What’s your news?

The sculpture is already complete within the marble block before I start my work. It is already there. I just have to chisel away all the surplus material – Michelangelo

The Opera del Duomo – the committee in charge of decorating the cathedral in Florence – had an unfinished project on their hands. A document from 1501 describes a statue which had just been started, ‘badly blocked out and laid on its back in the courtyard’. The committee were planning to decorate the Cathedral dome, il Duomo, with huge statues of biblical prophets and mythological heroes.

The first two, Joshua and Hercules, were already in place. The sculptor Agostino then attempted a statue of David (from the biblical story of David and Goliath) from a huge block of marble, dug from the quarries in Tuscany. But he abandoned it within weeks. Another sculptor was hired but, with such poor-quality marble and with a huge hole through where the legs should be, he too gave up. The Mayor of Florence asked Leonardo da Vinci whether he could save the piece of stone, but he said it couldn’t be done. And so, the enormous slab lay unwanted for another twenty-five years.

Hearing this, friends wrote to a young twenty-six-year-old sculptor living in Rome, and asked him to come and look at the broken piece. And so it was that in September 1501, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni began a three-year carving project, ‘bringing back to life one who was dead.‘ Because of the flaws in the rock, the figure is skinnier than Michelangelo’s usual muscular figures, and David holds neither sword nor the severed head of Goliath. He also enlarged the right hand and gave the face a prominent expression to help viewers standing below.

Once finished, the Opera del Duomo committee, including Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci, decided the statue was too heavy for the cathedral dome. Michelangelo’s David now stands in the Galleria dell Accademia, and is considered by many to be the finest sculpture ever carved.

Checking the news
‘It doesn’t come with any instructions, because it’s meant to be the most normal, easy, obvious and unremarkable activity in the world, like breathing or blinking. After an interval, usually no longer than a night (and often far less), we interrupt whatever we are doing in order to check the news’. Alain de Botton

Whether it’s doom-scrolling, or a kind of nervous BBC-News-app-phone-tic, we are in thrall to the regular download of critical information about all the most significant catastrophes, crimes and craziness to have occured anywhere around the planet since we last looked. And because news organisations need to keep us addicted to it, they bring to us the worst of the disaster zones and the broken stories.

So when I think about our obsession with the news, I wonder about how school leaders can:

  1. Better re-present the world (from how it is presented on our phones)
  2. Tell better stories, for children and adults

We share news on social media in different ways:
Some of us use our platform of choice to lift the spirit of colleagues on similar journeys. Some of us point people in our school communities towards the good things that children are up to. Some of us look for support, using it as a cry in the dark, a ‘help me’ reflex. Many of us do all three, at some point or other.

School leaders are, in effect, some of the best investigative journalists, perfectly placed to share brilliant stories: good news, fresh starts, hard work. They are uniquely privileged to share responsibility for young lives; they have trusted relationships families and they’re reliably there every day – day in, day out.

Schools have their own unique way of saying well done, celebrating effort, galvanising staff, creating a narrative. We apply merits, hand out rewards, issue certificates, forge celebrations.

We share the news in different ways:
-By standing on the school gate (offering a warm word or hefty handshake)
-By gently dropping praise for the kind thing they did yesterday (the thing almost no-one saw)
-By whispering unexpected compliments (in private)
-By phone-spreading generous news (to parents for whom a call means nothing but bad news)
-By giving the kind of welcome to a child (who needs it)
-By reminding a parent at their wits end that it’s OK (and just how loved that child is in school)
-By championing the underdog (while leading assembly & managing the crowd)
-By lifting the mood of staff (and sense-checking just when they need it)
-By remaining calm (when all about you seems to be collapsing)
-By preparing great lessons day-in, day-out
-By neutralising teenage cynicism (and making it cool to be successful)
– By writing a cracker of a newsletter (about real children)
– By celebrating the work of staff (at the end of a long week)
– By dishing out bottles or chocolates (for those who have gone above and beyond)
– By knowing which child needed something special (particularly on that day)

Daily, magic moments. Important news

The 80:20 rule:
Pareto’s Principle says that 80% of our results will come from 20% of our efforts. Pareto (an Italian economist) showed that 80% of the land was owned by 20% of the population; it’s a business maxim that 80% of sales come from 20% of clients; a geographical truth that the richest 20% of the world’s population earn 80% of the world’s income.

We challenge ourselves to be less glass-half-empty and to be more glass-half-full. But the reality is that if we could only filter out the 80% of unhelpful incoming data and negative news, and focus on the 20% of upbeat information and positive stories, we might face the world with greater confidence.
Work sometimes feels a little like that:

It can seem like 80% of the words we hear are pessimistic or exhausting. Words that bring me down with the language of absolutes (it’s a waste of time, they’re always like that, it’ll never work).

While 20% of words we hear are upbeat and optimistic and energising. Words that lift me with the language of possibilities (let’s give it a go, this could work, we might just do this!).

The mathematics of hope
Recognising the people who are more 20%, and trying to be more like that, is part of the mathematics of hope. They may not bounce around like Tigger, but these people seem to listen more, watch closer, look harder and search out the important stories.

-They direct attention away from the glaring bad news
-They focus on what young people contribute
-They praise more specifically
-They replace a complaints culture with words of celebration
-They look for the pupils trying to get it right
-They praise in public, criticise in private
-They substitute doom-scrolling with sharing good news
-They follow the advice of Roald Dahl (‘be the most enthusiastic person you know’)
-They are people who try to tell a different story
-They describe a more positive future
-They articulate what that looks like
-They chart a course towards it

This is what the 20% do. This is better news.

Fake News
We know what fake news is. Trump neatly split these into two:
1. Denying well-evidenced events or issues (like climate change)
2. Taking a real event and turning the facts on their head (like a lost election).

Lineker v the BBC
But it’s not just Trump – we know what fake stories look like in Britain. Lineker v the BBC began with migrants, then quickly descended into personality. When the BBC seems to control the news and to be the news at the same time as it delivers the news, there is something distinctly Orwellian going on. We seem to be living in 1984, when stories begin with an issue, then end up with the personality – never to return back again to the important issue in question.

Fake news travels from the corporate (migrants) to the singular (Lineker), and gets stuck there.

Real news
Real news travels in the opposite direction. True leaders galvanise communities by taking individual stories and allowing them to speak to the family, the team, the community. What’s good for one is good for all.

By holding up one child or adult’s effort, kindness, achievement, we invite others to see it, enjoy it, and try to emulate in – in their own unique way and through their own gifts. We hope this approach will help children and adults move from the particular specific (“they did brilliantly,”) to the corporate (“Who knows, maybe I could do that”). By shining a light onto the best that one person can produce, we begin to build an aspirational community narrative.

Real news involves being a true journalist – sourcing the minority event, listening to what it took to achieve that. Sometimes it requires a little more digging. We may not yet be able to see progress. Children take time to develop habits. Learnt misbehaviour being corrected doesn’t right itself first time. Developing the professional habits to become a fluent teacher needs patient repetition. So we require the language of possibility, not words of cynicism.

The best people bring real news, that means they bring hope when it’s scarce.

The way you see people is the way you treat them
And the way you treat them is what they become.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Someone once bought me a framed poster of, “Be the change you want to see in the world,” the well-known quotation from Gandhi. I nailed this up in my office. It was quietly motivating and I believed it might somehow inspire others in the room, perhaps through some kind of osmosis. But I’m not sure it really helped in any practical way, and I’m not sure I really understood it then.

If I was to try to be ‘the change’, then my approach to young people would need to be brave enough to gently challenge the 80% culture which chose to stereotype teenagers (bottom sets and low expectations), and hope that this would help take people with me.

The approach not just to measure, but to see the potential within doesn’t come naturally to us. It’s more inclusive because it’s not zero sum. It’s not us or them. It’s both. It’s the opposite of the bell-curve. It means that they are being lifted up and I can be too. In The Art of Possibility, Ben Zander calls this approach Giving an A’:

“When you give an A, you find yourself, speaking to people not from a place of measurement or how they stack up against your standards, but from a place of respect that gives them room to realise themselves. The A is not an expectation to live up to but a possibility to live into.”

We can give an A grade in any situation where effort is seen and hope is required. With the statue of David, the story was already there, but Michelangelo had to chisel away the surplus material to find it. The best reporters lift stones and find news where others don’t. The stories were already there, hundreds and thousands of them, just waiting to be seen and heard.

We are constantly reinventing the way that we positively reward, and how we can tell our stories better. We want to know what will encourage a young boy or girl, watching a friend receiving praise, to see the person that they wants to be, to silence the voice that tells them they can’t, and grow gracefully like the statue from the slab of rock. Our job in school is to clear the debris that stands in the way from their most superb expression in the world.  

No wonder most of us feel it is the best job in the world.

Now that’s news worth sharing.

2 thoughts on “What’s your news?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s