In the run up to what may be the most depressing election ever, the real joy of working in schools is the capacity to constantly learn from the young people around us and seek to inspire them in turn. Despite the darkness outside I looked for inspiration and found it in the word of the week (each one from the 8 Attributes of Monkton Learning) which was ‘inquisitive’. This is a common enough ambition for us as teachers but begs the question, how do we help pupils deliberately focus on this?
Hoping that I might lead by example, I decided to offer the pupils the chance to challenge me to learn anything new - anything I hadn’t done before that they wanted to see me grapple with. Suggestions came in thick and fast; I asked my PA to book me an appointment with the physio at the end of the week having learned during Year 9 tree climbing that there are physical consequences to pushing my boundaries which I used not to have to worry about…
In each experience I felt I learned something individual (over and above the skill of the activity itself) and something which fed the bigger picture that developed during the week.
Up first was rugby training with the 1st XV. I was late, which didn’t help and left me feeling more vulnerable and uncertain (a good lesson in punctuality). The session had started and there was a running activity which I didn’t understand. Having recovered from feeling a bit silly, however, I felt hugely grateful for the two boys who came over to help me catch up with what I had missed. The most striking thing was how supported I felt as a newbie when, at the point I successfully completed the first drill, the boys gave me a cheer. Encouragement, we should remember, is all the more magnified when you don’t expect it and are out of your normal skill set.
My next challenge was to join Korean Pop (K Pop) dance, which some of our senior pupils do as a Games option. I was greatly cheered, humbled and grateful that a number of other amateur pupils had turned up to learn with me alongside the normal expert squad. In specific terms, I was not prepared for how demanding this would be, in brain coordination and fitness terms, and left feeling I ought to recommend a regular K Pop training slot to the Rugby team. In wider terms, I recognised how quick I was to apologise for getting things wrong, how close laughter was to all of our lips and how important it was to share the challenges I was facing with others who were finding it hard too.
Year 2 Ballet came next so I headed up to the Pre-prep equipped only with a certain amount of trepidation and the tutu my PA had (kindly?) felt I ought to be equipped with. The pupils were very excited to see me and it was amazing to see how keen they were to teach me what to do. Their attention to detail was impressive (‘don’t flap your arms like you’re flying - they need to be graceful’) and resulted in me finding apology was again my regular response.
As an Army child, I have an odd relationship with marching and have often been struck by the seeming pointlessness of the exercise. I was quickly to learn, on joining the CCF for an hour, that my understanding was misinformed, however. Although I arrived on time for parade, I did not know where to stand or what to do, which left me feeling uncharacteristically uncertain. I was grateful to have a partner for my rapid catch up session which made me feel less in the spotlight. Of the two squads learning to march, one was taking it much more seriously than the other. I quickly noticed that the former, who I then joined, were getting much more out of the experience (the excited, ‘Yes’ that accompanied the success of the first coordinated halt was palpable). The latter group left giggly but, I suspect, cold and still unclear about the purpose of their afternoon activity. It is not surprising but was a clear illustration that you get out what you put in. What struck and surprised me most, however, was the camaraderie that came from getting it right - shared experience is a powerful team builder and marching together is harder than you’d think, requires trust in one another and significant concentration. You know you are each dependant on the other and only with shared commitment will you achieve anything. For a moment, I really did feel I could take on the world with the team who were marching with me.
Last up was learning a Latvian barn dance led by Jonny and his sister Anna. I was delighted to see nearly 100 pupils had chosen to give up their break to come and learn with me and was struck by the gratitude we all felt to Jonny and Anna for their patient enthusiasm as we stuck feet in the wrong places and failed to follow simple instructions. Laughter covered much nervousness but as we grew in confidence the tone of it changed from uncertainty to great joy. Apologies were ready when any (and many) of us stepped on one another’s toes and everyone left energised, happy and proposing we make it a weekly break time fixture.
Across the piece, what I really took away was that placing yourself in a position of vulnerability is hugely valuable. It puts gratitude and apology at the forefront of your mind and allows others to feel empowered. Equally, therefore, I reflected how dangerous it is to live in a place of expertise (perhaps something teachers especially need to be aware of as it is the space we inevitably inhabit most commonly). Arrogance lives close to the surface when you know you are generally ‘righter’ than everyone else but humility is the inevitable consequence of being vulnerable and uncertain. I am currently comparing Epstein’s ‘Range’ with Gladwell’s 10,000 hours and am struck that both have their merits. The key thing in either, however, is that we can deliberately practice things we wish to improve on and to practise humility seems to me vital if we are to continue to be people that other people want to spend time with. My week ended with a group of knitters coming to learn with me (I am only 6 weeks into being a knitter so teaching in an area I am far from expert in) and I hope signified pupils ready to take up a similar challenge.
I would recommend #TryingSomethingNew to anyone as a part of regular life - it ensures not only that you keep learning but might make you a nicer person along the way. Whatever type of school you work in and whatever your job in it, you can take this challenge.
In the long term, if independent schools are to serve as crucibles of innovation - and I think we should - venturing out of our internal comfort zones will be an important start.
In the short term, the fun it brings might even give us the strength to get through the last week of the election!