This blog is offered as a personal reflection by Dan Morrow, CEO of Dartmoor Multi Academy Trust. The blog does not reflect the views of the MAT as a whole or of the Trustees. D-notes blogs are offered as a stimulus for reflection and as a provocation for discussion. Do use the comment field at the foot of the page to interact - we'd love to hear what your thoughts queries and responses.
When I was starting out in teaching, I was often praised for my insight and decisiveness with decision-making. I can process information quickly and come to my own reasoned conclusion at speed. Having come from a commercial background into teaching at a challenging inner city school, I was struck by how many decisions were not, in my opinion, being made speedily nor indeed at all. As I rapidly gained promotion, this aspect of being decisive began to breed in me an unhealthy sense that I was the one in the room most likely to be right; that quick meant good and that good meant action. In the mid to late 2000s this style of leadership, the “Soldier” and the “Surgeon” ( The One Type of Leader Who Can Turn Around a Failing School (hbr.org) were in fact celebrated and lauded. The intoxicating impact of both praise and what was deemed rapid impact led to a Command and Control style predicated on decisiveness. Making a decision in many ways became prized above the quality and lasting impact of the decision itself. By 2009 my view was shifting rapidly. On a personal note the weight of being at the apex of decision-making, of having created a circumstance where I wasn’t just expected to always know but presented as if I always did, took a toll. Equally, for the school I was leading there was the emergence of a funnel in decision making that was professionally frustrating but my own responsibility. I knew this and it took mentoring and coaching from outstanding leaders to help me to understand I needed to invert the pyramid; to coach, not tell. To listen more than I spoke.
The impact of this was immediate and profound- the teams I led were so much more obviously empowered and the distribution of not just leadership but decision-making helped to craft a culture of agency and of autonomy- anchored but not weighed down by the culture we all shared and refined. I went from being a leader of results to a leader of culture and as consequently the results took care of themselves. I intuitively began to see the impact of being architectural as a leader and to work in the spirit of true cooperation which goes beyond what collaboration can achieve. At first this manifested rather glibly with cliches such as “bring me the solution not the problem” but over time as I matured as a person and as a leader I started to understand the role that listening, and I mean really listening, plays in giving the confidence and skills needed for colleagues to actualise their own knowledge and skills.
Joining DMAT has taken me back to those days and I have needed to re-remember some lessons; our growth is cyclical rather than linear and sometimes we have to go back to prior learning to avoid our own temperamental defaults. For me, I like to get things done; I like to be positive and future focused and I cannot bear to see a day wasted for our children. Upon arrival, I have been praised for quick decision-making and for removing some historic blocks to our progress. It would be easy to preen and to see this as a positive, but instead it tells me the work we all need to do on our culture to ensure that decision-making rests where it most effectively sits; within our classrooms. There is no doubt that there are times when rapid decisions must be made and it needs to be in every leaders toolkit- equally so there are times when we can let things go and really think about what also needs to be heard. I was reminded of this most recently by a wonderful blog by Dr Jill Berry (Let it go…. – jillberry102)
'Which are the boulders that may slow the water, but the stream will continue to flow around them? What are the barriers that are causing so much obstruction and damage that you need to take time, working with others, to remove them? And sometimes we have to find compromises if we’re to move forward. I feel uneasy when the adjective ‘uncompromising’ is equated with leadership strength.'
Decisiveness has its place and always will; but it neither supplants the importance of truly listening nor should it be the default in how we interact and work with colleagues. In fact, I genuinely see some of my decisiveness in the early days of being Trust Leader at DMAT as a weakness that I need to reflect on and to improve; I am not here to make decisions for people- I am here to make it with you.
This blog is offered as a personal reflection by Veronica Lloyd-Richards, Trust Champion at Dartmoor Multi Academy Trust. The blog does not reflect the views of the MAT as a whole or of the Trustees. D-notes blogs are offered as a stimulus for reflection and as a provocation for discussion. Do use the comment field at the foot of the page to interact - we'd love to hear what your thoughts queries and responses.
Last week saw the return to school for many thousands of children across the country including the five thousand learners in the seventeen schools in our Dartmoor MAT. Whilst there is understandably some anxiety for colleagues about the return to classrooms, the overwhelming emotion felt by almost all educators is a sense of joy and relief to be freed from the distanced virtual world of remote learning and to reconnect with the young people who are the reason we do the work we do. To see them smile, to listen to their voices without the strange distorting effect of a laptop and to see them playing and talking with their friends has been a great feeling for everyone I know who works in schools. As a Trust Champion for the Dartmoor MAT, I am based in the sixth form building at Okehampton college and as I write this, I can hear the sound of a hotly-contested game of table tennis between two young people going on outside the window and the hum of serious discussion coming from the A-level classrooms on the corridor. Sounds that we used to take for granted but which now thankfully signal a return to some kind of normality.
Now that the children are back, there is much discussion about what they should be doing. Should we be making the school day longer? Should all the children be in for the summer holidays? Should they all be tutored? Should we be worrying most about ‘catch up’ or well-being or both? Plenty of questions but perhaps the most important thing for us to think about before we jump in with solutions is ‘who is best-placed to determine what is right for our children in the weeks and months ahead?’
In all of the challenges of the last twelve months and the emotional and practical difficulties that schools have had to think about, one thing has been very clear. Colleagues in schools have, time and time again made thoughtful, compassionate and intelligent choices about what is right for their children and communities. At times, that has arguably been in the absence of clear or timely guidance from the government. I’ve had conversations with many of our brilliant headteachers in the last few weeks about how they’ve supported their learners in this last lockdown and it has been amazing to hear how creative and thoughtful they have been in response to the needs of individual children and families.
Leaders and teachers have more than risen to the challenge and shown that they are, without doubt, best placed to make great decisions for their schools and communities. The many thousands of letters of admiration and praise sent to Ofsted by grateful parents (including some of our own) suggest that the families we serve also believe in schools to do the best thing for their children. My colleague Ed Finch has talked in a previous blog about the importance of independence of mind and professional judgement in our profession. This is something I’m very much thinking about in my role as I bring colleagues together to think about the approaches we take as a Trust to curriculum and pedagogy. Front of mind is the question of how we protect autonomy for teachers and leaders whilst also maximising the benefits of being part of a larger groups of schools.
There is wisdom and vast experience in the across our seventeen schools and being part of a Trust means that we all intuitively know that our chances of delivering on our mission to provide the highest possible quality of education for all local children is more likely to be succeed if we collaborate meaningfully, share expertise and support each other to be successful. Our work is not just for the benefit of our individual schools but for the Trust as a whole and even beyond our family of schools.
Key to my role as a Trust Champion is working across all of our schools to ensure that we are creating the conditions for our teachers to thrive as professionals. So what is necessary for this to happen? In their recent book The Teacher Gap, Prof Rebecca Allen and Dr Sam Sims suggest three things are critical for teachers to develop and grow. They need to feel:
1. Competence – to be able to demonstrate their abilities and continue to improve
2. Relatedness – to feel valued and respected by others
3. Autonomous – to be authors of their own actions
There’s no doubt that teacher autonomy is hugely important. A study published by the Teacher Development Trust in January 2020 concluded that “teacher autonomy is associated with higher job satisfaction and intention to stay in teaching.” It is clear that if we want to retain great colleagues and if we want them to feel fulfilment in their roles, then we need to ensure that our teachers have a strong sense of agency in their classrooms and in their professional growth.
It is also clear though that autonomy on its own is not sufficient. As teachers, if we are trusted to make decisions about what we are teaching and how we teach it, we also want to feel that we have sufficient knowledge and expertise to make those decisions the best they can be. Autonomy without the support and challenge of a professional community is not helpful either. We use our autonomy best when we know we are part of something bigger; a purpose which binds us together and brings meaning to our work.
These ideas of autonomy, connection and professional growth are key to the work we are embarking on as a Trust on curriculum and pedagogy. The work is being driven by groups of leaders and teachers who will join together regularly to set direction and codify ideas which will help colleagues across all our schools to do their best work. Each school will be represented and have a voice so that we can be sure that our collective work is deeply connected to the needs of each of our seventeen schools. We will be consciously building our own ‘competence’ and building a shared knowledge and understanding through reading and debate. In these groups, we will also build connections and strengthen the professional relationships across our schools so that colleagues, whether from our smallest or largest school, feel a greater sense of ‘relatedness’ with each other and the learners beyond their own schools.
I hope this way of working has the potential to be really powerful and to bring colleagues together to think about some of the most critical parts of our provision as a Trust. Key questions for us to consider are how we ensure our work reflects the rural context we work in as well as building on the best ideas already in the system
and how do we build the connectivity between our teachers and schools that will be so important for success. We’d love you to share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below to help us do our best work together.
This blog is offered by Gareth Smith, Trust Champion. The blog is offered as a provocation to thought and discussion and represents the authors personal views which are not the views of Dartmoor Multi Academy Trust as a whole. We would love to hear your thoughts and questions. Do use the comment function below.
2 years ago, I was sat in a room with several heads of mathematics from across the county. We were discussing which aspect our respective mathematics curriculums we could align to save on teacher workload. One of the leaders called out with “if we’re all having to teach exactly the same lessons, where is the passion about maths going to come from?”. I was infuriated! For me, the excitement about mathematics comes from the teachers, and most importantly they should not be afraid to show it!
Mathematics teachers are always frustrated when it gets to parents’ evenings and a dad will turn round to their child and say, “it doesn’t matter, I’m rubbish at maths and you’ve got a calculator on your phone.” Yet, they would not turn round to their child’s English teacher and complain about not being able to read. Being a good mathematician has not been ‘cool’ for a long time. Student’s need to see the example set by their mathematics teacher and see someone who is incredibly passionate about their subject. This way teachers are able to teach students far more mathematics than is in their textbooks. We want our learners to be inquisitive and ask why a piece of mathematics works. Teachers should not be afraid of the ‘when am I going to need to know how to solve a quadratic equation, when I’m going to be a car mechanic’ question. I have never been asked to quote a piece of Shakespeare, but I understand how learning about his works can help me to have a wider understanding of our culture and an appreciation of how the English language developed.
This is about role modelling. If a teacher is unable to demonstrate how beautiful mathematics is then how are the students going to start to appreciate its wonder? One of my favourite areas of mathematics is prime numbers. They are incredible and their properties boundless. They are the building blocks of multiplication and the basis of internet security. Whenever I discuss proof with the students or want to show them how good they can be at mathematics I share with them the most elegant proof around. The proof that there is an infinite number of prime numbers in the universe. The reason why it is so elegant is that you can do it in your head and without doing any calculations. First, you must imagine a world where there is a finite number of prime numbers that you can write down in a list. 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, etc. You then take this list of numbers and multiply them together, so 2x3x5x7x… and you then add 1 to it. Now consider this new number. Before we added 1, the number was a multiple of 2, 3, 5, 7 etc. as we used them in the multiplication calculation. Now we have added 1 to it though we have a new number which is not a multiple of 2, as it is 1 more than a number in the 2 times table. It is not a multiple of 3 as it is 1 more than a number in the 3 times table. It is not a multiple of 5 as it is one more than a number in the 5 times table. We could go on through each of the list of prime numbers. If this new number is not divisible by any prime number, then this number must be prime. In fact, a new prime! However, at the beginning we assumed. We assumed that there was a finite list of primes. This assumption must be false as we found a new prime. Therefore, there are an infinite number of prime numbers in the universe. This is an example of proof by contradiction.
This proof is not on any KS3, GCSE or A-Level curriculum, however, it is an example of adding depth to the curriculum with expert subject knowledge. When I used this proof with my foundation year 11 group last year, I knew the some of them would understand, some would enjoy and probably most may not be interested. However, I feel that it is important for students to see their teacher’s passion for their subject, because if they are not passionate about mathematics who will be. It also gives students the opportunity to think wider and more like a mathematician. There was a stage last year where I felt that I had let down one of my students. I was helping one of my year 13 students prepare for his Cambridge University mathematics interview. He answered the questions about mathematics easily enough, but I then started to push him on areas outside the A-Level curriculum. Areas of interesting mathematics but ones which are not taught in the specification. He could not answer. He had not read wider around the subject or worse I had not encouraged students to read wider around mathematics. Fortunately, when I was head of mathematics, I had ordered a stash of books for the library so we went and took them out so he could do some quick reading!
My point is that as educators (not necessarily just mathematics teachers) we are responsible for sharing with students the beauty of mathematics. We need to role model, enthuse, enquire and not be afraid to teach beyond the curriculum. If we do not do this, we will crush creativity in the mathematics classroom. I have a 5-year-old and I love seeing how is starting to make connections between numbers. His latest fascination is infinity. I haven’t gone into the different types of infinity yet, but we often have discussions about infinity plus 1 is also infinity and how nothing can be bigger! It is this level of enthusiasm we want in our classrooms. As a secondary teacher I always used to love the year 6 transition lessons as the enthusiasm was boundless. It does worry how we ‘put off’ some students from mathematics so by year 11 they cannot stand it anymore.
Organisations like the National Centre for Excellence in Teaching Mathematics (NCETM www.ncetm.org.uk) and the Regional Mathematics Hubs are doing fantastic work publishing resources and developing pedagogy to encourage enquiry and understanding from students. The NCETM Mastery Specialist programs look like incredible opportunities to work wider that one’s own department and have impact on learners in other establishments. With teams of passionate mathematics teachers, teaching beyond the curriculum written down on paper we gone show students and wider audiences why mathematics is beautiful.
This blog is offered by Ed Finch, Trust Champion. The blog reflects Ed's own personal views not the views of DMAT as an organisation and is presented as a provocation to thought and discussion. We would love to see comments from all who read it - whether working within the Dartmoor Multi Academy Trust or beyond. Do comment below. All comments are reviewed by a member of the team before they are cleared to appear on the site.
I joined Dartmoor MAT as a Trust Champion in January of this year. My son and I drove down to Devon on the second of January and two days later, on the fourth of January, we were locked down. A strange way to start a new job in a new part of the world.
The first thing I noticed about Dartmoor MAT was the warmth and welcome of my new colleagues - not just in the office at Okehampton College but all around the Trust.
One of my first jobs as a Trust Champion was to pick up seventeen heavy bags of treats that our Trust leaders had clubbed together to buy - their personal donations being generously matched by Waitrose - to deliver to each of the schools in the Trust. I spent a happy couple of days touring the area visiting each and every school and dropping off their bag with a card from all of us in the services department.
Goody bags or no goody bags, early January 2021 was a stressful time for schools - no doubt the people answering the buzzer at the schools were busy and anxious but everywhere I went I was greeted with smiles and thoughtful conversation. Maybe Devon attracts thinking people - certainly I was impressed by the knowledge and independence of mind of all the teachers, leaders and support staff I met on that tour of the Trust's schools.
Independence of mind is vital in today's world of teaching, perhaps it always was. Pressures come from all sides - from perceptions of what the dreaded inspectorate are 'looking for', from parents, from the DfE, even - dare I say it - from the Trust from time to time. As leaders and teachers we need to have a laser-like focus on what it is our pupils, the ones right in front of us, really need. You wouldn't be the sort of teacher I'd want teaching my son if you weren't ready to stand up to dictat and be led by your own experience and your own gut to do the right thing. We used to talk a great deal about 'Professional Judgment' and I really wouldn't mind seeing that coming back into fashion a little.
But independence of mind can be a source of problems in a system if it stops us from sharing and developing good practice with others who might be able to help us. I can remember times in my professional life prior to coming to work at DMAT when it seemed to me that schools I taught at were in competition with neighbouring schools. We were in competition for pupils - a school that loses pupils quickly runs into financial difficulties. We were in competition for SATS results, watching each others' figures with an eagle eye. We were in competition for OFSTED gradings and for good perception in the neighbourhood. In some walks of life, competition may be healthy perhaps but in schools it's toxic. At DMAT we don't work for the benefit of the pupils at our individual classes or our individual schools, we don't even work for the benefit of the pupils in our Trust - we are public servants and we work for the benefit of the pupils of Devon and beyond.
One of the really gratifying things I've seen in my time at DMAT - only a few weeks now but I am starting to find my feet in the organisation and in the region - is seeing the increasing cooperation and collaboration of colleagues between the seventeen schools. We've worked together as leaders to really make sure we're bringing our thinking together and to agree the norms under which we'll debate and do business. At school level I was happy to see teachers working together to create resources and to share tips for online learning. Google Classroom was new to nearly all of us and there was a real feeling of mutual support to find ways to make the most of it. There seems to me to be a real sense of collaboration at DMAT - in services it's obvious at our daily morning meeting where we feel comfortable to ask each other for support with a job or to ask for advice. It's obvious amongst our school leadership team who seem very comfortable giving each other support, challenging where necessary and giving each other a real sense of collegiality. And I think it's there between schools and teachers, especially when I see resources and planning passing between schools and teams.
It seems to me that as we grow in confidence and influence as an organisation that we will see far more learning across borders. We'll see teachers working together to improve our curriculum offer and to ensure every child gets the best deal. We'll see schools working together in appreciative enquiry to discover and build on what good practice looks like in different settings. We'll see secondary teachers learning from primary teachers and primary teachers learning from secondary teachers in a spirit of openness that benefits all. After all, our cooperative values of Solidarity, Self-Help, Self Responsibility, Equality, Equity and Democracy all speak to the power of the collective. You wouldn't be the sort of teacher I'd want teaching my son if you weren't ready to use your professional judgement to do the right thing - and, very often, it seems to me that the right thing is to reach out - to take support, advice and guidance from the collective to quality assure our own work and make sure every child and every young person is getting the very best we can give them. It is certainly true that every school, every class and every pupil is different and unique. It is even more true that every school, every class and every pupil has commonalities and that we work most effectively when we work together.
That's not wooly. As a primary school, if we have excellent practice in the teaching of Phonics in Early Years, and it's patchy - for whatever reason - in Year One, we look to share best practice across, to challenge where necessary, to build capacity. Similarly then, as a trust, if we know we have strength in one area - whether it is behaviour management, communication of values, science teaching, HR, data management, sports coaching, whatever - we would be doing our pupils a disservice if we didn't find a way to share and celebrate areas of good practice to strengthen the whole. Talk about alignment and values is one thing, it means nothing until it results in practical action to improve pupil outcomes.
So - what do we really need to do to make this happen? What can we do, as a Trust, to work towards a time when every teacher feels just as much a part of DMAT as they do a part of the school they work at? What are the barriers that need lifted and what are the bridges that need built? Do please comment below with your thoughts, opinions, challenges and queries - we would love to hear from you.