A Tale of Two Friends (and of growth mindset)

I want to tell you a story about my friend and I.


This is us in the fifth form (Year 11), summer of 1986, in the term we took our 16+ exams- for those who remember that brief experiment in education.  (I’m the one on the far right).

My friend and I were in the same class throughout school.  We bonded because we shared the same birthday and because we felt like we’d known each other forever.  Our lives were similar in so many ways- but in others they were quite different.

At school, I had lots of friends.  I went to parties, spent long Saturday afternoons in Topshop trying on clothes I’d never buy, and once in the sixth form I spent countless Saturday evenings in the pub with my mates. I remember fancy dress days, pizzas at 3am and lots of music and laughter.

My friend was bullied, and spent many evenings feeling very low.  It didn’t matter what she did- she couldn’t win her tormentors over.  Nothing made the situation better.  She looks back on her school days and on these times with a sense of sadness.  She has never worked out why she was a target and probably never will.

At school, I chose subjects I enjoyed, and was successful in my A levels.  I went off to university to a city I loved to read a subject I found fascinating.

My friend had to fight to do the subjects she wanted to do- it was always a battle.  She applied to read medicine, thinking she might be a doctor, but didn’t get a place.  She chose a course almost at random, and through the old CAP process in UCCA (oh, the nostalgia!) she was allocated a course in a city she had never been to and which seemed huge, frightening and overwhelming.  But, she didn’t know what else to do, so she went anyway.

At university, we both met someone and fell in love.  But whilst I stayed with the person I would eventually marry, she had a disastrous and tempestuous time, and when the relationship ended she vowed she would never marry or have children.

We both graduated, having done quite well.  She moved into a career which she found quite quickly that she hated, and wasted time trying to work out what to do with her life.  I became a teacher and found the job I wanted to do forever.  We’ve both moved jobs periodically, and I’ve done well, moving for promotion and eventually ending up leading my own school.  My friend has also progressed but has been passed over for many ‘dream’ jobs.

And so we’re both still here, 30 years older and hopefully wiser than we were as 16 year-olds.  We haven’t always been kind to one another, but we have generally remained on speaking terms and I’d say our relationship now is as close and supportive as it’s ever going to get.

Here I am, doing my job:

It’s the best job in the world.  I love what I do!

And here is my friend, doing her job:

….which she also loves.
Time to come clean.  My first photo in this blog was the misleading one.  Kirsty and Sharon, in the photo with me, were good friends, but I wasn’t talking about either of them.  Everything I refer to happened to me.

I did love school, and have many good friends, but I was bullied for a significant period of time.  I did love the subjects I studied but I had to fight for my choices, and I did want to be a doctor.  When I didn’t get a place to read medicine,  I chose the degree I ultimately studied because a) I liked the subject matter and b) it had the biggest list of possible jobs after it in the careers office guidance.    I did meet my future husband at university following a disastrous first relationship and I did vow never to marry or have children (5 kids later I’m still not sure where that one went to).  I’ve been fortunate to secure some excellent jobs in wonderful schools but I’ve also been passed over for lots of other roles.

We think a lot about building resilience in students, and about the concept of growth mindset.  We design programmes to teach them how to get back up after a knockdown, and we talk about ensuring opportunities to build character are built into our schools.  We teach them to say ‘I can’t do it……yet’ and to appreciate that intelligence is not fixed, that they can develop their talents and skills.  We know that this can’t be an add-on to school, but needs to be woven through every experience our students have. This is all admirable, and absolutely as it should be.

But it isn’t enough, however firmly embedded any scheme appears to be.

As teachers and parents, we are role models for our children.  Resilience, positive outlook and growth mindset has to be something we not only teach, but that we live and breathe.  I could tell the story of my life and say it’s been difficult, with many setbacks and not inconsiderable sadness.  I choose not to.  If I can’t show resilience, how can I expect my own children and students to do so?  Every time we say ‘I’m useless at this’ or, when asked about our weekend we talk about how hard things are, we pass on the message that whilst we say that we value the mindset we try so hard to instil, life isn’t really like that.  When as teachers, we make a fuss about changes to the curriculum or a different routine, the message we send is that we can’t easily adapt.  If we show we have no work-life balance, however hard it is to achieve it (and I’m not suggesting for one minute that it’s easy), we pass onto the next generation the tacit suggestion that you can’t have a life and a busy career and that this is an acceptable state of affairs.  It then doesn’t matter how many times we exhort our children and students to enjoy activities outside of the classroom- the message they hear is once again life isn’t really like that.

We talk the talk….let’s walk the walk as well.

Zen and the art of being a parent (and of motorcycle maintenance)

I ride motorbikes.  Big ones- the bigger and louder the better. Motorbikes, and the riding thereof, have been a part of my life for over 30 years now, and my other half still claims it is the only reason he married me.  I love riding bikes, and whilst I do it less than when I was younger (I no longer commute to work) it is a lifelong passion and one which I don’t envisage giving up.

At this point, you may well be thinking ‘Clearly this is not the blog I thought it was, and it has little to do with education’.  

You may be tempted to move on- but bear with me, there is a relevant point coming.

I’m currently reading ‘How to Raise an Adult’ by Julie Lythcott-Haims.  Although the book has a thoroughly US slant, Julia talks with real conviction about the pressures on parents, and children, to make the ‘right’ choices of subjects at school, to get onto the ‘right’ courses, at the ‘right’ universities, and thus move into the ‘right’ jobs.  In order to allow all this ‘rightness’ to happen, the acts of thinking independently, self-management of interests and study time, and the ability to make their own choices is, she suggests, being removed from children and young people to the degree that they are reaching adulthood without developing the ability to ‘adult’.  This is not, she says, the fault of parents- no parent would want to leave their children incapable of managing their own affairs- but the degree of pressure, perceived competition for prestige positions and fear of the future consequences of failure is driving us towards behaving in such a way as to disempower our children.

As I am reading this book, students in years 11, 12 and 13 are busy prepping for exams.  In a few weeks, our year 12 will begin thinking in earnest about their onward journey from LHS as we think about future careers, reflecting upon past discussions and careers evenings, and looking to what’s on offer beyond the school gates.  A number of students will think they know what their onward journey looks like- but far more are still undecided and are still considering options.

How much support and guidance should we, as parents, give?  When does that support tip over into deciding our child’s future for them?  Is it when we point them towards a suitable course, discourage a line of inquiry, forward a job advert to them, draft their application?  When we take them to the interview, wait in the waiting room?  When we phone for feedback on their behalf?  If we do these things, does it matter if it gets them into a secure job, which pays well?

There is a fine line to tread.  Children do need support and choosing the next step is a big decision.  But it is their decision to make.  Yet our children want to seek our opinion as a sounding board, and that’s where the hard part comes.  Children love us, their parents, and generally want us to be proud of them, and to please us.  If, when they are making the decision about their future, they sense disapproval they may steer away from a route which will lead to their great passion in life.  

‘Aha’, you say, ‘but what if that choice is patently ridiculous, or a dead end?’

Well, it might be- but I doubt it.  I have great faith in those young people that I know to make eminently reasonable choices about where to take their lives.  It is a leap of faith, but we have to trust that they know themselves.  And we need to trust ourselves that we have raised children who are well on the way to being self-sufficient and self-confident adults who are capable of controlling their own lives.  So when they come to us to act as a sounding board, we need to be a bit zen, reflecting their questions back to them and not telling them what their choice for their life should be.  If we don’t trust them to make good decisions, what does that say about us?

And so, back to where we came in, and motorbikes.  33 years ago, when I began riding at the age of 13, my mother could not have been more zen.  I rode, and when the time came, I passed my test and rode even more on the road.  I travelled all over this country, and outside of it, on two wheels.  I’ve had great experiences, met a huge variety of people from all walks of life, and gained my life partner in the process.

My mother hates me riding, and always has, but was good enough not to tell me that until I was old enough for it not to matter……about 5 years ago.

Thanks mum.

Across the pond….

I’ve recently returned from two conferences in the USA.  At both I met a huge number of committed heads and teachers who, just like us, are doing their utmost to provide the best for their students.  We found lots of common ground. 

In common, we shared the demands of running complex organisations whilst juggling the needs of staff, students and parents.  We all recognise that in terms of the economy and the political climate, these are uncertain and unpredictable times.  Heads in the USA shared with me their fears for their students, and I shared mine.  They were strikingly similar on almost every front.  For example, I attended a one day symposium on sexuality education and issues, meeting heads, teachers and students from many schools (thanks here to the students of Georgetown Day School, who were outstanding contributors to the event).  The symposium fell on the day our Secretary of State announced the proposal to make sex education compulsory for children in the U.K.  The topics we discussed in the symposium- LGBT issues, online pornography, sexting, teaching consent and managing different moral and cultural values- were just the same.  

So what was different?  Very little.  However, one thing which did strike me was the scale of the second conference I attended- NAIS  in Baltimore.  It’s an old cliche that everything in America is bigger, but this was HUGE (or should it be yuge?).  The final day saw over 6500 delegates, coming together to hear keynote speakers in a space more suited to a rock concert.  Headteachers, administrators, counsellors, class teachers, all sharing good practice in breakout sessions, of which there were hundreds, and openly talking about the challenges they face.  

It was tremendously empowering and energising- and it made me think about what we could do here in the U.K. if we spoke with a common voice on issues- and I don’t mean just heads, or just independent schools, or just maintained schools, academies or free schools.  

As educators, we are responsible for the most valuable asset our country possesses- our children, our future leaders.  We do have our differences, but actually my trip brought home to me how many similarities we have too, even when separated by thousands of miles.  We are kept awake at night by similar things- concerns about the exam system, making the money go further, the kids who we’re battling to keep afloat, physically, mentally, emotionally.  

How powerful would we be, as a profession, if we could accept our differences, put aside our prejudices, see past the stereotypes on all sides (and none of us are blameless here) to the common ground, and work together?  After all, it’s what we tell our students they should do.  Maybe it’s time we showed them how. 

(P.S.  Another shout out to Ann, Martha, Sissy, Kira, Joe and JT, who all made me feel incredibly welcome.  Joe, when you’re over here, dinner’s on me.)

The cult of personality

A recently- published study carried out by researchers at the University of Edinburgh suggests that personality, and personal qualities which have previously been considered to be relatively stable throughout life are more fluid than expected.

The researchers studied individuals over a 60 year period and found that personal qualities such as self-confidence, perseverance, originality and desire to learn changed throughout a lifetime and that the combined sum of these incremental changes could be a significant change in personality over time.

Should we be surprised by this finding?  Some may be, but I have never been convinced of the fixed nature of such personal traits.  Some of this comes from meeting former students- those who have perhaps been reticent at school, but who seem to have re-invented themselves in the intervening years.  Similarly for the student who suddenly finds their ‘thing’ whilst still at school and doesn’t just blossom, but explodes with enthusiasm and confidence.  At 18 years old, if I had been told of my future career as a teacher and that I would be standing up in front of large (and occasionally hostile) audiences on a regular basis, I would have laughed-weakly- and assumed they were referring to someone else. I’m acutely aware that I am not the person I was when I collected my A level results.

I don’t believe that schools turn out a ‘finished product’ by any means.  Our leavers are not yet the people they will become, because they have their whole lives ahead of them and every experience and relationship they have will help shape their personality.  Not all will be positive, but that’s life for you.  The things we do whilst they are with us should not just be about ensuring students are getting the necessary pieces of paper to move onto the next stage, but also about helping them to understand that they will grow to become different people whilst at school and beyond. 

A little like the old adage that you only learn to drive after you have passed your test, perhaps this research proves that we really are the sum of our experiences.

This is not a political rant

…..except that it is, a little.  

It was brought on by watching coverage of the Women’s Marches across the globe last weekend and by the question on Everyday Sexism’s Twitter feed about sexist interview questions. What I mean is that it’s not a rant about Brexit, or Trump, or education policy.  It is, however, my own quiet raging against a system which still only pays lip service to gender equality whilst continuing to maintain that equality of opportunity is a reality.  

At school, when I chose my O levels, I asked to take 3 sciences and engineering drawing.  I was taken to one side and it was suggested that 3 sciences was a bit much, and would I like to study needlework instead?  I did not wish to do so: had I wanted to, I would have put it on the form, of course.  I was the only girl to take engineering drawing, and, whilst not the most talented student, I was proud of my grade C and of my ability to draw cross sections of gearboxes in first and third angle projection.  When the time came to choose A levels, I was the only girl taking physics too.  I am not so aged that this is a dim and distant memory- it’s only 30 years ago, post the 60s and 70s women’s lib movement.  

The stereotypes have not disappeared now I’m a working woman.  Even now, in 2017, I have been asked how I will ‘cope’ with a large family and a full-on job: and being asked the question isn’t a one-off occurrence. Who, I am asked, will take care of the family and the household?  Do they mean who has dinner on the table and turns on the washing machine?  I’m sorry to disappoint, but it isn’t usually me.

I am also sad that my partner is frequently asked when he is going to stop looking after our children and go back to work.  The underlying assumption is that he must be desperate to return to the workplace. He isn’t.   

I’m tired of the labels feisty, stroppy, bossy or difficult. I’m astounded that I’ve been asked to be less ‘feminist’ about things. I’m saddened when I read articles such as the one in The Times on 24 December 2016 which talked about the sexism girls still experience in schools.

It’s not just me- in Iceland,  on 24 October 2016 women across the county walked out of work at 2.38pm to protest the gender pay gap.  2.38pm on 24 October is when women in Iceland started working ‘for free’ last year.  This is not their first protest- in 2005 they left work at 2.08pm and in 2008 it was 2.25pm.  Progress is therefore being made.  But even in Iceland, recognised as one of the most equitable countries in the west, with one of the smallest differentials, the speed of change is such that the pay gap will not close for another 52 years.  At this rate, 18 year-old Icelandic women will retire before the gap finally closes.  

All of these examples, and many more, are the reason why I am the head of a girls’ school.  Almost 50% of girls in my year 12 study maths, and 1/5 of the year group study physics.  In an all-girl school no subject is off-limits.  The girls take all the leadership roles.  They grow in confidence. They learn that they don’t have to be judged on appearance. And yes, they can talk to the opposite sex and they can more than hold their own in debate. They are not shy, fragile individuals.  I’m proud of the strong women we help to develop and I feel very privileged to hold the position I do. 

So, when I see the marchers,  I am hopeful that things might change and that the women we send out into the world may just be the ones to do it.

Why I don’t agree with Wowbagger

One series of books I read and re-read endlessly in my teenage years was Douglas Adams’ excellent Hitchhikers series.  A trilogy in five parts as it currently stands, at the time of my earliest readings it was still a trilogy in the correct sense.  Now, there are many different passages of Adams’ books which I love, and still find very funny (the concept of flying as the art of throwing yourself at the ground and missing will never fail to raise a smile).

One aspect of his tale which I particularly enjoyed was the story of Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged, from the book ‘Life, the Universe and Everything’.  Wowbagger was-is- a being who became immortal by accident and who, over time, found he came to despise life throughout the universe because of the boredom of Sunday afternoons.  As a result he devises a project to keep himself busy; he plans to insult every single living being in the universe, in alphabetical order.

When I read an small article in this week’s  Times, I started thinking again about Wowbagger and his Sisyphean task.  The article described a piece of research which indicated that the average ‘working week’ of a child when school, extra curricular activities and homework are taken into account amounts to 46 hours a week.  At this level, the commitment of children outstrips that of working adults who average 37.5 hours of work a week.

It is absolutely right that children and young people have a variety of activities in their lives- after all, this is what helps to make them interested and interesting people, aids in fostering resilience and commitment, and supports positive mental health and wellbeing.  But where I disagree with Wowbagger is in seeing periods of boredom as the enemy.  There is a place in everyone’s life for downtime, and especially in the lives of young people.  Whilst too much time with your own thoughts can be damaging, so can a life filled so full that there is no time for reflection, to regroup, to daydream and to get bored.  We’ve all had the answer to a knotty problem come to us whilst carrying out a mundane task, when the mind is ‘off the hook’ and not particularly focussed on anything.  Notable scientific discoveries have been cemented in dreams- Mendeleev and the Periodic Table, Kekulé with the structure of Benzene and Ramanujan’s work in mathematics have all been attributed to a dreaming state.  Salvador Dali attributed his ‘melting clocks’ to dreams, whilst film director Christopher Nolan’s film Inception was based on his own lucid dreams. This sort of creativity stems from the ability of the brain to make connections in a new and unexpected way.  This requires time and space, and a brief scan of the research evidence suggests that there is good support for the concept of giving over time to daydreaming in order to enhance creativity.

As adults, we worry about working lives which are so full, so busy that they result in burnout.  Young people can suffer from the same, however much they enjoy all the activities they participate in.  We need to help them to find their balance.

Wowbagger set himself a task which would occupy all of his time, until the end of time itself, because he couldn’t cope with Sunday afternoons.  We don’t need to do the same with our children.

2016- a year of changes

It’s been a somewhat disturbing year for those of us of a certain age.  Beginning with the shock of David Bowie’s death from cancer in January until the deaths of Carrie Fisher and George Michael just a few days ago, it has seemed for some of us that the soundtrack (and visuals) of our youth have one by one been taken away.  For me, these were the people I grew up listening to-Bowie, Prince, George Michael-at discos, on interminable car journeys and in those long hot summers, on the small and crackling transistor radio hung from the guyropes of a tent.  Like many girls, I watched Star Wars and wanted to be Princess Leia- a real princess but someone who could take care of herself too- although I could never get the hair right…..

Now, the passing of so many cultural icons, combined with everything else which has happened this year in global politics, makes it feel like a deeply unsettling time.  However, on several occasions this year I’ve been brought back to the summer of 1977, and more precisely, August 16, 1977.  I was on one of those long family camping holidays, complete with transistor radio, when the news broke of the death of another icon: Elvis Presley.  

1977 was also a somewhat eventful year nationally and globally- a 25 hour blackout in New York resulted in rioting, arson and looting across the city.  Four Palestinian hijackers took control of a Lufthansa jet to demand the release of 11 members of the Bader-Meinhof group. The Panama Canal was returned to Panama. In India,  Indira Gandhi resigned from her position as Prime Minister, whilst a cyclone there killed 20,000 and left 2 million homeless.  In Bucharest another 1500 were killed in an earthquake whilst in Britain public sector workers were striking against the 10% (!) cap imposed on public sector pay rises. In common with 2016, we also celebrated another Jubilee- the Queen’s silver jubilee, marking 25 years of her reign.

I remember the news of Elvis’ death.  Or rather, I remember my mother’s reaction to it, which was not dissimilar to mine this year when I heard of the passing of many of the people important in my youth.  I also remember my own reaction in 1977, which was to shrug, and say the 1977 equivalent of ‘Meh’.  Elvis wasn’t part of my soundtrack and so it wasn’t a big deal to me.  Similarly with the news events- I have to confess that I had to look them up for this post as they were not part of the narrative of my youth. 

So whilst I am sad that Bowie et. al.  are gone and I worry about the state of the world right now, I know that my parents and many like them were doing the same thing back in 1977.  The students in my school will, in many cases, have a response to current events which is strikingly similar to mine back in the summer of 1977.  Meh. 

I don’t take this as an insult, and I don’t worry about the ‘youth of today’ and their seeming lack of concern about my icons and global events this year.  They have their own soundtrack and their own narrative to develop and this is what they are busy doing at school, with their friends, and on their own family holidays.  They will concern themselves with the events of the wider world when they are ready and equipped to do so.

I find that a tremendously optimistic thought.