I remember reading John’s first blog when it appeared in June 2012. Since then his posts have been consistently wise and deeply human. Even when he bangs on about golf, fishing or The Clash. Until I read that John was a headteacher who actually taught – actual classes – I’d never encountered this as a concept before. Since then I’ve seen him as a lodestone; my ideal against which I measure all other heads. I’ve had the privilege of meeting him a couple of times and he’s as warm, tolerant and kind as you imagine him to be. We sat next to each other at Anthony Seldon’s select speaker’s dinner at Wellington College last Thursday and swapped stories about feeling like gatecrashers. Turns out, John actually did gatecrash!
His book was waiting for me when I got back from the Festival of Education on Friday evening. I put off opening it until the following day because I knew it would be something to savour. I was right.
John’s book is part autobiography, part call to arms and part instructional guide for any budding headteacher. I’ve never wanted to be a head, but I’ve loved being a teacher. Since I left the classroom I get asked frequently about whether I miss it and the honest answer is no. John writes, “Colleagues who have no autonomy over what they do are the ones who can feel most stressed, whilst head teachers can make choices about nearly every aspect of their working lives.” (p.186) I’m very fortunate to be able to make choices about pretty much every aspect of my working life these days and I don’t think I could bear to give that up. Should the system do more to keep me in the classroom? Maybe.
I loved reading about the details of John’s early life. Whilst my own parents came from more middle-class origins, our childhoods weren’t dissimilar. I grew up in Birmingham in the 70s and we were poor in a way that’s impossible for my own children to ever imagine. We drank powdered milk, got our school uniforms from jumble sales and never had what the other kids seemed to have. But we had a lot of books. I grew up in a house without a telly and in the evenings, everyone read. There wasn’t a lot else to do.
John’s school experiences also resonated. In the introduction he writes, “I hardly remember a single lesson from my own school days. In third year French, I fell off my seat backwards and Mr P made me lie on the floor for the rest of the lesson. Anyone who says teaching is getting worse has a short memory – much of the profession in the 1970s was shocking!” (p.6) There was still a lot of awful practice around when I started secondary school in 1983. Mr N, our deputy head, used to haul us around by the ear if displeased and my history teacher, Mr G, paid another student to beat me up at break time.
I loved his recollections of A level lessons:
Dave was an incredibly thorough teacher. When we studied Mill on the Floss we pored over every word – and there are quite a few of them. Once Dave enquired as to how long there was left of his own lesson. When one of us replied, ‘Thirty-five minutes’, he put his head on his desk in despair. Even he was bored. (p.70)
I’ve had much the same experience. Both as a student and as a teacher!
John talks about the power of education to provide choice. “Whilst it’s not about the money,” he says, “it is, to a significant extent, about my students’ lifelong earning potential.” Like John, I’ve been a manual labourer. I worked on building sites for a couple of my wilderness years. At the same time I was doing an A level at night school. One day I asked the foreman if I could have a day off to sit my A level literature exam. When I came to work the following day he’d promoted me to engineer’s mate because I was educated. I didn’t like to point out that sitting the exam was not the same as passing it. Being the engineer’s mate meant I got to hold a theodolite and paint yellow lines on stuff the engineer told me to paint yellow lines on. It was a vast improvement from labouring.
John writes about the symbolic power of the hated alarm clock that woke his father at 4am every morning for his post round: “It reminds me of him and the consequences of having no choice about how you live your life when you have no qualifications.” (p.183) Although various family members had a stab at university, I’m the first to have earned a degree. I’ve never regretted returning to education at the age of 23 having left school at 16.
Reading about John’s relationships with his father and his son Joe is deeply moving. I have two daughters and I know I don’t spend enough time with them. Until I left teaching two years ago I had never taken them into school or attended one of their assemblies. I’m not always as grateful as I should be for driving them into school on dark winter’s mornings.
My own father is still with us but he’s not a well man. We’ve had a fraught relationship over the years and have often struggled to connect about anything that actually matters. I catch myself worrying that my daughters might end up with similar views of me. Writing my latest book was an unanticipated bonding experience with my dad. He asked if he could read through my drafts – something he’d not shown an interest in before – and called me up a few days later to tell me how much he was enjoying it. He’s not a teacher and has never worked in education but found the whole thing “an eye-opener.” In the end, I dedicated my book to him with these lines from Alexander Pope:
We think our fathers fools, so wise we grow;
Our wiser sons, no doubt will think us so.
My eldest daughter, Olivia, is 11 and it sometimes seems that she’s on the cusp of thinking me a fool.
I realise this hasn’t been much of a review – more of a shambling, mawkish trip down memory lane – but then John’s book makes you do that. Although every chapter contains some golden nuggets about how to lead teachers, he never tells you what to think, but his garrulous, effortless style forces you to reflect with him. You might be mistaken for thinking this isn’t really a book about education but it absolutely is. The book brims with John convictions about the precarious but ringingly vital craft that is teaching.
I like it best when he tempers wisdom with provocation. This passage particularly resonates:
Any head teacher who explicitly puts the students first hasn’t thought about that decision though; the implication is that teachers are less important than students. The best thing for students is a happy, motivated staff; by putting the staff equal first with the students you are doing the best you can do for the students. (p.184)
If you’re thinking about taking that audacious step into school leadership, this book is for you. Understanding how you can lead a school placing love over fear might be the most important thing you do. Bu that’s not to say you’ve got to be scrambling up the greasy pole to appreciate it: anyone could learn a lot from John’s meditations.
On a personal note, the least expected outcome on reading this book is the thought that maybe Sir Ken Robinson does have something to tell us about education after all. John writes about the ‘agricultural model’ of education in a way the puts Sir Ken to shame. The backlash against Ken began when we realised he had nothing to offer in the way of solutions. I remember my disappointment at reading Out of Our Minds. It seemed there had to be another chapter that hadn’t found its way into my copy. O the emptiness! It seemed the emperor wore no clothes. But in might be that in John, Sir Ken’s ideas may have found useful form.
This Much I Know About Love Over Fear … Creating A Culture For Truly Great Teaching is the most moved and excited I’ve felt about reading an education book for a very long time. And not so quickly since reading Phil Beadle’s Dancing About Architecture. And there’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then. Throughout the book, John talks about ‘truly great teaching’; this is a truly great book.