Archive | March, 2013

Be nice…

15 Mar

When asked recntly why he did not ‘blog’ any more and contrbuted rarely to newspapers or magazines, Stephen Fry admitted that he was, ‘Tired of slagging people off.’ Tweeting allowed regular daily mini-comments of an uplifting, congratulatory nature and even the odd disapproving or  disappointed opinion didn’t need to extend to a vituperative, mean-spirited, extended essay. Journalism, he said, had become a profession where too many of its number made their livings from being nasty.

Most schoolchildren will (or should) have been chided by English teachers for using this bland adjective for a multitude of descriptions. It’s unspecific, vague, unimaginative, too easy….and yet the ubiquity of ‘nice’ remains: have a nice day; nice work if you can get it; nice one Cyril; naughty but nice; nice and warm in here; a nice distinction. Dictionaries emphasise the amiable and kind-heartedness implicit in the word. Nice once meant fastidious or scrupulous. I’m beginning to warm to this bland word and want to push it rather higher in our etymological estimation.

When we call someone a nice person we mean a good deal more than saying It’s a nice day, don’t we? We imply that we know the individual well-enough to make a judgement about how he/she treats others and his/her general disposition. Kindness is involved as well as demeanour. Well that’s quite subtle isn’t it? And we make these judgements dozens of times a day: in the workplace; with relatives and friends; in the home; at the corner shop; in pubs and clubs; travelling wherever and whenever. Our radar is ever up for mean-spiritedness or rudeness, irritability and intolerance; kindness and sensitivity; warmth and caring. Mothers berating children in high streets; husbands sniping at wives in Tesco; children texting or facebooking unpleasantnesses; colleagues demeaning others at work – power games being played everywhere. Many rise above the competitive nastiness which is brought out by bringing an unfeeling response or tetchy personality to the surface under stress. Empathy – or lack of it – is bandied about and the resultant need to train our youth in emotional intelligence. Well I’m sceptical about trying to drill feelings into children. The home atmosphere, learning from how you are treated, observing how your nearest and dearest treat others, must be the greatest factor in our ‘nice’ learning curve.

We can all call up scary relatives from our childhood whom we categorised as odd or nice. Thousands of school interactions educated us further – and often the hard way. And then the workplace where we thought that the adult world would put to one side the bitchiness of childish things – but no! It’s a shock to find that one-upmanship, prejudices, power struggles, bullying and the rest are alive and kicking in many workplaces up and down the land. Whatever has been said convincingly at interview can be replaced by bigotry. People can be snide, deceitful, conniving…just like at school really.

So when we encounter niceness, it’s so nice! I have been lucky to meet so many down the years who say positive things about colleagues, see the best in people, have a genuine diplomatic reserve, volunteer, are genuinely pleased with the success of others, readily get their wallets out when grumpy John retires after 40 years with the firm…and so the niceness goes on. I know what Stephen Fry meant when he talked of the default position of journalists, bloggers and media people being critical, sniping. I wouldn’t want to take all journos to task for it is in the workplace that we could make so much better progress. Economic pressures and performance obsessions mean that the modern office, factory, bank, school, hospital, restaurant etc are pressurised competitive environments like never before. Precisely the reason why niceness should be high on all of our agendas.

Nice can mean saying hello to your cleaner – knowing his/her name, even Christmas carding. Niceness can mean chivvying, supporting, listening to an underperformer who probably knows what he/she is lacking but is hard-pressed to turn things round. Difficult choices don’t mean that niceness has to go by the board. Nice can mean firm, straightforward, honest, consistent, untemperamental, just, fair..but to be all these things the nice person needs a broad perspective, a view that suggests we are all in this together and our lives should not be circumscribed by the pressure brought on by unthinking and cruel individuals.

I have been privileged to know and work with vast numbers who fit into this ‘broad perspective’ niceness category. Just a few – and some of them in undeserved high places – have needed a big Be Nice to Others Post-it slapped on their backs or, better, smuggled into their diaries. Unfortunately such people have built up a lifelong immunity to such advice; skins often get thicker.

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1. Advice for Headteachers: teach.

14 Mar

I have given this article a number, indicating that my advice might multiply into a  series of unwanted naggings. Most people in power feign gratitude at helpful hints and will certainly ignore them unless a. The offerings comes from those who are even more powerful, b. Ofsted tell them, specifically, how to buck their ideas up and c. The advice comes from those whom they trust. I hope that I have been in this last category and I offer these thoughts as a kindly, critical stranger.

Teach. Yes, I mean get into the classroom and spend some of your busy week doing what you were trained for. Around 70% of secondary heads don’t teach at all. Increasingly they style themselves as executives, with iPhones strapped to their belts, secretaries who are called PAs, digital diaries filled with conferences or meetings with schools with which they are federalised to ‘share good practice’ or pool expertise or rationalise budgets. These meetings are, of course, chummy hot air balloons with lots of gas to propel the Heads (and their acolytes on the leadership group) high into the sky – but after tea and biccies they come to ground and little has been done to aid any of the children back at the ranch.

Primary Heads teach rather more but, in larger primaries, they too find it an inconvenience. Strange to say that the number of Heads who teach in private schools – about 50% – is greater. I wonder why, with all that cash sloshing around on Toby and Jemima’s riding lessons and tiny GCSE Maths sets, what is it that persuades the highly paid beak to dabble with a little 6th form Ancient History? Contact – that’s the thing. Getting to know a few pupils who then spread the word – he/she is a good egg. Being a brilliant teacher doesn’t matter – know your stuff, of course – and good preparation with an aversion to missing too many sessions (for conferences or ‘important’ meetings) are vital.

A few lessons a week not only gives you a profile with the students but also with colleagues. You may be a little de-skilled compared with the bright young things who are busting their guts on a full timetable but you can claim to line up alongside them, have coffee with them and complain about the behaviour of 4B; show them that you’re on their side. Parents like it too. At Parents’ Evening you don’t have to feel like a spare part smiling hopelessly into the middle distance as droves of them ignore you, keen to find out from the real teachers how their offspring are progressing. No – you can be sat at your own teacher-table with mark book at hand and genial knowingness about the aforementioned characters in 4B.

I have worked for several Heads all of whom taught. They had in common an aversion to those things which took them away, too often, from base camp. They each made a profit and loss calculation on how their time was spent and at the end of the year the balance sheet showed healthy assets in the home time-bank. Nor were these heads all brilliant teachers but they were given a greater leeway by their charges because they showed a liking (and command) for their subject and a strong desire to know, just a few children through teaching. One of these leaders confided that she wouldn’t know quite how to use her working hours profitably if she didn’t teach a fair load. This Head was a grafter and rarely begrudged any extra time spent in the cause of her school.

Good heads also push themselves to ‘go to things’: sports matches, drama productions, art shows, visit summer camps, go on summer camps, concerts, trips educational and social…this puts them in good odour with staff, parents, pupils of course but they, doubtless find these experiences elevating – the buzz from being there.

The word on the street is that leadership is vital in any enterprise. Leaders come in all shapes and sizes – and they can lead, we are told from the front, rear or side. They can top-down or bottom-up; be desk bound or out and about; wear a bleep to scurry out of questionable break-out sessions (heads who wears a bleep are shouting: look how important  I am because anything that goes wrong back at base needs me to be alerted to sort things out) .They  delegate like mad to assistant headteachers  many of whom are in their twenties and have advanced too quickly so as to keep the staff turnover from melt-down. This denies the poor sods the chance to fine-tune their teaching skills because, having been made Heads of Year two years after qualifying, have continued upward so they now teach as little as the Head and attend as many conferences.  They too are too busy to run after-school clubs – or do they just convince themselves that they are too important?

So one type of executive breeds another and Ofsted’s obsession with a data-driven agenda means that the nouveau headteacher is less likely than ever to know the children in his/her school, never mind teach them.

For the school’s sake, for the children’s sakes, for your sakes – teach, just a bit. You know it makes sense.

Jiggery Popery

4 Mar

To hear Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor defending Cardinal O’Brien and the Catholic Church this morning was to listen to an ageing Canute demanding that waves of detractors recede – the church needs no reform, just ‘better governance’. It was a chilling self-exposure and John Humphreys didn’t need to be at his sharp-shooting best – the Cardinal kept slamming the own-goals in himself.

There is a curious sense of denial that increasingly dogs the corridors of power – whether politcal, social, business or, as in this case, moral. Tony Blair can’t get close to any public admission that he might, just might, have been wrong about WMD and Iraq – even to hint at equivocation would be to admit that there was the human need to exercise power, to go hand in hand with George Bush and show Saddam – and the UN – who was boss. On a playground level he was siding with the bully – or at least getting behind him – and enjoying the preening flush of the limelight. Tony claimed a spurious moral authority to gain a political end. In an odd way Cardinal O’Brien is worse. He claimed a supposedly legitimate moral authority to gain an illegitimate and immoral result.

Cardinal O’Brien has not only stood out against gay marriage but labelled gays as paedophiles and repeatedly, this last year, called for the church which he represents to take a hard line on celibacy, women priests and homosexuality. That is until the last fortnight and, sinner that I am, I cannot help but think that his advisors were telling him to back-track a little before the Sword of Damocles landed heavily on his hypocrisy.

Don’t we all sit in some wonderment as we hear the moral preaching of kiddy-fiddlers (and their supporters), gay-deniers, predatory senior clergy (as in the case of Cardinal O’Brien in his former life) and ‘celibate’ heterosexuals who father children and have affairs with some abandon? Wonderment, I say because they are telling their congregations to confess their sins, to follow the strict code that their moral betters (the priests) set out for them. The arrogance is breathtaking, the corruption seemingly endemic. Of course the Catholic Church isn’t the only representative of faith that does the do as I say, not as I do thing. All Faiths seem to demand, to a lesser or greater extent, that in following the rules, however wacky and counter-intuitive they may be,  we will find strength and ultimately be delivered into the Kingdom of Heaven. Well, as Brucie might have said, it’s a ‘Good Game’ innit? Trouble is the power brokers get used to wielding power and forget why they turned up for the race in the first place.

One such was Cormac Murphy O’Connor this morning. He has spent too long sipping wine at the top table and, like so many politicians and bankers, has lost his own compass, that compass which points we mortal sinners in the right direction, just rather more of the time than our moral leaders. That moral compass, which we plebs have in some measure, is called commonsense.

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