It’s time to step back

Written by: Alex Wood | Published:

After four years of writing this column, Alex Wood is stepping back. He leaves us with a final message of support and aspiration for our teachers

Norman Drummond, founder of the leadership development charity Columba 1400, former headteacher and Church of Scotland minister, has published a new book, Step Back (Hodder & Stoughton).

Step Back reiterates the core Columban values of awareness, focus, creativity, integrity, perseverance and service.

It is an appeal to the individual to stand back from the pounding pressures of a world characterised by relentless consumerism, shallow values, and crass egotism and to reject the negative and destructive self-perceptions which mar our capacity for action.

Columba 1400 has established its place in the Scottish educational firmament (although it works across the globe) by insisting that all educational issues require ethical answers. It has also asserted that it is impossible to separate the social and the individual, that personal integrity is crucial to challenging and changing tough realities.

Drummond’s new work repeats these lessons. Knowledge is valuable; wisdom more so. You cannot give to others unless you take care of yourself but service to others is the best escape from self-obsession. Challenges and set-backs are not defeats but means to review how we behave and act and how to behave and act better on another occasion. He advocates making space in life, taking the time to review the challenges facing us.

He quotes a range of mentors – Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Booker T Washington, Mahatma Ghandi, Leonard Cohen – but the essential message remains that the capacity for change lies in us all. That may be both the book’s greatest strength and the greatest weakness. It is an optimistic measure of human potential.

On the other hand, young people in the schools in the very challenging circumstances in which Drummond has sought to prioritise his leadership message, where indeed that message is most vital, can be utterly circumscribed by their continuing experience of hopelessness and deprivation.

Step Back sits somewhat uneasily between being a critique of modern life and a lifestyle guide, but its realistic tools for survival should be welcomed, especially by teachers. Beset by constant change, increasing demands (many of which seem utterly pointless) and pressures from parents, students and management, teachers are today more stressed than I have ever known in over 40 years in education. The ability to stand back from these and to review professional, and indeed personal, life from an optimistic and ethical perspective is essential if burn-out is to be avoided.

It is perhaps also appropriate that I should write on such a theme for stepping back is what I am about to do. After four years of writing the Once a Teacher column, it is time for me to step back. This therefore is my last. Although still involved in various aspects of education, four years away from full-time work at the chalkface means that my credentials, my experience and whatever professional wisdom I may have, are now increasingly divorced from the daily experience of a new generation of teachers.

Teaching remains an inspiring profession, one in which the impact of one’s efforts is often immediately apparent but also often becomes apparent long after it seems complete. I meet adults in their 50s today, whom I taught as teenagers 40 years ago. I know, and they tell me, of the contribution I made to their maturing.

I wish the new generation of teachers well and leave them with these words of Norman Drummond: “No matter the obstacles and difficulties and disappointments, great things can be achieved when good people come together in sincerity.”

  • Alex Wood has been a teacher for 38 years. He is now an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University.


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