The Dominie’s Conundrum

Some time ago I heard a fascinating true story from one of our Headteachers. She had been browsing in an old antique shop in East Lothian and had come across an ornately decorated lamp, which seemed to be of early Celtic origin.

She was captivated by its appearance and bought it on the spot.  On getting home she set about polishing it, whereupon it burst forth with an immense cloud of smoke and sparks.  As the smoke cleared a huge figure dressed in full Highland regalia appeared in front of her and announced, “Ach lassie, I am the Jimmy of the Lamp and I have the power to grant your wishes to the ancient challenge known as the Dominie’s Conundrum”

The Dominie’s Conundrum went like this:

“ I know that in your school you have forty teachers.  Ten of these teachers are amongst the best I’ve ever seen.  They can inspire children; bring light into their lives; get them to achieve beyond what anyone might have imagined; and give them a deep love of learning.

I also see that you have twenty good teachers.  These people work hard; care about the children; try and improve what they are doing in the classroom; work well with their colleagues; help children to achieve; and give children a good platform for future learning.

But, I see that you are also burdened with ten unsatisfactory teachers.  They don’t care for children; they bully and blame; they are lazy and poorly prepared; children go backwards in their classes; children turn off learning; and children take two years to recover from their experience.

The Dominie’s Conundrum gives you two choices. The first of these is to do nothing.  If you take this choice I will disappear and never return and your life will continue as normal.  The second of these choices is very simple and may change your life forever.

For I have the power to exchange your ten weak teachers for ten good, but not outstanding teachers.  But if you take this option you must also give up your ten outstanding teachers – although I will also exchange them for ten good teachers.  The result of accepting this choice is that you will have 40 good teachers to work in your school.  So what is to be your decision?”

“So” said the Headteacher, “Let me see if I’ve got this right?  You’re saying that if I want to lose my ten poor teachers, I must also lose my ten best teachers?

 “Yes”-said the Jimmy of the Lamp. 

 “But think of the life changing experiences that outstanding teachers can give individual children.  Surely a school needs to made up of different qualities of teachers?” said the Headteacher.

“Maybe it does but you need to judge whether the effect of a very poor teacher is counterbalanced by having a outstanding teacher?” said the Jimmy of the Lamp.

“But I believe that I can improve the ten weak teachers by using my strong teachers to support them.  I have faith in people and I know that fundamentally everyone wants to improve.” said the Headteacher

“And has that worked?” asked Jimmy of the Lamp.

“Well no it hasn’t- yet – but I’m confident it will given enough time. Not just that but if these teachers are as poor as you say they are I would be looking for support from my local authority to begin disciplinary procedures.” said the Headteacher.

“But just think of all the time and effort that would take.  What I’m offering you is an instant solution.  No one would suffer.  No one would ever know that you had taken this option.  The world would just change for you and your school.” Said the Jimmy.

“No one would ever know”? said the Headteacher

“No one” said the Jimmy.

“And no one would be hurt or offended” she said.  “No one” said the Jimmy.

“And all I have to do is say yes?” said the headteacher.

At that the Headteacher made her decision and Jimmy of the Lamp disappeared in a cloud of smoke – never to be seen again.

The Headteacher brought that lamp into the office last week and gave it to me.  It’s a beautiful object and it sits on my desk – tempting me.

5 thoughts on “The Dominie’s Conundrum

  1. Nice reflective story Don.

    Relational trust is the glue that allows us to take risks and learn. Effective leaders build relational trust by acknowledging the “good” contributions for all teachers even the “weaker or less skilled” ones.

    That’s not to say that we hide under performance. I sit down with teachers and go through student results with them and ask how they made a difference or in their reflective opinions what blocked improvement. Most teachers I know seek to make improvements.

    Those that don’t and seek to blame students are the ones the Jimmy of the lamp needs to wisk away to other occupations where their talents might be put to better use. It’s usually only an odd one or two.

    Anyway I liked the story.

    Hope the family is well.

    Mark Walker

  2. It’s not so much the weak teachers who struggle to get kids to learn as they CAN always get better or realise themselves and leave with respect having at least given education a go. No, it’s the nasty ones who sit in the staffroom complaining ALL the time, undermining their PTs and their peers and who refuse to engage in reflective practice. They never do proper CPD where they might learn something (all they ever do is moan and refuse to take part) and when teaching are idle and won’t actually put any effort into their lessons. And they’re not just the 25 year veterans either! Some of the young ones act as if they know it all and don’t need to learn anything more….

    Generally if they were to disappear thanks to Jimmy, not only would the working and learning atmosphere improve overnight but the results would too!

    May I borrow said lamp? – I promise I’ll return it the following day. I have a little list you see…… 😎

  3. The effect poor teachers have can NEVER ever be balanced ‘righted’ through an experience of an outstanding teacher. I’m next in line for the lamp 🙂

  4. Nice wee story Don! I am pleased to have our thinking move to the influence and impact we have as teachers. In recent months too much time, in my view, has been spent talking about curriculum content, rather than the other much more significant influences on educational outcomes for learners. If we really want to raise our game then I feel we must shift the discussion to these other influences. Foremost amongst these are Teachers and, in particular, the relationships we enjoy with learners.

    Secondly, and most importantly, parents have enormous influence on educational outcomes for children. In recent months, alarmingly little time has been spent discussing best practice on engaging parents in their children’s education. If we are to be successful in breaking down the various ‘glass ceilings’ and barriers that prevent a significant number of learners being successful, then the discussion must move on very soon. A ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ is, in my view, really a mission statement; an aspirational statement of intent.

    Returning though to the Dominie’s Conundrum, I would certainly not wish to lose any of my excellent teachers. On the other hand, I would not wish to allow weak teachers to continue unchallenged. As a wise man (Tom Farmer I think) once said ”If you can’t change people, then change people”. It takes courage to do this. To not do this is unthinkable!

  5. Great story to reflect on and also thought provoking comments.

    I totally agree with taking a look at teachers.
    I would extend the focus of the relationship with learners to include the relationship with other teachers and colleagues.

    As the head teacher in this story says “I believe that I can improve the ten weak teachers by using my strong teachers to support them”
    To date the hasn’t worked for her, but would would it take to make it work?

    I want to ask this head teacher “What would you do if you knew it was impossible to fail?”
    This is a powerful question that has removed some significant obstacles for me recently.

    In reality with no magic lamps any change will not be instant and often not rapid, but this is every reason to start NOW!
    For my experience significant changes can be made by
    1. getting your whole staff behind an initiative
    2. collectively agreeing a measurable and time dependant goal
    3. creating an action plan
    4. measuring progress against this goal at appropriate intervals

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