What would you wish for?

30th September 2005 at 01:00
Advice for seasoned practitioners

Are you a bobbing cork? When Bob Salisbury, later Sir Bob, was head of Garibaldi school in Nottinghamshire, he used that expression to me as he described his approach to the development of his staff. It was so striking an image that it's stayed with me, and I've shamelessly used it many times.

What Bob was saying was that teachers and other colleagues shouldn't feel restricted to paths, or lines, or ladders - nothing so rigid. Rather, they should see themselves moving along in a stream, making progress, heading onwards, but happily and independently bobbing - free to pop up in unexpected places, cross over, bounce off each other and ultimately, perhaps, end up in an entirely different bit of the flow from where they started.

So it was that Bob would interview staff and say to them, "You're a geography teacher. Tell me, given total freedom, what you really wish you could be doing here."

That way, he made some remarkable discoveries, and released a great deal of hidden talent. One subject teacher achieved a secret ambition to become head of sixth form.

Of course, it all took time, and called for a deal of imagination and diplomacy, but then, Bob Salisbury didn't become Sir Bob for nothing.

The long term effect - and here's the lesson for everyone who's returned yet again to school this term - was to cause people to think that maybe the path they thought they were on isn't bounded by brick walls after all.

The obvious objection, that somebody else is doing the job you fancy, is not, by the way, as final as you might think. Once everyone has started to think flexibly, a number of factors kick in. One person perhaps, intends to retire next year. Another thinks a change of subject will be professionally useful. Another is drawn by the prospect of less responsibility. And maybe that big department could be reorganised into two. It's surprising what can happen once the corks start bobbing.

Nobody's in a better position to loosen things up than the experienced people in the middle of the organisation. You're the ones to start the debates, provoke the thinking, prod the management, get things loosened up.

So, what is it you want to do? Can you make it happen? Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

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