Felicity King
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Sticks & Stones; How changing language transforms wellbeing.

As teachers, we are acutely aware of the needs of our pupils. Creating an environment where they feel safe and free to be themselves, being the priority. Why then, do we seem to miss a trick when it comes to our colleagues in the staffroom? Why do we still pursue strategic and operational plans with a toxic tongue. Plans about as far removed from the empirical powers of connection, as possible? Not to mention the workload they create. Let's not even go there!

I've worked in a number of schools as part of support teams. An odd job lady with a variety of roles. Fundamentally, coaching and creating space for the staff, to find their own way through. Previously, I had taught in schools "on a journey" and knew the drill in terms of monitoring and evidence. But being on the fringes brought a new perspective. This was a noisy place in a noisy system with even more noise created by the pupils we keep safe. A bit like 6 different radio stations, playing all at once. To the point that at times, you even forgot your own wavelength. And yet still the language of change is so potentially brutal! Why do we stand for it? And why are we surprised when it damages the people at the heart of the profession?

What's in a word?

Words are powerful, they are meant to be. But depending on the alignment of the listener, they can impart messages of mass destruction, quite contrary to their intention.  Repeated exposure can create an atmosphere of fear, anxiety and shame. Causing staff to retreat more than ever, becoming islands instead of allies and less likely to form the precious connections and collaborations, when they are needed most.

How can you make a difference for the better?

We are all responsible and we all have a choice. Leadership starts when you look in the mirror. Why not try a few brave and simple changes to put the human back into the way you lead your clan. Here are just two. You could make these happen tomorrow.

1) Stop telling each other they need to improve!

Improvement is one of those words that hovers in our schools like the smell of stale milk. The problem with improvement is that there isn't ever a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Even the most successful are still boasting an improvement plan, just to ensure they keep the brilliance and create more going forward. Improvement speaks to weakness and happily propagates fear. Inevitably in a culture of continuous improvement there comes a point where the scarcity becomes what we believe to be true. And the path from belief to disempowerment is very short. The biggest danger lies in that when teachers and their leaders believe in the necessity of a constant improvement cycle, inadvertently that's what our pupils believe too. We believe we are never enough.

Try getting rid of improvement and use the word ADAPT.  The impact will be immediate. Human beings are hard wired to adapt, taking everything they are blessed with to adjust to the emerging environment. Moving sideways to carve a new path. This very subtle adjustment will have a profound effect on your teams. Adaptation empowers natural capacity, it engages people in what they can bring to the arena as opposed to the stifling effects of improvement and targets. Most of all knowing that you are adapting to changing circumstances puts you, as an individual, safely in the driving seat. Both hands on the wheel and PIONEERING the small and manageable roads with your own eyes. Rather than the being chased by the judgement of improvement. This level of natural human empowerment breeds belonging, security and accountability. Accountability being just another step on the pathway of adaptation. Making small and frequent evaluations, little tweaks in the safety of a culture that plays to human strengths. And doesn't shoot them down. Accountability is feeling safe yourself, safe to get on with your work. Safe that your work is valued by others and respected for it's authenticity. Safe to be in the here and now and not restricted by over-planning or the fear of making change. Most of all, accountability comes from being comfortably vulnerable and rooted in the same compost as your team. It's pointless trying to develop a growth mindset if we aren't secure in that place as the adults. Adaptation is key to growth.

2. Performance Management is a wasted invitation to the best party ever

Secondly, make a bold and powerful change to the most important job on your list. Looking after your people. Please don't call it performance management, change it to Time to Talk or words to that effect. Managing performance is fine if you're in charge of a puppet show or coding settings on a robot. But to describe the vital time you spend with your fellow human beings in the same way is, frankly, demeaning to our species, destroys possibility and engenders fear and shame in us all. As my lovely mentor Jan Flanagan said to me several years ago, nice makes nice. How right she was. There really is no need to threaten with our language when the potential for innovation is right in the palm of our hands, when we stick together. Conversations about the work we do must start from a place of safety and of trust if there is any hope of new adaptive thinking to develop. If leaders feel threatened, exposed and measured, then their reports will as well. The fear package travels down the line to the lowest common denominator and we all know who they are. Leadership is listening to your followers and respecting what you might not yet know about the hidden treasure in your midst.

Leaders are not to blame for the use of hurtful language. They are, like everyone, doing there very best with what they have. But looking after children can only start by looking after their teachers and by teachers please be assured that I mean all the adults in the building. We're all the same. We all have the same motivation. Boardroom or cloakroom, we all wear pants.

Never shoot the messenger but remember you can re-deliver the message!

Business language may be the culprit. Adopted to increase efficiency and move things forward. The trouble is, the business of humans makes a different type of profit and the choice of language really matters. Humans know when there is something out of line. 

These simple ideas WILL increase inclusion, empower more people and reveal skills and talents that were unnoticed before. Better use of your department, better use of your faculty and better use of you. Leaving more fuel in your tank and in that of your people

The words we use do matter and a different choice can make all the difference. Words that strike at the heart of our blueprint are the ones that bring out our strengths.  So grab your red pen. What the heck, grab the Tippex! Wipe out some of the words that have lingered too long. Communicate from the heart and your people will do the same. It's brave. It's being a pioneer and it's kind. 

Thank you for reading, hope it's useful.


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