The educational book to read in 2017: ‘Hopeful Schools’ by Mary Myatt

27 Dec 2016

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“Hope. Hope in the face of difficulty. Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope”.

Barack Obama

Hope has not been a popular word in 2016. Politically, Obama’s unifying rallying call from this speech in 2004  feels like an echo from a bygone age. The cynicism of Trump; the insularity of Brexit; the coarsening of public discourse, it has all filtered through our subconsciousness and suddenly to be hopeful appears unsubstantiated, idealistic and utopian. The reflective capacity required to offer a genuinely meaningful and hopeful vision becomes even more challenging in a world in which the soon to be most powerful man in the world encapsulates his in 140 characteristics on Twitter.

Inevitably this end of year political lethargy seeps into the world of education. No matter what joy you have for young people and teaching, finishing for the festive break always feels like the metaphorical deflation of a balloon. There is a feeling of emotional and intellectual exhaustion, being well and truly spent by the demands of a  long term. I had the last day of term planned out: an epic train journey to the wilds of Scotland (I’m sure Glasgow has been called worse) accompanied by a couple of beverages of the hoppy variety and the autobiography of Bruce Springsteen for company. Nothing like the physical removal and the the ruminations of an egotistical rock star to leave the world of teaching behind! The arrival in the post of Mary Myatt’s new book: ‘Hopeful Schools‘, on the last day of term thew a spanner in the works.  Slightly resentfully I nestled it in between the kilt and the sporran for the journey.

You know you are in the presence of an educational guru when you can keep the Boss growing dust for the entirety of a three hour train journey. ‘Hopeful Schools’ did just that: a collection of philosophical nuggets that made me reflect, inspired and rejuvenated a weary mind and body. A voice of experience that reminds that flux is  part and parcel of educational process, Myatt’s book is split into a range of short chapters that illuminate the importance of humanity and hope in the educational process. There is nothing idealistic or unsubstantiated about the view of education that is described, it is based on extensive experience of teaching, advising school leaders and being in hundreds of schools. Indeed, Myatt is critical of the desperate optimism of those who hold inflated opinions of their schools, those who refuse to acknowledge that we are all on a continuous trajectory of growth and improvement. Hope in ‘Hopeful Schools’ is the leverage and mechanism to achieve this growth – far removed from self-congratulation and ego massaging.

As the humble English teacher, these are some of the sections and quotations from ‘Hopeful Schools’ that have resonated most for me. They have given me scope for honest reflection about my teaching and persona in school and will have a profound influence moving forward:

“‘If we think about all the things that are wrong with our lives, our work and the people we plough alongside, then what follows is that we attuned to see more of the same”.

Attention: It is very easy to join the narrative of the negative. It is much simpler to focus on the aspects of our professional lives that are not as we want them to be: the behaviour of students; the obsession with data; the relentless demands of workload; marking misery. I am as guilty of this as anyone, particularly in the pessimistic internal dialogue which can be as corrosive as any. Myatt argues for an evaluation of this – to move away from this tunnel vision of fostering negativity and seek out the bright spots, to appreciate the positives in our daily interactions, our daily working. Doing this nurtures the spirit and ultimately reminds us of the value of what we do, allowing both ourselves and the people around us to recognise that no matter how difficult the situation may appear there are always hugely positive things surrounding us. We just need to pay attention to them.

‘We respond to our colleagues’ ‘look at me’ signals, by noticing, by asking and by affirming their work’

Look at me: Schools are complex places and the interpersonal demands placed are immense. Myatt explores in this chapter the desire we all have within schools to be recognised, valued and appreciated.  Myatt highlights how we can draw strength from each other by responding to this basic human need: to be recognised for our efforts. There is nothing egotistical about his – it is simple validation that can make a huge influence in how motivated we are. Again this is applicable both in the leadership sense and in our interactions with young people, all are nuanced but need to recognise the basic human need to be acknowledged and respected. More insular by nature this chapter made me honestly reflect: what am I doing to motivate, to encourage, to fuel this need in the young people I teach and the wonderful people I work alongside?

“It is the message that things can and will get better which leaders internalise and then articulate, that can make all the difference”

Learning without limits: Perhaps I am generalising here but I believe we all want to work in schools that have at their core a ruthless priority: to focus on improving their collective capacity to enable young people to learn. The notion of limiting potential and complacency is the absolute antithesis of this. Myatt’s book has this at its very centre: to impose limitations on young people, staff and potential is the enemy of hope. The potential to surprise when limitations are removed is captured in this excellent TED talk  from headteacher Alison Peacock that Myatt references in this chapter.  It is also brilliant illuminated in this blog from John Tomsett that Myatt highlights: a fascinating experiment with Year 7, Macbeth and extended analytical writing. To not constrain the potential of young people – rather to promote a culture that places no limitations, all achieved through the ethos of hope.

“However lacking in confidence we might feel, it is important that we put forward our point of view, make a contribution and respond to those of others”

‘Showing up’: 

Perseverance is at the core of this chapter: the discipline required to demonstrate our values and commitment by showing up for the young people we work with and the people we work alongside. There is, however, an important distinction between physical and mental presence – the difference between going through the motions and being fully engaged in a collective mission. It is valuing our individual experience and voice and having the confidence to share our thinking that can help us find professional meaning. Rather than allowing the internal frustrations to build resentments and influence our mindsets in the workplace – finding the right time and right way to share this thinking will be hugely cathartic. If we are in an organisation committed to transparency and genuine improvement our thoughts should be valued. If not, at least we know we are being true to our own value systems and philosophies.

“Where we go first, show courage in difficult circumstances we are giving others hope in the process”

‘Be a lamp’

We all have role models in the school environment. The teachers and leaders I have looked up to have always been humble, but hugely passionate and committed – they have burned with the energy and desire to enable young people to achieve. They have lit fires that by the strength of their conviction inspire others to follow – not by arrogance but by their drive and sense of moral responsibility. This final chapter captures this sprit: we are all capable of being this lamp and fire. It is not about shouting the loudest, it is a finding our own quiet conviction that can in turn have real influence in encouraging others. The lamp also involves the reflective capacity again – seeking out others and supporting in the ways that can make such a huge difference in the workplace. Importantly it is about ‘looking up’: being sentient and aware of what is going on around us.

Michelle Obama recently gave her final interview, in which she evaluated her husband’s legacy of hope. In it she outlines that “hope is a necessary concept” and that “we are now understanding what it is like to live without hope”. Hope fuels us, it motivates us, it drives us to be better – without it we slip into cynicism and complacency. For me, a reminder of this stumbling into 2017 has been hugely motivating and empowering. So, to fuel the spirit and remind us to be hopeful in our professional and private capacity, prioritise tracking down a copy of Mary Myatt’s ‘Hopeful Schools’. Rather than nebulous resolutions, it will provide a sage and experienced voice to drive an action plan for the year ahead.

Thanks for reading, wishing you a happy and hopeful 2017.

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Jamie Thom

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