Oh What a Circus! Oh What a Show!

Posted on November 11, 2013

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Schools aren’t entirely unlike circuses. (Bear with me on this one.) Everyday teachers up and down the country pull off the most ridiculous feats (cf the episode of Educating Yorkshire where Mr Burton used the King’s Speech film to make us all ooh and aah), logic-defying successes that rely upon a combination of skill, practice and damned good luck.

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Sometimes these teachers figuratively walk the tightrope between what they know to be right and what they know to be on the best interest of the school or students, wobbling precariously as their idealism and pragmatism seek to find a degree of equilibrium that allows them to put one front in front of the other.

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Sometimes these teachers metaphorically swallow the most unpalatable of swords right to the hilt, feeling the keen blade of things they disagree with sinking deep into their gullet and sensing the need to cough their displeasure in spite of the consequences.

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Sometimes these non-literal human cannonballs of teachers wait nervously for the fuse of a new initiative to reach the tinderbox of their classrooms with explosive results, aware of how the momentum generated by such a blast might propel them far from safety.

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Sometimes these teachers of my over-heating allegorical blogposts ride the motorbikes of their INSET-sanctioned pedagogy round and round the circular walls of death, heading in seemingly ever decreasing circles with dizzying repetitiveness until the engine stops and they find that they’ve gone nowhere.

Forgive the cynicism in the above examples (it is still two days till happy hump day, after all), but judging from the mood of twitter at times this is exactly how many teachers feel and are made to feel by their matinee performances under the Big Top of their classrooms. At times there is a real sense of freak show rather than circus show to what these commentators report about the goings on of their schools.

But this post isn’t for them. It’s for you incumbent or aspiring leaders and, in line with the conceit informing this post, your role in the circus of your schools. There is one question this post asks of you: what kind of circus leader do you aspire to be?

The Ringmaster Leader
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This is the most obvious pose for the school leader to take underneath his or her Big Top: the Big Cheese. Sometimes it feels like everyone wants and needs and expects you to take on the role of Master of Ceremonies, and it’s a role that can be addictive once you have adopted it: yelling out “roll up, roll up” as you roll your sleeves up and hold everything together. What’s more, it’s a countenance as favoured as it is exemplified by those ringmasters of the political circus surrounding education. But once you come to see yourself as belonging at the centre of the stage…..

The Strongman Leader
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This is another archetype of the school leader that has gained traction in recent years: the boxer-like “I will work harder” leader who believes that they alone are holding the school on their shoulders. These members of SLTs will bend iron bars with their fingers by attempting to be the best teacher in the school. They will lift heavy weights with their teeth by attempting to take on every behaviour issue in sight. They will wear the tightest leotard in town in attempting to be ever-present and omnipresent for their colleagues. But sometimes, when the brawn is not enough…..

The Clown Leader
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At their best, the clown leaders provide much-needed light relief with their “make ’em laugh” raison d’être; an oasis of insanity in a seeming desert of greater insanity. Circus clowns provide a vital function in circuses of punctuating the moments of high tension with self-reflexive parody, and this is certainly as necessary in schools. But once you open yourself up as being a figure of fun…..

The Juggler Leader
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You know the type all too well. These leaders seem to do everything all at once and nobody has a clue how they keep all of their balls, or batons, or knives, or chairs or flaming torches in the air. If there’s a new initiative to be launched then just throw it at them and they’ll seamlessly catch it and start flinging it around like it had always belonged with the rest of their jobs. But once one object gets dropped…..

The Contortionist Leader
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The contortionist leader will almost literally bend over backwards for his or her colleagues. They will tie themselves in knots in order to get the best out of those they work with, knowing and showing their flexibility for all to see. There’s no rule that can’t be twisted or no manipulated to help them achieve success for their colleagues and their schools. But once you forget how to be rigid in your beliefs…..

The Grand Finale
Ultimately, the types of leaders mentioned here are one-dimensional caricatures of school leadership. Like the circus itself there is a need for variety in how individuals approach their whole-school roles. Some of the time it is right to be the Ringmaster, the Strongman, the Clown, the Juggler and the Contortionist when you are in a position of responsibility, be that as a teacher, an NQT mentor, a Head of Department or a Deputy Head. It’s just never right to allow yourself to be pigeon-holed into just one of these roles all of the time.

But there is one final type of circus leader that I do think needs to be a constant occupation and preoccupation of senior leaders within schools to ensure that the show goes on. It’s not a front-of-house role and it won’t even be noticed by the crowd most of the time, let alone be “wont to set the table on a roar”. It is finicky role that needs patience and takes time to do properly, but if done properly it allows the whole circus to be astounding (and maybe, on an average day, just outstanding!).

The Safety Net Leader

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The safety net leader is the school leader who devises and constructs and puts in place all of the support mechanisms that allow the trapeze artistry of school staff to take the risks to do something different and take the risks to not do something differently in equal measure.

The safety net leader makes sure that the warp of “doing it well” and the weft of “doing it right” are woven together and, at the points where these two connect, ensures that the knots are tied tightly with a sense of a suffused school ethos.

The safety net leader makes sure that the interstices, the holes within the net, are not too big to allow anyone to fall through. They ensure that the the tension of the whole net is set properly between too much challenge/too little support and too little challenge/too much support so that it can bear the weight of any falling body; for we are all sure to fall at some point, however confident we are that we won’t.

Many thanks to Stephen Logan for prompting the idea for this blogpost, and for those of you disappointed at the disconnect between the title and the content of this blogpost, here’s a bit of David Essex because “oh what an exit, that’s how to go”!!!

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