really do. Why would I not? (To paraphrase Sir Ken Robinson). What I cannot understand is the lack of organisation and strategy to get to this point. I could walk in to my school on Monday and say, “BE THE BEST!” and “HERE’S THE TARGETS!” (Not sure why I am shouting?). That is not going to work. I recognise this. I think the DfE should as well.