Tag Archives: leadership

You aren’t a brand; you’re a teacher

“The best way to build a brand is to take a three-foot length of malleable iron and get one end red-hot. Then, apply it vigorously to the buttocks of the instructor who gave you this question. You want a nice, meaty sizzle.”

This was veteran Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten’s public response to the question, “How have you built your personal brand over the years?”, as asked by a journalism graduate from Northwestern University.

It is similar to how I feel when I hear people talk about teachers as brands. Only yesterday, I witnessed advice from a high profile headteacher for teachers and leaders to “work on your personal brand” if you want to get ahead. The insistence that we must think about our brand rather than say, what we are teaching (or what we are leading on), is not just a distraction: it’s irresponsible.

It’s easy to read the rest of Weingarten’s response to the student and imagine he’s talking about education. I’ve replaced the words ‘journalism’ and ‘writing’ with [teaching] here:

“You used the expression ‘built your personal brand.’

I want us to let that expression marinate in its own foulness for a moment, like a turd in a puddle of pee, as we contemplate its meaning and the devastating weight of its implications. This is a term born of the new approach to [teaching], a soulless, marketing approach that goes hand in hand with the modern tendency to denigrate [teaching] by calling it “content,” as though everything is mere filler — fluff and stuffing in the decorative throw pillows of what passes for news. It is symptomatic of a general degradation of [teaching] that rewards ubiquity, not talent…”

I am certain that people who are able to make careers out of teaching do so because of the talent they have. Why take a “soulless, marketing” approach to that career by focusing on themselves as a brand?

Weingarten says that the commodification of journalists as brands means that writers “used to give readers what we thought they needed. Now, in desperation, we give readers what we think they want.”

Is this the implication of teachers and leaders becoming brands? Does it imply no longer giving pupils (and other teachers) what we think they need and instead giving them what we think they want?

The problem with foregrounding branding is that it backgrounds the important things about teaching and leading. The things that actually count. Continuing on the subject of writing, Weingarten continues:

“Branding – the whole notion gets it backwards, as though the purpose of writing is self-aggrandizement and self-promotion. That’s what riles me about that whole idea. We want to tell truth, because we want to entertain, because we want to disclose things that need to be disclosed, because we want to hold government to a high standard, all of those reasons are good. Somewhere around reason 6,407 is where brand promotion should be.”

I feel exactly the same about teaching: we want to teach because we want to make kids cleverer, because we want them to go out and connect with and understand the world, because we want them to take part in life and join the “conversation of mankind“, because we want them to create the future. All of those reasons are good. And, likewise, somewhere around reason 6,407 is where brand promotion should be for teachers.

Put simply:

“Note the order. First came the work.

Now, the first goal seems to be self-promotion — the fame part, the ‘brand.'”

Teachers and leaders should concentrate on their craft, on what they are achieving, rather than answering the questions “how do people see you?” and “how do you want to be seen?” – questions which came from the advice mentioned at the beginning of this blog. Answering those questions and concentrating on ‘your brand’ will most likely lead to superficiality and, in turn, most likely more work for the teachers around you. So listen to Weingarten. Don’t let teaching go this way too:

“We are slowly redefining our craft so it is no longer a calling but a commodity. From this execrable marketing trend arises the term: ‘branding.'”

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I forget why I’m here: event boundaries in teaching and leading

Mark Dawe, Chief Executive of OCR exam board, said this week that he thought that pupils should be allowed to use Google in examinations.

I’d hope that the responses to this range from “that’s a bad idea” to “that’s a very, very bad idea.”

I was more interested in the motives behind the statement though. One wonders why Dawe would see this as a good thing? Does he think it is good for pupils? Or is it good for his exam board? It’s important to note that, whilst there are a diverse range of roles in the education sector, each role comes with its own drives and that these might change as one moves from one role to another. Dawe has worked in a number of roles in education, and I’m curious as to whether he thought pupils using Google in exams was a good idea when he was a principal of a school, or when he worked for the DfES? We don’t really know, of course, but I would hope not.

Not long after I’d recovered from Dawe’s bombshell, I witnessed a Twitter exchange between David Didau and an executive headteacher on the subject of leadership decision-making. David tweeted the exchange here:

In the ‘discussion’, the executive headteacher readily dismissed David’s polite and fair challenges on the basis that David himself was not a headteacher and couldn’t possibly understand or be in a position to question it: “When you’re not doing it, it’s hard to empathise”.

It’s an interesting view and it comes from an assumption that many of us are prone to make: You haven’t been in my position so any comment you make about it is invalid. Apart from this stance being a little tyrannical (note that I haven’t been an MP but it isn’t questioned that democracy allows me to hold MPs to account) there is also often a further implication when people take that slant, which is: have been in your position so my views are even more informed than yours.

I see these sorts of discussions between teachers and leaders time and again on social media. In such discussions it appears that a leader taking the above stance would hold all the cards: I can challenge your position because I’ve been in it; you can’t challenge mine because you haven’t been in it. In short, leaders can dismiss a teacher’s view because they can empathise with it; the reverse is not true.

But can someone really always empathise with a position they once held? What if once they’d moved away from that position, they forgot how they had thought and felt before?

This could actually be the case.

You know that thing where you walk into a room and realise, as you stare blankly at every surface in front of you, that you’ve forgotten why you went into that room in the first place? Well, this phenomenon is down to something that some psychologists call event boundaries. According to Gabriel Radvansky, a professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame:

“Entering or exiting through a doorway serves as an ‘event boundary’ in the mind, which separates episodes of activity and files them away. Recalling the decision or activity that was made in a different room is difficult because it has been compartmentalised.”

These event boundaries are not only spatial. They can also be created temporally or when circumstances change. So could event boundaries be created when people move into different roles in schools? Might it be plausible that a classroom teacher crosses an event boundary when taking on a leadership role? And in such a case, does the mind compartmentalise the thoughts and feelings of the self as a classroom teacher and lock them away in an obscure corner of the memory?

Obviously, this is just supposition on my part. There are plenty of great leaders in education who clearly empathise with their former classroom teacher self. But are there just as many who find it difficult to remember?

Here’s an example. When one takes on a departmental leadership role, the pressure for exam results really comes to the fore. For the humble class teacher, whilst these are important, the weight of them doesn’t bear down so stiflingly. As such, the classroom teacher can make decisions in a far less utilitarian way: in English, this might mean choosing books to study because (as I wrote about recently) they allow pupils to take part in the ‘conversation of mankind’ (the books are culturally significant), or that they present a purposeful challenge. A utilitarian leader, weighed down by the pressure of exam results and having crossed the event boundary from classroom teacher to their current position, may forget their earlier ideals and choose books based on how easily it will get pupils through the exam.

But if we are slaves to event boundaries, how can we ensure we are consistent to our former selves? (Aside: you might wonder if we always want to be?) Well, as in the case of our executive headteacher, perhaps he needs to consider the challenge that David Didau offered before dismissing it out of hand as he did. Isn’t it vital that leaders contemplate the ideas and views of classroom teachers? For one thing, they might be really useful. But they might actually also be echoing the pre-event boundary views of the leaders themselves, ideas that had been hidden away by memory. Meaningful discussions between teachers and leaders is not only a breach of any boundaries between those teachers and leaders, it could also be a breach of the boundaries of memory.

Yesterday’s OED word of the day was the beautiful citramontane, meaning ‘this side of the mountains’. It’s opposing term is ultramontane: ‘the other side of the mountains’.

The decisions and comments made by people in positions of power – be it heads of exam boards or executive headteachers – might be better informed with some ultramontane thought: cross the mountains and listen to what people are saying. It might be a useful reminder of an idea or ideal we once held dear.

The difference between managing and leading

If you believe a certain discourse, we live in a world of digital natives. Oh, and digital immigrants. And presumably there are also digital day-trippers, as well as trust funders on a digital gap year and people who just got a cheap last minute package deal to digital from Ceefax. (I imagine that some of these digital holidaymakers probably don’t really experience digital – they are merely little analoguers who use their sat-navs to prop up wonky table legs or use their iPads as kitchen chopping boards or… SNAP! Damn, I get through so many metaphors that way.)

Against the tide of the digitisation of classrooms, there is one analogue device that is resolute in its ubiquity: the classroom clock. Based on a 2014 study by Me, Myself & I (in which the researcher looked in a few rooms then extrapolated his observations), it is estimated that around 99% of classroom clocks are analogue. (What? Rigour? Piaget got away with this kind of research.)

I recently shopped around online for a new analogue classroom clock, and I noted a curious phenomenon in the images of the clocks for sale: almost all of the clocks and watches showed a time of 10:08. Clock Well, a few of them showed similar times – 10:09, or 1:49, 1:51, 1:52, etc. But the picture that these times create is all very similar – the hands become an inverted chevron, as can be seen in the example above. Intrigued by this, I made a cursory search to find out why this pattern pervades. And it turns out that the thinking behind it is based on pareidolia – the psychological phenomenon which involves our tendency to see significance in randomness, most commonly occurring when we see imaginary faces in arbitrary objects. You know, like when you see a cat’s profile in a cloud or Elvis’ visage burnt into your toast or a human face when you look at George Osborne. By tapping into Carl Sagan’s claim that we are “hardwired” to see human faces, clock sellers discovered that they do more business on their wares when the clocks look like they are smiling: we are drawn towards happy-looking clocks. Thus, a clock at 10:08 is a smiling clock, and we are more likely to buy it.

Apparently, a clock face at 10:10 looks too obvious and we feel we are being conned, but 10:08 just makes us want to take home that cheerful plump face and shower it with love. So what seems arbitrary at first – setting clocks to 10:08 – is actually a thinking and purposeful approach to selling. And what is more, it makes the jobs of the salespeople easier.

Comedian Dave Gorman identified this “10:08 rule of advertising” in his show ‘Modern Life is Goodish’. But Gorman also noticed something similar in digital clocks, or at least in products with a digital time displayed. Whilst out and about in the the London Underground, he noticed an advert for an HTC phone; an advert that looked a bit like this: htc_brand_6sheet-g_4 Notice the time that HTC choose to use when displaying their phones? In fact, if you just perform a quick image search for “HTC phones”, you’ll find that the overwhelming majority of their images show that time: Screen Shot 2014-10-05 at 20.58.01 Strange, isn’t it? I mean, there is no pareidolia to experience in 10:08 as written digitally, is there? It doesn’t look like a smiling face. So why do they continue to use 10:08 to sell digital timepieces? As Gorman asks, “You don’t suppose that someone in the marketing department of HTC phones actually thinks that 10:08 is just an inherently happy time, do you?”

There is an argument that 10:08 is the time that shows off the most segments in the old 7-segment digital displays: 7-segment1 But modern phones don’t have those segments. And wouldn’t 18:08 show off more segments? It seems that such an argument is an attempt to apply some retrospective reasoning to something that has no logical origin.

No logical origin, that is, other than they are merely following a practice that has gone before: the 10:08 rule of advertising. Yet we know that the 10:08 rule only works with analogue clock faces. So to follow that rule without question seems daft. Whilst the original practice was both thinking and purposeful, continuing to use it to sell digital timepieces seems the exact opposite: it is unthinking and purposeless. And it doesn’t help the salespeople do their job. It takes the position that many organisations take: “It’s what we’ve always done. Why change it?”

It struck me that the 10:08 rule, applied in these two ways, is a good analogy for the difference between leading and managing. Selling analogue clocks using the rule is an approach that has drive and thought behind it. It is deliberate and is based in theoretical beliefs. It is relevant. It supports and aids the shared goals of both management and staff. And, what is more, it makes the job of those on the front line easier. These are all things that leaders do. They have drive, thought and beliefs behind what they do. And they make it easier for those subordinate to them to do their jobs.

Conversely, using the same rule to sell digital clocks is just following what someone else has done. There is no drive, thought or belief behind it. There is no clear relevance to it. It brings nothing to the achievement of goals. It just brings uniformity for the sake of uniformity. It makes practice just about following rules, following “what we’ve always done”. And its aim isn’t to make the job of those on the front line any easier. This is what managers do: just ensure that things are being done as they should be done.

I am inclined to say that there is a place for both leaders and managers in any organisation.

But I’d also ask anyone thinking about taking the step up the ladder, which would you want to be? And if you want to be a leader, ask yourself: What do I believe in? What is my drive? How do I ensure relevance? How can I make teachers’ jobs easier and still achieve our goals?

As I finish writing this, it is approaching 10:08pm on a Sunday night. I have to get up for work in the morning. I’ve just looked up and the clock is smiling at me. It doesn’t have to get up for work in the morning. Smug bastard.