Doing, reflecting, and being grateful in Dubai

I haven’t written a blog for several weeks, because my time and inspiration has been directed elsewhere, to a range of demanding but satisfying projects and commitments – including for the Boards of which I am a member, international leader recruitment with LSC Education for a range of schools from Armenia to Switzerland, and coaching of some phenomenal senior leaders across the globe – but a lunch today with a friend and colleague, fellow LSC coach Caz Jude, at the delectable Lime Tree café in Dubai (where I am for a few days, to speak at GESS Dubai and visit some school leaders), reminded me how important it is to be visibly grateful for what we have in our lives, so I am taking the time to write this now, as a way of saying thank you.

First, I am grateful and want to say thank you to all the people in my life. There are literally thousands of you, and so I hesitate to name anyone, for fear of offending through omission. I only hope that you read this, and know that I am grateful for you. You include of course my family, my coachees, my colleagues and former colleagues, my interviewees, my former pupils, my neighbours … and please interpret this list of categories broadly, because if we have met and engaged, then we have a relationship, and I am grateful for this. The list even includes the lovely staff at the Staybridge Suites in Dubai, where I am staying again, because they have been so helpful and kind. And a cheery smile goes a LONG way in making the world a better place. Thank you to all of you for the richness you bring to my life, and the energy and encouragement you give me to keep striving to do more for others.

Secondly, I am grateful for the world in which we live. Yesterday, I visited the Museum of the Future, and one of the sections of it looks down on the world from space, and imagines how we could help the world through innovative energy solutions; we have a very precious and beautiful planet, and this means that we need to look after it as best we can. Every little action can make a difference. Most importantly, we should not take it for granted. COP 27 should be on all our minds, but we should also aim to respect the environment around us at all times.

And thirdly, I am grateful that as human beings we have been created with an indomitable spirit. It never ceases to amaze (and gladden) me that human beings have the most enormous capacity to find solutions to seemingly impossible challenges, particularly when they work together with kindness, love, and a better future. If we are to release this in ourselves and others, then we have to work on ourselves first, of course, and learn to make the most of the gifts and talents we have … and we have to be kind to ourselves when sometimes the constraints of life get in the way of our goals … but when we do, we can achieve SO much for the greater good.

I am incredibly grateful for all of the above, and more. Thank you to you all! And onwards and upwards!

“Service and Dignity” – The Queen’s abiding legacy

I learned of The Queen’s death in a Board meeting on Thursday 8 September, as the news flashed up on my phone, and I confess to having spent the best part of the past few days in a mournful mode, as the impact has hit of the loss which we have collectively experienced. Her Majesty The Queen was a phenomenal woman, who had (as has been brought home to us all) an astonishing impact on the world, through her commitment to tirelessly carrying out her duties. Her death, although feared and yet anticipated for so long, was nonetheless a shock to us all through its suddenness, and I know from speaking to countless friends and colleagues across the world that I am not alone. Sadness now permeates our interactions; grief lurks under the surface.

Flowers at Holyrood Palace on Saturday 10 September 2022

Of course, there is a re-commitment to the future too – King Charles III has stepped into the role of monarch, and has taken on the mantle of his extraordinary mother. How lucky we are, in so many respects, to be alive at the moment in history, at the birth of a new era, even though we know that this comes at the deep cost of the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Whatever people think or feel about the concept of a monarchy, there can be no denying that our constitutional monarchy has the ability to speak to people, and bring people together in ways that are deeply powerful and deeply sustaining.

It was the words of the (new) Prince of Wales on Saturday 10 September that struck a powerful chord, however, and prompted me to write this blog. In paying tribute to his beloved grandmother, he thanked her for providing an example to his generation – and, arguably, all generations. This example, for him, was one of “service and dignity” … and these words reflected so exactly what his grandmother embodied that we should dwell on them, and not let them slip away unnoticed. Serving others, caring about others, seeking to make a difference through action to the lives of others – and, sustained by her faith, doing so in a truly dignified manner, rising determinedly and relentlessly above the inevitable slings, arrows and tragedies of life … this was, in essence, what The Queen did. She was an incredible role model in her service, and in her dignity.

“Grief is the price we pay for love”: so said our late Queen, and we loved her for it; let us grieve for now, and re-commit to loving more, in every aspect of our lives, and with all of those around us. And let us do so with a renewed commitment to serving others, and to conducting ourselves with dignity. What a tribute to The Queen and her legacy this would be.     

Boom, Boom, Basil! Joy and laughter on the Fringe

I really had forgotten until this week just what it felt like to experience the sheer joy and exuberance of the Edinburgh Fringe. As a family, we were regular attenders up to and including 2019, throwing ourselves into the unexpected and extraordinary variety of shows; Covid put a stop to that. Admittedly, this past week I have still felt twinges of anxiety in crowds, and I flinch when I hear a cough … these are merely minor hurdles to overcome, however, in order to bathe and delight in what must be the most amazing and extensive Arts Festival in the world, which bursts at the seams with acts from circus to Shakespeare, and from comedy to powerful drama.

My favourite act so far? Forgive me for the silliness, but it is none less than the feisty, irreverent, charming, outrageous wonder that is Basil Brush! If he was a part of your childhood TV viewing, then you will already know from the title of this piece that he was the subject, because ‘Boom Boom’ was – and is – his catchphrase. He has 2 shows at the Fringe, in fact – a family fun show and a later ‘unleashed’ show. In a excess of enthusiasm, I saw both – and laughed at the outrageousness of both. Such fun! Such joy! Such laughter! And sharing it with others was wonderful!

Basil Brush celebrates 60 years in show business this year, and is working with his 8th ‘Mister’ – the sidekick who shares the stage with him. Poignantly, he paid tribute in his adult show to all of them, including the late Derek Fowlds; without their help, after all (and without the support of his hidden ‘assistant’), he would not be able to do what he does. He is going strong, and the chances are that he will be going strong – just regularly refurbished – long after you and I have all passed on. Another poignancy there, perhaps … and another reminder, were it needed, for us to make the most of every day.

Let us fill the world with joy and laughter whenever we can; release yourself today … and channel your inner Basil Brush!

Forwarding to the future in education

I was delighted to be invited to the inaugural Future Fwd conference in Warwick at the beginning of July – 2 days of in-depth reflection on what is really needed in education, with strands led by innovative thinkers in tech and gaming, business, the creative arts, curriculum and entrepreneurship. The conference – a collaboration between Warwick Schools Foundation and the University of Warwick, with a number of other great supporters – combined opportunities to learn about what was happening in a range of fields, as well as to meet, converse and share ideas with various movers and shakers in the realm of education and beyond.

What emerged was different for everyone, I am sure, although we will be able to read more about the collective findings in due course, as a white paper is due to emerge from the discussions in the round table sessions on the second day. For me, it prompted (and cemented) various thoughts about the way in which I think we might, as a society, have become so fixated on the pre-eminence of consistency in educational processes such as curriculum, examinations etc, that we have in many cases relegated individual, creative, ‘out of the box’, pioneering thinking to the sidelines. I know there are many amazing examples of creativity and entrepreneurship happening in schools, and I certainly don’t want to dismiss these in any way, because they are wonderful to see; when we step back from our entire educational system, however, who amongst us can genuinely say that it does all it could do for the individuals who are supposed to be nurtured and developed by it?

This is not the fault of teachers – great teachers on the whole, in my experience, love to think creatively, and certainly are driven by wanting to respond to the needs of the child in front of them. Too often – almost always! – however, they cannot do this because of the constraints under which they are placed, including limitations of time, resource and expectations of performance. Not only teachers, in fact, but school leaders too; the pressures of school performance and the expectations of external bodies are immense. Inspections of schools, for example, are more rigorous and, in many ways, narrower than ever before. We live in a society where soundbites rule, and where the word ‘failure’, or ‘standard not met’ is seen as a condemnation, rather than as an invitation to grow and improve.

Consistency is not a bad thing per se, and it underpins equality of opportunity … when this consistency drives towards the lowest common denominator, however, and requires vast amounts of precious time in order to deliver it, it is of little surprise that the offering to our children is sparser than they really deserve. Our educational – and social – ecosystem is so immensely complex, as indeed are our children and young people, that our drive for consistency (despite its positive intentions) is perhaps not serving any of as well as it could be. How do we achieve equity in educational opportunity rather than consistency? What could or should that look like?      

Fundamentally, the Future Fwd conference was a call to action – and this starts with deeper questions. I don’t know the answers – I don’t yet know all the questions, in fact; I do, know, though, that our children and young people deserve an amazing education that empowers and enables them, because this is how they will lead fulfilling lives, and how they will contribute to making the world a better place.

How do YOU think we should do this …?

“You wouldn’t be such a good coach if everything had always gone right for you”

Sitting in the warm sun outside a café in North Parade in Oxford on Friday afternoon last week, sipping tea with a friend and colleague in education, and reflecting on how we had both come to be where we were, we ruminated upon the imperative that exists to ensure that leaders in education have their own coaches. School Principals and senior leaders are having such a hard time at the moment, from exams to inspections, and from the wellbeing crisis, to the increasingly impossible tasks thrust upon them by society, and I find it a privilege to support (and challenge …) a selection of senior leaders across the world. My companion then uttered some wise words … “Helen”, she said, “I’d like to speculate that you wouldn’t be such a good coach if everything had always gone right for you”.

And she was absolutely right! I definitely did not find everything easy or straightforward in school leadership, nor has it always been easy or straightforward since I moved from school leadership into my portfolio career, in which I balance coaching, advising, non-executive roles and all the other amazing challenges which life presents. All of the challenges I have faced, however, have given me greater insights and understanding, and developed in me a greater humility, empathy and determination. Bumps and bruises are very effective teachers; we need to be knocked down at times so that we can experience what it is to get back up again. Muscles grow because we tear them; scars are beautiful signs of experience, not imperfections.

Bill Clinton once said “If you live long enough, you’ll make mistakes. But if you learn from them, you’ll be a better person. It’s how you handle adversity, not how it affects you. The main thing is never quit, never quit, never quit.” This is an astute observation, and sound advice for all educators, because in education, we are driven by ensuring that the next generation is brim-full of better people; we know that when we lead by example, we have an impact as leaders, and we need to model how to handle adversity. Never quitting, picking ourselves up, bouncing back with dignity … ah, what a lesson for us to take on board!

Wise words on an Oxford afternoon … now, bring on the week and month ahead!

Looking out for our turtles

Browsing Twitter on Sunday morning, ahead of the COBIS conference, I came across a video of a turtle struggling on its back. I can’t find the original source, or I would credit it, but seeing the number of views of the video clip, I think there is a fair chance that you have seen the video and can shed some light on this, especially as I saw the video in a number of different feeds.

In the video, a turtle flaps around on its back in a shallow pool, going round and round in circles as it struggles to right itself. A number of other turtles are nearby, and up to this point were just swimming around in a very turtle-like fashion – which always appears relaxed and a little random (although who are we to know what turtles are actually thinking, and what guides their movements?). Once the distress of the turtle becomes clear, however, the nearby turtles converge on the position of their suffering acquaintance, and combine to form a supportive wall which, with a few nudges, enables the turtle to be flipped back over on to its front, and return to its swimming.

The turtle being returned to normal

In one of the feeds, the video was accompanied by the hashtag #KindnessMatters, and I thought this was a beautiful way to caption the metaphor inspired by these turtles. I don’t know if turtles can be kind or not, but they certainly made a difference through their actions. They spotted another turtle in distress, they came together – it took more than one turtle to form the wall – and then they acted thereby saving the turtle in distress. When others are in distress, we need to step up and form part of their protective wall; when we are in distress, we need to find our fellow turtles.

An uplifting model upon which to reflect as we start another week. Onwards and upwards!

‘no one is talking about this’

I spent part of my weekend reading a book I had been given for Christmas, and for which I just hadn’t found time or focus until now – Patricia Lockwood’s ‘no one is talking about this’. I won’t spoil the story, but – emerging from the whirlwind of the experience – I recommend it. It is not an easy read, though, and is probably compelling and repelling in equal measure, certainly to begin with. It flows through the world of the internet – the ‘portal’ – and the confusing, affirming, repulsive, attracting, all-consuming content of the messages therein. Where they clash – and fuse – with ‘real’ life is where the novel (Lockwood’s debut novel) finds its feet.

I treated myself to discipline and openness when I read this book – it was a gift, and I deliberately did not read about it, or prepare myself in advance through research … so much of what we do in life is expected and anticipated, and it can be refreshing to – quite simply – not know what is going to happen. As a result, the book hit me between the eyes, causing me to reel and totter, not always knowing where it was heading, but – as I breathed in its deliberate adeptness and at times astonishingly juxtapositional vocabulary – evolving a sense of emerging perhaps-ness, which arguably transmuted into purpose…

It is really hard to write about the details without spoiling the story, and so I shall not do so! I wanted to share, however, my euphoria at the bewilderment born of creative dislocation, of the use of words which floated, seeded, bounced and rebounded … the joy and terror of language made visible on the page… the joy and terror of not knowing what the next page would hold … what a way to spend a weekend!

Now, of course, being me, I will go away and read more about the author and her work, and I will – again, of course – have to re-read the book with a different, more pre-loaded, knowledgeable lens. In fact, I am ahead even of myself; I have just been reading about her experimental and dislocating prose and poetry, and marvelling at it.

Bathing in the creativity of other human beings is sometimes just the tonic we all need. What amazing beings, we human beings can be …

Surprising revelations about the Duke of Edinburgh

I have had a number of surprising conversations this past week with a number of people, all of which have made me reflect on the impact we have in our life through the actions we take. These conversations have been about the late Duke of Edinburgh, who died last year, and whose Memorial Service took place at Westminster Abbey last Tuesday; I felt hugely privileged to be invited to the service, in my capacity as Chair of ESU Scotland, along with the Deputy Chair, and it was indeed a very special occasion. The music filled the cavernous and beautiful space, the words of the speakers were potent and truthful, and the atmosphere was respectful and yet also joyous. The service was perfectly executed, and was, in fact, in a very satisfying way, all that I had expected.

Westminster Abbey after the Memorial Service for the Duke of Edinburgh on 29 March 2022

What I hadn’t expected, however, was what I would discover afterwards. Such an experience merits retelling (well, I wanted to share my excitement and joy, at any rate …), and as I retold the event to a number of friends and colleagues, I found, to my surprise, that almost every single one had a memory of the Duke of Edinburgh, and could talk about the impact he had had on their lives. (I met him once too, in fact, and chuckled at the time at his acerbic wit!) These memories of others ranged from having met him in person – many amusing anecdotes! – to having participated in projects which he supported, including the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme, which has been a powerful force for good over several decades (and continues to be so). What was remarkable was that almost everyone I spoke to felt as though the Duke of Edinburgh had had a personal impact on their lives, and that – crucially – they were grateful to him.

The Duke of Edinburgh had an influential (and financially privileged) position in life, to be sure; he could, however, have used this position in a number of different ways, and he chose to have a positive impact. Not all of us will have the same range of opportunities to have a positive impact on the lives of others, but in actual fact, particularly if we think in percentage terms, we could all have the same impact, if we choose to do so. When we do something good, then the ripple effects can spread far and wide. If every action we take is a positive one, then just think about the wider impact this will have, as people feel good, and even tell others. One person CAN make a difference, and that one person is, in fact, each one of us.

So … let’s consider our legacy, and make every effort in the days, weeks, months and years that we have ahead of us, to do what is right and good (and I am not going to try to define that – you know what it is …). Continue to have the most positive impact you can on the lives of others … and a heartfelt thank you for what you have done so far!

Celebrating the positive despite adversity

Sometimes the weight of the stories reported in daily news bulletins can, quite simply, be overwhelming. Pestilence, War, Famine, Death … if we listen carefully, can we hear the thunderous hooves of the Four Horsemen? Fear and anxiety certainly inhibit the creative act of putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, to capture and communicate the positive and the optimistic; it almost felt disloyal to fellow human beings to do this, when so much suffering was so evident on our screens.

One event this week, however, both lifted my spirits and brought back my resolution to communicate with deliberately focused optimism. On International Women’s Day, I spent a joyous hour, in my capacity as President of Changing the Chemistry, chairing an online panel for HSBC’s national Balance group, whose key focus is on diversity. The topic was ‘Being Board Ready – the how, what, when & who?’, and the purpose was to encourage the participants to believe that they could – and should! – put themselves forward for Board roles, and not be put off by any perceived hurdles. We explored the Board journeys of the wonderful participants – Kim Atkinson, Margaret McCaig, Nik Bobb and Silka Patel – and listened to advice in what turned out to be a super conversation, ably aided in the background by Susan Rowand and Brian Hunter, co-leads of the HSBC Balance group.

Key messages to emerge were how fulfilling it was for individuals to take up Board roles, how we all have something unique to bring, and how everyone benefits when we contribute to a Board – including our own employers, who gain a more motivated, more skilled, more experienced employee. We had over 80 participants, and the poll at the end showed a significant uplift in the number of people who would now consider applying for a Board role. What a success!!

Above all, though, it was immensely fun! It was fantastic to meet all the other panellists, some of whom I was meeting for the first time (although obviously, as a good Chair 😊, I had been in contact in advance, and had planned the outline and questions). I genuinely enjoy finding out about people and their journeys, and I love the thrill of shaping a meaningful conversation which has an important purpose … there is a reason why I position myself to chair meetings, panels, Boards … We laughed, we shared, we had impact … what was there not to like about that?! And it was all in celebration of International Women’s Day, the theme of which this year was ‘Breaking the Bias’.

This was a bright and energising moment in a world which can make it difficult at times to feel bright and energised … let us grasp and savour these moments, and then use them as a foundation to empower us to play our part to help create the world in which we want to live, and which we want to leave as a legacy for our children.

It’s getting lighter!

One of the joys of living at a latitude of 55.953251 is that the change in seasons every year is really quite dramatic. It is a marvellous source of conversational material – almost every interaction I have had this past week has been punctuated by references to the current change in the season. ‘It’s definitely getting lighter’, said with a contented smile, has been the staple introduction to many a conversation in the street with neighbours lately – and the follow-up, a few days’ later, of ‘It’s getting even lighter!’, is equally satisfying. Conversation on the topic of the seasons is trumped only by the weather, as in ‘Gosh, it is windy today!’ … and even in these circumstances, we find ourselves turning back, with unadulterated pleasure, to the issue of the light, and remarking how, yes, it definitely is getting even lighter.

Of course, none of this should be a surprise – the earth has been orbiting the sun for millions of years, maintaining (we suppose) the tilt that means a single spot on the earth will become progressively further away from the sun, and then closer, every single earth year since (literally) forever. Surely by now we should be used to it? Surely by now the change in the seasons should have lost its lustre?

And yet – what joy these changes bring! The change in the light brings the thrill of finding that exact moment when the streetlamps start popping off, one by one, on the walk to or from regular school drop-offs. It brings, too, changes in nature, and the excitement of seeing a snowdrop again for the first time in 12 months, or spotting the first buds on trees. Yes, it is still cold – and there will be spells of iciness ahead, because there always are in March (and April, for that matter …) – but goodness me! The delight brought by the freshness of the green of the shoots, and the anticipation of that long-awaited whiff of glorious blossom … what is there not to love about this time of year?

I could turn this into a metaphor for rebirth, inexorable forward movement, hope, and optimism … it is all of those, and more, of course. But it is also, quite simply, beautiful and amazing. Savour the moment; we are lucky to live on this incredible planet.