Expectations are a funny thing. At their worst, they can be invisible chains keeping you rooted to the spot. At their best, they can be the catalyst from which great things are sparked. Of course expectations are more than just wishing for something to happen and, as I well know, they can be insidious – in both a positive and more sadly, negative way. And so the theme of this year’s SSAT National Conference in Manchester was a timely one for me, and reminded me just how crucial our role as educators is in transforming the lives of children.
In the day to day business of planning and delivering lessons, it is sometimes easy to get caught up in the day to day minutiae of being a teacher. And whilst Chris Waugh in his breakout session ‘NOW: rethinking English’ was inspirational in his absolute dedication and commitment to making the classroom an ‘authentic’ place for the ‘here and now’, how many of us can say the same? How many of us can say we are not beholden to the expectations of the Senior Leadership Team in terms of Ofsted ratings, to targets set based on notions of prior attainment and national averages – as if it were these things which expressed the truth about our schools and more importantly, our students.
His viewpoint was supported by Dr Russell Quaglia who gave some stark statistics about the effect of self worth, engagement and purpose on the achievement of students. It’s not that I am surprised by this, more that it was a reminder that treating the root cause of the achievement gap is the only way we are going to ensure that education really is the vehicle by which gender, ethnicity and social class are not allowed to make a difference to educational outcomes.
Tom Sherrington, in what was an understated yet thoughtful keynote speech, demonstrated that it is possible to achieve a balance between doing what we believe is right, whilst at the same time meeting the so called needs of external validation. This is what excites me most about the possibility of becoming a Headteacher – to shape and build a school community which positively makes a difference every day to all those within it.
Heartbreakingly difficult to listen to at times, despite the veneer of quips and self-deprecation, Professor Tanya Bryon was perhaps the keynote speaker who affected me most. Mental illness is one of those things that is difficult to comprehend. How many of our students are going through daily turmoil in their minds completely hidden underneath what appears to be a confident, articulate, and successful shell? Just how invasive is this in sowing the seeds of negativity and doubt which mean that regardless of ability, the expectation is that they are not able to undertake whatever is in front of them, thus assigning them to failure before they have even tried? Education about mental illness is sadly lacking in many areas of our public services and is often seen by teachers as simply part of teenage life, as something which students just need to ‘get over’. The devastating effects of a fragile self are something which we cannot ignore and we need to get better, and quickly, at providing support within our schools to tackle this.
What struck me most then as I listened throughout the two days was just how important nurturing the sense of self and managing expectations were in making sure that all children had the opportunity to realise their dreams. It goes beyond task design, learning intentions, structuring learning and all the other pedagogical tenets in which we can sometimes get so immersed, to something far more basic. To something much more fundamental and necessary to us as humans. Something which every child (and adult) regardless of ability, background or ambition desires – an overwhelming need to be recognised and understood for who we are, to have our own dreams and hopes validated and encouraged in all their shapes and sizes. And isn’t that what drives us as teachers? To nurture, support, challenge, and ultimately help all those in our care to not only accept who they are, but also what they can become.