One of the difficulties of leadership is making value judgments when things go awry, when outcomes of whatever sort do not meet the expectations or hopes of the work put in. This is common enough in the industrial and commercial world, but in teaching it is endemic. We have no right to imagine that children’s development will be smooth in one particular area. They make leaps and they flatline. Sometimes they do this in response to good teaching and sometimes they just do it. Sometimes a period of low growth can follow a year of good teaching and then all the progress will be reaped by the person in the next year. It happens and we can’t stop it, and we need to regard this, too, as part of what it means to be a good school. What is important is that we pay careful attention to two things. Firstly, we examine both the detail and evidence provided by a situation. We look at children or groups of children over time and in depth, being as analytical as we can about where their strengths and weaknesses are, and their motivation and other affective factors. Secondly, we do not abandon good work, but rather reinforce it. The vast majority of things that teachers do are good work and provide stability, insight, experience. learning and clarity for children. There is little purpose in undermining or changing the motivation to produce good work in a practitioner. The practice is likely to be sound. We are less in control of learning progress than we think, as any honest teacher, and certainly any honest parent will tell you. We are constantly on the via disciplini, the way of the disciples, where we engage in teaching and learning because we trust its overall effects as good work, not because we see an automatic response to all we do.
In his story Thicker than Liquor (1985), Wendell Berry has this to say:
For his father’s good work was on that place in a way that granted and collaborated in its own endurance, that would carry them thus far and would carry them on. Looking at his father, Wheeler knew and would not forget, that though they were surrounded by the marks and leavings of a bad year, they were surrounded also by the marks and leavings of good work, which for that year and any other proposed an end and a new beginning.
The good work must be done to provide continuity, strength and sustained opportunity. We will have bad years. We will be badly let down by colleagues and children, and we will let them down too, but the good work remains in the intent, in adherence to the vision of goodness and joy that sustains us, and in the willingness to forgive, to walk together and to succeed. There is only good work – never perfection. Good work does not guarantee good outcomes. It only guarantees the satisfaction of its own authoritative purpose, that we worked well to a purpose and left the outcome to others or to God.
Some years ago I was listening to the former secretary of state for education Baroness (Estelle) Morris, and she made the point that the levers that politicians use to change things are unwieldy, slow moving and require a huge amount of cooperation from headteachers, which they may or may not get. So too with headteachers. We create conditions for success and encourage good work. Even with the best intent, the greatest commitment and the deepest love for something, there are no guarantees.