Living Values of Respect and Compassion in Leadership and Playing Tennis
The Joy of Learning and the Responsibilities of a Leader of Communities and Organisations
The learning pit
I am learning to play tennis
What have I learnt about playing tennis and school leadership?
I know how hard learning something new is. In my 20s and 30s I thoroughly enjoyed learning Tae Kwon Do. I remember in the 17 years as a dedicated student, people came and went in droves and rarely were they able to commit to the 4-7 years of regular training and studying needed to obtain a black belt and, by definition, a degree of skill and competence.
However, from what I observed, children rarely stopped being a student because they weren’t progressing quickly enough. They seemingly more naturally flowed through the ups and downs of learning; the popular illustration of the learning pit.
Adults, highly competent in many areas, including in the workplace, often expected to come to the sessions and be an expert almost immediately. Adults were more likely to fall into the learning pit never to emerge on the Eureka side. Adults therefore sometimes find not making quick progress difficult to comprehend and so the drop-out rate was high. I remember one student, who was extremely disciplined and proficient, saying as adults we do not like starting at the beginning. We expect to become experts almost immediately. Matthew Syed says similar. ‘We forget that David Beckham has kicked a ball for thousands of hours.’ Throughout his book, Black Box Thinking, he argues that ‘the key to success when overcoming any learning challenge is a positive attitude to failure’.
My Story I
I have been learning to play tennis for nearly 4 years and I am still not very good, I have progressed from beginning to improver and have remained an improver for 3 ½ years. Unlike Tae Kwon Do, there is no belt or exam to frame your progress or proficiency. Just the capacity to accurately place the ball where you want to and win a point, game, set or match etc. against an opponent ultimately determines your progress.
Feeling confident as a beginner and clearly ready to graduate to the improver sessions I fell headfirst into the learning pit unprepared for what was to happen. As a beginner the coach was supportive, encouraging and motivating, as were my partners, who had similar skills and aptitude to me. The learning experience was wholesome and enabled an ebb and flow of emotions and a focus on my values of determination and resilience. I was content. Like Archimedes’, Eureka rang out regularly during my early learning of tennis. I could see the progress I was making and was inspired by it, but craved proficiency and consistency. It was time to move on as my progress stalled and move to a class that would challenge me further. My first session with the improvers group dawned. New expectations of self and of others all hovered. I knew all of this and it didn’t faze, but excited me.
First session in the improvers group. Warm up included hitting the ball from the service line with a new partner. I was unable to brew up a flowing rally. I felt like a fraud. Stupid. Incompetent. Embarrassed. Everything that I hadn’t felt for a long time as a talented, competent, confident and sincere player in the beginners’ class. We were asked to move to playing from the base line and then serve diagonally across the court. Proficient I was not.
When learning previous sports; cycling; swimming; running and to a degree Tae Kwon Do I didn’t worry about my slow progress, possibly as they were individual sports. Sports where, while learning you were solely responsible for your progress and when you made inevitable mistakes you weren’t stalling the progress of others. However, given that one of my strong values is to be community minded and to be connected, I believe I have a responsibility for helping people achieve their goals if they seek it and vice versa; I believe my community has a responsibility to help me achieve my goals. Therefore, within the learning journey surely, we should show the values of compassion, respect and patience to enable the whole learning cycle, ‘pit’, experience to be fully realised by those less proficient than us.
Despite this belief, I felt that being unable to keep a simple rally going I was letting any partner down and not allowing them to maximise their session. I could feel my eyes welling up as I was overwhelmed by my level of incompetence and unable to complement my partner’s game but indeed hinder it. I had approached the learning with such confidence and now I felt that my ambition to play a game was too high and I should give up. I reviewed this. Had I promoted myself to the improvers’ group too quickly? I felt I had learnt as much as I could in the beginners’ group, it didn’t mean that there was no place for me there, but that if I was to progress, I needed to come out of my ‘comfort zone’. Hurtling towards the bottom of the learning pit was uncomfortable, unappetising and I wanted to climb out of it, quickly. It would take time. Chastising myself would not help, would I chastise others while they were on the learning journey at the bottom of the pit. No. I would show respect and love. Supporting their belief and ambition. Was I prepared to go through the emotions to achieve my ambition of being able to play tennis proficiently? Should I not show myself love and respect therefore? I took decisive action and planned my route out of the ‘pit’. I decided to return to the beginners’ group as well as attend the improvers’ group at the same setting and take up some further sessions at a beginners’ 10 wk course in a different setting. I remained keen to learn more and knew that if I was to progress quickly, I had to play more often and with different people in different contexts. What kept me focussed were my childhood memories of loving the brief success I had of playing tennis; Andy Murray and his inspiring triumphs; my values of respect, love and compassion; experiences of how learning something difficult works and finally my love of engaging in or watching competitive sports. I knew that if I persevered I would again experience those ‘eureka’ moments and achieve my ambition. I didn’t achieve this aim on my own. There were many hands pulling me up to the eureka side of the learning pit.
I remained committed to the long-term journey because I again began to enjoy it so much as I began climbing out of the pit. I loved the camaraderie, the support and compassion of others, the thrill of a great shot, the unpredictability of a shot, the predictability of a shot, the paradox of the game, being outside etc. I believe that if you enjoy something or love something you will forgive yourself for remaining a novice for a long period and enjoy flirting and being with that learning journey. Marvelling at and celebrating yours and others’ progress and successes.
What Have I Learnt about Playing Tennis and School Leadership?
I watch professional tennis doubles and I am thrilled at their physical prowess and expertise and dream of one day being better than I am, but equally observe and marvel at the natural ‘life affirming energy’ flow between the pair, which helps promote the success of the game.
After every shot, win, lose or an error is played, the pair touch hands. They connect. They forgive. They support each other. They endorse each other, whatever the decision of the trusted tennis partner, their decision in that moment is validated. This is what school leadership should be like, in my opinion. After every triumph, whether it is engaging a once disengaged parent, community member or child, etc. we should come together, connect and celebrate. Often, we don’t celebrate our successes. School leadership in 2019 has too often become a playground for bullies. The success markers have changed significantly with the introduction of a new primary curriculum and testing, Ofsted framework, pay and accountability structures and the shifting of tight central government school control across boroughs and councils. The learning pit has grown deeper and more difficult to emerge from triumphant and many people lay at the bottom without a hand to pull them out.
Jimmy Delevante writes in the Long Island Tennis Magazine in 2017 ‘ ...when we play doubles, we are having fun, socializing, developing better communication skills and finding a sense of teamwork and camaraderie that cannot be found in singles play.’
Whilst I agree with Jimmy, I also know that when you have been on a journey and held hands to emerge from the learning pit together you often keep your values of connectedness, love, respect and compassion intact and even in a singles game you develop camaraderie as intense as you do as if you were playing on the same team. Willing each other to win, celebrating your and their great shot. Again validating your partner’s skill and values.
It is true that regardless of winning or losing, the connection that is made during this intense game is something that we can learn from. When we feel vulnerable, I make the claim that we often have a specific need to connect, to feel validated or in very difficult periods or if we have made an incorrect decision to feel vindicated. We should trust, we should love, we should support each other. The mantra in education for the past decade, since the introduction of system led leadership has been on learning from your mistakes and that of others and learning together. System led leadership has been structurally designed to learn from and alongside the experts. The reality has been in school leadership since 2014 when the school academisation programme gathered pace, that we don’t wholly support each other, but chastise each other often for self-gain or self-promotion.
My Story II
In any one week I am phoned by at least two professionals from various settings across England asking for HR advice on possible next steps as colleagues find themselves in compromising situations which leave them feeling vulnerable and unable to fully and adequately undertake their role, which should and could have been resolved sensitively and a potential crisis avoided.
Jack Whitehead et al argues that in a climate of high stakes leaders are at risk of negating their core values and their direct behaviour can alter the beliefs and behaviours of those that they lead.
‘This is particularly important in an increasingly neoliberal world agenda (Jones & O’Donnell, 2017) where education and public service are progressively commercialised and commodified. This agenda undermines democratising attempts while simultaneously engendering fear in practitioners. The threat of job and other opportunity losses make risk-taking difficult. The experience of ‘administrative’ bullying was seen as a managerialist control mechanism, resulting in multi-layered power struggles, and the systemic reinforcement (and by implication replication) of the status quo.’
The above is a manifestation that I have seen in several failing academies or multi academy trusts. These academies have a high turnover of staff, poor relationships with the wider community, do not live their values of respect for the community and the staff within the organisation, yet produce good pupil results and thus suspicion of failure goes undetected. However, owing to a number of whistle-blowers and other determining factors Ofsted has identified some loopholes that some ‘successful’ academy chains have flouted for several years. Consequently, Ofsted has changed their auditing framework to counter this with an aim of restoring some integrity into the profession and indeed academies, starting in September 2019.
Throughout my leadership career I have been led by others in one of 3 leadership models.
1. Weak leadership - where the leaders were not wholly proficient in the rudiments of whole school teaching and learning strategies and how to run an organisation effectively.
2. Strong leadership - A clear understanding of teaching and learning and leadership models and how to value, coach and mentor staff to develop the workforce further. A clear progress model, alongside an understanding of the needs and ambitions of the community.
3. Dangerous Leadership - An understanding of a business model that functions for some communities and institutions and a desire to replicate this model regardless of the community’s needs, often neglecting their responsibilities to appropriate staff development, which includes actively listening and responding to concerns and solutions.
I thrived in only one where my values of respect justice, love and compassion were aligned and I was able to serve the community appropriately.
Below is the Parent View result of one of the schools I worked in. The parents’ opinion in 2018 is obvious. My role in this school was to lead across two primary schools. Parents of the secondary school were frustrated as they felt that their concerns went unchallenged and progress stalled, hence their judgement of the school was unfavourable. Their concerns were; too many supply teachers in the school, lack of clear communication in generic and specific terms ie response to concerns raised or lack of informed newsletters; repeated incidents of bullying and poor pupil behaviour etc. Several academy governors and leaders felt that there was a conspiracy among the community and parents to humiliate them. The survey was one way the community was able to present their voice to the world about the disparity between the aims and behaviours of the leaders in the senior school and theirs. To me the parents were asking for help and wanted to be more involved in the solutions. Results from 188 parents on Parent View.
I have been used to chastising myself or having others chastise me for punitive and seemingly dull reasons during my leadership career. I have high expectations of myself and those around me and as a school leader I am used to finding the problems and then the solutions. At times I had to forgive myself and others if I was to move forwards and learn from the experience that had stalled my learning or that of others; often I needed others to be there to take my hand and pull me up. I didn’t need people to chastise me or be dishonest with me, but guide and help me. I expect myself to do the same.
My Story III
I had been the head of a school for a matter of weeks. The school had been opened for 5 years and had had a quick succession of heads. There were systemic challenges around safeguarding that I and others were identifying and rectifying daily. On one occasion a child left the school unnoticed until his mum notified the school that he had arrived home, about an hour after he had last been seen by a member of staff. Naturally as professionals, we all sought to rectify this safeguarding breach immediately, ensuring we were aware of our responsibilities and taking care not to blame individuals, and ensuring that there was no repeat of this breach, but ultimately to take a collective responsibility for the safety of the child and any adult that may feel vulnerable, including the parent and any staff. In most cases where this has happened an individual staff would have been exposed and such an event would have possibly ended their career. This did not happen under my leadership. As a leader I aim to take my responsibilities for all people in an equitable way, showing my values of equality and compassion.
Just telling people what they have done that was incorrect does not always aid progress, in my experience, it is more likely to stall progress further. Offering a hand out of the learning pit after someone has taken a tumble headfirst into it or using a coaching model or helpful phrases is much more compassionate, aids rapid progress and it keeps people motivated.
Within Multi Academy Trusts, where the stakes can be high as the sponsor’s commitment is to rapidly improve the pupil outcomes, the desire to achieve this aim quickly, often results in a negative tone in the board room followed by a rapid turnover of staff and consequently challenges build as the vision and values are not always embedded. The usual coaching mantra I have witnessed when something hasn’t materialised as expected is to humiliate the staff or team and not offer them a helping hand that operates from a place of compassion, forgiveness and respect, but more likely the member of staff is faced with uncongenial and insensitive behaviour.
It may be one of the reasons, why BME groups have so few headteachers in primary schools. Leading in challenging schools is difficult, it takes time and support to shift a legacy of underachievement in schools, despite the aim of rapid improvement. I have had 16 colleagues leading in Bristol schools unwillingly lose their jobs in the last 18 months. In August 2017 there were 5 BME headteachers and 1 local authority primary school leader across the county’s 100+ maintained schools, in 2019 there was just 1. Out of 16.5k primary schools according to the school’s 2017 workforce census in England only 16 are white black Caribbean – against a backdrop of a significant increase in the number of BME primary and secondary aged pupils. The London Metropolitan Police Service struggles with the same retention and recruitment problems of BME colleagues as teaching does.
Leroy Logan, BME Retired Police Superintendent, states that BME recruits are 5 times more likely to leave the police profession within two years compared to their non BME colleagues, when speaking on LBC on the 19.2.19. He attributes this to the systems and processes within the organisation that do not suit those of BME heritage. He explains that having no clear BME recruitment and retention strategy is holding the Metropolitan back from making the necessary progress in terms of practising equality according to their policies. He states that the police culture freezes them out. He further claims staying in the police force for thirty years was the hardest decision he had to make owing to the challenges he faced both in the community and within the organisation. He alleged not many BME colleagues have the stoic approach necessary to serve the community and stay the distance.
From recent and significant evidence it would suggest that black women are disadvantaged by the inequality they are faced within the workplace, often facing subtle forms of racism or being overlooked for promotion, which in turn can impact negatively on the community and the present and next generation.
According to the most recent Runnymede report on Race and Class in Post Brexit Britain
‘There is also evidence of racial discrimination affecting first and second generations alike. In spite of their better education, both generations of ethnic minorities failed to attain occupational positions commensurate with their human capital, which was especially noteworthy in the case of the second generation who are educated in Britain’
In Figure 2 above, we can see that apart from second-generation Chinese men, first- and second-generation Chinese women, and second-generation black African women, all other ethnic minority groups in both generations clearly lagged behind whites, with men in both black groups having significantly lower effects than those for whites. With regard to women, second-generation black Caribbean and Indian women have only 10% and 34% of an effect in terms of intergenerational mobility compared with their white peers.
When I asked Bristol City Council and the CEO of Oasis Multi Academy Trust, which collectively are responsible for over 150 educational establishments and collectively have just one BME headteacher between them, what their strategy was for employing a more ethnically diverse leadership team, given that their pupil BME percentage in most of their schools is over 50%, they confessed to not having one.
Amanda Spielman, Ofsted Chief Inspector stated during her annual end of year address in 2018 to school leaders
‘We need more school leaders to give back to the system by collaborating and supporting struggling local schools, by becoming a system leader or forming a MAT. The current halfway house whereby all inadequate schools become academies and require a sponsor, but where there is a severe lack of capacity to sponsor them, has led to a mismatch in available support. Simply put, without more good sponsors, the DfE’s ambition to support failing schools will not be realised.’
My experience of leading in challenging circumstances is that when we do support each other, including through the difficult times, without question the magic happens; standards improve, pupils are happier, both staff and pupil mobility slows down significantly, both pupil and staff attendance improves, and the schools become one of choice for parents and children.
As well as leadership capacity, perhaps the biggest challenges facing the schools’ sector are around recruiting and retaining teachers. A combination of an improving economy and a workload-exacerbated retention crisis has led to a shortage. The areas that struggle to recruit and retain teachers can often be the areas where we see the biggest educational challenges, creating a vicious cycle where the areas in most need have the most limited flow of talent and experience. But if we had the narrative towards school leadership that we had towards playing doubles tennis there would be no crisis for BME or non BME leaders. I am against quotas being imposed within organisations, however in communities of high BME service populations or in communities with high BME numbers – equal or higher than the national average, then policies and practices do need to be reviewed with the aim of at least practising fairness and equality when it comes to recruitment and retention of its employees.
Solution focussed possible initiatives:
Listen, train, promote opportunities and act - practising honourable values and promoting equality for all
Training for leaders annually on the impact of inequalities in the country and sharing of case studies alongside a proven toolkit for leaders and governors
Training on unconscious bias or similar for all those responsible for leading and governing schools
Training for all staff on unconscious bias language and behaviours annually
Application forms to be aligned so that people are not disadvantaged
Academies sponsoring BME pupils throughout their degree with the expectation that they give 3 years of their career to teaching in their schools
Aspiring leaders programme developed for BME groups
Work shadowing opportunities in executive positions for aspirant and experienced leaders that have a suitable skillset
Change or explain national policy to monitor changes in education 0-25 and the workplace introduced - https://www.politicshome.com/news/uk/political-parties/conservative-party/theresa-may/news/89659/theresa-may-demands-explain-or
BME company pay gap and position gap published by those with more than 15 employees annually, this will be to help identify gaps and offer leaders the opportunities to plan for changes to diminish those gaps so that they demonstrate a fair and equal work place.
BME family communities to support each other through social media and mentoring groups to further build positive affirmations and relationships – talk about the positives and the possible pathways to success as opposed to the barriers – take an activist approach, but with a purpose and a desire to offer clear pathways for career progression.
Sources of data and research