In it but not of it

19th December 2014 at 00:00

Jobs are like relationships: without commitment, resentment breeds. The groovier contemporary classroom voices advocate mindfulness, the latest magic bullet to hit the educational melee. This new must-do is, among other things, an exhortation to practice experiencing life in the moment, focusing completely on where you are as a means of avoiding meaningless distraction. It's promoted as a cure for many things, although how well it is understood is a matter for debate.

It is often expressed that whatever one does, it should be done with heart. How often have you been advised to not leave a job half done? "I kept waiting for life to begin for me," quoth a philosopher. "But things kept getting in my way. Until I realised that those things were my life."

There's a strange phenomenon in schools. People complain about some source of dissatisfaction and conclude with "the school should do something about it". It's so common that you would be forgiven for wondering what was wrong with that sentence. But replay it to a student or a parent and see how it sounds to them. Instantly they will tell you: you're part of the school.

Why would you see yourself as separate from it? The school is an abstract that, like a restless river, inhabits the vessels within which it resides. You are as much a part of the school as the gates, the senior management and the staffroom.

When staff describe themselves in this way, when the school is defined as an abstract body that is separate from the speaker, then a headteacher should be worried. If staff don't see themselves as constituent cells of a greater organism, it is a dangerous state of affairs. Of course, there may be good reasons for it; new staff often talk about their previous roles and institutions as if they had just popped out for minute. And we frequently talk about "the school" when referring to some structural change that only senior staff could execute ("The school should have closed for the snow today", for example, which is always good advice anyway).

But it is key to the success of any organisation that as many people as possible view their own achievement as interdependent, if not identical, to that of the institution. Headteachers usually start the school year with an evaluation of the summer's results. Their enthusiasm is often lost on junior staff members, who don't share their holistic sense of ownership. (Similarly, employees of large chain stores are asked to fist-pump every time the company's share price goes up, in a way that suggests the owners are either brainless or sociopathic.)

When a teacher or assistant or anyone else sees something going wrong in a school and stands back, saying that the school should sort it out, there is something deeply wrong. I've even heard senior staff talk like this, conveying a sense of fractured, rudderless helplessness. That plane is heading for the side of a mountain.

Be careful when people say "in it but not of it". Then ask why.

Tom Bennett teaches at the Jo Richardson Community School in Essex and is director of the ResearchED conference

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