Whose vision is it anyway?

As teachers and educators, we often talk about the importance of vision but can easily feel overwhelmed by the process of  creating one. Vision is complex, and is often perceived as ‘fluffy’ or abstract. In this blog, I share my thoughts on vision: why it is OK to find vision frustrating  – or why, in fact, frustration when working with a vision can be a good thing –  and the importance of listening to pupil voice when it comes to developing your vision and ideas about what you want for them.

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Before I go any further, I need to make a big shout-out to one of the teachers I work with – Jill –who has inspired me to blog about vision. Yesterday, Jill asked me some really BIG questions about vision. We mused about the difficulty of having a vision in the first place, and whether having a vision for your pupils in itself might steer or constrain the opportunities that your kids go on to access. Can vision, in fact, be limiting? Does deciding what you want for your pupils subtly deny pupils opportunities in the long-term? We also talked about why vision is sometimes so hard to explain, let alone measure. It’s ‘fluffy’ and abstract and sometimes really hard to articulate to others. After my conversation with Jill, I met with Kate, an NQT who tells me about her vision and how it has changed over time to become something quite daunting: it’s big, complex, and at times “ridiculously ambitious”, Kate told me; but “it’s more important than anything else for these kids”. It’s conversations like these that I love – they push my thinking forward and force me to reflect on the bigger picture of the work that we do as educators, and help me to question the ‘why’ of what we do.

Here are my thoughts on why having a vision as an educator is so important; why it’s not always a straight-forward concept; and why it’s OK – if not healthy – to find the process of working with a vision frustrating.

Having a vision for your kids vs. having a vision by your kids

Who is your vision for? That might sound like an obvious question, but it occurred to me that educators often talk about vision rooted in our values and what we want for our kids. Is there a difference between having a vision for your kids and having a vision crafted by your kids? I think so. This video documenting the thoughts of Zeke Cohen, Executive Director of The Intersection in Baltimore and pupil Dawnya Johnson at the Teach for All ‘Student Vision & Leadership Conference’ explains this point beautifully. (Don’t be put off by the 50 minute time frame – it is well worth the watch!)

As Cohen explains in this talk: “Your vision is not just your vision: it needs to be based in what already exists and in what’s already happened.”

Cohen and Dawnya both articulate vision as something driven by context and challenge educators to “lead by listening to what’s said and what’s not said”.

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Zeke Cohen and Dawnya Johnson speak to delegates at the Teach For All ‘Student Vision & Leadership Conference’

Approaching vision from a place of empathy is so important. During a recent visit to New Orleans, our group of teachers and Teach First staff heard Maggie from TrueSchool tell us stories of many failed visions (and as a result failed ventures), where leaders had “thought they knew the solutions because they thought they knew the problem”.  However, as Jill articulated so well in our conversation about the challenges of working with a vision; all too often it’s easy as educators to lose sight of vision in the midst of a system where school values, expectations and routines seem all-encompassing. Sharing another vision, a different vision with your kids can be confusing and overwhelming: ‘to whose norms are we committing here?’ is a question often asked by pupils and teachers alike as they bounce from one set of values to another. This is why, says Cohen, we must “lead with the curriculum of the corner and of the streets” as well as the “academic curriculum”. We must listen to the voices of our kids, and first understand their stories, not the version that the storylines wish us to hear. By understanding the narratives of our kids better, we can develop a “contextualised vision” that kids can relate to the other goals and aspirations that others may have for them.

Dawnya urges her listeners to remember that the narratives of those writing the storylines can be dangerous if accepted in isolation – or as universal truths –  and that we must seek to always investigate layers of experience, not just the common truth projected by those in positions of authority: “My contextualised vision is never to be silenced by power. Every pupil…has the potential to be a leader…seek to challenge the most challenging kids, and do so with love and respect for their identities.”

This inspiring video capturing the voices of Teach for America teacher Clint Smith and his pupils is a great example of how important ‘contextualised vision’ is. As Clint says, “If you don’t define your own narrative, someone is going to define it for you.”  Life-changing vision starts with learning, not just a great idea. Perhaps the most humbling part of Clint’s vision is that he recognises the power of his pupils voices as the driver for his values and ideas: “my students push me…they give me perspective more than anything else I’ve ever done in my life.”

Vision is complex and messy

Vision is tough. I have always struggled with the concept of boiling a vision down to something that can be written on a piece of paper, or something that can be represented by a series of images or words when it’s often emotive and resists explanation. Historically, I have always viewed vision as something rooted in action: living and breathing the change that you want to see. That’s easier said than done, and I’m certainly no model of best practice when it comes to ‘being the change you want to see’. At times, I allow obstacles to get in the way of my vision, or shy away from the ‘difficult’ or ‘hard to explain’. My experiences in New Orleans have taught me that I need to work on asking myself, ‘is the work that you’re doing bold, or is it bashful?’, if I am to better model the value of courage that is so necessary in world that finds comfort in the status-quo (credit to 4.0Schools for asking this brilliant question of us in our visit to New Orleans). Above and beyond this, vision is really hard to articulate if it’s genuinely rooted in context: when vision comes from an authentic need, driven by the voice of many and grounded in their hopes and dreams, how can we possibly tell this story in so few words and through one mouthpiece?

My understanding of vision is evolving from one that looked like a neatly formed power-quote to one that is a tangle of annotations and illustrations – each one representing the voices of the people with whom I hope and dream.

Like Clint Smith and his pupils, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns of ‘The Dangers of a Single Story’ in this honest and thought-provoking TED talk. Adichie talks about being a young writer who wrote about things as she read them – unconsciously assuming the thoughts and values of other authors which led to the temporary silencing of her own cultural voice and her own identity. She also talks of the dangers of labelling others as “poor” in our attempt to show compassion in the quest for social justice: she found it “impossible to imagine” her neighbour as doing anything of worth or value because her mother described them as “having nothing” and tells the story of her American university roommate who similarly constructed a single story for Adichie and “felt sorry for me before she even knew me”.

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about her experiences of the ‘single story’

When thinking about vision in the world of education, we must embrace the positive and the negative narratives that tell the stories of our pupils if we are to empower them to demand justice by expressing their own stories. As Adichie warns:

“To focus only on negatives is to flatten my experience and to overlook the many other stories that shaped me. The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete.”

As Arlene Casimir-Siar, a teacher that we met in New Orleans at KIPP Believe Primary shared with us when articulating her vision, it’s about “the brutal facts of their circumstances as well as their current reality”. Every pupil has a voice in Arlene’s classroom, a voice which adds another layer of richness to her vision and helps to push, challenge and adapt the goals that “are always in [her pocket] and there to revisit, re-frame, and change at any given moment. In a touching moment during our visit to Arlene’s classroom, her pupils grappled with the complexities of their ‘inner beauties’ – character traits such as ‘Zest’ and ‘Curiosity’ – some of which come naturally and some that require cultivation. We are told by one pupil, Derek, that ‘Self-Control’ is the most difficult ‘inner beauty’ to exercise outside the safety of the four walls of the classroom because life at home can be tough, temptation to “do bad things” is rife, and sometimes “making the right choice is difficult”. It’s the complexities of these experiences that make crafting a vision for our pupils so challenging, and yet so essential if we are to empower them to create their own narratives.

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One of Arlene’s pupils, Jaheim, explains his role in shaping and living the class vision

Vision, it seems, isn’t simply something to display on a shiny wall plaque (although sharing your vision is a great idea – another blog post needed on that topic!) but is something to doodle, scribble, debate, discuss and constantly challenge. That’s why sometimes it’s so tough to articulate your vision to others, and that’s alright: vision is a work in progress. As Jason Calacanis said: “You have to have a big vision and take very small steps to get there. You have to be humble as you execute but visionary and gigantic in terms of your aspiration.”

If you would like to find out more about my trip to New Orleans with a group of South London Teach First ambassadors, you can read  my initial reflections on the exchange here.

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