To be noticed is to be loved

“To be noticed is to be loved.” ― Ali Smith, There but for the

It starts with a belief system

I believe that making children feel noticed is arguably the most important thing that we can do in schools.  

Why?  Because my belief system is this:

  • When children feel that they are noticed
  • It helps them to feel seen and known,
  • which makes them feel loved,
  • which makes them feel like they belong.

Noticing is the root of belonging.  And belonging is, I think, the root of happy and healthy children.  

I came across this US school study involving over 66K students.  Only 51% of students shared that they thought their teacher would miss them if they were absent.  And only 46% of students said that they felt valued at school.  That’s truly shocking.  The impact on self-worth, motivation and depression when people feel unnoticed, unseen and unknown has been well documented for some time – and it’s only been amplified through COVID.

For teachers, noticing is the intentional act of seeing a student’s uniqueness and showing an interest in their full life.  So when teachers pay attention to young people and remember them, their hidden brilliance and quirky nuances become known.  

What does that look like in High Schools?  

Well…there’s no one way of setting this up.  For many schools, the front line is assumed to be the relationship between the students and their mentor (or tutor, homeroom teacher, advisor, or coach…).  It’s the one person that they will see every day in school; the person who will take a register and notice who is in or not in before they start school; the person responsible for sharing notices.  And in many schools (like ours), mentors will also support the wider holistic programme through the delivery of structured and unstructured activities.  They are the constant.  There is no one better-positioned person in the school to notice students.  

Except, we know (and the research is often brutal) that even with such structures in place, too many students still feel that they are not seen, not known or loved.

Why is that?  There are likely countless reasons, but I am confident that it will either end up being reduced to a lack of conviction in the belief system in place by the school and its leaders and teachers around noticing and mattering.  I have heard all sorts of reasons over the years- but good schools seem to make it a priority to get it right even if they sometimes fall short (I like to think this is where my school is).

Noticing others is a skill, a practice, and should be a priority for schools, leaders and teachers.

Overlooking others is so easy to do, and I can’t help but think that it’s a trend born out of increasing individualism and decreasing social connectedness.  I don’t know.

What I do know is that I can still recall every student from my first mentor group back in 2000.  I can still see their faces in my mind’s eye.  I could still tell you their strengths, what they need help with, their hobbies and interests, their friendships…their siblings, and a few pet names…I still check in on a few of them.  For a short time, they were my family: I hope that they felt noticed, seen, known and loved.  

This is not extraordinary.  I am not extraordinary.  Nigel, my first mentor, made it clear that this was…just my job.

As a school leader, the question I ask myself most regularly is whether my 80-odd mentors believe in the power of noticing as much as I do?  And if not, what should I be doing about it?  Do they know their students?  Do they know the parents?  Do they know the names of their siblings?  Do they know what’s interesting or bothering them just now?  For many, it’s these tiny lapses of curiosity that can add up to perpetual invisibility.

I’m certainly not immune.  I have not transferred my forensic noticing skills, which I think I had with my students back in the day, into school leadership in the way that I would want to.  I know I am not being curious enough.  I am not asking enough questions and I am certainly not checking in enough on personal details.  

Noticing others is a practice that’s too important to be left to intuition.  

One of the non-negotiables of being a junior officer in the British Army is the requirement to maintain a Platoon Notebook.  Guess what it was used for?  Yep, to capture all the information about the soldiers under that officer’s command – to specifically help make the act noticing systemic.  Senior officers periodically check these notebooks and test junior officers on how well they know their teams. The long and short of it is this – some junior officers would never become senior officers if they fell short on the art of noticing: if they paid lip service to their Platoon Notebook.  

There is a lot to be said for such systematic approaches to noticing.  When I was in uniform, it felt a bit forced and sometimes lacked authenticity when taking out the fabled Notebook in front of soldiers to confirm which football team they supported.  I preferred to use my memory, whilst others would have been lost without it.

“We missed your voice in class today”

A colleague recently shared with me one strategy he recently used to address a student who was skipping his PSE (personal and social education) classes. 

“I wanted to take it personally.  They were in school and had turned up to other lessons that day.  I was about to press send on an email to express my feelings.  I wanted to make them know that I had certainly noted their absence and that my lessons were a compulsory part of the learning programme.  But, on reflection, I changed my email”

Here is what he sent:

“We missed your voice in class today.  Hope you are OK?”

The student immediately sent a positive response back, and without other words being exchanged, they stopped skipping his lessons.

The inference in this sentence is genius:  You were missed.  What you have to say and contribute in classes is noticed.  You matter…you are loved…you belong.  

It’s a belief system. 

Helping children feel noticed is arguably the most important thing that we can do in schools.


Thanks to Kendall Zoller who led some amazing training this week on public speaking. In one of his asides, he shared that the three most important things that a school should do are make students feel loved, known and safe. It got me thinking.

Kerbstones, laminators, and staple guns

In preparation for our recent CIS and WASC (joint) preparatory evaluation visitors, I felt our school adopted a “just right” Goldilocks approach to proceedings – a lot of hard work, paced calmly and thoughtfully by a core team who distributed much of the preparatory work in a meaningful and purposeful way with a high degree of trust.

Isn’t it always like that? Experience would suggest not.

Other than war, one of the biggest wastes of time I’ve ever witnessed was watching Junior soldiers painting kerbstones in anticipation of a visiting senior officer to our barracks. And whilst I am sold on the virtues of making a good impression on visitors, and in learning the discipline of excellence, I will never be convinced that spending several days painting perfectly fine kerb stones in different colours (even if they are regimental colours) is time well spent. To be fair, I am almost certain that the visiting officer would wholeheartedly agreed with me – this is meaningless work.

In the 20 years since I first witnessed the art of kerb stone painting, I have been involved in many other acts of inane and frenetic last-minute preparation for “important” visitors. Working in schools l’m now a ninja with a staple gun and laminator, a master of the pop-up wall display, and I’m still atoning for a fair amount of deforestation caused by the filling up of hundreds of ring binders of “evidence”…which on most occasions (would you believe it) was not even looked at.

Hindsight has not been kind – I’ve also been part of leadership teams that have directed teachers to engage in tasks as equally pointless as kerb stone painting in the vain expectation that it would make all the difference. Maybe it did. Maybe it didn’t. Either way, I can’t see how those tasks made teachers feel in any way inspired or motivated about their work. They say that people don’t leave bad jobs…

There will always be a need to prepare well for visitors. But it must always be proportionate. Too little preparation never goes well; too much and we find ourselves straying into pointless and meaningless work.

Like Goldilocks, we need to get it just right. And without a staple gun or laminator in sight, I think we did it right this time…come what may!

Do the math!

I’m convinced that the question of “what can we take away” has been a priority for school leaders since (at least) the Industrial Age.   

It has been a central theme in all my time in education, and I imagine it transcends many other work sectors too. How do we find ourselves constantly in this situation?  Surely, if we are always looking to subtract things we should eventually reach a point where we don’t need to ask that question anymore!

We are in week 4 of our school year and at the point where we are reviewing our orientation programme for new and returning members of our community this year.  Honestly, so much thought went into it.  We looked back to what worked before COVID, reviewed feedback from previous years, and had a plan to respond to our shared desire to focus on relationship and culture building – to start the new year with a renewed sense of vigour and purpose.

But I’ve realised two things this year: school leaders are good at addition; not so good at subtraction.  

We are good at addition

So, we added more ice-breaking, more team-building…more time to renew our cultural norms.  We made room for these “extras” by leveraging some of our new COVID online tools to cover some of our important compliance needs, and then we had some challenging conversations about other sessions that we could live without.  In fact, we did a lot of wrestling in these sessions as we tried to make our decisions to balance the needs of individual teachers (wanting time in their classrooms to get ready to receive new students and deliver the best learning and teaching experience possible from day one…) with the needs of the school (time in groups to build a shared sense of community…) as we emerge from COVID.  Eventually, we made room for all the things we wanted to matter this year.  And at some point we thought, yes, we’ve got this right.  

In hindsight, I think we got a lot of things right.  But we inevitably also got a lot of things wrong.  There’s an old saying that I often have to remind myself – sometimes you are damned if you do, damned if you don’t.  That’s the way it works when you have to make trade-offs between one thing or another.

We are not so good at subtraction

So why are we not good at removing things?  This wonderful experiment involving Lego bricks might give us a few clues.  Participants were given a range of tasks including one to stabilize the top of a Lego structure by either adding (at a cost) or simply removing a single brick.  Despite subtracting a brick being the simplest (and most profitable strategy) the researchers discovered that under control conditions, around 60% of people decide to add rather than take away.

Indeed, there is a fair amount of behavioural research that suggests that humans have a bias toward adding rather than subtracting when considering how to improve objects, ideas or situations.  Researchers show that people systematically default to searching for additive transformations, and consequently overlook subtractive transformations. This default may be one of the reasons why we struggle to mitigate heavy workloads, over-heated calendars, red tape…and even damaging effects on the planet.

What’s the answer?

There are a couple of lessons that I think I will mull over…

Lesson 1Do the math.  For everything we took out of the programme this year, we added something else back in.  The net result is that we ended up where we started.  We were trying to be thoughtful, but we also needed to be more disciplined.

Greg McKeown recommends an approach called the reverse pilot.  This is where you test whether removing an initiative or activity will have any negative consequences.  This is a strategy that I have used a couple of times over the last few years with significant success, specifically in relation to scheduled meetings.  It requires us to adopt a subtractive mindset, so it’s no wonder I don’t use it often enough (note to self).

Lesson 2Learn to accept that sometimes you will be damned if you do, damned if you don’t.  We have to accept that when we replace tangibles (e.g time preparing classrooms, lesson planning, team meetings etc. ) with intangibles (e.g. culture and relationship-building activities etc.), it will sometimes be difficult to see the intended benefits. We have to be ready for that.


In the interests of science (and love for Lego), I attempted to reconstruct the Lego brick experiment at home this week with my kids. It turned out that the 60% result is fairly accurate: 66% of my participants added more Lego, which might also help explain why we have so much of this plastic gold lying around the house!

Let it be?

It was only when I started my holiday that I realized how much I really needed it.

“Not cool, dad”

Waiting patiently for a ride on the bumper cars with the kids, I noticed a group of young teenagers jumping the queue ahead of us and then being allowed to get away with it by the clearly intimidated young supervisors. It was clear that many ahead of us were equally irked, but no one said anything. So, despite not being able to speak much of the local language, I couldn’t help but raise a protest. I was super irritated and I told the group that they were being unkind by jumping ahead of everyone else who had been waiting their turn.

My kids, clearly embarrassed that I was making an unnecessary scene, tried to pull me back from the edge: ”let it go, dad”.

Let it go? Of course I should have done, but the notion of letting this go just didn’t sit well with me. I had already gone too far…got too emotional…and too irrational to question why or how I found myself arguing the toss with some poor-mannered children. I don’t even like bumper cars!

What did I do? I invited them to reflect upon their behaviour and asked them to join the back of the queue (or some words to that effect…!). I’m not sure what I was expecting really. The group looked at each other in disbelief for about half a second and then burst out laughing. Then they nonchalantly strutted through to enjoy the bumper cars without showing any semblance of remorse at being called out.

We know that wisdom comes in all shapes and sizes. On this day, it came from the youngest of my kids: “Let it be, dad”. I couldn’t let it go earlier, but at that moment I found that perhaps I could just let it be. The red mist lifted.

I was struck by the semantics between “Let it go” and “Let it be”. They sound so similar, but they obviously affected me in different ways (that even the oppressive heat wave couldn’t explain).

As is so often the way, a short search on the internet showed that I was far from the first to notice the difference between telling yourself to “let it go” or “let it be”.

A cool experiment

Can the tiny difference between a single word – “go” versus “be” – produce a differential calming effect on the mind? Apparently so…

In this social experiment, 500 participants were prompted to “think back to a difficult time in the last two years when you felt really stressed.” Immediately after, they were asked about their emotional baseline. They were then told to “sit with the emotion for three minutes, reflecting on how you felt then and how it makes you feel now.”  A third wasn’t given any other instructions (the control condition). Another third were told to “Let it go” and to repeat the mantra for three minutes as they reflected back and sat with their emotions (the Elsa condition). The final third had the same mantra instructions but was told to repeat “Let it be” instead (the McCartney condition). Finally, once the three minutes elapsed, all the participants answered the same emotional questions from before.

The results? The control group (given no mantra to repeat) observed a 4% reduction in stress and anxiety. However, those repeating the ‘Let it go’ mantra observed a more dramatic 24% drop. But the clear winner was “Let it be,” with an incredible 45% drop from before to after.

So what accounts for the differences observed? When told to “let it be,” participants said that they felt that this was relatively easy to do because it involved no effort. In letting things be, they just…let it be. Nothing needs to be done to it or to yourself. It’s a passive mantra. Conversely, when you let things go, there’s something that you have to do: there’s some ‘doing’ involved. It’s an active mantra. It seems, therefore, that this is one of those examples that show how humans are hardwired to follow the path of least resistance. Perhaps that’s all there is to it!

New superpowers?

My new mantra worked wonders throughout the rest of the holidays:

  • Seagull stealing my fish and chips – let it be
  • Credit card currency conversion charges – let it be
  • Kids spending too much time on the Switch – let it be

It was like I had discovered a new superpower. I was now impervious to stress.

However, I do wonder how this mantra might stand up to some of the timeless challenges of school leadership as I return to work this week:

  • A member of staff doesn’t turn up for a supervision duty – let it be?
  • A colleague makes an inappropriate comment to another colleague – let it be?
  • A safeguarding issue comes to my attention – let it be?

Yeah, it’s not quite that easy when we are back in the workplace. There are some things that we simply can not let go, nor let be, when safeguarding or workplace culture is at stake. And what about other things that some schools choose to get very excited about – where rules are broken:

  • A student not wearing the right shoes – let it be?
  • A student who has not done their homework on time – let it be?
  • A member of staff who is a bit scruffy – let it be?

A final thought

Perhaps as we move further into an era where stress, anxiety, and mental health are things that we both need and want to act on, we might do well to identify what we might choose to let be in our schools.

It seems to me that there are some battles that need winning, and some that are just not that important. Let’s start with the purpose of school. I’ll go first – I don’t think the colour of one’s socks is worth stressing over. I’m going to let that be.

Actually, I feel better already…this is going to be the best year ever!

Milo’s principles

I picked up my son’s (Grade 6) school bag this morning and nearly pulled my arm out of its socket.

I said something along these lines: “Flipping ‘ek.  That’s a heavy bag.  What on earth is in there?” 

He said something along these lines: “Yeah, it’s heavy, but I’ve been training since Grade 1 and I’m used to it now. You are out of shape”

I thought about what he had said. Each year we have been putting more and more in his school bag: more books, bigger books, more PE kit, an iPad, a laptop, more packed lunch (he’s a growing lad, after all), and then all the extras like phones, keys, and wallets (just in case). We keep adding a little bit more, which he then gets used to, and then we add some more. It all adds up. So whatever else we think school might prepare our kids for, we can be reassured that our kids will at least be highly trained bag carriers. Nice one.

However, what actually came to my head after dropping the bag back on the floor was 1. how out of shape I am and 2. The old story of Milo of Croton…

Milo of Croton

Milo of Croton was one of the most famous (perhaps the most) wrestlers in antiquity. He won at the Ancient Olympic games six times in a row as well as countless other wrestling titles, had an illustrious military career, was mentored by none other than Pythagoras, and was reportedly so strong he could carry a fully-grown bull. How did he grow so strong?

The story goes that Milo intentionally set out to grow his strength.  His plan did not start by picking up the bull.  He started by picking up a baby calf.  Milo then woke up each morning and started each new day by picking up that same calf and then carrying it around all day.  Each day the calf grew progressively bigger, and so did Milo’s strength.  People came to watch Milo and they laughed and mocked him, but he persevered and stuck to his task.  Finally, after four long years, Milo was able to lift the fully-grown bull.  The rest is, quite literally, history.

Milo’s Principles

I’ve pulled out 4 basic life principles which resonate with the work I do:

  1. Have a clear aim.  Milo wanted to be the strongest athlete in the world.  When we have clear aims in our work, it is so much easier to sustain our focus and motivation.  
  2. Start small.  Milo did not achieve success because he went big early.  He started small and made improvements over time.  Committing to such a method is challenging as it is difficult to see what the end result will be.  We have to trust that we will improve if we keep at it.
  3. Keep it simple.  Milo’s method was so simple.  Pick up a growing cow each day.  How often do we over-complicate what needs to be done?
  4. Believe.  When people saw what Milo was doing, they laughed and mocked him.  It would have been easy to give up, but he believed in himself and stayed the course.  

Do it like Milo?

Firstly, regardless of whether kids will get used to the weight of their school bags, I remain very uncomfortable with the fact that we subject young people’s physiology to such stress, particularly when we are not in the business of producing weight-bearing athletes.  I guess the situation endures because we remember that we went through the same thing at school (cultural reproduction) or because everyone does it (bandwagon effect)…

So what might we do about reducing the weight of school bags?  As with all things, it’s not that simple I guess.  Let me try…

  1. Have a clear aim:  Reduce the weight of school bags so that they do not cause physiological stress to children still developing?  
  2. Start small:  Can we take steps to substitute an exercise book for each lesson, towards the use of a single exercise book, or to the use of a computer?  To ditching textbooks?  To shift the way that we approach learning and teaching?
  3. Keep it simple:  Is there stuff we can leave at school or home?  Can we do more with digital technology?
  4. Believe: Do we truly believe that the steps we might take to reduce the stress justify the means?

I am sure that I can apply these principles to so much of my work at school. I need to give it some more thought. Right now though, I need to start getting down to the gym. My son is right, I am way out of shape!

You build your purpose

When I graduated from school, there was no graduation ceremony, no wise words to never remember, and no fanfare. We finished our exams and that was that. We parted ways, got merry (some more than others), and then we got on with the summer holidays and waited forlornly for our exam results to come in.

I wonder how much different things would have been had there been a Graduation ceremony for me to mark the end of school, to leave well, and perhaps to hear some last words of wisdom? I was told to “find a job” when I finished my exams, but these days, I hear graduates being told to “find your purpose”. Wow, that’s a big ask isn’t it?

The idea of sending our kids off to find their purpose is something that I wanted to explore when given the privilege of giving the closing address to our graduating class this year. I have met a few people on my travels where their purpose is so clear I haven’t needed to ask…but really…it’s the exception and not the rule.

For many of us, purpose is unicorn we are left to find.


Extracted from my Graduation speech to the UWCSEA East Class of 2022:

So, what thoughts to leave you with? I have one story and then some gratuitous advice to offer…

A story is told of a man who visits a building site.

He sees three builders busily working away. Curious as to what they are working on, he approaches the first builder and asks, “What are you doing?”

The first builder looks up and answers, “I am building a wall”.

The visitor nods and moves on. He finds the second builder; a woman toiling at the corner of what looks like a large wall. He asks her the same question. She responds, “I am building a school”.

Finally, he spots the last builder working on a similar-looking section on the same building site and once again asks, “What are you doing?” They respond, “I am building our future”.


Three people, same site, working on the exact same building. Fundamentally though, they have three very different comprehensions of the work they are doing. 

The first only sees a literal meaning in his work. He is not contributing to something bigger than himself. He doesn’t see his colleagues working side by side him building something monumental. Where his work stops is where his interest and vision for the project ceases.

A lot of people are like this. 

If I asked you a few months ago, whilst you were preparing for a science test, what your purpose was, what do you think you might have said?

Nailing the exam? Gaining your IB Diploma? Winning your university placement? Preparing for a life of meaning and purpose…?

All of the above? None of the above?

What if I asked you again today?

The ‘building a wall mentality’ is such a limited mentality. 9 to 5. Clock in, clock out. Go home. Whatever role you are doing, your work can matter but it’s up to you see that for yourself.

The first builder failed to see the impact of what his work was doing.

The second builder sees the functional reason for her work; she is building a school. Nice. She understands the bigger picture of things even though she’s only working on a wall. She will be building a place where children learn. Now, will she be building this school alone? No. She has colleagues, other specialists who will be enlisted for the roof, the plumping, the electrics etc. But she recognises the end goal and the crucial part she plays in it.

This is a good mentality to have; to understand the end goal and know what you’re contributing to. It’s understanding the impact of your work and the “why” behind it. It’s knowing what you do, why you started and why it matters.

But the third builder? They blow me out of the water. Their work mindset is incredibly rare but is the kind that is revolutionary. This builder, although they are just working on a wall, see their work as transcending humanity itself.  Now that’s big picture thinking.

Perhaps the aim for our work is just that then — to find work that goes on to influence bigger things, transcends generations and has lasting impact. That kind of work matters. 

But don’t just take my word for it. For many, COVID has triggered billions of people around the planet to ask some existential questions of themselves. What’s important to me? Am I spending time on the things that matter? What’s my purpose?

I’ve been reading about the Great Resignation too. More people are leaving jobs than ever before; perhaps struggling to find meaning or fulfilment in their current work. And without meaning, they can not find satisfaction or sustain their interest in doing what they are doing. So they are moving to jobs where there is more flexibility, more work-life balance and where they feel that their work matters.

And so the first piece of advice I want to share with you today, is that whatever paths you may take from this wonderful arena, make sure that you do work that is meaningful to you – and to do that, you need to find your purpose.  Not mine.  Not your parents.  Not your friends.  Yours.

OK.  So how do you find your purpose?  What does it look like?

The short answer is I don’t know.  

However, John Coleman, writing in the Harvard Business Review, might be able to help us out here.  Coleman suggests that we suffer from a series fundamental misconceptions about purpose and that challenging these misconceptions can help us develop a more well rounded vision of purpose.  

He shares 3 misconceptions, which I would like to share with you:

Misconception 1 – Purpose is only a thing you find. We hear so many inspiring stories of how people can meander through life waiting until fate delivers a higher calling to us.

But I think…and speaking to many of you here…it is more rare than you think.  For the average 18 year old (being told to find your purpose) or a 40/50 year old in an unfulfilling job (sorry folks), searching for the silver bullet to give life meaning is more likely to end in frustration than fulfilment.

In achieving professional purpose, most of use have to focus as much on MAKING our work meaningful as in TAKING meaning from it.  Put differently, purpose is a thing you BUILD, not a thing you FIND.  Almost any work can posses remarkable purpose.  Sure, some jobs more naturally lend themselves to senses of meaning, but many require at least some deliberate effort to invest them with the purpose we seek.

Misconception 2 : Purpose is a single thing

The second misconception I often hear is that purpose can be articulated as a single thing.

Sure, some people genuinely do seem to have an overwhelming purpose in their lives. But most of us will likely have multiple sources of purpose in our lives. For me, I find purpose in my children, my marriage, my work, and my community. For almost everyone, there’s no one thing we can find.

I would argue that It’s not purpose – but purposes – we are looking for: the multiple sources of meaning that help us find value in our work and lives. Acknowledging these multiple sources of purpose takes the pressure off of finding a single thing to give our lives meaning.

Misconception 3: Purpose is stable over time

It’s common now for people to have a number of careers in their lifetimes. I myself started as a teacher, founded two start-up businesses, been an army officer, and then found myself back in school as a headteacher.

This evolution in our sources of purpose isn’t flaky or demonstrative of a lack of commitment, but natural and good. Just as we all find meaning in multiple places, the sources of that meaning can and do change over time. My focus and sense of purpose at 18 was dramatically different in many ways than it is now, and the same could be said of almost anyone you meet.

How do you find your purpose? That’s the wrong question to ask. We should be looking to endow everything we do with purpose, to allow for the multiple sources of meaning that will naturally develop in our lives, and to be comfortable with those changing over time. Unpacking what we mean by “purpose” can allow us to better understand its presence and role in our lives.

So my final piece of advice is this – It’s possible you will be lucky enough to FIND your purpose. But it’s much more likely that you will have to BUILD it.

But if you are looking for something a little bit more straightforward today…Eleanor Roosevelt offers this:

“The purpose of life is live it, to taste experience to the upmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience”.  That’s good enough for me.

So to close, Alumni – adulthood will, over the next few short years, be settling on you.  As you come to terms with this reality, let me summarise by suggesting that adulthood might mean asking the right questions; which are likely to be about your purpose across your lifetime.  The questions may be a little scary, because there is no perfect information, no perfect rationality as you make your choices.  Life demands that we take actions and make commitments even though the future is uncertain.  Anyone who has given their heart in love, brought a child into the world, watched them walk across a stage like this, headed into an uncertain future, knows this to be true.  And now it’s your truth too.

Our UWCSEA goal is to educate individuals to embrace challenge and to take responsibility for shaping a better world. I know I speak for the entire College when I say it has been a pleasure, and a privilege working with you. As well as the great hopes we have for you, we have even greater trust, in you; that you’ll ask the right questions; and build your own purpose.

It really is over to you now.


I’m very grateful to Nick Alchin for allowing me to borrow many of his wise words in pulling this speech together. Thank you, Nick.

Kids these days

This week I overheard an expression I hadn’t heard before…where one lady was talking to another about the ‘strawberry’ generation.

I was at the supermarket so I naturally assumed that something that was afoot in the fruit and vegetable aisle. Alas, no. A diatribe of derogatory comments followed about how soft, selfish, and delicate the kids of today are, compared to their own hardy and steadfast generation. I got the point; the metaphor was obvious, even to me. In fact, rather than a new expression, I had heard the same nonsense before under the guise of the so-called “snowflake” generation. Perhaps it’s something to celebrate when East and West are so united.

In fact, there’s been a long tradition of naming generations based on when people were born:

  • Baby boomers – 1946-64
  • Gen X – 1965-1980
  • Gen Y (Millennials) – 1981-96
  • Gen Z (Zoomers) – 1997-2012…

There’s a narrative that history has shaped the cultural traits of each generation and how they might see the world.  I think that’s reasonable on the whole (I welcome evolving values on so many issues) but I really get irritated when people judge other generations (wholesale) based on a date of birth as the basis to confirm whatever nonsense has just crossed their minds.  I just don’t buy it.

But it doesn’t really matter what I think, does it?  We all love to label things, and there’s just no stopping it.  Seth Godin recently published an article advocating for the latest generation to be named Gen C.  He thinks it’s going to stick and I think he’s probably right.

C if for COVID, C is for Carbon, and C is for Climate.  

According to Godin, the combination of years of school spend at home, in a mask, restricted by lockdowns, combined with the significant revolutions of our times (political, economic, social, and technological) means that every decision, investment, and interaction will be filtered by Gen C through the lens of carbon, remediation, and resilience. 

This resonates with me.  It’s both optimistic and pragmatic.  It’s not a label that is trying to posthumously describe a generation; it’s one that recognizes where our kids are, the challenges that we have left them, and the work ahead to protect humanity. 

Generation C didn’t ask for any of this, but this is the hand they have been dealt. Calling them strawberries or snowflakes, or any other disparaging label…it’s just not what I’m seeing in our young people…is not how we should be honouring our future.  

I see young people who connect, who collaborate, and who care.  Of course, there are selfish, lazy, and apathetic young people in our Gen C, but don’t let us kid ourselves that these traits are not alive and kicking across all the ages of time.

But if you really do think that kids these days are lacking, you will at least be in good company:

“The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority, they show disrespect to their elders. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and are tyrants over their teachers”. Socrates, 2400 years ago.

Why are you (not) picking on me?

The special ones

Recently, I was asked to nominate a student to support a high profile event. Even at short notice she absolutely crushed it. I knew she would. She deserved the feedback and accolades she received afterwards…they said she was inspiring, articulate, responsive, and confident. Honestly, if humanity manages to save itself from itself, it will be because of young people like her.

Yet, I should have picked another. 

This became more and more obvious to me as each of the platitudes came through. I have made many decisions in my life that I have regretted through wisdom and hindsight. This is one of them. So what’s the issue? It all went very well. Didn’t everyone get what they wanted?

Well, do you remember when you were at school that it was always the same kids being asked to help the teacher? Did you notice that the same kids were always given all the special jobs, the opportunities to show guests around, to speak at assemblies, to attend special conferences or events…weren’t they often the same kids who were elected as class Rep, captains, prefects, monitors and all that malarkey?  Not always…but yeah…

In my own haste to provide a name to support the high profile event, my unconscious bias took over.  I plucked a name from my head, someone I knew would do a good job, and I hit the send button.  

I wonder what exactly that wonderful student learned from the opportunity I offered up?  It’s difficult to answer that exactly, but I do wonder if it was very much at all.  After all, she has done this so many times before.  Sure, she’s refined and tweaked some of her craft over the years, and she has by now a bank of experiences to draw upon to ensure that she can adapt to new situations and challenges.  More than anything else (above that warm feeling you get when you know you’ve done well), she’s probably become more confident and assured.  I’m OK with that as I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t provide these opportunities to students (the opposite is true), but I am suggesting that we should not situate these opportunities with the few.  When we do, it’s just another form of privilege and inequity that we are responsible for developing in our schools.

With a pause, I could easily have presented dozens of students who would have been equally awesome, but who would have benefitted from this opportunity.

Pareto’s Principle

The well known Pareto Principle specifies that 80% of consequences come from 20% of the causes, suggesting an unequal relationship between inputs and outputs. This principle serves as a reminder that the relationship between inputs and outputs is often not balanced.  However, unlike other principles, the Pareto Principle is merely an observation, not a law, so it is most useful as a starting point to explore the ways things are rather than what they should be.  

Throughout my career, I have found that it has described so many of my own experiences:  80% of my time supporting 20% of students in my class; 80% of time supporting 20% of staff; 80% of time supporting 20% of parents… Sometimes, just being aware of where my time is being expended has allowed me to rebalance or look again at my priorities, and sometimes it has made me feel better knowing that the disproportionate use of my energies is…well….normal!

However, when we find ourselves in situations where Pareto accurately describes where student leadership opportunities might be situated, we should be very uncomfortable: we should not tolerate a situation 80% of student leadership opportunities sit with 20% of students.  In fact, should we not be working to create a situation where 100% of leadership opportunities sit with 100% of students? 

I think this should be our aim, even if we fall short.

How do we out-perform Pareto?

When my own shortcomings don’t get in the way, here are some of the ways that we are trying to out-perform Pareto at my school:

We start with diversity. When I was at school, leadership opportunities looked very similar and were few and far between. Role leadership was available through the captaining of sports teams, debate teams, or in the student council. Luckily, we have a much broader view of what student leadership might look like here: senior students leading junior students; peers leading peers; through service as leadership; armchair entrepreneurship; through outdoor education…and so on.

With such a diverse range of opportunities, it is possible for our leadership to be…

…distributed.  Instead of waiting for a few leadership opportunities to be bestowed on the golden few, we work hard to make sure that our students can select from a wide range of activities that they enjoy, where there are opportunities to grow, and where there are pathways for students to lead.  This means we are committed to finding students who might benefit from an opportunity, rather than fixating on how well they might perform in it.

As a school, we are therefore intentional in supporting students to learn from these diverse and distributed opportunities. However, we we are also mindful that we do not want to set up students to fail (or potentially waste ‘teachable’ moments) so we need to think about…

development. Too often we assume that when we give young people the opportunity to lead they know what to do. Some do (for all sorts of reasons), but many more do not. Through trial and error, they eventually get there. However, when they have access to coaches and mentors…magic happens…

With so many thriving young leaders, it becomes increasingly difficult to find a way to honour all of their achievements. Do we try and distinguish everyone? Or just pick out those who we think deserve…

distinction?  Well, our choice is that the only way to honour everyone is to treat everyone as special (even if that means that no one is special).  That does not mean that we do not seek to recognise our students, but it does mean that we do not choose to elevate the achievements of some students above others.  One of the reasons why students do not put themselves forward for leadership opportunities is because they do not think that they are good enough when they compare themselves to others (Imposter Syndrome?) so we want to create a culture of celebrating inputs rather than outputs.  

It’s not always easy and it is not a precise art…and my view is that there will always be extraordinary young people, who do extraordinary things, and we sometimes just have to stand up and applaud.    

Some Questions

Really, this specific anecdote just serves as another opportunity for me to reflect on how much work we/I have to do regarding DEIJ in our schools.  I am walking myself through these questions at the moment, and I expect I am missing many more:

  • How do we account for DEIJ in our leadership offer? Is it diverse enough? Is there equity? Is it inclusive? How do we know?
  • How do we reduce unconscious bias when we select students for opportunities? What systems do we need to help us? How should we be accountable?
  • Where might we be privileging some students above others?
  • How do we choose to develop our student leaders? How do we know we are doing that well?

“These aren’t the metrics you are looking for”

Obi-wan Kenobi, Jedi legend, was known for using mind tricks on the weak-minded

According to ISC Research, ten years ago there were about 8,000 international schools. Today that number stands close to 13,000. The growth is staggering. Indeed, a recent (illuminating and challenging) Bloomberg article postulates that on average, two new international schools open each day. It has become an incredibly competitive market as more and more families want a piece of the action. In this case, the action appears to be a definition of success that culminates with admission to a top tier university. It’s a commodity, for example, that has already attracted a record-high 311,948 Ivy League applications for the Class of 2023 with a record-low acceptance rate of 6.78%. What does this mean? Well, it means that if you think the market is competitive at the moment, you ain’t seen nothing yet!

So how exactly do these schools compete?  I presume that there are many who make a good living from being able to answer this question.  However, my own observations over the last decade are that families often make weighted decisions based on a mixture of the following: reputation (prestige); exam results; track record with university destinations; facilities; faculty; the range of activities; inspection/accreditation reviews; cost; and my absolutely favourite…the dark promise of academic rigour (and the implicit permission to do what it takes to succeed).

But the big one, the unavoidable elephant in the room, is the school’s exam results.  So often, this is the North Star Metric (NSM) by which schools (and the market) determine how they are doing.  An NSM is something that meets the need to simplify and reduce many other things that an organisation does down to a single measure.  Some famous NSMs we might be familiar with include:

  • Facebook – monthly active users (I don’t contribute here)
  • Spotify – time spent listening (a little bit here)
  • Uber – rides per week (nope)
  • Airbnb – booked nights (I wish)
  • Amazon – number of purchases per month (I’m a shareholder!)

Dark side metrics?

In The Tyranny of Metrics, Jerry Z. Muller attempts to outline why we might be wary about leaning too far into metrics. There are two particular thinkers he introduces, with two related laws for us to consider.

The first is Campell’s Law:

The more a quantitative metric is visible and used to make important decisions, the more it will be gamed—which will distort and corrupt the exact processes it was meant to monitor.

The second is is Goodhart’s law:

Anything that can be measured and rewarded will be gamed.

In essence, the more visible, quantifiable, and important a metric is, the more it is vulnerable to gaming and toxicity to its initial purpose.  Muller does not actually say that we should avoid metrics (far from it), or that they are harmful, but he does counsel against the worship of metrics or what he terms “metrics fixation”. There are loads of great exemplars on the internet about metrics that have produced unwanted outcomes.  Here are two I found and enjoyed:

Stop taking hard cases – Surgeons are often judged by how often there are complications or deaths in their surgeries, which affects their marketability and insurance rates. Unintended consequences: Many surgeons stop taking high-risk or complicated cases, which results in people who really need help getting inferior care.

The number of venomous snakes – A leader in India said too many people were dying from venomous snakes, so he offered money to anyone who brought him a dead one. Unintended consequences: People started breeding venomous snakes in their homes, so they could kill them and bring them in for cash payment.

Factory education

So when a school’s NSM is reduced to the sum of their exam results, what might we expect to happen? Well, the good news is that it will probably result in higher exam results and everyone will be well pleased. Unintended consequences: The thing is, it is not hard to achieve higher grades if that is genuinely all that is important. Indeed, here are some of the ways that schools might be affected by a results-based NSM:

  • Admissions becomes more selective
  • Students are prevented from taking examinations
  • Thresholds are established for taking exams
  • Academic rigour is dialed up
  • Curriculum choices are narrowed
  • Student course selections are directed
  • External tutoring is encouraged
  • Teachers teach to the test and students are drilled
  • Students who do not buy-in or keep up are excluded (formally or informally)
  • ….Factory education

If high exam results are a school’s NSM then we should expect high results. However, we might also expect to see issues of diversity, access, inclusion, stress, anxiety and mental health. We might also see schools so focused on individualism that they lose sight of any broader purpose of education that they might claim to prepare students for.

Light side metrics?

There are so many ways to determine the health of a school beyond results.  There’s no escaping what exam results can tell you about a school, but I do wonder if schools can do more to define themselves beyond exam results. One impact of COVID in schools has been how parents have elevated the importance of mental health and wellbeing in their children. Social isolation and well-documented failures in the exam system have made many parents question whether a laser focus on academic rigour is worth the price to be paid (on several levels).

I do wonder what would happen if a school decided to make well-being its NSM. Like…total focus. Imagine if it was possible to put together a credible league table based on student health or satisfaction? What if that table was used by the likes of Spears or WhichschoolAdvisor to promote the best schools in the world? Perhaps it could force schools to complete in different ways? More physical education, less homework, flexible timings, blended learning, more arts participation, more focus on the learning experience, less individualism and more world-centred and holistic learning…I would really welcome that.

Would this mean that students might thrive and…dare I say it…end up doing well in their exams? I think so. Conversely, cognisant of both Goodheart and Campbell, there is every chance that there would be a load of unintended consequences I haven’t even thought of. For example, an admissions system that starts to pre-screens for healthy children only, or a situation where students are discouraged from seeking support services, or as a result of trying to please everyone, ends up being even more self-serving than the exams factory. Hmmm, not sure that’s what I want either.

Move along…

Given the diminishing return of more schools and students competing for the same number of prestigious university places each year, there will come a point where schools will need to find new ways to compete. I think it will be on health and welfare. If schools can find a way of doing that, of showing how well they do that, it would be transformative. Maybe the only way of achieving this is by committing to longitudinal data…but that’s something schools are not very good at tapping into because we are so focused on the front-end of education. Perhaps we need to turn that around and start focusing on the back-end of education…the bit we all say we are preparing children for in the first place?

With thanks to folk I’ve been chatting to over the last week or so about this one, particularly Sanjay Perera, Clare Batten and Bob Leung

Assuming positive intent

Be honest, you assumed the boy was stealing a cookie didn’t you? You probably did it all the time when you were his age and we all know it takes a thief to catch a thief!

But what if….he’d been told he could take that cookie? Or if he was actually putting them out on the plate? Or if he was just counting them? What if…he wasn’t actually stealing that cookie at all?

Repeat after me…assume positive intent

We can all recall an occasion at work when people have assumed the worst of our intentions. It really hurts. And it’s a pain that lingers long after it turns out to be a warranted assumption, or not. It leads to an erosion of trust in colleagues and if it happens quite a lot, the rot of cynicism, insecurity, selfishness, defensiveness and suspicion can take hold. The words and deeds of others become constantly questioned.

What did she mean by that? They are avoiding me…they think I am not capable…he does not trust me…my face does not fit… he is saying that to put me down…she took the credit for my work…they are just in it for themselves…there is no point in putting myself forward for that…

Repeat after me…assume positive intent

I don’t know why I had never heard of the assume positive intent mantra until fairly recently. However, now I’ve seen it, I seemingly can’t unsee it. It’s a really sticky concept.

Assuming positive intent in the workplace is, for me, rather like the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma. In this dilemma, the only way to get an optimal result for both prisoners is to trust that the other prisoner will assume positive intent and not accept the self-serving ‘deal’ on offer.

It seems to me that if everyone tries to assume positive intent in others, however hard that might be, then the net result is that everyone benefits. Firstly, it is so much healthier for you when you are not constantly dealing with negative thoughts – I personally find it exhausting. Secondly, it builds trust in those around us and encourages us to be curious (before we are judgemental) when we are working with others.

Does it mean that everyone has positive intent?  Not at all.  But just because 5% of people might have negative intentions, we should not treat the other 95% as if they do as well. 

Does it mean that we should excuse colleagues who inadvertently hurt others with their words and deeds – even if it was not their intention to cause hurt? I don’t think so. Everyone has to own the impact of their actions whether they were intended to hurt, or not. Assuming positive intent is a powerful mindset but is not an excuse. An unintended microaggression is still a microaggression that we might need to take responsibility for. But I think that the resolution can take place differently, with better outcomes, within a culture of assumed positive intent.

Repeat after me…assume positive intent

So why do we find ourselves so prone to assume negative intent? One reason is that it takes so very little effort. It is much more convenient to shift the blame to someone else, rather than do the hard work to seek to understand or identify the real root causes of the issue. Blaming someone else’s intent also shifts the attention from us taking any personal responsibility we might have for the situation.

Have I done this?  Sure.  I can recall several occasions where I have attributed not getting a particular job, for example, because of x, y or z attributional factors – classism, sexism, racism, agism… anything other than the fact that I was probably underprepared for the interview, un-inspiring and unable to show how I would be able to bring my previous experiences to bear.  I confess it has sometimes taken me some time to get around to the fact that the person they did appoint was simply much better than me!  I rarely make that mistake anymore – nowadays I try to always look for my own flaws instead of trying to look for excuses in others. 

Repeat after me…assume positive intent

Assuming positive intent is sometimes perceived as naive, weak and idealistic. As Putin was sending Russian troops to the border of Ukraine, was I really assuming positive intent? Not at all. Honestly, I was not sure what was going on and I was still hoping for some form of a diplomatic solution. However, I did intentionally try to place an assume positive intent lens over the situation. Did it change my view that Putin was well-intended? No. But it did force me to be more curious about the whole emergency. What is the history? What are the geopolitical issues? Economics? Who are the actors? Who controls the media? What has brought Putin to this point? Are the Russian people supporting Putin? What do the Russian people think about invading Ukraine? And so on and on.

How does this help? I think that my intentionality around assumed positive intent has helped me achieve a sharper perspective on the Russian invasion than I might have had. I don’t think it makes me naive or idealistic. Rather, I am hoping that it is helping me understand what is going on: to support me to be both dispassionate and compassionate in ways that I may not have done if I just assumed negative intent.

What cannot be avoided, however, is the certainty that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is an absolute tragedy. Putin has been caught with his hand in the cookie jar and he can’t be allowed to brush the crumbs away and hope no one has noticed.

Repeat after me…assume positive intent

Assuming positive intent is incredibly difficult to do. When we get hurt by others or see people like Putin in action, we can not help but see the worst in others. Perhaps that’s something we ought to fight too?