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Sum up your life in six words

In the 1920s, the writer Ernest Hemingway bet $10 that he could write a complete story in just six words. He won the bet. His story was: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn."

An American online magazine took up the idea and invited readers to do the same. Some of the responses have been published in the book Not Quite What I Was Planning.

Many are quite sad: "Born London, lived elsewhere, died inside." "Wrong era, wrong class, wrong gender."

A number are more positive: "Some no-balls but several boundaries." "Tolerant woman took me in hand."

A few opt for humour: "Too many sausages, not enough sex." "Outside lavatory, worked hard, now flush."

I spoke to the Association of Educational Development and Improvement Professionals in Scotland (AEDIPS) recently and encouraged them to use this technique to reflect on their professional lives.

Most AEDIPS members are quality improvement officers (formerly advisers) and, in recent years, have been subject to redefined job descriptions and changed expectations from their employers, the local authorities.

In the past they supported classroom teachers through information about resources and staff development events, but there is now a sharper edge associated with ensuring schools are ready for HMIE inspections and geared up to meeting improvement targets.

This transition has not been comfortable. Many AEDIPS members still feel a strong allegiance to former colleagues in schools and are uneasy about adopting a more managerial and directive stance. They can feel uncertain of their professional identity.

Being asked to provide a six-word account of one's professional life helps to clarify what matters. For AEDIPS members, it might take the form of: "Teacher, adviser, developer, improver, inspector, teacher."

Beginning and ending with the same word, this would signal that despite the changing roles, at heart what really mattered was the teaching.

Or it might be: "From small scale to bigger picture." This would represent someone who valued class work but had come to see it in the context of policy and management issues.

I asked the AEDIPS members to think about what they had borne with them as they moved from one location to another. Did they carry metaphorically - perhaps literally - a battered copy of the 1965 Primary Memorandum? Perhaps it mattered more to them than the more recent How Good Is Our School? - The Journey to Excellence. Or was it a particular pupil or class, or an unforgettable episode, that sustained them?

Of course, no life can be reduced to a mere six words. It is a device to stimulate deeper analysis of the principles that have shaped an individual's thinking and action. And the exercise can also serve to refocus, to jettison old habits and to change direction.

Walter Humes is research professor in education at the University of the West of Scotland.

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