Radical Open Mindedness – Thank you Ray Dalio

I recently read Ray Dalio’s Principles. It’s a heavy book with real wisdom at its core. One of its core principles is the idea of radical open mindedness. About leadership actively surrounding themselves with people who disagree, question and pose alternatives. However it also states that the people who argue these points need to be equally intelligent, confident with the information they put forward and be informed.

I’ve spent a lot of my life in leadership meetings and wonder if this exists in education.

If you yourself want to test how open minded the leadership team in your school are try a hot potato question. Such as:

  • Why do we have homework?
  • Why do we have uniform?
  • What’s the point of detention?
  • Or something else the school holds dear.

And then watch whether a discussion ensues or one person shuts down the question.

Of course this is not the case if you have been discussing one of these questions quite recently and invested a lot of time into it and therefore the leadership team look at you like you have lost your marbles and got amnesia. But you get the gist. How much can your leadership team entertain alternative thoughts?

Research in education is relatively new in terms of teachers researching what does and doesn’t work in classrooms etc.. and we have a wealth of information coming our way as education continues to be an area with growing research. The best researchers tell you nothing is conclusive, particularly this early on. I had the pleasure of listening to David Didau at a ResearchEd conference and was amazed at how candidly he embraced this. Stating he had interviewed thousands of children (in this case he was questioning them about marking) finding the evidence was inconclusive, we have some threads we can pull at but we have to ensure we remain open minded, he suggested. This was music to my ears. Everything about the way we teach is up for question. What an exciting field to be in!

All the more reason to adopt radical open mindedness. We have never seen this landscape before. Trusts and their structures, OFSTEDs focus on curriculum, Data collection, life without levels, it’s all new and I challenge anyone to say they have it all figured out. Therefore we have to keep having the radical conversations, questioning our practices and being radically open minded especially when we hear something we don’t like.

The second reason I love this is because in my experience the biggest frustration for staff and leaders alike is that not everyone is singing off the same hymn sheet. Many schools have no end of policies and practices but consistency is where it goes tumbling down. I believe you can’t have consistency without debate. You want all your leadership staff and then teaching staff to push forward with an initiative? Debate it regularly, in front of them, so that they can buy into the rationale. Far too often however leadership teams try and cram in 5 agenda items into a 90 minute meeting and the room for debate goes out the window. People leave without buy in and to no ones surprise things go a bit pear shaped and are implemented inconsistently.

I speak from experience when I say this. Just a few months ago I questioned the value of homework. The conversation was very nearly shut down by the head stating that we didn’t have time to go off piste. Yet the issue we were dealing with was about why homework isn’t being set in line with a policy that all staff had agreed to and what should be next steps. So as far as I’m concerned this is exactly the time to have this debate. It in fact led to a great discussion which showcased how much we valued homework but the barriers to some students completing it and what we can do about that.

So how do you encourage radical open mindedness in your school? Be the debate maker, be the questioner, ask people to explain, generate buy in from all around the table, encourage the quiet members to speak up. Speak and encourage others to speak. Because we are all better off for it.

Difficult conversations

During my time in Education and as I’ve managed people I’ve had numerous difficult conversations. Having never been told how to handle these I’ve had to work my way through quite a few to know what the best approach is. I’ve had to tell teachers they smell and need to wash more thoroughly, that they need to be kinder to their colleagues, that they are not kidding anyone and the whole department knows their books aren’t marked, that kids have commented on their animosity towards them, the list goes on. My saving grace is I make a real effort to have positive conversations to counteract these!

So here is my advice. The way I see it difficult conversations can be categorised in three broad areas (If we do not cover unprofessional behaviour which should be covered by school policy with next steps depending on the seriousness of it). These are:

Not their fault bad news

This is where you have to deliver bad news and the member of staff has not done anything in particular. Redundancies is a classic example. Unfortunately in secondary education due to options coming in and out of fashion this can happen more often than you’d like. In this case you should really have had the conversation a while before to prepare the member of staff. If numbers seemed to be dwindling you should have spoken to the member of staff about retraining. If this is a no go then you have to tell it straight and as soon as possible to give that colleague a fighting chance of finding a job they love elsewhere. Again how redundancies are handled by the school will be in the HR policy so not all the steps below will be needed but can be used as a guide).

Bringing people up on how they behave to other members of staff

This is something that I have had to do surprisingly often. The majority of teachers I have met are fantastic team players, I believe you have to be to survive the pressures of teaching. Unfortunately, every now and again I come across a staff who is incredibly negative. What these people will cost you is priceless, it will be camaraderie, positivity in whichever dept they function in, positive attitudes in the classroom, so you have to bring them up on it straight away. I have only ever had two reactions to bringing people up on their negative attitude and that is crying or aggression. Either way you have to keep a straight face, state the facts and move on (sometimes hoping they will to).

Performance focused

There are some members of staff which suddenly find themselves in an education world that they did not enter. This can be incredibly hard and the best way to deal with this is by offering clear examples of how things can be changed with a caring support plan. They will need a lot of time and support and I have put several members of staff through these and am pleased to say only two have chosen to leave the profession and actually go on to things they feel more passionate about and are aligned with their skillset but most have found their way back and gone on to a wonderful career in teaching.

A guide to handling difficult conversations

1) Get clear -Before you have the conversation about get clear about three things.

a) About the actual problem and make sure you have evidence

b) What a good outcome looks like for the school and your colleague. You have to know what you are working with and working towards.

c) What support can you/or someone else provide

2) Be honest – once you have evidence and are clear about the above be honest with them about what it is you are trying to address. By being honest you are doing them the greatest service. Dishonesty or flowering things up will most likely mean you don’t get the outcome or acknowledgment of the problem you need to move things forward and most times you are doing it so you don’t feel bad as opposed to doing what the person needs.

3) Sit in it with them but don’t try to soften the situation – this is hard. At this point the person you are addressing will either try to justify their behaviour or just get very emotional. You must sit through it with them. Sometimes this can reveal their journey in getting to this point and help you understand why you are both sitting where you are. This is good. I had a colleague who was addressing poor performance with a colleague but had assumed she had been teaching for several years because she was a mature teacher. She had however been an LSA for many years and he’d never known! This encouraged him to provide more layers of support because she was earlier on in her career than he’d known. If the person is getting very upset and defensive keep coming back to what it is the students/staff in your school need and how their behaviour is not meeting that need. You are all in it for the students and to improve the life chances of every child in your care.

4) Ask them how they see things improving. On some occasions you may have to be prescriptive about next steps however if possible get them to come up with them so they are invested in the change

5) Set corrective course and tell them how and when you will check in with them to monitor their progress.

6) Document your conversation. This is incredibly important both for yourself and for them so you can measure progress from the time you have had the conversation.

Unprofessional behaviour

Schools should have policies on how to address this but again this must be documented and evidence recorded. Follow the school policy as the extent of the unprofessional behaviour will determine next steps.

I hope this helps!

Stop waiting for your hero

This may sound like a strange blog to begin with but I think it sets the tone for what is about to come. This blog is about what you can do to take control of your own leadership journey. It is not about pointing fingers at who has and has not helped you along the way. So if you need to leave something behind in 2019 make it the search for your hero or educational saviour, the person with the golden key, the answers and a personality that sets the room on fire. We have a tendency to really lap them up in education, the next big thing, but we all know they go as fast as they come.

I’m going to be honest I’m a sucker for a hero, I watch all the marvel movies, I love the underdog, I love the triumph of good over bad, I love wise people taking others under their wing and I have been looking for my hero for a long time. Someone to take me under their wing and show me how this god damn education thing works, The Mr Miyagi to my Daniel Son (Please reassess your life if you do not know what movie this references ;))

I have looked everywhere, Conferences, Unconferences, work, obviously, Twitter, Facebook and my hero is nowhere to be found. Before you roll your eyes no I am not about to tell you that you are your own hero and turn this into some blog that will lead you to your spiritual awakening. But what I can tell you is every time I have settled upon a role model/hero/mentor whatever you want to call them they have disappointed me not because of who they are but because of who I need them to be. I need them to be a superhuman figure who has all of the answers. What I really need to get my head around is that if they are human they are figuring it out just like me. I said this to my husband earlier this year when I exclaimed, I don’t know if I can’t find a mentor because I don’t like people or because I’m a pain to manage and there is probably a grain of truth in both of those statements. But each time I have been disappointed in a role model or mentor it is because they have acted in accordance with themselves rather than me. I have resented them for acting in a way that is not in line with my values. But they are just that, my values. So I need to stop expecting other people to live up to them.

In the end I have come to the conclusion that you are better off surrounding yourself with lots of  people that you admire for lots of different reasons, their reasoning skills, business acumen, empathy, ability to get people to carry out instructions, but good luck with finding or being someone with all of them. The first time this really struck home was when I was meeting teams doing lesson study. I was going round meeting lesson study groups and discussing what they would be focussing on and asked some challenging questions. This may have caused some groups to rethink what they were doing. When I got back to the office a member of staff popped in to tell me that I had upset a lot of people. At first this really upset me. As that was not my intention at all. But then I can honestly say after thinking about it I had to let that go. Because those questions needed to be asked, and things to be straightened out. I may not have done what staff wanted me to, such as agree with them after a long day, but I did what was right. In the same way I hope my previous heroes don’t give a hoot what I think either. I hope they keep strutting their stuff and are their own heroes rather than pandering to my needs.