Finding Balance in an Upside Down World

The peak of unrest for school staff and parents – particularly those in the first tranche – came with the muddle of announcements and guidelines last week regarding schools reopening on the first of June. Friends from the category of ‘reception teachers’ and also, ‘parents of 5-year olds’ have inundated me with their fears and distress at the thought of returning before they are ready. The anxious reactions were not confined to the groups most directly involved; it seeped into the thoughts from other educators, partly in sympathy and outrage, but also in anticipation of what’s to come for them.

The peak of unrest for school staff and parents – particularly those in the first tranche – came with the muddle of announcements and guidelines last week regarding schools reopening on the first of June. Friends from the category of ‘reception teachers’ and also, ‘parents of 5-year olds’ have inundated me with their fears and distress at the thought of returning before they are ready. The anxious reactions were not confined to the groups most directly involved; it seeped into the thoughts from other educators, partly in sympathy and outrage, but also in anticipation of what’s to come for them.

There are many highly emotive and political arguments on social media, further fuelled by unhelpful, un-factual newspaper articles. I have been thinking of a way to explain or understand the enormous negative reaction in teachers that involves principles, as opposed to arguing about where the decisions have come from and the basis for them.

There is a principle I try to live by when it comes to wanting ‘happy’ students and a ‘happy’ staff team. It came from a Bucks writing project and it made so much sense to me that I have never forgotten it (and often am known to quote it!). What I can’t remember is who the idea came from so a) thank you and feel free to take credit and b) please know I may have put my own slant on it. It’s one of those triangle pictures where you aim for a balance between three things:
People have a greater chance of happiness and therefore success, when they have three things in equal measure: When they are valued, when they understand what’s happening and when they have an element of choice. In my experience it has acted like a magic formula both in terms of students’ happiness in class and adults’ happiness in leading. Happiness leads to success. And when there’s no success, I start to examine whether or not the ‘unhappy’ person is being valued, has a good understanding of what’s going on and also has some choice. I’ve always wondered why these triangles used to depict the balance between 3 things are produced in 2D… they should be 3D; a triangle lying flat on only one support in the middle. The only way not to tip is to equally balance all 3 elements.

This to me explains so well why teachers are understandably so ‘unhappy’ about the pressure to invite more students back into schools. There has been little or no element of choice. How much more successful would the re-opening be if school staff and leaders could make more choices that would suit their intake, staff, school genre and location? It’s not as simple as teachers disliking ‘being told what to do’, they are used to – and very experienced in – making bespoke choices that take into account a multitude of complex circumstances. We have all read the guidelines for businesses that stipulate some non-negotiables regarding distancing and PPE etc but leave them to make the main decisions, realising that each business will vary. It shows a huge lack of understanding and trust in the profession to be so imperious when it comes to the timing of schools opening.

This leads on to whether or not educators feel valued. I have joined in with the Thursday clapping and know for the NHS it is well-deserved. How much more would it have valued other workers – bus drivers, postal workers, teachers – to be clapping for all key workers who have continued to work since isolation? How rewarding and motivating would it be to read hero-headlines about teachers who not only have had to learn how to nurture and teach on-line, but also have risked their own safety delivering food to vulnerable families? As for understanding – the lack of involvement of the teaching profession in the decisions and the mixed political and economic agenda in which the opening of schools has been caught up in, has led to a huge amount of misunderstanding.

So, to policy and guideline makers I would say if you want happy and therefore a successful return to schools opening… let the profession know they are valued; give these skilled, experienced and articulate people some choice and make sure the reasoning is based on facts and projections such that people really understand.

In the meantime, what can we do about it?

Leaders…try to find ways to value your staff, involve them in choices and work at spotting and rectifying misunderstandings.

Educators…we can learn to value ourselves; to look for what we have control over and where we can have some choice. Finally, we can seek ways to examine and enrich our own understanding.

Helen Shakespeare


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A Message from Ros Wilson

A message to educators from Ros Wilson.

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Online Meetings - Dos and Dont's

Mental note to self: Learn how to conduct myself in a professional manner whilst on camera and close-up, during an on-line meeting - a blog by Helen Shakespeare.

The first view my meeting participants had of me on their laptops was actually a close-up of my son pressing buttons and slating me (plus profanities) for having the video camera off and the microphone on silent. Unable to download the app on my laptop, I was holding my phone. I hadn’t realised that by swiping I would have been able to see other contributors and so when only the meeting’s host came into view, commenting generously on my make-up, I proceeded to announce to her that I wasn’t fully dressed as I had no bra on. The multiple, formal introductions with others that followed, made me feel uncomfortable, unprofessional and underprepared, not to mention, underclad.

I’d given careful thought to what might be in the background to my shot, particularly since tidying has not made it onto my isolation things to do list. However, within milliseconds, I gave everyone a virtual tour of my house, taking the phone with me to find my charger because the battery was diminishing as I spoke. I could only find the short charger. So, whilst everyone was sitting calmly upright, I was angled unflatteringly and panicking about the aforementioned lack of attire. Another trip to the front room to find the extension lead before I had clearly not learnt to sit still and make minimal movements. Perhaps by then my anxiety had kicked in because I do know how to behave in meetings. For the first time ever, I (a) waved when I wanted to speak and (b) on interrupting someone else, mimicked the speak no evil monkey emoji in a manner that suggested I still hadn’t grasped how on show I was.

I’d like to point out that since then my meeting persona has drastically improved, but it did get me thinking. I’ve compiled a little Ten Top Tips which I have found useful and thought you might too. Please don’t read them and despair, we are all on a learning curve.


Do - still send out a clear and well-communicated agenda and follow up with minutes. More than ever in this disconnected time do we need people to feel they can come to a virtual meeting prepared. The follow-up notes avoid people missing details; allow people a window of opportunity to check for understanding and help people like me for whom the main take-aways are what people were wearing or the style of their décor.

Don’t – allow the more confident to dominate or the conversation to digress. Consider some kind of a turn-taking system. Be aware of people less confident and invite their response. Better still, if someone just won’t shut up you can mute them. It’s important we look for the advantages of our new isolation habits.

Do – figure out which button to push to mute yourself. And then remember to un-mute before you make your point. The key to success is to get everyone engaged. Hopefully the meeting leader will ask questions and invite comment.

Don’t – spring surprise documents on people mid-meeting. Send documents out before to allow people to react or think about how they might be able to comment professionally ready for the meeting. We are all used to swallowing expletives and hiding shocked expressions in face-to-face meetings but it’s hard for our ‘home-behaviour’ not to seep into the on-line forum.

Do - prepare your system in advance. Make sure you have tested the system and have the correct link or invite. Check the sound level and have chargers at the ready because charge drains quickly it seems, particularly if you are on a smart phone. And definitely check your cleavage before bending down to plug it in.

Don’t have anything distracting around or behind you. Then when you speak, the message can be heard and understood. Think about the image you want to portray which may include the shelves behind you. You can also find a way in settings to blur the background or drop a photo from your camera roll into the back drop. I was not aware however that the backdrop acts like a ‘green screen’, and appeared as a body-less head in the middle of a Van Gogh painting.

Do – tell people in your household that you will be in a meeting so that no-one joins you on screen. Most people do not find other people’s kids and dogs cute... well maybe the dogs ;)

Don’t – multitask during the meeting. Remain present and be aware of your ‘listening’ body language. Making the contributors feel valued is important, again particularly at this extremely disconnected time. My confidence drained when I saw no-one making eye-contact as I was speaking until I realised it’s only when we look into the web cam that it looks as though we are meeting people’s gaze.

Do – try and sit still - avoid exaggerated gestures. You will make a point more clearly if you minimise your own fidgeting or movements. I already know I have ADHD but I could have sent the meeting video to further confirm my diagnosis.

Don’t Forget – that people are feeling extra disconnected; extra ‘out of the loop’ and extra sensitive in these challenging lockdown times.

Be patient with people and their reactions.

Give people the benefit of the doubt.

Be understanding.

Be kind.

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An open letter to my Aspire Family by Debra Rutley.

Dear Aspire Family,

That we call ourselves a family is something I love and feel really proud of.

Right now, I’m missing my family.

I’m missing the guaranteed warmth, love and connection that awaits at every school site.

I’m missing your smiles, laughter and even hugs!

I feel the loss that our students must feel without you.

You have been my family for almost 20 years and I don’t say enough how much I appreciate being and working with you all.

Reminiscing, as families do, on our good times, especially the Revival Days at the end of every year brings a smile to my face and makes me laugh out loud. Being silly, not self -conscious and a good sport made these days wonderful memories to cherish. My favourites were the full staff flash dance, singing to Britney, the money wind tunnel and so much laughter with and at each other. We all have favourite memories and stories and we have loads of them.

The big magic moments of team days are not what knits us together. We are connected through the everyday joy and love, the little things we notice and do and our shared values.

You do small things that change lives and show that no matter what, you are still there day after day. Forgiveness is a given, tough conversations can happen, we can make mistakes, we support not judge and we have each other’s backs.

Our students and visitors feel this too. We embody those motivational pictures and carved words that many families aspire to “love lives here”. People see the values in our behaviours and people know where we come from.

When times are tough and challenging for us as a group, individuals or for our families there is guaranteed support, sometimes from an unexpected corner and often from lots of corners.

Right now, we are acting like the whole world is part of our family asking our usual red thread questions:

“What if that was my child?”

“What if that was my sister?”

And as usual we are asking:

“How can I help?”

And we are helping our whole community.

Thank you for being that family people would want to choose.


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