There was a call on twitter this week for an inspirational song to share in an assembly about ‘effort’. I was about to respond – then stayed my hand. About 18 months ago, at the outset of ‘grit’ enthusiasm I’d decided that, before I gave my Year 11s their mock results back, I’d try to put them in context. I wanted to avoid the fatalism, the quick look at the mark – comparison with partner – and stuffing of paper into folder with a well-worn discard-ation.
I’d been driving into school listening to early morning radio – and Pink was heard daily with her hit ‘Try..’. This, I decided, was the true anthem to presage the result… don’t see the mark as a summation – use it to aim for improvement… failing hurts, having ambition that fails to reach its target is painful, but the secret is in picking yourself up and having another go. I even power-pointed the chorus:
Where there is desire
There is gonna be a flame
Where there is a flame
Someone’s bound to get burned
But just because it burns
Doesn’t mean you’re gonna die
You’ve gotta get up and try try try
Gotta get up and try try try
You gotta get up and try try try
“Why are you playing us a song about a failed relationship, Sir..??” – OK, hip-teacher bubble bursts within seconds of putting it out there. Should’ve listened closer. Shouldn’t have tried so hard. Got it wrong.
My use of music in lessons was triggered by a previous head, who was also a geographer. He called me into a lesson on urbanisation in which he was playing ‘Don’t sleep in the subway, darlin’..’ Students had to extend it to the condition many people found themselves in once they’d migrated to cities. He was driven by music (he was an outstanding drummer in the staff rock ‘n roll band – but another story). He was the first head I came across using contemporary music in assemblies. One of the most influential on the institution was an American country artist I’d never heard of, but Mary Chapin Carpenter’s ‘Why walk when you can fly’ contained words and music that hit home as he played it to my – and other – tutor groups in assembly for an entire week. An East-End upbringing gave him a ‘geezer’ drawl in rural East Yorkshire, but his ambition and passion for the kids, the community and the region knew no bounds. He exuded ‘flying’. It went so far as commissioning an artistic member of staff to come up with a logo of a single trainer sprouting wings and the exhortation ‘Why walk when….’ These were turned into plastic signs that were put up on walls around the school. Headed note-paper carried the words….
Staff sniggered. The ‘flying boot’ became an object of derision from caretakers to teachers. Many of the students were non-plussed. ‘Is it a dead Nike?’ … ‘What’s with the angel boot?’
But, as a head, he not only lived that message, it emanated from his every pore. He believed in the kids, in their potential, in breaking out from the fatalism that constrained so many of them and their parents. So – the image was not always understood, comprehended, related to a period 4 on a Thursday afternoon. The message was probably – for many – not just lost, but ridiculed.
But he tried something aspirational – something new, and something he was convinced was right. We don’t always get it perfect, but it’s more important to try than to condemn; to trust that something of what we’re attempting leaks out and finds traction.
I learnt of his beliefs; the school got an ethos. Goodness knows how many times teachers chose a different phrase, a slightly different approach, an alternative way to tackle the business of teaching. But I know the cumulative effect was one of changing the ethos of the school – for the better.
We don’t always get it right, but it’s in the attempting of something different that improvement lies. Knocking change is OK, as long as you offer an alternative – a better alternative; an alternative where you can explain why and how it will be an improvement. The fliers may be making their wings from balsa wood and cheap glue. But I’d rather see the attempts to fly than the pedestrian saying it’ll never get very far.
I at last got to see Mary Chapin Carpenter last night in Pocklington, East Yorkshire – and she sang ‘Why Walk when you can Fly’. I owe much to that head – as do legions of students, and teachers, – whether they picked up consciously on the message or not. It changed something, and that something was of immense value. The school took flight…