Sir John Jones: magic weaving

June 2016 – University of Sussex

Some key ideas from the talk given by Sir John Jones to a large group of trainee teachers at Sussex University this summer. It was remarkably inspiring.

“Magic weaving”

The three most important words to an educator should be ‘children, children, children’, nothing else too catchy or well-thought out just tell it like it is straight from the heart. Most educators would say they join the profession to ‘make a difference’ and Sir John Jones would generally agree that this matters. However, bigger factors influence the success of our endeavours as educators. Babies are born (fairly frequently apparently) into a ‘demographic’ (a family, a postcode and an income level) and life begins. For some, this is a happy journey but for others, it’s a daily struggle against the odds. It’s not fair. One in four children in the UK lives in poverty. One and a half million children live in a house where no adult has worked. Sir John described four battlegrounds that these children face over the next few years:

  • Cognitive – in a professional family a four-year-old will have been exposed to over 40 million words. Adults will hold conversations over the dinner table and read books together. In a deprived area, the likelihood is only 10 million words and lower levels of literacy. Society wrongly confuses this gap with ability. Not fair.
  • Emotional – in a professional family, children will get on average twelve encouragements to every one discouragement. A huge impact on self-esteem. At the other end of the spectrum in benefit street, one encouragement is met with two discouragements. Not fair.
  • Aspiration – society distinguishes the aspirations of children from wealthier backgrounds as ‘high’ and those from poorer backgrounds as ‘low’. Sir John suggests we use the words ‘broad’ and ‘narrow’ instead.
  • Expectation – most wealthier children would expect to attend university. Those from poorer backgrounds have never heard of a university. He reveled in the fact that at a Bolton Academy, where he is a governor, 15 students went on to University last year. The first members of their families ever to have attended University. Boy did they party.

He went on to quote Nelson Mandela:

“It is only through learning that the son of a miner can become the manager of the mine and it is only through learning that the daughter of a cleaner can become a doctor and it is only through learning that the child of a farm worker can become the president of a proud nation.”

The future of the planet lies in the palms of the hands of those adults that have dedicated their lives to young people – the magic weavers.

Sir John skillfully and passionately described the context in which teachers are required to perform. It was not a political statement. It clarified the importance of the role of the teacher as a route to social justice.

“The keeper of dreams”

Everyone should have one of those teachers. The ones that made school better or even bearable. I remember mine, Mrs Yorke. A maths teacher from the old school. She taught we learnt. We practised and we got really good at it. We would do anything for her. Sir John described a conversation with a teacher who was inspired by one of her teachers. A teacher who was there on a wet and windy November afternoon to see her one and only netball hattrick. The teacher who said I’ll look after your self-belief until you’re ready to take it back. She was the one person who a year after her mum’s death, whilst she was still at school, came up to her and whispered in her ear “Are you okay? I’m here if you need me.”

Working in a school is a supreme act of faith he went on to say. Never quite knowing what children have become. Sir John then described four gifts that teachers provide to young people:

  • opportunity – skills and expertise that teachers talk about in interviews should be brought into schools and used whether it’s embroidery, cooking, golf or playing the piano. Plant a seed.
  • passion – create passionate children by putting passionate adults in front of them. Passion gives you a desire to do more. A desire to do more gives you an appetite for discovery. Be enthralled by learning.
  • time – given unselfishly – teachers are good at this!
  • world class teaching – plant the seeds and allow children to fly.

“You’re hired!”

Sir John revealed key elements of his interview process. Before saying a word, he would look deep into the candidate’s eyes and look for passion. He knew when it was absent too. The look of a ‘velociraptor’ who doesn’t like children. Not good. The next thing he looks for is warmth. A warm heart of someone who cares.Not someone who brings fear and trepidation to a class. Next on the list, it was ‘fire in the belly’. Stand up for what you believe, push the boundaries and tell people what gets up your nose. Then, an unconditional positive regard. Liking all children is key even the ones who are tough. He described a school where some of the children were definitely unloved. An OfSTED inspector arrived for a visit but somehow ended up coming through one of the back doors only to be nearly knocked over by a group of teenagers leaving the school building. He asked one of the girls at the back, “What’s going on here?” She replied, “There’s a big inspection going on today so they’re sending all the dickheads home!” Out of the mouths of babes. The final attribute Sir John was looking for was a relentless pursuit of excellence. Doing small things brilliantly and relentlessly. There’s always a better way.

“We would like our teachers to …..”

A plea from children to their teachers. Sir John described some fundamental needs from a child’s perspective.

  1. Have a great relationship with us. We’ve got to spend lots of time with you. It’s no good for our self-esteem if you don’t really like being with us. It has long-lasting effects on our cognitive and emotional status.
  2. Ask me brilliant questions, abstract questions to which there is no right or wrong answer. About 80-90% of questions asked in a classroom are answered correctly first time.
  3. Let me learn independently.
  4. Don’t tell us how to do it.
  5. Let me learn with my friends.
  6. Tell me how I’m doing. John Hattie says this is important!
  7. Have high expectations of me. Believe in me!
  8. Give me challenging work.

Sir John ended with a reminder about telling good stories because all good teachers are good storytellers. Make it RING. Relevant, Interesting, Naughty and a Giggle. He described the American teacher who was asked out of the blue by one her more persistent students, “Mrs Johnson! How many times did you have sex with your husband last week?” He defied anyone not to see a ‘win-lose’ situation but being the true professional she ignored the question and carried on with the lesson, choosing to act not react. The boy asked again. He said, “Mrs Johnson, are you ignoring me?” She replied, “No! I’m still counting.” One-nil to the teacher. Humour is very powerful in the right context. The poor boy is still in therapy.

This was a heartwarming, stimulating and insightful talk. If you get a chance to see Sir John Jones talk then make a date. You will not be disappointed. Thanks to Jo Tregenza, Head of ITT at University of Sussex, for organizing and my invitation. @sirjohnfjones 

Author: Marcus Cherrill

Teacher, scientist, runner.

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