Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Doing without Doing

Tomorrow I'm going to the BETT Show at Olympia. Many years ago, before I became a teacher, I used to work in Olympia as a secretary for a firm of impressarios called Harold Holt Ltd arranging concerts for famous musicians and I was lucky enough to get tickets to see some of the most amazing musicians and conductors that passed through London in the late 1970s. While I was thinking of returning to my old stomping ground for the BETT Show, I've also been thinking about a TED talks video I watched right before Christmas where the Israeli conductor Itay Talgam talks about the leadership style of great conductors. This got me thinking about the similarities between leading an orchestra and leading a school.

Itay Talgam starts by talking about how a conductor can bring order out of chaos as noise becomes music. Great educators can also bring order out of chaos - after all what could be more chaotic than hundred of teenagers all in one building together - and how the success of an orchestra is to do with the harmony the players create together. In the first video clip he shows, the musicians of the Vienna Philharmonic don't even look at the conductor and the audience almost becomes part of the orchestra by joining in. If we took out the words musicians and audience and replaced them with the words teachers and students, perhaps we are looking at the kind of harmony we could get in a good school, where the conductor/administrator was spreading happiness and this joy was enabling the students and teachers to walk their own paths and to all succeed at the same time.

Itay Talgam goes on to compare this style of leadership with that of Riccardo Muti - his style is definitely one of commanding - his instructions are clear and so are the sanctions for those who don't "make the standard". Of course this does work to a certain point, but Talgam tells us that eventually the musicians of La Scala asked him to resign as they didn't feel they were given the freedom to develop. They were not seen as partners in the creation. Certainly I have worked with administrators who have made the staff feel just like that. At times I have been commanded to do certain things that to me just didn't make sense (park my car down the road in the carpark of the local swimming pool, rather than in the school car park, for example). This type of leadership left me and the other teachers at the school feeling most uncomfortable. In this particular case the outcome was the same: eventually, to the joy of all the staff, the Board told this Director that his contract was not going to be renewed - he then left education altogether. This Director had previously characterised his role as "the big man on top" (he actually showed a vaguely pornographic cartoon depicting a rather large man squashing a tiny lady at a staff meeting once!) I think he felt the rest of us were beneath him - certainly this was not a partnership. Sadly I have seen a lot of great teachers and middle managers become very poor leaders once they reach the top. It's the whole idea of the Peter Principle where people are promoted if they are working competently, but at some point they are promoted to a position where they are no longer competent and there they sit as they are unable to move up any further and can't face the idea of moving down. The truly great teachers who have found themselves in this position have actually picked themselves up and said "I don't enjoy doing this any longer .... I'm going back to the classroom" and most of them have ended up a lot happier, but this has usually involved a change of school and even a change of country as it's very hard to go backwards in your professional life.

The third video shown is of Richard Strauss who once said "never look at the trombones, it only encourages them!" His philosophy was to let the music happen by itself and in addition that there was no room for interpretation, only execution. Again I have seen this style of leadership totally stifle creative teachers who thought a little bit "out of the box". These leaders seemed to be of the opinion that those teachers should be "brought back into line". My own children have had these types of teachers on a number of occasions during their school life and have grown and thrived by being encouraged to march to the beat of a different drum. Personally I think every child should have an experience like this at least once during their schooling. There is no reason why every class in the same grade should be on the same page and doing things in the same way.

Herbert von Karajan was the next conductor to be discussed. He conducted with his eyes closed which made it very difficult for the musicians to know how to play together. In the Berlin Philharmonic the first players led the way. Von Karajan thought the worst thing he could do was to give a clear instruction as this would prevent the members of the orchestra from listening to each other. Once again I have worked with administrators like that - ones who never made a decision, one whose office was known as the "black hole" (lots of things went in, very little came out), one who was known as "the invisible man" as nobody ever saw him. This laissez faire style certainly did lead to others lower down the school developing skills of leadership, perhaps I even became the person I am today as a result of having to take a lead in areas when nobody else appeared to be moving forward, but it wasn't a situation where I felt nurtured or encouraged as a teacher and most of the time I ended up feeling that nobody noticed what I was doing or even cared.

Carlos Kleiber was the next conductor shown. He also did not tell the musicians what to do, but opened a space for them to put in their own interpretation. This deliberate style of leadership keeps things moving by a process of building partnerships. When there is a mistake, the authority is there, but most of the time this leader has made his staff his partners and the staff in this type of establishment are proud of the role they are taking in building an excellent school. I have grown and thrived as a teacher with this sort of leadership style in schools, and it is such a joy to have the things you do noticed and recognised - I so loved getting those happygrams! In Amsterdam this type of leadership led to the school becoming known world-wide for its approach to professional development - the "yes you can go, and come back and share it with the rest of us" approach. It was the person who said "try it out, go for it, if it doesn't work you have learnt a valuable lesson that will help you do better next time." It's the idea that we are all in this together, that the success of the school is everyone's success. It's the doing without doing. It's the "if you love something, give it away" approach. It's the reason most of us became teachers in the first place.


  1. I love the picture you have painted here. Teachers as conductors who: "can bring order out of chaos as noise becomes music." Good teachers do this every day when they reach the student who has lived with 9 different foster families in 4 years, when they help students to understand a new concept, when they guide a student into learning. There are a million little ways that we are making music, wouldn't it be something to work together as a unit and form a symphony?

  2. I think that Ricardo Muti was a bit short on trust, and trust is essential in any cooperative venture. The orchestra must trust in the conductor and believe he will deliver them to the right level in front of the audience. The conductor must also trust the orchestra as we saw so clearly in the Bernstein example of him enjoying watch his orchestra perform without one sign of the baton.It is this level of trust that we need to nurture in our schools!!