Down with despair and up with personal credos

21st September 2012 at 01:00
There are 10 statements that give meaning to our practice in schools. Now don't be cynical, just think

The beginning of a new school year brings with it an opportunity to look forward with hope for the next three terms. Of course, in our current circumstances, with concerns about personal pensions, curricular change, pay freezes, cutbacks and efficiencies, and a myriad of other bleak prospects, it might be all too easy to throw up our hands and surrender to the seeming tidal wave of external forces.

Yet in my dealings with teachers and school leaders over the first few weeks of term I've come to see something quite different - and possibly unexpected. Perhaps it's the after-glow of a restful summer holiday, perhaps a manic determination to block out reality, or just a realisation that our lives go on - regardless of circumstances - and that our own personal well-being is associated with focusing on things we can influence.

I remember a poem that began "Beware! Bitterness,Can foul your soul" and finished "It turns on itself.And eats us from within", that captures the motivation to break free from the downward spiral of despair and cynicism which threatens to engulf the unwary. And so it is that I'm seeing teachers and leaders returning to the fundamental drivers and personal credos that brought them into the profession, and using these hopeful ideals as a protection against the negative energies which can be so very draining.

I first encountered the notion of a personal credo when listening to a wonderful man called Norman Kunc. Norman, who has cerebral palsy, had overcome the expectation of the system as it was in his childhood, by demanding to be educated in mainstream education when the norm was for such children to be "educated" in special schools. He went on to achieve and exceed expectations at school and university and is now a compelling advocate for inclusion across the world.

Norman produced a wonderful video in which his credo was set out in an incredibly powerful fashion. Since then, he has spent the remainder of his life attempting to live up to these values and using them to transform practice.

So, in line with Norman's example, here are 10 statements which give meaning to our practice in schools. They are not exclusive or exhaustive, but they set out parameters within which our working lives can be given meaning.

We will not give up on kids: it's so easy to say but so very difficult to do - particularly when our natural instinct is to link a person's behaviour with our conditioned response to like or dislike.

We have a shared obligation to make a difference: old-fashioned concepts of duty and service link us together in a common purpose.

We see the school as part of its community: this goes against so much of how teachers have been trained, which has been to look "in" on the classroom and the young people as they exist in that environment, instead of seeing the young people and themselves as connected to the local community and reality that surrounds them.

We believe it's possible to create self-improving systems: do we really believe this? If we did, would we use the euphemism of "support and challenge" so freely when we consider school improvement? Is it really possible to leave people to their own devices and expect improvement to take place? Would such trust be misplaced? I think the key here lies in attempting to create a system where self-improvement is inbuilt, as opposed to externally manufactured.

We must prepare young people to be able to overcome adversity: this takes us well beyond the attainment agenda. Young people need to be ready for the uncertain future that exists beyond school. Curriculum for Excellence can provide this template and it's our responsibility to ensure that we don't lose this opportunity.

We believe that every young person belongs to our school: belongs not just "in" but "to" and this extends well beyond definitions which align with tribal allegiances. It has to do with a sense of personal feeling and can only be achieved when the entire community is sincere about including everyone.

We believe that intelligence is not fixed: this sounds obvious, yet so much of what we do seems to run counter to it.

We believe that it is possible to break the link between poverty and poor educational outcomes: can we actually achieve it? Certainly - but only with a connected and dedicated effort.

We can't do it by ourselves: the complexity of modern society and the challenges we are facing mean that we must rely upon others, within and beyond schools, if we are to make the impact we desire.

"Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go" (T.S. Eliot): this is lifting the lid off our aspirations and recognising that we must create a culture where everyone is given the permission and support to translate their passions into reality.

With the importance of leadership a constant feature of the improvement agenda in Scottish education, and recognising that change is the only constant, leaders at all levels would be well advised to reaffirm and proclaim their own personal credos and use them as a stable reference point to protect and re-energise themselves and their colleagues in a manner that gives meaning to their lives.

Don Ledingham is director of education and children's services, Midlothian, and executive director of services for people, East Lothian.

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