Seeing the wood for the trees: leading, teaching, supporting


“I can’t see the wood for the trees.”

That’s a phrase that has always puzzled me. Which wood are you talking about? You might be thinking that I think too much, but it’s important. And I really like trees. Let me explain.

wood (wʊd)


  1. the hard fibrous material that forms the main substance of the trunk or branches of a tree or shrub, used for fuel or timber.
  2. an area of land, smaller than a forest, that is covered with growing trees.

You are surrounded by trees, or you spot them a short distance from the Motorway Service Station where you have stopped on your way to your new job. For someone who really likes trees, that is a good thing. I took this picture of trees off the M74 at Abington. But which is the wood that you think I can’t see?

Is it the hard fibrous material, the living breathing thing that is the essence, the heart of what the tree is, and is also what you will use to create the home, the bed, the chairs, the goalposts, the cricket bat, the boat, the dining room table… in short the shape and structure and fabric of your life?

Or is it the bigger picture of the collection of trees clumping across the countryside, setting the context of our landscape, a landmark, a habitat, a flood defence, a visible presence to us of the changing seasons… in short the shape and texture of the land we live in?

As ever, with two really good alternatives, it can be both. And usually should be. Which is why I get confused. If I’m not seeing the wood for the trees, then there’s two things I can be missing.

If you’re a leader in education, or a teacher, or otherwise supporting the learning process for learners, then seeing the wood for the trees is of vital importance. Otherwise you will just keep bumping into trees. You’ll get tangled in the undergrowth surrounding trees. And in education, there are a lot of trees to bump into. Trees of all shapes and sizes and, to someone like myself, trees of endless fascination.

There is policy, and policy with unintended consequences. There are funding rules, and funding changes. There are meetings, and 101 ways to be held to account. There is action planning, progress monitoring. There is marking, and the moderation of marking. There are validations, approvals, verifications, audits, inspections…

The tyranny of trees is that they distract you from the wood. And there are two types of wood we need never to miss.

  1. We need to see the essence, the essential of what we do. We teach, we facilitate learning, and that learning transforms individual lives. That’s what we do.
  2. We need to see the bigger picture. We need to know the needs of the communities we serve (individuals and organisations), and see how to meet those needs with positive impact.

Everything else is just so much foliage.

You can’t have wood without trees, and you can’t have a wood without trees. The challenge for us is to order our working lives so that our vision is centred on what is essential and on the bigger picture of what we are trying to achieve. Everything else is only useful to us if it enables us to achieve that vision. Everything else should be a slave to that vision, not make us its slave.

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...
This entry was posted in FE Blog and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s