Just Around the Riverbend

Posted on January 8, 2013

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The title of this post, as any parent of a young girl will tell you, is the name of a song from the Disney film ‘Pocahontas’. Click on this link if you haven’t had the fortune to watch it before.

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Following a flurry of tweets with @Gwenelope about Disney films and their songs I hunted this song down and sent it to twitter but not before having a listen (for old times’ sake, honestly!). And then, as is my wont with this blogsite, serendipity struck and an idea came for a post. So here I am and here it is.

You see, the song reminded me of a visit to my school by @hgaldinoshea who was looking at the work we have done for out Outstanding Pedagogy Project. During the visit she met with my colleagues @ieshasmall and @renniesherrie to discuss their contribution to our Pedagogy Team, our focus on coaching and our work with Ped Leaders. By the time she had the misfortune to share some time with me she had one overriding question: what were our plans for next year and the direction of the OPP project generally. My answer was as simple in ideas as it was complex in explanation: I don’t know. Never have done and still don’t know. I think the phrase I used then was the same as it has been since I started the project back in 2010, “It’s organic”. The look on her face was priceless, somewhere between stunned, aghast and concerned for my sanity (or that of my potentially guinea-pig colleagues subjected to the whims of my uncertain sanity).

And here’s where I have to spare a thought for my brilliant colleague Renata because she asked the same question as Hélène when she started working hand-in-glove with me in September 2010 and she got the same reply then: not easy for a newly appointed Assistant Head to work with, and yet work with me (and my organicity – is that a word? It should be!) she has. See, even that sentence with its multiple diversions and clauses didn’t know where it was going and she has had this for line management for almost three years!!!!

And so my organic approach to institutional pedagogic improvement and serendipitous blogging have at last collided, via a Disney choon. And this post is an attempt to clarify the unclarifiable, to nail the jelly of my life to the wall of your understanding. I want to try and explain why not knowing where I’m heading is the thing I like most about my life, through the words of a Disneyfied Pocahontas.

Always Changing, Always Flowing

What I love most about rivers is:
You can’t step in the same river twice
The water’s always changing, always flowing

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If you can find me a better start to a Disney song then I’ll be happy to hear it. Here’s the bigger picture for my worldview and an attempt to persuade you that my sanity is intact, and that it is not folly that drives me but instead that it is folly not to take an AGILE approach to life generally and school improvement specifically. “You can’t step in the same river twice” is a reasonably well-worn aphorism but it is indeed true, as most reasonably well-worn aphorisms are. Today at school has been massively different to yesterday or to the week before half term and most certainly since 2010. Colleagues of mine have moved on, moved up, moved down, moved in, moved out and moved around. It has been a veritable hokey-cokey of an existence and we aren’t even a school with high staff turnover. And that’s what it’s all about…. (Please tell me you’re singing “oh hokey-cokey-cokey now!!).

The same is true for every plane of our existence. In friendships, in families, in love. Sometimes our legs are in and then they’re out again. Sometimes other appendages are doing the same (make your own rude jokes up on that one, I’m in the middle of a Disney blogpost). Sometimes you’re shaking it all about. Sometimes you’re turning around in ever decreasing circles. And if you’re really lucky you end up holding hands and coming together, only to come apart again (but secretly knowing you’ve a good chance of repeating the same again).

So why approach life, love, family or work with too much of a degree of certainty, too much a degree of thoughtthroughness, too much of a routemap? Because the river you are stepping into now is not the river that you will be stepping into next year, or the one after that. And so it is with our OPP project: different teachers, different policies, different incarnations of accountability regimes, different students, different curriculum, and so on. It’s not to say that there is no plan, just that the plan writes itself as it goes along and is always courageously tentative, or tentatively courageous (you know how I like these inverted oxymorons – my favourite devices). The Plan – let me capitalise it so you know there is one – goes with the flow as I believe all plans should.

We All Must Pay a Price

But people, I guess, can’t live like that
We all must pay a price
To be safe, we lose our chance of ever knowing
What’s around the riverbend
Waiting just around the riverbend

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This is the one that worries me a bit when thinking about school improvement and Hélène’s shock (the discussion we had about the organicity was quite lengthy and rigorous for she is a fab critical friend) did give me the wobbles for a while. If people “can’t live like that” what am I doing leading them with such a reliance on serendipity and an unplanned sense of direction? Hopefully if you’ve read a few of my posts you’ll see that I’m a person that places people at the centre of what I do.

But then the song kicks up a notch with the line about being safe meaning that we “lose our chance of ever knowing what’s around the riverbend” and that is where it properly springs into life. I’m sure that there is a safe way of creating an infused ethos of pedagogy in a school that is outstanding, for Ofsted and for others, but I’m absolutely certain that that is not enough for me. In the video Pocahontas steers her course downriver in a canoe or kayak (or some other craft whose name I don’t know). But if there are to be no riverbends then her craft would have been a barge and her life a canal. If you’re steering towards true excellence or greatness then surely you need the natural features of rivers including the uncertainty of bends over the knowability of linearity, which is no kind of steering at all.

And as in a professional life so it should be in a personal one. I have never fancied the peculiarity of canal boat holidays or a canal boat life, caught somewhere between security and adventure, a home and a wilderness, a pathway and an ocean. Of course life is about knowing when to steer the steady course and follow the pathways to a specific goal, but living is about approaching the darkness of not fully knowing without too much fear. Living is a process whilst life is the product. Living is a verb whilst life is a noun. Living is active whilst life is passive. The one leads to the other but living can’t possibly done without paddling our canoes or kayaks (or whatever) bravely around the riverbend, and I’m not prepared to pay the price of not knowing because I’m both curious and a curiosity in equal measure.

Beyond the Shore

I look once more
Just around the riverbend
Beyond the shore
Where the gulls fly free
Don’t know what for
What I dream the day might send
Just around the riverbend
For me
Coming for me

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This section of the song is about why I go around the riverbend (I keep thinking of it as going around the bend, but that’s a different blogpost) with this work on developing great teaching and learning at my school. In some ways it’s summed up by the line “where the gulls fly free” because its incredibly important to my concept of great pedagogy that we don’t ensnare teachers in the cages that the National Strategies kind of became, where beautiful free-flying and sometimes-soaring teaching had its wings clipped by the sharp blades of accountability frameworks and level descriptors and APP and even… pauses pregnantly… government-sanctioned AfL (there, I said it!!).

Instead the approach we have taken towards looking to the future is one that embraces the “don’t know what for” spirit, but that is in reality about what we “dream the day might send”. We are not just for learning but we are about learning, because if we can’t be about learning then we can’t properly be for learning (try reading that after a couple of aperitifs!). Our teachers are co-constructing our pedagogy and if they are going to properly do that then they have to learn (from experts, from students, from bloggers, but mostly from each other) and we, as leaders in our turn, need to learn from them. This is crucial because of the ‘I’ in Pocahontas’s song: our whole staff are taking this journey with us and there’s no point in dreaming for them. Instead we need to dream with them, which means steering all our boats round dozens of riverbends. How on earth can we plan for that?

Again for me this is how it should be with life: looking closely and ceaselessly for what we can’t see coming because the looking and dreaming is so terribly important. Having the optimism to fix your gaze not on the horizon, because that is always out of sight whilst going round the riverbend, but on the internal visions of what might be round that corner is the best optimism of all because it is full of trust. Of course there may be perils like the rapids and waterfalls on Pocahontas’s journey. In relationships we can find ourselves in tossed about by turbulent waters or threatened and hemmed in by jutting rocks. But we might also find a thrill in these potential threats and if we are surehanded and certain in our strokes we have every chance of steering ourselves to safety; surprised and inspired not stymied and stifled.

Beyond Those Trees

I feel it there beyond those trees
Or right behind these waterfalls
Can I ignore that sound of distant drumming

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In this section of the song Pocahontas demonstrates the sense of inner belief of those of us seeking the bend in the river: the utter belief that whatever the travails there is something worth it all lying in wait, however intangible it may seem when we first set sail. She says how she “feels it” to be there without ever defining what she means by the “it” of that sentence. What she is talking about is the ‘leap of faith’ that is always required when embarking upon something unknown and potentially special. Have a look at her face as she approaches the waterfall and you’ll as what I mean: it is beyond beautiful.

For me that ‘leap of faith’ is the sure and certain knowledge (or perhaps belief) that great teaching and learning in its entirety is already within the walls of our school, happening in the classrooms of my colleagues. At times it may be fragmented and disaggregated within the school through ineffective structures, within departments through ineffective relationships and within people through ineffective self-esteem or self-confidence. But with the right conditions created by leaders the fragmented can become connected and the disaggregated can become whole at all these levels. No book can entirely tell us how to do it, just as no map can tell us what is lying around the corner and so we have to rely on a word too rarely heard in leadership discourse for my liking: intuition.

Intuition is also vital in our lives beyond our schools. There are no recipes or routemaps for our many relationships and sometimes there is nothing else to follow than the seemingly “distant drumming” of our intuition which is in reality the pounding of the blood in our veins and the pounding of the hearts in our chests. And the fact is that we can’t ignore them. And the fact is that we shouldn’t ignore them. They are quite often all we have that makes the journey worthwhile in the first place, just as in schools our intuition about the right thing to do to help children is what makes us turn up every day and get our oars wet.

Why Do All My Dreams Extend

I look once more
Just around the riverbend
Beyond the shore
Somewhere past the sea
Don’t know what for …
Why do all my dreams extend
Just around the riverbend?
Just around the riverbend …

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Once she has experienced the main thrill of her journey Pocahontas again “looks” beyond her vision to where the next riverbend is and contemplates more uncertainty, more potential thrills and more potential threats. Not content with having negotiated the rapids, rocks and waterfalls she begins to “see” even further, not just “beyond the shore” now but “somewhere past the sea” to bigger adventures and more fabulous experiences.

Two and a half years into the OPP project the riverbends we have rounded have opened up so much to us as a school. We have generated an explicit ethos for learning, engaged staff in very large numbers, created innovative posts and filled them with innovative postholders, transformed INSET days, blogged and blogged and begun to persuade others that our approach is worthwhile and even worth watching and wondering about however wishful and wistful and wishy-washy it may initially seem to be. It was actually when Hélène came to visit and was treated to a diagrammatic walkthrough of our achievements by Renata that I realised how truly wonderful the journey has been so far. But the desire to go further and do more and dream differently is, if anything, stronger than it ever was. And so we ‘look’ once more and ‘look’ further still.

But we want all our dreams to extend, not just the work-related ones. We will take the periods of calm reflection, such as those that may have come during our Christmas break, as times in which to catch our breath from the exertions of the past term. We may even stop paddling and briefly lose sight of the way forward in our friendships and relationships with others. But too much drift isn’t good for any of us for too long and (before too long becomes too long) we need to close our eyes in order to ‘see’ our way once more.

Should I Choose The Smoothest Curve?

Should I choose the smoothest curve
Steady as the beating drum?
Should I marry Kocoum?
Is all my dreaming at an end?
Or do you still wait for me, Dream Giver
Just around the riverbend?

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Pocahontas finishes the song with four rhetorical questions. We all know the answers. The “smoothest curve” is not enough for a rapid-rider, rock-risker or wide-eyed waterfaller, even if it may once have been. Her dreaming is not at an end at all because she has her Dream Giver waiting for her. The journey has become self-sustaining, self-nourishing and self-motivating.

The bottom-up nature of our work on pedagogy is similarly addictively iterative in nature. The rewards of our earlier work have become self-sustaining because they have whetted our appetite for success. The contributions made by key teachers to our OPP project have become self-nourishing because there is no finer feeling as a leader than seeing better leaders than you emerging because of your work. The responses of the vast majority of our staff have become self-motivating because they are the ones urging us to paddle faster and show them just how great we can all be.

We all need our Dream Givers. It is so important we have them in our working lives, but they are utterly invaluable in our personal lives and, by their influence, our professional lives too. But here’s the important thing to remember about our Dream Givers (be they children, partners, friends, family or even colleagues): they are usually only reciprocating the dreams that you give to them. Just as they keep you going on your journey, so you keep them going on theirs. Last term, having ridden the rapids, smiled through the stoppers and whistled through the whirlpools of our journey, we brought our boat to a rest. Now, fully rested, we are beckoned again by the Dream Giver from beyond the riverbend. How could we possibly do anything but pick up our paddles and take on the turbulent and tumultuous torrents once more?

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