The Ridiculous and The Sublime

Headteacher above a sea of fog

The sublime in literature refers to the use of language which evokes thoughts and emotions beyond the everyday. Though often associated with grandeur, the sublime may also refer to the grotesque or other extraordinary experiences that “take[s] us beyond ourselves.” The concept of the sublime relates to something which is both beautiful or alluring whilst also being threatening or frightening.

It’s a concept I teach to English literature classes as it’s pertinent to Wordsworth’s extract from The Prelude in which he describes a young boy discovering a small boat. He rows the boat out into the midst of nature where he discovers both the beauty and stark truth of the world around him as well as the beauty and stark truth within his own identity as a developing human being. This is the way Wordsworth describes the opening to his adventure:

“One summer evening (led by her) I found/ A little boat tied to a willow tree/
Within a rocky cove, its usual home./
Straight I unloosed her chain, and stepping in/ Pushed from the shore. It was an act of stealth/ And troubled pleasure…”

Extract from The Prelude by William Wordsworth.

I was reminded of this whilst reading Adam Boxer’s recent post I Want to Go Back To School. The pleasure many will take in stepping back in to the school boat properly will be weighed against the concerns and troubled pleasures they may have. If these emotions aren’t considered by everyone involved in any return to school, we will get things badly wrong.

Headteacher caught in the hay wain.

This sense weighs particularly heavily with me as I’ve had a sublime and ridiculous first two years of headship. In my first year, I was unable to be in school (on and off) for about two and a half months due to a combination of concurrent health conditions which a number of surgeons told me were almost impossible to have at the same time. In my second year, we’ve had a pandemic which has closed schools internationally. Though in both cases I’ve absolutely understood the need for caution, both sets of incidents have also been deeply frustrating. I’ve been a headteacher for two academic years but six months of this time has been at an absurd and infuriating distance.

Some people talk about a new normal as if we’ll be godlike figures creating something from scratch which will last forever.

The ancient of headteachers with a lockdown beard.

Mostly, I’m keen to get stuck into strengthening normal and, though I know the temporary new normal needs to be considered, I think it would be very easy for us to take our eyes off too much of what works during normal times. There’s a lot of talk about catch up curricula and recovery curricula. Though it is the case that some students will have had traumatic experiences through which, at any time, they would need support, what they and their peers will mainly need is:A strong and aspirational culture with effective pastoral support for everyone, rather than over-communicating a sense that students are part of a lost generation

  • Intelligent use of assessment rather than an immediate and scattergun testing approach to make ourselves feel like we’re identifying gaps but which will actually show students what they and we already know – that they didn’t learn as much as they normally would whilst they were away from their teachers
  • Responsive teaching and checking for understanding with high ratios of participation, thinking and application rather than easing back into school

In this post, I’d like to focus on culture outlining the work which @AnthonyRadice1 has started to lead on. It draws on his time at Great Yarmouth Charter Academy with @BarryNSmith79. You may also see links with the work of Michaela Community School, @carpenter_rob and Tom Bennett. However, the way in which we draw these elements together will make our school distinctive and special.

Saturn Eating Child

September eating school culture.

Each school has its own unique culture – different from that of any other school in the world. This is because culture is not formed from posters on walls and motivational speeches in assemblies. Instead, culture is formed from the ways in which people behave, their actions, what they believe about themselves and the ways in which people interact. 

‘Culture is not formed by motivational speeches or statements of values. It is formed by repeated practice – using every minute of every day to build good habits.’ 

Paul Bambrick Santoyo, Leverage Leadership

When people visit a school, they can get a sense of the culture very quickly because they see the ways in which people behave there, how they hold themselves, how they treat each other, what they do, how they talk about themselves and how they talk to each other. Culture is not about a small group, it is about every single person together. The culture of a school is about what the people do and say there every single minute of every single day. It is about their habits – how they develop good ones and how they break away from bad ones. 

Culture provides us with a sense of belonging. As humans, we like to feel that we belong to something, something which is going to benefit us – sometimes individually and sometimes collectively. Providing students with this sense of belonging is motivating. It gives them something to which they can contribute which is always important, but will be particularly important on the return to school this academic year.

At our school, our culture is underpinned by our DISC values of: Drive, Integrity, Scholarship and Contribution.

We model ambition, effort and a determination to improve. We solve problems, taking timely action when necessary and seeing things through to completion. We have high expectations of our students and ourselves. We are productively dissatisfied, searching for the highest leverage changes we can make to improve our practice. We are professional in our actions, organisation and appearance. We use the language of possibility, resilience and growth. We don’t believe prior attainment determines future performance. We celebrate excellence and accelerated improvement, particularly where this has involved overcoming challenges.

We are warm and strict.We model politeness, honesty, humility and respect. We care about and invest in our students, our colleagues as individuals and respect our environment. We develop habits and instil character through being consistent in our systems and routines. We celebrate outstanding acts of kindness.

We model curiosity, fluency and precision. We demonstrate a joy for learning. We seek to gain expertise through training, reading, examining the findings of robust research and listening to those with a proven track record of success – seeking out ways to raise standards for our students. We are reflective. We own our mistakes and learn from them. We are candid, constructive and emotionally aware in our feedback to others and seek this kind of feedback for ourselves from our mentors and coaches. We celebrate academic and vocational success.

We model through our commitment to and investment in our students, school and community. We ensure effective contribution through clarity of our expectations and communication. We enable our students to lead and participate in our wide-ranging Pupil Charter programme and our house system.  We celebrate our students’ contributions to the Nova family and the wider world.  We champion and embrace all that is on offer to our students at Nova. 

The Urban Cookie Collective model of school improvement

Strong school cultures open doors to students’ futures. Each student leaves a door in the morning to begin their journey to school from their family home. When they arrive at school though, they all come into the same building through the same door.

Just like parents and carers, schools should want the best for their students. They should want their students’ time at school to enable them to do whatever they might wish – schools should want students to be the best possible version of themselves and to learn as much as they possibly can. Schools should believe in bringing out the best in every one of their students. It’s important that a school is able to open the eyes of its students to things which they may not have even felt were possible before – that they might not have even heard of before. Schools have the capacity to unlock and open doors to students’ futures. 

In order to open a door, you need a key. Over the coming year, we’re going to be working on a number of keys which will help unlock our students’ futures, making them believe in themselves and, over time, to see, aim for and secure the brightest possible futures for themselves. In this way, we’ll strengthen our culture, making our students feel that they belong to a place which is incredibly special.

The caretaker with a particularly shiny key.

  1. The key of consistency
  2. The key of warmth
  3. The key of strictness
  4. The key of language
  5. The key of corridor culture
  6. The key of acknowledgement
  7. The key of tradition, ceremony and symbolism
  8. The key of CPD
  9. The key of visible leadership

The keys of consistency, warmth and strictness

The first of these keys, which sits at the foundations of the our school culture, is consistency.

The kind of strong culture I’ve just described comes from everyone developing and sticking to excellent habits. Habits aren’t something you switch on one day and turn off another. They can only be formed by repeated practice and we only get the amount of practice we need if we are consistent: consistent in our expectations, consistent in our language, and consistent in the way we follow up on anything that does not meet our high standards. This doesn’t mean that everyone is going to be exactly the same. We are all different and we should celebrate the level of diversity in schools. However, as Lieutenant General David Morrison said, “The standard that you walk past is the standard you accept.” Every member of staff in a school is different just as every student is different but we would want every member of staff, every day to have the same, sky high expectations of the students and to help students to develop the same sky-high expectations of themselves through the work and personal habits they build. We need to consistently help students to develop the habits to match the expectations of the school.

In order to achieve this, it’s possible to use the second pair of keys – warmth and strictness.

Schools show warmth in their interactions with students because they care about the students. Schools should support and challenge their students because they believe that they can always go one step further, jump one notch higher, do one bit better and they should want the students to believe this too. If students make a mistake, they can learn from it and move on, always striving to improve and schools should help their students to see how to make these improvements. Schools should care about their students being successful and being the best that they can be. 

The key of warmth is balanced with the key of strictness.

Warmth isn’t about letting students get away with things.

Equally, strictness isn’t about being nasty or mean or horrible. In fact, it’s precisely the opposite. Strictness, rules, routines and procedures in schools should be used entirely because the staff care about the students. Schools can give their students a sense of reassurance and help to create a culture where it’s possible to be really focused on hard work and learning and in which students can achieve amazing things. Schools should make their rules clear to reinforce fairness and justice. Rules help students to focus their attention on being the best version of themselves– both inside and outside of the classroom. Teachers should demonstrate that they care about students and the culture of the school through their consistent application of a clear and shared behaviour system. Sometimes students might feel that this is because teachers and other staff are being mean. It’s actually because they want their students to learn from what has happened and they want their students to be a better version of themselves every day. This is why there needs to be a focus on trying to be as consistent as possible in being both warm and strict.

The key of language

Our fourth key to unlocking a culture of excellence and to unlocking those exciting doors to students’ futures is that of language. This is partly relating to the words which we use, but it’s also to do with non-verbal communication – the way we hold ourselves, the way that we walk through the building, our body language and the way that we interact. The way that we stand and hold ourselves says something about us. It sends a message to others but it also sends a message to ourselves. We shoud walk with pride – pride in ourselves and pride in each other.

Our students will sit in our classrooms in a way which shows respect for themselves, what they’re learning and for each other too. Their poise will be developed through the way in which they SLANT. They will sit up straight, listen carefully to the teacher or other students who are contributing, they will ask and answer questions like scholars to help with their learning, they will never interrupt and will track the speaker to show them that they are listening to and have respect for their contributions.

At our school, students will talk in a well SHAPEd way. They will talk in full sentences, expressing themselves in speech in a way which will help them to rehearse the way in which they will write. They will aim to have their hands away from their mouths when they talk so that they show they are proud of what they have to say, what others can learn from them and that they know mistakes are not something to be afraid of, but instead they are something which can learned from. They will articulate their words precisely and clearly, projecting their voices so that they can be heard and they will endeavour to make eye contact with the people to whom they are talking.

The Key of Corridor Culture

Walking Tall

Our school’s reputation and popularity have grown due to the many improvements over the past few year. As year groups have been growing, the wide corridors at the school have started to seem fuller. Next year, excitingly, we have nearly 220 students joining us in Year 7 – we had 149 in the outgoing Year 11.

To keep the calm, purposeful focus which is part of our culture at the school, from next year when we move through the building we’re going to walk on the left, no more than two in a row together. We’ll keep to the left because we want everyone to be able to move smoothly and safely from one place to another. Just as cars drive on the left, we’ll walk on the left. Drivers don’t choose which side of the road to drive on, because they want to get safely and smoothly to their destination. We want the same thing for ourselves and for each other. Our teachers who will be on duty will use polite, warm reminders of these expectations because they care about safety, and they care about learning – they will want students to get to lessons calmly and move as purposefully as possible from one lesson to another.

We’ll also ensure doors are open for those behind us, holding our heads high, smiling and greeting those we meet. Our corridors will be ringing with cheerful greetings and filled with smiles. They will be filled with positive words, respect for one another, politeness and good manners. The words thank you, excuse me, please and, when appropriate, sorry will echo through our wings because these kinds of words demonstrate that we have taken STEPS to show respect for each other and help us to develop and maintain a level of self-respect.

Scholars, Ladies and Gentlemen

At our school, we address our students collectively either as ‘scholars, ladies and gentlemen’. We do not call them children, kids, teenagers or lads.

We call them ‘scholars, ladies and gentlemen’ because of our high aspirations for them. We want them to have excellent manners and self-respect. We want them to look people in the eye and say, ‘Good morning’ or ‘Good afternoon’. We want them to walk along with their heads held high, looking out with confidence at the world.

This is about building a positive culture where good manners and polite conversation are the norm. This is about having the highest possible expectations of our students, so that rudeness or aggression are simply unthinkable. It’s not about saying ‘don’t do these bad things’, it’s about saying ‘be this person’.

‘Sir’ or ‘Miss’

We are accustomed to students calling teachers ‘Sir’ or ‘Miss’. At our school, when talking to students as individuals, we call them by their name or we use ‘Sir’ or ‘Miss’. Our mantra will be always ‘We’re very polite to you; you’re very polite to us’.

Although it is our aim to accurately know as many students’ names as possible, we will always able to address students politely by addressing them as ‘Sir’ or ‘Miss’, whether we know their name or not. As we walk around the corridors between lessons or at breaktimes, we will make polite requests of students using these terms of address.

Corridor Displays

Just as the way in which we conduct ourselves and relate to one another around the school sends a powerful message about who we are as a community, so the displays in our corridors act as a reminder of the things we value. At our school every single display should show our students and visitors that we cherish at least one of our four values: Drive, Integrity, Scholarship and Contribution.

They should also expose pupils to the very best we can share in order to raise aspirations.

Through our displays, we make our values tangible. They act as a silent teacher. This is why, at our school , every display board has a clear function and every display board is refreshed to a clear schedule. Display boards which remain indefinitely do not demonstrate a sense of drive. The typical functions of our display boards are:

  • To celebrate the highest quality work so as to inspire our current students.
  • To share student achievements.
  • To highlight/exemplify specific aspects of the curriculum
  • To celebrate the diversity in our community
  • To draw attention to the ways in which our students could contribute to the wider world, raising their ambitions and aspirations.
  • To celebrate the successes and achievements of our alumni and other members of the our community.
  • To highlight excellent opportunities available to our students in terms of student leadership or our Charter so as to inspire participation.

Beyond the Corridor

Our DISC values must be lived, explicitly, constantly in every aspect of school life, not just in our corridors, but also in the playground, on trips, with visitors, in games, on the way to and from school, in assemblies and at awards evenings.

We will use every opportunity to role model, talk about, reinforce and celebrate our values, use our mnemonics and strengthen our culture.

The Key of Acknowledgment

DISC Points

At our school, teachers will have 30 DISC Points which they can award each week. When giving DISC points, our teachers will tell students why they are being awarded with a focus on one of the four DISC values. They give a clear signal to the rest of the class of why their work has earned them a praise point. At the end of the lesson, teachers will always spend a minute or two reflecting on the great things which have been achieved, mentioning those who have earned DISC points and why.

Student DISC Postcards

Each week, our teachers will pick two students who have impressed them the most and give them a DISC Postcard to take home. These postcards will be awarded for those who have exemplified most strongly our DISC values: drive, integrity, scholarship and contribution.

Verbal Acknowledgements

Every morning at Roll Call, teachers or students will highlight three other members of the schoolcommunity for an acknowledgement. The teacher will explain why this person deserves our acknowledgement. We will get our hands out and clap in unison twice to show our appreciation for the great things they have achieved.

Staff Acknowledgement Postcards

Each month, students will be given an acknowledgement postcard which they will write to a member of staff to show their acknowledgement of and gratitude for the hard work the member of staff has put in and the support they have provided. These will be given in to the House Office and distributed to teachers by the student runners.

The Key of Traditions, Ceremonies and Symbolism

Roll Call

Roll Call is an integral part of our culture. It enables us to ensure that students are fully prepared for the day ahead. It promotes punctuality, organisation and a sense of belonging.

Alongside the business aspect of Roll Call though, there is also a significant cultural element. At Roll Call, Heads of House won’t merely deliver messages, solve uniform infringements and check the reflection list. They will also celebrate successes, run acknowledgements and lead the House mantra and poetry chanting.

Assemblies

Our assemblies are the perfect opportunity to reinforce and celebrate the importance of our values. Students in Years 7-10 attend three assemblies per week:

  1. A House Assembly led by the Head of House.
  2. A Whole School Assembly led by a member of SLT or an invited member of staff with a specific area of expertise.
  3. A DISC Assembly led by the Senior Assistant Principal or Headteacher.

All assemblies should be an opportunity to pump fresh oxygen into our ethos and culture. This is achieved by ensuring all assemblies:

  • Are characterised by excellent student conduct.
  • Are vibrant and life affirming gatherings.
  • Are well organised and structured
  • Are punctual to begin and end.
  • Thread through clear messages about our values and expectations to develop a sense of belonging and identity in our community. The focus on our DISC values can be achieved both implicitly (through speaker and topic choice, rewards and reminders) and explicitly (direct reference to school rules).

Poetry Chanting

At our school, we are driven to improve our minds by mastering powerful knowledge. We do this as a community by learning poetry together. The experience of chanting poetry in unison is a great way to make it more memorable, but it is also something which unites us.

Our shared knowledge is something that gives us strength both intellectually and morally. We don’t just learn the words of the poems; we spend time reflecting on their meaning, drawing out the lessons we can learn that strengthen our DISC values. The powerful words we have learned will stay with us for the rest of our lives, a treasured possession that no one can take away.

Summer Ball

Our Summer Ball is one of the ways in which we celebrate the culmination of our student’s time with us. It marks the point at which students are moving on to adulthood.

Year 11 Awards Ceremony

Alongside the Summer Ball, we use the Year 11 Awards Ceremony to celebrate our students’ achievements over their years at school. All teachers attend the ceremony as a mark of respect to the hard work of our students. It is a formal occasion during which certificates are given out and awards are presented.

The Key of CPD

Professional development relating to school culture will necessarily be a continuous process throughout a teacher’s career as, if leaders are doing their jobs effectively, they will notice when there is a need to amend, reinforce, strengthen and develop school culture.

If staff (as well as students) are to believe that they are capable of more than perhaps even they think possible, it is crucial that they experience high levels of support from their leadership. Providing them with robust and effective CPD plays a substantial part in the formation of the professional identity.

Professional development at our school doesn’t only occur in discrete chunks such as external training days or INSETs. It is a fluid continuum composed of every interaction between professionals. Alongside centralised whole school CPD relating to our culture, every interaction, from line management through to a passing conversation in the corridor is a potential moment of training, instruction, reinstruction or correction in terms of our culture. Every interaction between school leaders and staff members must promote dignity, positive regard and high expectations. Staff should feel (and be) supported, but also acknowledge their responsibilities.

The Key of Visible Leadership

At our school senior and middle leaders are present on corridors, on lunch queues, in the pastoral base, at the school gates, and in every area of the school community. This is because they understand the need to consciously and persistently model, monitor, maintain and develop the culture. We are present and visible in key areas of the school. In order to achieve this, we are relentlessly intentional about how we use our time. We use verbal and nonverbal cues to create the culture described in this booklet, acknowledging the positive, expecting 100% and using Do It Again where necessary to achieve this. We provide prompt feedback to staff, model the language we want to hear, address student non-compliance on the spot and celebrate success. We use what we see to identify CPD needs and high leverage actions to implement. As a result, over time our culture becomes stronger and stronger.

Making it happen

This culture has to be consciously brought to life. Tom Bennett describes three steps which schools need to take in order to do this in the following passage from Creating a Culture.

Design

Cultures require deliberate creation. A key role of leadership is to design a detailed vision of what the culture should look like for that school, focusing on social and academic conduct. There should be ambitious goals and the highest expectations possible, for all. There should be a belief that all students matter.

Build

Staff and students need to know how to achieve this, and what the culture looks like in practice, from behaviour on buses to corridor conduct and diner etiquette. Leaders should be highly visible and supported by a strong Senior Leadership Team. This means demonstrating it, communicating it thoroughly, and ensuring that every aspect of school life feeds into and reinforces that culture. This requires attention to detail and thoroughness of execution.

Maintain

School systems require maintenance. They need to be applied in a highly consistent manner. This is often where good cultures break down. It is reasonably straightforward to identify what a good culture might look like, but like a diet, the difficulty lies in embedding and maintaining it. This includes staff training, effective use of consequences, data monitoring, staff and student surveys and maintaining standards.

Strengthening our culture in this manner will, no doubt, be both exciting and challenging – a troubled pleasure. However, it will provide stability for our students and a level of aspiration for our students which will open their horizons, taking them beyond themselves.

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