Over the last 6 weeks I’ve been doing two jobs – the Head of Education and Director of Education and Children’s Services. We appointed my successor this week in the form of Maureen Jobson, who is the Manager of our Learning and Teaching Team. Maureen is everything I’m not – methodical, practical and reliable. She uses her experience of having been the Head Teacher of three schools to great effect and is highly regarded by all her colleagues.
Effective teams so often depend upon a mix of complimentary skills and Maureen’s skill set will definitely keep me on track and stop some of my more extreme flights of fancy with her no nonsense Sunderland rebuff.
With her appointment I’ve been able to give more thought to what I really want to achieve as Director. It’s possible to let such a big job overwhelm your sense of purpose and for it to become a management post where you simply try to keep the “oil tanker” afloat and on course. Yet as I’ve been giving this more thought the words from our Learning and Teaching policy keep bouncing back into my mind. Unconditional Positive Regard can sound like any other jargonsitic phrase yet I believe that it should underpin everything we do with young people.
I’ve explored the definition of the term before on this log but it might be worth going over it again and giving it my own twist. Unconditional Positive Regard means that you don’t give up on kids – whatever they do. In many ways it helps to reflect upon the concept from a parental perspective. If one of my sons did something wrong I would challenge their behaviour, chastise them, and try to help them understand why it was wrong and what the better alternative might have been. But just because they did something wrong did not mean that I was going to treat them any differently from my other son – my love was unconditional.
It took me some time as a teacher to come to terms with this approach – I remember belting kids (corporal punishment) when I first became a teacher, of getting really angry and just wanting kids who misbehaved to be removed from my class. I can’t exactly remember when my attitude changed but I do know that when I shifted from a “conditional” approach to an “unconditional” approach that the response I got from children was incredibly different and the impact that I had a teacher was transformed.
In the last three years I’ve been trying to promote the concept of unconditional positive regard within our Learning and Teaching Policy and it has had some limited impact. The majority of those involved in education adopt it as their natural approach and you can spot them straight away. Yet for others this idea is something of an anathema – “I’m not paid to like children” was perhaps one the more memorable rejoinders, or the classic “I’m not a bloody social worker”. In other words some people in education feel that they are only there to work with those who want to be there – the rest should be removed from their presence. Well unfortunately there are lots of kids who don’t want to be there. Kids who have to put themselves to bed, who have to witness things at home which they shouldn’t have to witness, kids for whom the very act of getting to school is an achievement.
It is to my great shame that I can recall a science teacher I managed who regularly called a child in his class a “moron”. He felt he was justified in using this word as it accurately described the child’s behaviour – he certainly saw no need to apologise. Yet this same child could go into the class down the corridor and be one of the most enthusiastic and motivated kids in the class. So what did I do about it? Nothing! Absolutely nothing! I rationalised this at the time by saying to myself that it would just make the kid’s life even harder – and it came to the point where we removed the child from the class for his own protection as he would aggressively respond to the demeaning way he would be treated by the teacher to the point where he would be excluded or punished.
So what does all this mean for my new job? Well I think it means that I’m not going to walk away from this any more. I’m going to make it explicit that it will be my expectation that the behaviour of every person employed within Education and Children’s Services can be characterised by a commitment to unconditional positive regard. I don’t intend to issue blanket edicts or constant memos but I do intend to tackle individuals, regardless of position, who come to my attention as having not treated a child in a manner which is underpinned by unconditional positive regard.
I might be wrong but I think this simple message repeated, and consistently and insistently upheld has the potential to have an exceptionally powerful impact upon the lives of children, families and the culture of Education and Children’s Services in East Lothian.
“And what if people don’t treat kids with unconditional positive regard?”
Then they are in the wrong job!