Adapted from a talk to South Thames College Group staff 11.2.22
I’m here to tell you about a grassroots movement that is taking off nationally in FE – a movement of joy. That might seem a bit surprising for a Friday in February, in a sector which is chronically busy and with educators who must be longing for half term. Our work is so boom and bust and that’s exhausting. Even though I’ve worked independently for five years now, I still feel the rhythm of the academic terms, and I’m always looking for new ways to manage that. The practice of joy I have shared with so many others over the last few years is something I’m finding uplifting and I’m here to share that with you today.
I work on two national projects for the Education and Training Foundation, who many of you will know get the professional development budget from the Department for Education. #APConnect is the national advanced practitioners programme. I also work on its sister programme, Centres for Excellence in Maths, so a shout out to all the maths teachers today! In fact a shout out to all of you. I may be a few years out of college life, but I see you through the eyes of the people I work with, and I know how hard you work.
I also work on another national ‘project’. Nothing that’s funded this time, but a coming together of educators at the very start of lockdown, with the express purpose of lifting the spirits of the sector. Nearly two years on we’re still going, with hundreds of FE educators up and down the country changing the cultures of their organisations through a practice of joy. This morning I’m going to talk to you about JoyFE.
The Theory of Joy
First of all, I want to tell you about joy by telling you what it’s not. It’s not putting on a brave face and pretending to be happy. That’s the sort of toxic positivity that’s all over Facebook and Instagram. Sometimes you can almost feel the pain underneath, the brave attempts at resilience in a world that is incredibly challenging. We have all been through a thing in the last two years and ‘normal’ still seems out of reach.
JoyFE’s joy has surprising roots. When I was studying for my PhD I came across the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza. He’s dotted throughout this presentation – or, at least, his finger puppet version is. He lived in 17th century Netherlands and he was always in hot water with the establishment of the day, because at a time of religious intolerance he just didn’t believe in a ‘God-on-a-cloud’. He believed that God was in all of us – and in animals, rivers and trees too. He wrote about the joyful life-force we all share, an energy he thought of as potentia. He believed that our ethics should come from within us, rather than be externally imposed by the church or the synagogue, and that we should think for ourselves. You can see how that might be unpopular back in the day. Other philosophers were busy dividing the word up into binaries: nature/culture, man/woman, black/white – and we have inherited their thinking to this day. But Spinoza believed that we could each take responsibility for channelling the pain and sorrow of life into this joyful energy – and do something with it.
In 2019, just before the pandemic, I got the chance to do a TED talk. It was the first TEDx event in my home town of Doncaster, and although it isn’t international TED, it’s a franchise that insists on every detail being in place – that iconic circle is a bath mat is from Dunelm, which probably doesn’t happen in Houston, Texas! With Spinoza in my mind, I chose to talk about joy.
I talked about it as an intentional practice – small acts of microjoys to counter the microaggressions of daily life. It’s alright talking about abstract concepts like this, but you have to put them to work: 1% vision, 99% alignment. Since becoming a freelancer, I’ve tried to live my life like this – being guided by my personal values and ethics about what work I chose to do. It’s a privilege, and one I’d worked hard for; like you I’d served my time in FE and before that in public health community work, always a public servant. It was scary, at first, to say no to work that didn’t bring joy to myself and others. But I was never going to tell people how to teach, or how to serve Ofsted. Plenty of other people were doing that. I go into colleges to help people think for themselves. My work, from the start, was about building community, so that educators could inspire, energise and support one another – pooling that joyful energy and drawing on it in tough times.
Little did I know that just a few months later I’d be putting joy to work in unexpected ways. On 20th March 2020 – my birthday! – I got a call from a friend who was head of teaching and learning at that time, at a big FE college locally – Stef Wilkinson. Lockdown was looming and she said, we have to do something to help people keep their heads up. On Monday 23rd March, when we were all adjusting to the shock of bringing our laptops home and working at the kitchen table, #JoyFE was born.
We started as a hashtag, with a broadcast on Twitter each morning at 7am. People tuned in and joined us in a WhatsApp group, by the end of the week #JoyFE was 20 people strong! Over the next weeks and months, we opened online spaces where people gathered to share stories and ideas, plan new ways of working and ask each other how they were: a practice of care. So that was yet another value we were putting to work. We are still going strong two years later. We run online ‘Ideas Rooms’ and writing groups, four times a week, we publish a digital magazine monthly, we still broadcast (every morning at 7.45am on Facebook Live). We operate as a collective – no money, no organising core – and have come to partner with those national projects, running workshops and mingling our potentia right across all settings and contexts of FE.
We have joined an exciting and emerging landscape of grassroots-driven FE communities: constellations, we call them, because they are not closed groups but open networks where anyone can join, anyone can leave, and anyone can contribute the energy and idea that they have, or listen in from the sidelines. Genuinely, this is Lave and Wenger’s community of practice in action, if you’re familiar with their work. You may already be involved in the #FEResearch movement, or go along to #ukfechat every Thursday at 9pm on Twitter. There are emerging online communities where English practitioners come together, or vocational tutors, or parents in FE. And organisations are seeing the benefit of this way of working, because the energy ripples out. FE has redefined its approach to professional development. Yes, we still need expert-led CPD sometimes – CfEM is brilliant for this though, again, the ‘experts’ are practitioners in the field. But we don’t need those ‘drive-by’ approaches as much as we thought we did. The expertise is here, in us – in you. Professional learning constellations and events which are peer-led and which, crucially, break out from the walls of the organisation and connect educators up and down the country. Not like minds, but like values.
How the national projects fit in is that they provide the architecture for some of this – for example, APConnect runs Festival Fridays, free online workshops some of which are provided by JoyFE, some by the Women’s Leadership Network or other grassroots FE communities such as FEResearch or PDN. In his recent work, communities of practice guru Etienne Wenger identifies a role for projects and organisations as providing this vital architecture – holding the space, providing the admin and then backing right off!
Building Community, Building Trust
I have come to see the mission of this work as building trust. We have massively lost that in FE. With policy change after policy change directly impacting on our work it’s hard to trust the intentions of national government regarding our sector – whoever they are, that’s not a party political comment. Politicians and civil servants have so rarely experienced FE for themselves that they just don’t get it. Yes, we are about GCSE resits and it’s incredibly important that young people and adults have the basic skills they need, to navigate their way through life – particularly those young people who have missed out on two years of ‘normal’ schooling. But that’s not all we are. We provide excellent vocational education, which is grounded in our communities and in good working relationships with local and national employers. And we provide an education for life, not ‘soft skills’ – I refuse that term – but social, emotional and digital literacy, so that they can fulfil their own potential as rounded human beings living in this challenging world.
You know that. But it gets harder and harder. And with all the bureaucracy we navigate, it’s hard to keep hold of an appetite for what matters – yes, the students, but also our own creativity, passion and wellbeing.
There was a brief moment at the very start of lockdown, when organisations trusted teachers. It was frontline staff who stepped up to the pump two years ago and completely re-learned their practice, supported by the fabulous APs I worked with, true agents of change. For a few weeks, before scrutiny stepped back in. And what I see now in many places – and again, I don’t know your colleges – is gobackery. A pull to the old, in a world that has fundamentally changed.
Trust is ebbing away within many organisations and the work of joy – not just #JoyFE but the joy in all of us – is to rebuild that. Dr Christina Donovan is an FE trust researcher. Her research identifies that the first step towards building trust is transformation – a bit of a challenging statement for us in FE. We have been schooled to write ourselves out of the transformation picture, transformation is about the individual student and what they achieve. I’m not knocking that. But we have to do something different in our organisations, if people are to gather around that new idea, thrive and have hope for a better future.
That process of building trust is exactly the same as building community. So those grassroots communities I told you about – and communities of practice which operate within organisations – are a positive step. A word of warning though – we must look outside our own workplaces. Otherwise the same stale ideas just circulate round. We can only learn so much by looking at college’s Ofsted reports online.
The Practice of Values
That’s part of the picture. The other returns us to joy – and to care. To that intentional practice of values: consistent, persistent. Not identifying them via a focus group and pinning them on the walls. Values should be lived, not laminated.
At this point, I invited participants to contribute the three values they consider most important to their work, to a wordcloud (via Mentimeter). Kindness, honesty and respect were consistently repeated, with equality, patience, fairness, empathy, understanding and support not far behind.
I love seeing these come in. And it always affirms for me that, as humans, we want the same things. If I could change one thing in FE, it would be to remove that word ‘outstanding’ from Ofsted gradings, that assumption that we are brilliant in every moment, in every day. Nobody is that, not even Simone Biles! Outstanding literally means ‘to stand out’ – to be so great that you’re different from the norm. That burden of perfectionism is making us all sick.
Imagine how it would be, if our organisations were truly led by these values. Individually, we can’t make that happen. But together we can. And by ‘together’, I mean everyone. I’ve been a governor at Chesterfield College for the last year or so and I’ve seen the fundamental changes that happen to all staff and students when the culture shifts to values first. We’re not perfect. But as a governor I’m seeing the impact of this in the data now.
Potentia and Potestas
Collectively, we have power. And I don’t mean ‘take it to the union’ power or ‘standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square’ power, though there’s a time and a place. Spinoza has the answer.
Writing in Latin, he had two words for power at his disposal.
Potestas – is power as we know it, power (and politics, by which I mean internal politics) as usual. It’s the individual, status, hierarchy. Think of it as the tree, growing straight up, with some of us at the top and some at the bottom.
I’m interested in:
Potentia – where that joyful, activist energy comes into play. It’s collective, energetic, distributed – it happens at all levels of an organisation and spreads beyond its walls. Think of it as bluebells, or lilies of the valley. These rhizomatic plants can be very unexpected. You think you’ve killed them off, then they pop up somewhere else, or across the road, or in the neighbours garden. They are invasive and, fair enough, you don’t always want that with a plant. But invasively, persistently, even a little subversively spreading ideas and joyful energy across FE. I’ll take some of that!
So when I work with colleges and other organisations, I try to create spaces where people can discover their potentia. This is so hard in the noise and velocity of FE life. We are too busy to think. We are too busy to go to the loo sometimes! But even small pauses will let the ideas come flooding in, especially when we think together in community. Finding ten minutes in a day to walk round the block with a colleague, sharing the time, five minutes each, without interruption. Knowing you are not going to be interrupted juices the brain (that’s not a technical term) and calms the heart rate. These thinking spaces have a profound effect on our cognitive and mental health and I can prove that by showing you the read out from this blood sugar app on my arm. Keeping us too busy to think new thoughts, keeps things stale and anxious. At Chesterfield College, we have a 15 minute break every morning when all students down tools and just breathe. Thanks to an idea which came out of a thinking session with our learning mentors, I’m hoping that will be introduced for all staff. Fifteen minutes. Imagine! Of course, there has to be some self-discipline, it would be counterproductive to police people for checking their emails! We have to do the work on ourselves to do the work.
The Values Line
One of the pieces of work we do on the advanced practitioners project is to help APs construct values-led questions to guide their practice. We are at the mercy of KPIs but I don’t believe for a minute that we have to make that as hard work as we do. Paperwork layered on endless paperwork that has built up over years because we are frightened we’ll miss something and experience the big stick. Holding thinking time allows for college administrators to go back to basics and figure out what’s really needed to monitor those KPIs as accurately and efficiently as possible, clearing time for the values work. And put into place pared-down, straightforward systems that work, so we are not responding to endless ‘urgents’. I’ve worked in A+E, that’s urgent. Aside from an acute safeguarding issue, FE is not A+E.
We then take those values you’ve identified today and form them into questions to guide planning and implementation:
What could staff sickness policy look like as a practice of kindness?
What could a reorganisation look like as a practice of honesty?
What could supervision look like as a practice of respect?
If we are going to take values work seriously we need to bake it in (thank you Catina Barrett from The Women’s Leadership Network for that phrase). We can’t just finesse it at the end – that won’t work, just saying words or laminating posters won’t work. It’s inauthentic and also pointless. Those values questions need to be there from the beginning of our thinking. I hope that this wordcloud might stay in your mind today, and that you consider bringing values-led questions to the rest of the work that you do together.
Telling our Stories as Educators
Finally, my friends, we need to tell our own stories. I’m not diminishing the role of the student’s story here, though I do feel we pay more attention to tragic life story Olympics than to outcomes sometimes and that’s particularly true in my heartland of adult and community education.
When I worked on the DfE’s Community Learning Mental Health research project a few years ago, it became agonisingly clear that educators had lost the confidence to tell their own stories, even when directly asked for them. It was almost like they couldn’t, that they’d forgotten how. I knew I needed something colourful and engaging to try and spark a new way of thinking.
Enter The Bowerbird, the last concept I’ll share with you today.
The blue satin bowerbird hops around on the forest floor in his Australian home, picking up the blue shiny things of human detritus – bottle tops, condom wrappers, straws. He uses them to decorate a beautiful twig bower, not to live in but to attract a mate.
Those blue shiny things are the stories of your practice that end up on the cutting room floor. The thank you cards, the chance conversations, the photographs, the celebratory tweets. All the stuff that isn’t needed for the KPIs, when you’re contributing to a Self-Assessment Report for Ofsted or whoever. Be your own Bowerbird. Collect those things and share them – in your conversations, in blogs, on social media, in the college newsletter. Don’t wait to be asked, bring those joys to your practice, alongside the microjoys of kindness, empathy and appreciation that really do transform the working day. This is how cultures change for the better, not a directive from the top, but you finding your potentia, finding thinking pauses and wriggle room, re-finding the appetite for your own creative and values-led practices. Minor gestures which are consistent, persistent, invasive, subversive – just like the bluebell – and which change the culture from within. I know it works. I see it working. And if this lights a tiny spark I can wholeheartedly recommend you listen to the work of Karen Walrond and Brené Brown.
Joyful practice is critical practice. It’s not resilience (laying it on you), but endurance: recognising the challenges of the world and resisting through those small gestures of “I would prefer not to…” And it’s not cynical. As Rutger Bregman says here, from his book Humankind:
A final word on the Bowerbird. Once the female has chosen her mate, the bowers get kicked over and the blue shiny things repurposed for another time, which is a model of sustainability in itself. Incidentally, the younger females choose the nicest looking bower. But the old birds like me prefer the best dancer.
I hope you have felt some joy in yourself reading this and maybe found that tiny spark of potentia within. Karen Walrond says that to be change makers – lightmakers, she calls us – we need to listen for the whispers, but to hear those whispers we need to pause and listen once in a while.
Our joyful mission isn’t about getting ‘likes’ or ‘follows’ for JoyFE. But we are absolutely here if you want to seek us out and share your light with ours.