Mosquito Moments – When Leaders Stop Listening

Posted on November 22, 2012

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First of all, let me say that I think most members of senior leadership teams within schools do the job for all the right reasons. They do it because they care about students and their futures. They do it because they care about staff and their professional development and personal well being. And they do it because they are confident that they can help schools, students and staff achieve success through their ability to set a strategic direction, lead people towards it (sometimes from the front and sometimes from the rear) and manage the clearance of the pathway that might hinder others on their journey.

However…

It’s a big however, hence the pregnant pause.

However there are times when we do ourselves no favours in the eyes of others, most notably staff at our schools. There are times when we allow our leadership team meetings to become echo chambers to ‘good ideas’ or ‘new initiatives’ and lose sight of those who have to implement them. There are times when we allow our separate roles within our teams to generate rolling programmes of work that even the most diligent of teachers can’t keep up with. There are times when we talk about teaching, learning and assessment from the comfort of significantly reduced timetables (and I don’t for a minute think that most SLTers do nothing with this time) without reflecting about the impact of this ‘lead teacher’, look-at-how-good-I-am role modelling on staff with less than one free per school day.

Most of all though, there are times when we simply forget to listen: when we are too busy talking to do so; when the degree of physical separation from the staffroom (often because we are out on duty) means we are too busy to hear; when we are too fixated on the future thing to listen to the present thing. I call these our Mosquito Moments after the worst decision I was ever a part of as a member of an SLT at a former school.

A teeny bit of context about the school. We had made the decision to restructure the school day in a way that meant that there were rolling lunch breaks, so that teaching was going on in some places of the school at the same time as significant numbers of students were on their lunch. The assumption was made somewhere along the line that the students having their lunch would naturally gravitate towards the cafeteria (never the canteen despite its canteen-like look, canteen-like service and canteen-like food). Oh how foolish we were. Since when did kids ever naturally gravitate anywhere?

And so it came to pass that we found ourselves as an SLT facing a staff meeting and a host of emails where people were complaining because they had hordes of children hanging around outside their classrooms while they were teaching, opening doors randomly, yelling randomly and sometimes even just having fun randomly in the vicinity of classrooms. Teaching and learning was being badly affected and staff morale was progressively sinking. We had to act.

Oh and how we acted. We spent a number of hours as an SLT talking and talking and talking about it. We didn’t really listen to the staff. We didn’t really listen to the students. Why would we? We had all the talent and leadership we needed in one place and in one team. As a result we generated page after page of ideas of how we could right this wrong done to the learning of students. So many ideas in one place, but one of them struck us as the perfect solution: the idea of all the ideas. It was simple (check). It was proven (check). It was a new technology (check). It was not staff-intensive (check). It was brilliant (checkcheckcheck). It was the Mosquito. It was a Mosquito Moment.

For anyone who doesn’t know what the Mosquito was (surprisingly enough it’s hardly heard of these days) follow this link, read and be horrified. Oh yes we did. We agreed to buy a number of devices that emitted annoying sounds so high-pitched that only young people could hear them. We had them fitted outside the classrooms where students were gathering to disrupt learning. We turned them on at lunchtimes to drive students away from the learning.

I cringe every time I recall this, and so I should. I shrivel a little when I think that I was part of a team that decided to do this, and so I should. I wither when I reflect that I didn’t speak up and didn’t consider the lack of humanity in the choice of solution we came up with, so fixated was I on the yes-we-can nature of the solution, and so I should. The only positive I can draw from it is that nowadays every decision I am involved in making is subjected to the ‘Mosquito Moment’ trial to ensure I never have I cringe, shrivel or wither at another decision in the future.

The truth is that when senior leadership teams get so caught up in ‘doing the right thing’, a groupthink mentality can prevail and all sense of rationality and perspective disappear. Once the Mosquitos were installed it quickly became apparent that the students hanging around outside the classrooms didn’t like it and moved on, which we thought was a good thing. But it also became clear that students in classes (and even some of our younger teachers) were finding it affected them, making them nauseous and headachey. You’d have thought that would have made us stop and think immediately. But no. It simply became yet another challenge to the skills of our leadership. We turned them down. We altered the frequency. Sometimes we even berated the teachers because we couldn’t hear the noises that they were hearing. Or rather we couldn’t hear the noises that they were making.

I still remember the meeting when we finally stopped and listened: when we finally heard the cacophony of voices that were shouting at us to turn the bloody things off and throw them away. It felt like our ears had just popped and we looked around and felt instantly shamed by the stupidity of our actions. It was instantaneous and it was the most humiliating feeling of self-realisation I have ever had as a school leader. I will never forget it, deliberately.

And so, if you are a member of a senior leadership team gearing up to make a contribution to #SLTChat this Sunday evening, I present you with two flipped challenges

The first is this: What is your historic ‘Mosquito Moment’? When have you made a decision that you have regretted? How did you finally learn how to hear again?

The second challenge, and the most important one, is this: What is your current potential ‘Mosquito Moment’? What ‘great ideas’, ‘new initiatives’ and solutions are you working on that might be leaving your staff or students confused, confounded or cold? And what can you do to hear their voices clearly?

The reason I ask this is because I think that #SLTChat is an amazing forum for senior leaders to listen to what others think about their incomplete ideas or unfinished thinking. Too often, though, it can come across to me (and to a great number of non-SLT teachers if my timeline is anything to go by) as self-congratulatory and over-confident in a way not intended by its participants, but nonetheless there. And in such a forum, with people having multiple ‘Mosquito Moments’ the buzz can be deafening.

Instead of taking time during this week’s #SLTChat, which I am hosting, to tell others about what you have done and how good it was, can you instead take the opportunity to seek advice from others (particularly those many contributors and lurkers who are not on the leadership scale), ask questions of and challenge each other and generally look to make humility your watchword for the duration of the chat.

And whilst I am straining courtesy as far as I can, may I also ask you to focus on your leadership role rather than your teaching role. For whilst we all agree that it is a good thing that senior leaders teach and teach well, it is far more important to us all that leaders create the conditions in which others can flourish. By showing this level of humility in your own practice and confidence in the practice of your colleagues (real and on twitter) you will be more likely to create a real buzz about learning, the kind of buzz that doesn’t make others feel nauseous and headachey. In short, you won’t be having a ‘Mosquito Moment’.

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