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27 February 2023

The Monday Briefing: Action This Day

The Monday Briefing: Action This Day

“The best time to plant a tree was 25 years ago. The second-best time to plant a tree is today.”

Eliud Kipchoge

The first assembly back after a half-term holiday is always an important one for me, and I insist on delivering it to each of our year groups. It presents the perfect opportunity to set the tone for the next few weeks - to send a clear message to students about what should be in the forefront of their minds.

This week, it was absolutely vital to impress upon every year group the need for urgency with the key judgement day - the exams - bearing down on them.

The above quote, which commences the blog this week, is an apt one for most of our students. In an ideal world they would have embedded a productive and effective independent study regime, furnished with pre-reading before lessons, post learning reviews and regular diagnostic check-ups on understanding throughout the term. They would have ‘planted this tree’ a long time ago so that the yield could be made the best of in the coming weeks.

The reality, of course, is that teenagers don’t tend to adopt a mature approach to study in the way described above. They simply do not feel the sense of urgency required until forthright messages about the proximity of events which will determine the rest of their lives become louder and clearer. Even then, these messages need to be well presented and convincing to hit the mark. This particular message could not be misunderstood - to act - and act now.

I generally have a good sense of my audience during these presentations, and I’m sure that the desired effect has been arrived at.

Where exam preparation is concerned, it is important that the nature of the challenge ahead is framed appropriately - promoting a rational, methodical approach. Over the next eight weeks, the Monday Briefing will be dedicated to detailing my advice on approaching the exams to come, from now - 12 weeks out - to the days preceding the exams itself. This first part focuses on gearing your mind to the task at hand.

The first, and most important consideration to determine, is purpose.

Why do I want to be successful in these exams? 

I have drawn a great deal of inspiration when approaching any task, no matter the scale of it, by adopting a process advocated by speaker and influential management guru Simon Sinek - to ‘start with why’. Where I lack direction, this is always the question I use to bookend the problem which I face.

I’ve always felt that assemblies work best when they share one’s personal story to get a point across, and my approach was no different in this first aspect of the presentation. Much of my message borrowed an idea which came to me while reading the seminal work ‘Passages’ by Gail Sheehy. It isn’t a new book, being published in the 1970s (before I was even born!) but it is new to me, referred to in a podcast I’ve been listening to lately. Coined as ‘a road map for adult life’, the ideas within it may have shifted since publication in terms of when certain ‘rites of passage’ are experienced in the lives of everyone, but it got me thinking about the changes I’ve gone through, and the changes of purpose I’ve experienced as my life has progressed. Of course, the principal purpose for each and every one of those students who were listening varies, but, so that they can grasp the concept, it is important to share one’s own perspective:

What really gave me my drive when I was younger? 

What motivated me as I struck out on my own? 

Did I experience the ‘trying 20s’, the ‘catch 30s’ or the ‘forlorn forties’? 

What is my purpose now?

Such questions are difficult to contend with but important to confront.

For me, my story fits rather neatly, as I understand it, into three ‘decades of consciousness’: my teens, my twenties and my thirties. I’m not long into my forties, but I’ll explain a little of how I feel those are progressing too.

Teens

Growing up in a small town in Fife in Scotland, I wasn’t acutely aware of much of the world outside the immediate region. My family all lived in close proximity - they all still do - and any family holidays tended to ‘play it safe’. I didn’t have much of a cultural awakening until I left for university at St Andrews, which, as much as it opened my eyes, it was still within an hours drive of my family home. My abiding sense during this time, in terms of purpose, wasn’t really to live life for my own personal growth, because at that point, I didn’t really have any concept of what I could grow into. 

My overriding purpose in this period was, without any doubt, to make my family proud. I’m very fortunate to have come from such a loving set of parents, along with a brother and sister who looked out for me. I may not have shown it every day, but I revered them - and in particular my father - who was something of a ‘local hero’, playing football professionally for East Fife FC. Whilst the family dynamics of several of our students may be different to such a conventional opening for myself, finding a purpose which is close to home can spark the drive required to push teenagers to better things. I also remarked that dedicating oneself to playing one’s part within the family will also lead to less nagging from parents.

Twenties

My next decade was defining for me - and ensuring that students know they don’t need to have everything worked out by the time they are 17 or 18 can be a source of comfort. It was not until I was 23 that I had commenced my professional career, and I could only embark on it having secured my initial objective of making my family proud of me. What followed was a decade of firsts: first (and second) teaching role; first mortgage; first long-term relationship; first car. All of which I accomplished through my own initiative and industry, outwith the safety blanket of my immediate family. My purpose had shifted - more geared towards elevating my own position in society.

Thirties

The transformation most apparent from the previous decade of my life was that I started to put into life for others - whether that was managing colleagues at work, or contributing to a relationship which resulted in marriage. It was at this time where I developed the skills required to become an effective middle leader in the workplace, and an equal partner at home with my now wife. I was inspired by her to travel extensively and try new experiences as far as I could, truly stepping out of my comfort zone. Whilst doing so, I found that I had greater depths than I’d ever believed, and that I had a huge amount to give in a professional sense too. My purpose had again shifted - from supporting myself to those whom I could support most.

Forties

My current decade opened with a visit home, and a 40th party with my family, which offered an important link to the past. Whilst I’ve moved forward, I’ve never forgotten where I’ve come from, and my visits to Scotland have been frequent. The newest member of my family was present at the party too - my daughter Molly. The birth of one’s child opens a completely new aspect to life. They become your first and last consideration, and a new reason to define your purpose. Alongside the arrival of my daughter, I’ve widened my responsibilities in another sense, taking up my first headship. This has been a challenge which, like fatherhood, has again asked more of me, and I’ve risen to it. I’m not yet forty three, but I feel that I’m in a good place - and not dreading the fifties which loom down the line. Apparently it’s a time for reinvention, and that sounds exciting to me.

Seizing the day, and making the most of it - right now - was and is a key message for our students. I urged them to do so with an active sense of purpose, rather than sitting passively and waiting for it all to come to them.

I regularly ask myself how things are going for me - both personally and professionally.

Am I content with where I am? How can I give and get more? What do I need to get there?

Once I’ve decided on the right course in my mind, then decisive action quickly follows.

I’ve said to students in the past that the challenges which come at us during life do not get any easier - it is the capacity with which one has to deal with them which develops. What is past is prologue, but it’s all about providing the options to ensure that students can move forward with drive and purpose, whilst being rooted in understanding their ‘why’.

Of course, it’s important not to look too far ahead, or ‘skip to the end’, but offering context, and showing a pathway to success for students can make tackling the challenge of life more palatable.

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