Some time last century I went to Teachers’ College. For most of my training career I felt I was a failure.
I was routinely one of those students who struggled on placement and couldn’t wait to get back to the safety of the café at the College. At first, I thought everyone must feel this way. But it didn’t take long to realise that most of my fellow students were enthusing greatly about the schools, classrooms and experiences they’d been through and not the fresh donuts they’d re-discovered in the café. As my training continued the
sense of failure followed me. There wasn’t a thing that I did that made my time feel like a success.
Some of my teachers even suggested I quit the profession. I still have a scribbled note that I wrote recording the kind of words of one of my teachers said about me. Suffice to say they weren’t kind, and they definitely weren’t constructive. I really have no idea why I kept these. They’re as helpful now as they were then.
Surprisingly, I made it through Teachers’ College and got my first teaching job along with my shiny teaching diploma. To be honest I wasn’t sure that I was cut out for the job. Three years of feeling a failure as a teacher trainee didn’t give me a lot of confidence that I was really up to it. So you can imagine how surprised I
was to find out that I loved my first class. Thirty smiling but challenging ten year olds.
Weirdly, they held onto my every word as though what I said actually amounted to something! What’s more I got the distinct feeling that my mentor teacher liked me and she actually took time to get alongside me to work out what made me tick. I’ve got no idea if she knew what she was doing, if she was working from some researched place, but she took time to encourage my strengths and gave me enough rope for me to simply be me.
She never said the words, “Go on, be yourself”, but all her encouragement implied as much. In that first year of teaching I undid the failed three years of training and rebuilt my confidence in who I was and I saw glimpses of who I could become.
I’ve always been naïve – at Teachers’ College I naively felt that I had to be the teacher that I saw in front of me. No one pulled me aside and said, “Let’s start with being yourself and we’ll build on that”. No wonder I felt like a failure. Why I ever thought that I could possibly be anyone but myself still astounds me!
Weirdly, that same feeling often prevails today. We have a whole smorgasbord of social devices both internally and externally that encourages us as principals to front up and try and be someone that we simply aren’t.
Convoluted appraisal systems, confusing job descriptions, “Mr/s Fix-it and Fix Everything Today” expectations, and informal and formal judgements about us abound.
My favourite is the 360 degree appraisals that we’re often subjected to in the name of
improvement, where everyone else gets to take their own interpretations of what they think you should be like in your job (ala the perfect principal) and, often anonymously, mark your report card.
Everyone sees your role differently. No one views it from the same context of course, and yet they are all invited to reflect on what you do day in and day out, warts and all. And it’s done to us because we get paid the big bucks and we all need to be so very accountable.
For a lot of the time we are our own worst enemies. We let this happen to us because we are told that this is what is expected of a professional. I’m sure that we allow ourselves to be a product of this often confused regime and ultimately we are also the product of our own well being demise.
Imagine how I felt then, when seemingly out of the blue, I chanced upon Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall’s “The Feedback Fallacy”. The first line in their article had me hooked; “The debate about feedback at work isn’t new” – Huh!? You mean we can actually debate and ask questions about stuff like feedback and how we go about getting it and giving it? I was amazed. You can tell that I’m still naive!
Packed in the middle of this excellent read is my new go-to quote;
“Learning is less a function of adding something that isn’t there than it is of recognizing, reinforcing, and refining what already is”
Woah! There it is. How my professional life should be, in a nutshell.
When I started teaching thirty years ago, my mentor teacher didn’t have this pearl of wisdom in front of her. But she instinctively acted out this quote and in her actions helped me become a teacher, recognising, reinforcing and refining the strengths I already had. That’s where she helped me start.
This is an important lesson to us all. We should all see people for what they are, not what they aren’t, and build on their strengths to help combat their challenges. This isn’t about shirking any individual responsibilities or hiding from any accountabilities. Instead, this is about using a strength based approach that shows respect
in an all importantly human manner. A respect that recognises that we all have differing strengths and that these strengths should, and can be, the most important of first steps when looking for momentum forward.
About the same time, I happened upon a TED talk called “The Power of Vulnerability” by Brene’ Brown. I had been doing a lot of reading regarding the characteristics that “people” considered as being important for leaders. One word kept popping up that intrigued me; vulnerability.
I was a little confused as to what this actually meant. I wondered if it was yet another current buzz word – along with “organic”, “authentic” and the term “let’s drill deeper”.
Brought up on a diet of Steve McQueen (The Great Escape), Bruce Willis (Die Hard), and Sigourney Weaver (Alien) movies, I wondered where in that particular brand of leadership I’d find and see in action this term vulnerable!
Brene’ Brown’s talk is well worth listening to. In it she argues that successful people – those who never really seemed to let things get them down, or get on top of them, were “willing to let go of who they thought they should be, in order to be who they were, which you have to absolutely do to forge that connection”. They were prepared to be vulnerable, to be open about their strengths and their weaknesses, but importantly
confident enough to recognise their own strengths.
Simply she said, “Start believing that we are enough”.
So with that in mind, and with appraisal cycles about to begin, I challenge you to not only look at your own professional development, but at everyone in your school’s, from a strength based point of view. As Buckingham and Goodall suggest, “Whenever you see one of your people do something that worked for you, that rocked your world just a little, stop for a minute and highlight it by helping your team member recognise what
excellence looks like for her – by saying, “That! Yes, that! – you’re offering her the chance to gain an insight; you’re highlighting a pattern that is already there within her so that she can recognise it, anchor it, re-create it, and refine it. That is learning.”
I obviously missed a few beats last century at Teacher’s College. I wonder what sort of teacher I would’ve become if I’d had a better understanding then of what was really expected of me. Obviously it’s taken me a while to catch up, but from now on I plan to find multiple ways for my staff and colleagues to Recognize it, Anchor it, Re-create it, and Refine it.