Habits, happiness

Performance management – but not as we know it

I love sport. I always have. Watching it, talking about it, taking part in it and writing about it. My particular favourite sport is football (cliché I know). I could go on about how it is known as the beautiful game and become all poetic and flowery. But for me, I believe it is the ultimate performance sport.

Take the very best players who play for the very best teams in the world. Their performance has to peak week in, week out, all year long. If a player isn’t quite feeling it or isn’t on top of their game, then they won’t play. This is different to so many other sports.

Take athletics. The very best athletes do train all year long but they are building towards a specific event. For somebody like Usain Bolt, the fastest sprinter of all time, he would train all year round in order to peak around every two years, usually when the World Championships or Olympics were being staged. It almost didn’t matter outside of these championships if he was performing at the peak of his powers or not.

It is the same for marathon running. The greatest marathon runner of all time is arguably the Kenyan athlete, Eluid Kipchoge. He is changing everything we know about marathon running and leaving the competition in his wake. He will probably never run more than 20 marathons in his career, and he averages around two races a year.

Everything that athletes like Bolt and Kipchoge do is geared towards peaking at a specific time of the year. They take a gradual journey towards a particular moment in time when they are required to perform at their best.

To put this into teaching terms, it would be like building towards delivering your best lessons in a specific week at the end of the summer term. Whilst every lesson that came before was to build up to that particular moment of peak performance. With the agenda in schools very firmly fixed to believing ‘every minute counts’, this just wouldn’t be possible or effective.

The way football teams approach their sport is geared towards ensuring their players perform at their very best in every game, week after week. Take any team in any division in England and you will see by their league position that two or three wins in a row could be the difference between breaking into the promotion spaces or falling into the relegation zone.

Like in teaching, every lesson counts, in football, every match counts. Football teams would not make anywhere near the progress they make if they forced their players to push themselves to their limits every single day. They would end up suffering burnout. This is why rest and recuperation has become such an important aspect of modern football. Transferring this into teaching, we can see that if leaders push their teachers every single day without any focus on recuperation, then our teachers will ultimately fall foul of burnout.

We should think of ourselves like footballers. Teachers are elite athletes in a regular high performance sport.

You will never be able to get any more time. Time runs out. The sun will rise and fall with the same regularity every day. So wishing for more of it will not help at all. However, we can get more energy. The amazing thing about energy is that it is clean, green and renewable.

When your energy levels are low there are small steps you can take to replenish it. And they’re relatively simple steps.

Take your holidays. You have a half term every seven weeks for a reason. To renew and replenish yourself. It is too easy to spend your whole half term working and being in and around the school mentality. It doesn’t mean you should spend all half term lying down. But it is great to be able to do something different that can take your mind off of your school commitments.

Take your lunch. How many times in the last month have you actually entered the staff room and taken the time to have your lunch? I know what it is like in schools and how the lunch hour can vanish in the blink of an eye. But challenge yourself to take 20 minutes in your lunch break to simply sit, eat and enjoy your food whilst being away from your computer or phone.

Get some sunlight. I remember as both a class teacher and a senior leader that there were days when everything came and hit me at once. Because of this it meant I never left the boundary of my classroom or office. Once I even had an office that didn’t have any windows! Being outside in the sunlight and fresh air has excellent renewable qualities that should not be ignored by teachers (or anyone for that matter!).

Get a hobby. What a brilliant way to turn off than to dedicate yourself to something else. You can set goals, collaborate with others, make a personal change, and really support yourself in switching off.

Delete the email app. I remember one Saturday morning where I checked my work emails on my phone because it was just too easy having the app right there. I read an email and it spoilt my entire weekend with my family because I just couldn’t get it out of my head. The world is busy enough without us contributing to it by making ourselves available 24/7. Delete your email app now. You’ll thank me for it in a week.

Rest and recuperation should be as important to teachers as it is to Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. If you are tired, exhausted and unenthusiastic – what chance do the children in your class have?

Growth mindset, Habits

Why ‘clever’ is not a helpful word

We have discovered previously that the way we speak to ourselves can have a massive influence on our lives. Also the way we speak to others can have a huge impact on their life. I have spoken before about the word ‘clever’. At first glance it seems like it is a fairly innocuous word. Perhaps it could be used as a superlative to describe children when they have done something really well. But really, secretly, it is one of the most dangerous words to allow into a school.

Take a standard Year 2 maths lesson where children have been set ten simple number sentences. One child finishes before all the others and has his sheet marked by the teacher. “Wow, you’re fast, you’ve got them all right. You are so clever,” says the teacher. Doesn’t seem too suspect at this point. But look deeper.

What is the teacher actually praising? Why is the child clever? Because they finished quickly? That they got everything right?

What message is this giving the child for their learning in the long term? That if they don’t finish quickly or if they don’t get everything right, that they are not clever? What if the child didn’t even try that hard because the maths problems were not the right level of challenge? They have just been told they are clever for not even doing their best. How will this impact on their learning in the future? What message will it give their internal voice? How will it influence how they perceive themselves?

There’s every chance the child will be telling themselves: “I’m clever because I finished quickly” and “I don’t always need to try hard because I’m clever”.

What about other children who overhear this praise being given? What if they don’t finish quickly? What if they get one or a few wrong? Does that mean they are not clever?

Rather than praising the outcome, we should try to praise the process. An example of a process could be effort, different strategies, techniques, or behaviour.

By praising children’s ability to try hard we are reinforcing the importance of the most crucial skill they will need for the modern adult word – the ability to be resilient. Even if they are finding something hard, or not getting something quite right in the first couple of tries, what we need them to learn is that they should try hard and not give up. By telling them they are clever, we are killing the acquisition of this skill.

Children need to be enthusiastic with their efforts too. In fact, they should be as enthusiastic to learn as you are to teach. So we need to make sure children are intrinsically motivated to try their best and learn new things. How do we do this? We eradicate the use of the word ‘work’. Work is something you ‘do’, that you ‘get on with’, that you ‘complete’. Learning is something you acquire over time. In every school I have worked in I have had to have a conversation at some point with a teacher about the importance of learning gains made, rather than work being completed.

I remember being in a Year 2 maths lesson once and the teacher had asked the children to tidy up for break time. A small group of children ignored this at the behest of a learning support assistant who was stood over them saying “That one is fourteen. The answer is fourteen. Come on, write fourteen.”

The LSA believed that the teacher was expecting all the children in the group to finish and to get every problem correct. It didn’t matter whether the children understood the concept or had reached a mastery level. It was all about doing the work, being right and getting it finished. Children need to understand that we work because we have to, and we learn because we want to.

It is important to remember that if we just focus on effort only then it can lead to four common problems:

  1. By making it sound as simple as ‘try harder’ we are diluting the entire theory behind the learning process.
  2. It doesn’t help children who try hard and still fail. They would be better off developing other processes and formulating different strategies.
  3. Effort is not the only thing. If a child tries hard but doesn’t learn anything then that isn’t good. Sometimes we say ‘great effort, you tried your best’ just to make children feel good in the moment.
  4. It can lead to the belief that a child has failed because they didn’t try hard enough.

We should praise different strategies that children use, how they modify their techniques, when they ask for feedback, when they show resilience, and when they collaborate. If we focus on just praising the effort children put in then we are endangering them into thinking that they can ‘believe’ their way to success.

After all, you can keep trying and trying and trying, and still fail. Not because you gave up but because your strategy or technique was not appropriate.

Remember this, gut-busting effort and precise strategy is superior to ability, when ability doesn’t put in a shift.


The power of self-talk

I had never really thought about how I spoke to myself until I was stood on the first tee of my local golf course a few years ago. I had arranged this round of golf a few weeks earlier and my friends and I had all talked about how we were going to attack the course and how we were going to play our best ever round.

I was first up to play. I pressed the tee into the ground and placed my ball on top. I settled into my posture and rested the club behind the ball. I relaxed and exhaled and started into my backswing. I geared up to uncoil and hit the ball when at the top of my backswing a little voice from somewhere said “Nope”.

I snatched downwards, shanked the ball and it shot about 30 yards along the ground to my left and into the bushes. “That’s lost,” said the same little voice. “You’re rubbish.”

I looked around to see who had so rudely interrupted me mid-swing. All I saw were my friends grimacing at how I would react to the lost ball scenario. And I realised who the voice belonged to.

It was my own voice.

Why was I talking to myself like this? The answer was simple. Because that is the way I have always talked to myself. I have never known any different.

I believe that we have a set of different voices we use. They are all our own, except the words and tones they choose are different. There is the voice we use for people we don’t know, it often doesn’t carry too much emotion or give a lot away. There is our work voice, it is for colleagues and children in our class and remains professional and measured. There is our friendship voice, a candid tone we take with our oldest and best friends that can only be gained over time. There is our loved ones voice, the caring and unconditional love always pervades through this voice. There is our intimate voice, exclusively for our spouse or partner.

Then there is our internal voice. A solitary sound that only we hear. This is the only voice which speaks the absolute truth. This is the voice that influences how we think, act and feel.

I could have brazenly said to my friends on the golf tee, “Watch out lads, this shot is going to get me into the next Ryder Cup team!” – all whilst my internal voice says “Hope you brought your scuba gear because this is going in the lake”. Which voice is going to have the bigger influence on me?

How we speak to ourselves can have a massive impact on what we get out of life and how we experience life. All I wonder is, what would happen if I had a friend who spoke to me in the same way that I speak to myself? I know the answer. I wouldn’t be friends with that person.

I don’t need someone following me around to tell me I am useless, that I should give up or I shouldn’t even bother. I am quite literally stuck with my internal voice for the whole of my life. So whilst that voice is in my head I may as well try to make sure it is a voice I want to listen to.

Your inner voice can empower you. It influences your outer voice and how you speak and act around others. Amazingly, your external voice can motivate and inspire others to use their internal voice differently, especially children. How you role model behaviour can influence how the children in your class perceive themselves and how they can speak to themselves.

You are, at the same time, your biggest obstacle and your very best motivator.

Ask yourself this: what would change in your life if you spoke to yourself more positively?


Dealing with habituation

Remember the fleas? From each passing moment we can set behaviour for the future. Set behaviour for a few minutes and it can last an hour. Set if for a few hours and it can last all day. Set it for the day and it can last all week – and so on and so on. The point is, the way we set behaviour for the smallest of moments, actions or thoughts can influence how we set behaviour for life.

If you let the children come running and screaming into your classroom on the first morning and let it last all day, you will be spending weeks turning them around. If you don’t bother to try and change their habits for the first few weeks – trust me, you’ll be spending the rest of the year trying to change them.

When you become a teacher, your first month can dictate how the rest of the year will go. Sometimes, that first year can dictate how the next few years will go. Once we collect habits and believe there is a certain way of thinking, feeling and behaving in the role of a teacher, it can be very hard to shake them off as our career progresses.

There’s two magic words that can help you master how to shake this off.


Be aware of how you think, feel and behave. Take a step back and look at how your thoughts, feelings and behaviour influences those around you. Are you habitually tutting or rolling your eyes at the same children? What message is that sending? What can you do about it?

The way you think and feel shapes what I call your internal habits. You can become habitually prepared to feel irritated in the presence of a specific person. Flip it the other way around and you can become habitually prepared to smile and laugh in the presence of a specific person.

Your internal habits include how you think, feel and talk to yourself. They influence your external habits. This includes how you behave and how you talk to people. Your external habits will influence the internal habits of those around you, and they influence their external habits – and so on and so on.

The simple fact is if we take control and responsibility for our internal habits, then we can change our own external habits and support the children in our class to form positive internal habits.

So there is the magic moment of revelation – it all starts with you. You can be the one to start a wave of positive internal and external habits. Simply by being self-aware and realising there can be another way.

When we learn habits, we also learn to forget that there can be a different way. We can teach ourselves to walk into the classroom in the morning and prepare to be amazed by what unfolds in front of us.

How do we do this? We decide to do it. It is that simple.

The simple truth is it is far too easy to join in with the negativity of others in order to fit in. And this is it. This is what society does to us.

We are all born the same in this world. But not always equal. Family circumstances, geography and economic reasons ensure that in the immediate moments after we are born. At birth we are a blank canvas. Every moment and experience we have adds to the layers of the self-portrait that is our personality. When we are young we have no control over this. So this is the moment where you, reading this as an adult, can take control of the experiences of the young people you meet.

The children who enter the gates of your school will come from all walks of life. Some of them will come with layers and layers of difficulty and challenge. Our job as teachers is to make sure that those children all have the same chances and opportunities in school. If we leave them to continue to add layers then they will become just like the fleas trapped inside the jar.

You might be the only enthusiastic person a child meets on a particular day. You might be the only person who is willing to give that child a chance on a particular day. Imagine if you don’t take that opportunity. You would be acting just like society, and pushing that child to become the same as everything and everyone else.

Don’t let any child climb into society’s jar and have their behaviour and mindset fixed in place for the rest of their life.

Don’t let them be mediocre, or bog standard, or beige. This all starts with you. It’s time to get a leg up and jump out of the jar.


Don’t become society: Do you want to be ordinary or extraordinary?

Fleas are funny old creatures. They might seem small and insignificant. But if you look at them closely. And I mean really closely. You might see that we can learn quite a lot from them. Their life expectancy isn’t much more than around 3 months. Even that is assuming they are living in the right temperature, with a good humidity and an ample food supply.

Without these correct conditions their lives could be as short as just a few days. They have to make every second of their short existence count.

You and I won’t live forever. We exist for a blink of the universe’s eye. In the grand scheme of everything our lives dim with insignificance. But whilst we are alive, we may as well live as though we mean it. Our importance and significance to our loved ones in the fleeting moments we are alive have a meaning greater than we could ever comprehend.

We only get one go with life. No practice, no dress rehearsal, and no rewinds. We need to seize it with both hands and give it the best shot we can. When those children step into your classroom you are the one giving them the skills they need to make the most of their one chance at life.

Back to fleas.

If you were to put a swarm of fleas inside a glass jar without a lid, then they would leap and jump and do their best to surpass the limits of the jar’s ridge. But if you were to seal the jar with a lid, there would be a different story.

At first the fleas would continue jumping. Their attempts would be futile and they’d simply keep hitting the underside of the lid. After a short time, a couple of days at most, the fleas would have adjusted their jump height and would jump no higher than the height of the jar.

Here’s the eye opening, grandiose, significance of the universe part. If you removed the lid of the jar then the fleas would remain safely inside. They would have learnt to not jump any higher than the lid – and so would not even try.

The fleas’ pattern of behaviour has been fixed for the rest of their short existence. Their offspring are born believing they can only jump a set height. The cycle is complete. The limiting beliefs of the adults have been imposed on the children.

And there it is. Our similarity to fleas is extraordinary. The lid placed above the heads of our children is society. Today’s world is geared towards being right all of the time. Being successful means never being wrong. For many, it is better to not try at all than to try and not be right.

The psyche of society, and these are somewhat sweeping generalisations, impose limiting beliefs on us from an early age. The five-year-old who wants to be an astronaut is told the chances of him making it are slim has had his whole future limited. The six-year-old who wants to climb Everest is told it’s too dangerous has had her potential limited before her seventh birthday.

When my daughter was two years old lots of people said to me and my wife, “You’re so lucky with how she is.”

She’s well behaved, she’s funny, resilient and an excellent problem solver. From only a few months old she started sleeping right through the night, 7pm to 6am. Not so much as a peep during the night. Again, the L-word came out. “You’re so lucky she sleeps right through.” It got to the point where we started lying to people about her sleep.

When others were moaning and complaining their kids were keeping them up all night, we lied so we could join in. We seemed like oddballs for talking about our child’s sleep so positively and as if we were gloating.

It was a moment of revelation when my wife and I were discussing the L-word. Were we lucky? Luck implies good fortune attained at random. Our daughter wasn’t randomly born. Her neural pathways didn’t randomly link up. Her personality didn’t randomly form. This was the revelation, the epiphany. We were not lucky at all. Far from it. The experiences we gave our daughter, coupled with the sights, sounds and the words we chose to use with her and around her had shaped her personality, behaviour and habits.

I am not for a single moment believing I am in parenting guru territory here. What I am suggesting is that our relentless desire for our daughter not to become what society tells her has shaped her into a being something you could not possibly call bog standard – and something you could never limit with something as simple as a jar lid.

For decades, society has been imposing limits, ceilings and metaphorical jar lids on top of our children’s potential. We should be born and taught to believe there is no ceiling on our potential or what we can achieve. Instead, society fixes our behaviour to be just like everyone else. Bog standard, middle of the road, beige.

You are the teacher. You have chosen this career. You don’t do it for the money. You don’t do it for the recognition. You do it because you want to see others succeed. Take those children and teach them to jump higher than any jar they could ever be put inside.

So what kind of teacher do you want to be remembered as: ordinary or extraordinary?