Potentia Mentoring – Good Intentions and Actionable Ideas

Presented at Walsall College for the TELL/University of Wolverhampton #WLVMentoring event on 20.5.22

Thank you for inviting me today. I’m going to be throwing lots of ideas at you, which I hope will help shape your thinking today – because that’s what it’s all about, not what we say but what you do with it. My slides are basically illustrative but I’ve published the transcript of what I plan to say on my blog and you’ll find that via the link on the little cards I’ve left around the room.

Maybe six or seven years ago I stood in a room somewhere like this – I can’t remember where – and I said, with confidence, this is FE’s moment. We called ourselves the Dancing Princesses,  riding a wave of new scholarship, of partnerships between higher and further education, often centred around teacher education, which seemed more equitable than it had ever been. And I was wrong…not about the moment, but about how long a moment could last. 

A lot has happened since 2015. And what I lacked was not only a crystal ball, but an appreciation of how bad things could get in the world. There have been many dark times since. And within a year, I was no longer a teacher educator in a college but a freelancer working on national education programmes, somewhat bemused by how the velocity of changes in the outside world was absolutely not mirrored by the snail’s pace of self-sustaining change in FE. 

There are plenty of imposed changes! It’s hard then for us to change things up when we are kept busy all the time, doing more for less and drowning under successive waves of often ridiculous bureaucracy. 

That room was full of good intentions. What it lacked was actionable ideas. We were looking to the future and I believe we couldn’t see how rooted we were in the past. And we were about to enter the storm – a global political, economic, social and cultural upheaval that would touch us all. Wars, pandemic, inescapable racial reckoning, politically manufactured ‘culture wars’, refugee agony and financial collapse. 

The moment extended…Antonio Gramsci’s ‘interregnum’ where the old is dying, and the new cannot be born. I needed new lenses, if I was to play my part and I needed new mentors too. I’m going to introduce a few of those to you today, via the brilliant thinkers who are ‘mentoring’ me.

I believe that FE – by which I also mean college-based HE and HE programmes deliberately focused on social changemaking such as those led by Damien here at Wolves and at Leeds Beckett – has a potential for changing the fabric of society which we have only begun to tap. That’s why I’m still here, working on national programmes; not a ‘consultant’, not telling people how to teach or how to mentor, but co-creating communities of changemakers and showing people how to step into their power. To do that, I had to step out of something – the systems, structures, processes and hierarchies that invisibly shape our lives. To think of anything that got beyond good intentions to actionable ideas, I had to make those things visible, to get past them in my thinking, and that was the work of my Phd, a deliberately activist project which used posthuman theory to see what could be possible. This is no place to unpack the complexities of posthumanism – happy to bang on about that another time – but what it did was unsettle my life-long assumption that there was only one kind of power. 

I explored a branch of posthumanism which is all about today but has its roots in the seventeenth century – the work of Dutch Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who also lived in “interesting times’. He’s the little guy you’ll see on my slides. He wrote in Latin and that gave him two words – two different concepts – for power. I’d love you to photograph or scribble these down to help your own actionable ideas today. 

Potestas is power as we know it, power as usual. It runs through our lives, expressed in inequalities, hierarchies, structures and the accountability systems that are designed to keep it in place. I’ve chosen botanical images for the slides today so think of potestas loosely as the tree. We’re overburdened by potestas in FE so it’s tempting to think we have none – or very little. Sometimes we abuse what little we’ve got, in an attempt to make ourselves feel powerful. But we have another kind of power.

Potentia is a joyful, activist energy. I don’t mean marching the streets, I mean the strength and energy we find in community with others. Potentia is uncontainable, it’s the rhizomatic bluebell, rippling out change, ignoring the boundaries of the garden, not staying where it’s planted.

The posthuman thinker Rosi Braidotti says that a ‘good career’ is two-thirds potestas and one-third potentia. Damien is a great example of this. He gets himself into places where he has huge potestas clout, but he never loses that activist edge. What’s more, he changes the structures, systems and processes around him to maximise the potentia of others. That’s the work.

Most of us don’t amass as much potestas as Damien, or if we do climb the ladder, we get entangled in how hard it is to keep hold of our potentia when what’s asked of us is obedience to the status quo. Reversing that formula, to create careers where we’re one-third potestas and two-thirds potentia is what makes us changemakers within the system, and that’s been my work of the last four years with the national Advanced Practitioners project #APConnect. By accident, really, me and my co-collaborator Joss Kang got to mix it with a group of people in FE who, once brought into pan-organisational community with one another, have become the engine room of change in FE organisations up and down the country.

If you’ve not read Emma Dabiri’s book, ‘What White People Can Do Next’, I recommend it (and not just to white people). Emma asks, what’s your influence? Who are the people around you? What are the systems you work within? In other words, she’s asking for you to think about your potentia in an intentional way.

In FE, we serve a huge demographic of untapped potentia. People – and I mean colleagues, as well as students – stuck in life situations which bring them strength and wisdom, if they can tap into their own potentia and self-belief and turn their experience into learning. Our job as educators is two-fold: to help people step into their own light, and to work with others to unstick the conditions of FE which get in the way of that. It’s a different kind of mentoring – potentia mentoring.

But we have to start with ourselves. Do the work on ourselves to do the work. And that means practices of care and seva, as well as the gathering of wisdom and experience. The podcasts I listen to now, the books I read, the conversations I have, are not about FE per se. They are often from the business world, where there is a revolution of social change thinkers, social entrepreneurs and even big business waking up to new ways of not only thinking but doing. People like Brené Brown, Ruchika Tulshyan, James Rhee, Linda Hill…there are many, across all dimensions of difference. I’ve deliberately chosen people who’ve been on Brené’s ‘Dare to Lead’ podcast there, so you can easily check them out.

One of the most influential thinkers who is unwittingly mentoring my work at the moment is Shawn A Ginwright and I’m going to take you through Shawn’s ‘Four Pivots’. If posthumanism was a good intentions lens to me, the Four Pivots have made a significant contribution to my actionable ideas lens. They are shaping my new work, a start-up I’m planning with Joss called FEConstellations.

Pivot 1 – Awareness: From Lens to Mirror

You’re going to laugh when I talk about reflection, because I know it’s the bane of many lives on a Cert Ed/PGCE programme when you just want to get on with the job. But when we think about the bigger picture – the global reckoning, the releasing of potentia in people who are oppressed by inequalities – I keep coming back to this, we gotta do the work on ourselves to do the work.

Pivoting from Lens to Mirror is a paradigm shift. It helps us take a pause, so that we can shift from good intentions to actionable ideas. Lenses show us all that’s wrong with the world, and we need to know this but we can get stuck there. The hurt, shame and disappointment keeps piling up and it’s passed on from generation to generation – we see this in students, if not in ourselves. Sadly, in our busy, noisy FE culture, ‘reflection’ – the pivot from lens to mirror – is seen as a ‘nice to have’, for when we have time – and we never have time! And – emotionally – it’s easier to point the finger (at the government, or the boss, even the student) rather than look at the vulnerability inside. Social change, Shawn Ginwright says, is “deeply connected to our own healing, reflection and wellbeing” (p.36) and what is FE if not a site for this to happen?

We are socialised away from self-awareness and really seeing how we show up for others. We develop bias spots because we believe that we are “right” – and, as an aside, those of us who identify ourselves politically with the left are often the worst for this.

We need hindsight, yes, but we also need foresight and insight. The vulnerability to ask of ourselves and others around us, “If there was one thing I need to work on, what would you say it should be?” 

Pivot 2 – Connection: From Transactional to Transformative Relationships

This is about belonging. Shawn Ginwright describes belonging as, “a mutual exchange of care, compassion and courage that binds people together in a way that says, you matter.” (p.94)

Now isn’t this our work? Brené Brown defines belonging as showing up as yourself. She describes ‘fitting in’ as trying to be like everyone else. All the rules, standards, codes of conduct that comprise the professional morality of working in FE mean nothing if we only comply, without engaging our own ethics, our own values base. 

Healing how we belong is the only way to transform society: as a practice it requires what Shawn Ginwright describes as ‘relentless’ self-examination, vulnerability and self-awareness. How do we stay present with people who think differently to us? How can we learn from one another? 

The old-world view of social change is building structures of potestas power, which always leaves some people on the outside. The new-world view appreciates the benefits of potestas – remember that one-third – and also recognises its limitations. We need potentia. Collective, activist energy. As Ginwright says, “focus on the quality of our vision, the depth of our relationships and our ability to cultivate belonging.” 

Pivot 3 – Vision: From Problem to Possibility

You’re getting the picture, the bigger picture – the four pivots are about stepping back from the problem to gain a fuller perspective on what we see, rather than putting up a wall to defend our own interpretations (the thinker Bernard Williams called this a ‘fetish of assertion’).

We all have social capital and those of us working in FE have more privilege than some. Choose to spend your social capital in the right places. Try to be up close and, at the same time, far away – the very definition of ‘perspective’. 

Look at the event, the trigger – what’s happening? Then consider the patterns – what trends are occurring over time? Make the invisible visible by seeing the structures – what’s creating these patterns? And check out the mental models (including your own) – what are the values, beliefs and assumptions we hold? And who are ‘we’? Who’s on the outside of ‘we’? 

Perspective can see through the limits of interpretation and interpretation is the thing we do when we assign meaning to something and call it the truth.

Pivot 4 – Presence: From Hustle to Flow

In FE, we work in a frenzy. This is still true for a freelancer working on national programmes in FE, we might find it easier to step back sometimes but we still get entangled. Shawn Ginwright describes frenzy as, “the desperate state of constant, unfocused effort and random behaviour that consistently fails to produce the desired results.” Sound familiar? The last time I mentioned the DfE in a talk I got into trouble, but after 20-odd years in and around FE I can’t help reflecting on the big stick approach to maths and English improvement when I read this. 

Culturally, in 2022, we have an addiction to frenzy. Greedy capitalism seduces us into it, we are exhausted so we purchase rest in the form of holidays and spa days – nothing wrong with that, but we have to work harder to pay for them! Interestingly – and I’m no economist so I didn’t know this until recently – the original idea of capitalism was to make it possible for us all to eat. That sounds hollow, right here, right now.

We fall into anxiety as a life-style and use our busyness to self-affirm: “I matter because I’m busy.” The antidote to this is self-compassion and collective care – back to seva again, a way of caring for one another in community and of recognising that the world is bigger than ourselves. Even the humble to-do list is complicit in determining the worth of a human being by what we can produce in a day, leading to feelings of failure, emptiness and alienation – or is that just me? We are far too busy ticking off items to connect. 

So the first step in doing the work on ourselves to do the work is to pivot away from our addiction to frenzy by recognising the impact it has on our “joy, meaning and human connectedness”.

So what am I learning from all of this about our work together in FE? The word ‘joy’ is central to it all. Spinoza was a scholar of joy, in fact joy and potentia were the same for him. Joy isn’t a commercialised happiness, it puts pain, fear and sorrow to work as a practice of collective care. It is the work. My other work since lockdown has been in the co-creation of the #JoyFE💛 movement, a collective of educators who show up for FE in various ways to do different things. That’s a ready-made community for you to step into right there, as is @feteachered, a hashtag movement founded by Naomi Knott – where are you Naomi? – and Joyce I-Hui Chen which brings teacher educators together in online spaces. Naomi, Joyce and many others, including Howard of course, are also involved in the FE research culture which has its roots back in that room with the Dancing Princesses in 2015 and which has created a canopy of bluebells in the last seven years – colleges and communities as research cultures. There are FE communities for vocational tutors, parents, maths and English teachers…ESOL tutors – FE educating itself in a landscape of peer-led professional learning, which recognises that every now and then we need a modicum of ‘expert’-led CPD, but not nearly as much as we think we do. 

We have been doing it for ourselves in FE and if you’re not part of that already jump right in, because it’s exactly what makes the work both sustainable and self-improving. Joyful, in fact. We don’t need permission to be change makers. We don’t need to be combative and confrontational either. What we’ve learned in the past two years is that small consistent, intentional acts of joy – #microjoys – are where it’s at when we are trying to face down the #macroaggressions of everyday life. It’s what the rhizomatic bluebells do – the minor gestures which change the way we show up for each other. Cultures are changing and it’s changemakers at every level of organisations which are leading that transformation. I’ve got a million stories I don’t have time to tell today. But if you check in with my blog, I’ll post some lines of flight for you to follow.

The Four Pivots are all about shifting towards community, towards healing, towards belonging and towards a practice of joy which shifts those good intentions into actionable ideas. Learning to use your influence in this way is what unsticks us, if enough of us do it and if we potentia mentor one another to make the shift. I hope that some part of what I’ve talked about today helps you unlock your own potentia and I am so excited to see where that might lead us all.

For more about #JoyFE💛 http://www.linktr.ee/joyfe

For more about #APConnect⭐️ https://touchconsulting.net/4-years-of-joy-by-lou-mycroft/