To be a Pilgrim: Borrowing a Song for Lent

This piece was written for the second #UKFEchat Guide book, published on 13 February 2015. It appeared under the title “Barriers to Progress” but since this is Ash Wednesday I thought I’d give it a title more appropriate to the day. The Guide can be downloaded for FREE in various formats or purchased in hard copy from Do read it. It is the second volume from a group of people who form a cross section of the FE sector but have in common a passion and enthusiasm for what we do. We also tweet!

bunyanScreen-Shot-ukfechat guide 2

If I close my eyes, I can almost hear the distant, dulcet tones of my old school assembly, trebles cleft with breaking voices and basses huskily butchering John Bunyan’s most famous verses.

There’s no discouragement/Shall make him once relent.

There are certain points in the year when we are all of us – students, teachers and managers – in severe danger of relenting, when only the discouragement seems relentless. The dark, the cold, holds us, and between now and the summer days to come lie deadlines, examinations and maybe a hint of Ofsted. With my eyes still closed, there is something strangely comforting, empowering almost, about a school assembly pounding through ­Bunyan’s 330-year-old words to a rousing Edwardian tune.

Maybe that’s what colleges need in the depths of winter: college assemblies where 10,000 students and staff can confidently embrace the motivation of being a pilgrim? Many colleges today talk about being “on a journey”, often a “journey to outstanding”. Almost all colleges happily talk about the “learner journey”. Maybe it’s not a million miles away from the truth to suggest that these journeys could each be some sort of secular educational pilgrimage?

Whoso beset him round/With dismal stories,/Do but themselves confound;/His strength the more is.

A few weeks ago I was asked to list the greatest challenges that further education colleges are facing right now. In my mind I quickly assembled the generalities under which I could organise the multitudinous specifics: lack of parity of funding with other, ring-fenced, parts of the education budget; lack of medium-term planning for the sector; policy overload… While my mind was engaged in this taxonomy though, my mouth had already uttered its response in these nine words: “We have to stop aspiring to wear glass slippers.”

The sector’s Cinderella complex is all too often discussed; let’s not bring it up here. We all know how difficult it is today, either to run a college or to teach in it. We know the almost intolerable pressures of time, money and need. But dismal stories, in staffrooms or in boardrooms, are the leeches that multiply quickly to suck the life-blood and the motivation out of our working lives. What I love most about #UKFEchat get-togethers is that there are no dismal stories. Adopting a positive mindset, for the sector and for us as individual practitioners is, I would say, our greatest challenge. (As an aside, have you noticed how so much easier it is to get a song into your head than out of it?)

Hobgoblin, nor foul fiend,/Can daunt his spirit.

No, no, no! Leave hobgoblins to one side and let’s concentrate on our own motivation. I’ve belatedly become a bit of a fan of the writer Daniel Pink. His work synthesises and popularises other people’s research, and strikes more than a chord or two as he does so. Pink says that people in jobs that require cognitive, creative thinking skills, are motivated by three things, none of which is money, bonuses or any other sort of performance-related pay. He says we feel motivated by having the autonomy to shape our work and how we do it, by developing mastery (expertise) of the things we do, and by feeling that what we do has some sort of high moral purpose.

If this is true, then how do we create the working practices and cultures in our colleges that will enable our working lives to be transformed by these three motivators? (If you doubt that this is true, then just consider your motivation levels if you were repeatedly being told a) how to do something that b) you were useless at and which c) had no point to it whatsoever.)

It seems to me that, straightaway, we have the purpose motivator pretty much nailed on in our sector. The mission or “point” of most colleges is usually said to be something akin to “improving/transforming lives”. If that’s not something worth getting out of bed for in the morning, then you have one helluva comfortable bed there. Which leaves us with only autonomy and mastery to address.

Colleges are not places that are custom-built for autonomy. Our organisational structures are rigidly hierarchical and our working days are regimented by drill sergeant timetables. Courses themselves are tightly prescribed by unit specifications, schemes of work, and (ahem!) rigorous lesson planning. And just in case we might accidently leave some of our teaching and learning activities to chance, we have key performance indicators, other not-so-key performance indicators and targets to pick up any slack or deter slackness.

Mastery in our world is called being “outstanding”, and we have ways of describing that, too. Mastery in teaching, according to ­Ofsted, is all about staff being “highly adept” at working with, and developing skills and knowledge in, teaching learners from different backgrounds. It draws on excellent subject knowledge and industry experience. It uses imaginative teaching strategies. Mastery in outcomes for learners is not just about success rates and learner destinations. It’s about how “exceptionally well” learners learn, and how they then apply those skills and that knowledge “to great effect”. And, pilgrims, it’s very much about progress, too.

So how do we “keep motivated”? How do we promote autonomy and mastery in our purposeful colleges? The principal of one of our officially outstanding colleges said recently that “ensuring teachers talk about teaching and learning, and share, marks out the outstanding from the good”. I think that we can keep motivated, and keep moving towards outstanding, by making sure those conversations between teachers happen. That means creating the culture, the space and the structures that enable that sharing. Many colleges are well on with this agenda, having already developed what are effectively action learning sets for teachers about teaching. These are variously called Learning Communities, Teaching Squares, Teaching and Learning Sets…and are, or should be, groups where teachers meet regularly, without a management agenda, to share, discuss and wrestle with issues of best practice and practical barriers to learning.

We need to give teachers the autonomy to meet with whom they want, when they want and discuss what they want – as long as it concerns their own mastery of teaching and the impact it has on their learners. They could meet within their own departments and teams, or across wider curriculum areas. They could draw in colleagues from the support services to have different perspectives and opportunities for enhancing the learners’ experience. By creating these growing moments of autonomy to become better at the very important things we do, we not only focus on what is essential in our working lives but, as a by-product, enhance our own motivation. By recording the practical outcomes of these conversations, we not only provide an evidence base of our own improvement, we also record the milestones and staging posts of our own teaching pilgrimage.

Now, some of this might feel like enhancing your musical fiddling skills while Rome’s fire brigade is being decimated by public sector funding cuts. While teachers meet to discuss teaching, managers and leaders have their own challenges to master – not least to secure funding for the many vital things we do, and to lobby for and promote the great importance of what our sector does for this country and for its businesses and people. We live in hope that this moment will not one day be seen as the golden age of further education but rather as one part of a journey towards it.

I close my eyes again, and as that school assembly is drawing to a close, I catch myself smiling at John Bunyan’s closing stanza. Not only have I misappropriated his great Christian treatise for my secular pilgrimage, I can also credit him with a warning about not burying our teachers’ motivation beneath an excessive, suffocating workload. That’s the great thing and the great danger about being a dedicated teacher…

He’ll labour night and day/To be a pilgrim.

About dp40days

A senior leader in Further and Higher Education, now based in Moray (pronounced "Murray") on the coast of the Scottish Highlands. (I know, I love paradox). We have more sunshine and less rain each year than my previous home in Manchester, and about fifty more distilleries too! You can find me on Twitter as @DP40days. Blogs so far have been mainly about work and travel but frankly, I've been a bit quiet recently. Maybe that's about to change...
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