To the edge of chaos

It is at the close to chaos boundary that self-organizing changes can emerge.

Bushe and Marshak, 2016

20/20 vision is useless when the fog descends. As long as you can see 10 yards ahead, keep walking in what feels like the right direction.

***

The first casualty this week was free speech. As a headteacher, I noticed quickly my words had quadrupled in weight. Every response had to be regulated, every utterance measured. That self-check process in the mind that listens to what you are about to say, and checks that it is the right thing, has been working overtime. It causes a ‘delay on the line’. The more tired you become, the slower your response must be.

I checked myself on social media early on: changed the tone. Less provocative, more reassuring. Drip feed the positive. What is my responsibility in a time of crisis, I asked myself? It didn’t feel like the boat needed rocking.

Mid-week, such stricture became necessary for everyone at my school. A rare, dictatorial moment of banning speculation on any social media platforms viewed by those in our school community. In an information vacuum, rumour and untruths spread rampantly. When the bombshell landed about school closure and cancelled exams, anxiety shock waves decimated rational discourse. Tidal waves of questions which could not be answered hit the shores of our school, threatening to sweep away any ability we had to maintain calm and order. Flood defences were rapidly constructed. All information would, for now, come only from the centre. Staff were instructed to adopt a standard line for enquiries: “What we know is… and when we know more we will let you know.”

There is a cinematic technique employed often by Spielberg whereby the camera physically pulls back from the actor, whilst simultaneously zooming in on their face. The effect is that everything in the distance appears to move back and become hazy, focusing sudden, sharp attention on the actors emotional response. In a crisis, this is how time feels. Everything in the here-and-now is thrown into sharp relief, whilst the future rapidly falls away from you and blurs.

It became apparent to me that the future needed phasing: the present must be managed, the next period of time needed planning. Anything beyond this was impossible to predict, and would have to wait. By Thursday, our phasing was that we were dealing with the next two days, and planning for the following two weeks. I communicated this as best I could to staff and parents. It helped us manage our response – a framework for decision making and action. When we found ourselves as a leadership team drifting out of the ‘dealing with’ and ‘planning for’ phases, we could pull ourselves back, bringing the immediate into focus. Answers to queries became quite frustrating, I imagine, for staff and parents. If they asked us about anything beyond our crisis time-frames, the answer was usually “we don’t know yet” or “we’re not planning that far ahead right now”. Always delivered with a smile and a shrug of the shoulders.

For future historians looking back at the documentary evidence of this period, the context above is important. I hope it helps you understand the bias in this narrative. Everything I say here is filtered. There are things I cannot speculate on. Right now, every word has weight.

***

What use expertise when it seems nothing is known?

I need to some distance to process what I might learn from these moments, but I am mindful that I must observe what is happening – save it for later evaluation. Looking back at this period will bring with it the bias of hindsight. What we should have done will seem obvious in retrospect. The errors I am making now will make me look stupid. However, in the present, each decision made is the best decision possible. No-one is in control here. We are wrestling with complexity: locked in battle with uncertainty.

As ambiguity increases – as information gaps widen – decision making becomes much more art than science. Where greater certainty exists, traditional management theory may more usefully apply. But what use is vision to me now? What purpose would strategy serve? What time do I have for plan, monitor, review?

One foot must be carefully placed in front of the other. Test the ground in front of you.

If not certainty, what am I drawing on?

Temperament is the greatest commodity right now, and sleep is its fuel. Values are my handrail. People are the most precious resource.

Consider the moment on Wednesday, late afternoon, when the Prime Minister announces that there will be no public examinations this summer. The elevator falls.

We struggle to process the implications. This level of uncertainty brings vertigo. The mind attempts to project itself into the future – to create a new expectation of how things will be. To a teacher of 25 years, this is like telling me that we are skipping summer: winter will immediately follow spring. The annual patterns which have marked out my working life have been pulled.

The rational mind reasserts itself and tells me to stop projecting forward, think about what needs to happen next. What needs to happen now?

An emotional response is useful, but tempered by the calm voice of reason. I imagine my daughter into this scenario, having taken her GCSEs last year. What would she have been feeling right now? How might others respond differently than this?

One of my team forwards me a message put out on social media by another school – a headteacher processing this more quickly than I have been able to – and suggests we do the same. I write something. The rational voice: state what you know. The emotional voice: show empathy for how those affected might be feeling. The moral voice: point towards a way of moving forward that is in line with our values as a school – integrity, fellowship and endeavour. We will do what is right, together, with fortitude.

My response draws upon a multitude of specific experiences. It is instinctive. There is a mental model which is driving my decisions, and that model has been constructed through years of trail and error. You may wish to call it a generic skill. I think of it as ‘knowledge’: tacit, nuanced, complex. It is has been built brick by brick, from the bottom up. There may be an information vacuum, but that doesn’t mean we lack knowledge.

***

As complexity accelerates, relationships which have been established for years – decades – begin to break down. I do not mean human relationships (although they are pretty strained), but the relationships between the past and future, cause and effect, action and reaction. We skirt along the edge of chaos, and as we do so we might notice (if we are not too distracted to look) that the basic elements which make up our schools are undergoing a chemical change. It is fascinating to observe this. Being inside a reformation is a rare opportunity. If this makes me sound cold and detached, let me just say that this is what is keeping me sane right now. My intellectual life is a handrail for my mental health.

As of Monday, I am the headteacher of a virtual school and childcare facility. I have the weekend to make this transition. It is a profound mind shift.

I have observed the psychological transition of those around me this week. You can almost see it happening behind peoples’ eyes. It is a marvelous adaptation of the human mind. We are, perhaps, unique in the animal kingdom in our ability to make such quantum shifts in our psychological perspective (except perhaps for dolphins, but as my geeky colleague pointed out, they have probably all left earth by now – if you don’t get this, read more Douglas Adams).

I started by saying I would resist speculation, but allow me this one. If the bonds that bind our education system have been truly broken, then they will reform in ways we can only imagine. I am an optimist. There are great opportunities ahead. Our values are about to shift, our knowledge will grow, and our daily lives will not look the same. At least I hope not. What a missed opportunity if we lapse back to the comfortable state we were in.

We are heading for a ‘new normal’. We can expect a transition which will be chaotic, distasteful in many ways, but things will settle. Who knows what shape that new normal will take?

That’s all for now: I’ve got work to do. I’ll see you on the other side. Stay well.

 

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