Why ‘letting go’ is the secret to transforming pupil outcomes

Written by: Mark Goodwin | Published:
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There is so much that teachers try to control but in doing so they risk creating adversarial choices which push at-risk young people further away. Mark Goodwin advocates letting go. It’s scary and uncomfortable, but it can be transformational too


Probably, the last thing anybody working in schools needs to hear right now is a plea to “let go”. At a time of heightened worry about results, behaviour and so-called “gaps”, let alone the real existential worries of sickness and loss of life, it might sound reckless or even foolish to suggest that teaching staff should let go of anything.

In fact, there have been strong messages issued from plenty of educational quarters that what is required for the “Covid Generation” is more control, more instruction, and more discipline – the opposite of “letting go”.

However, one of the most important skills I have developed during my time as a teacher and school leader has been the ability to let go; the ability to detach myself and my emotions from a situation, a detachment that will buy me seconds or minutes to make a better decision.

And by letting go, I do not mean “not caring”, “ignoring” or “avoiding”, I mean not being attached to an opinion, outcome, judgement, emotion, result or my ego to such an extent that it prevents me from staying true to my values, achieving my goals, and making the right decision.

A big mistake as a leader (and perhaps a cautionary word to those advocates of high control and “discipline”) is to think that only you have the answer; that only you can be right; that reactions are personal; or that the result is everything.


This is not easy!

But let me be clear, letting go is not easy – by moving away from a fixed single choice towards a more nebulous, spectrum-based response you are placed in a grey area of nuance and flexibility that on the one hand gives you the ability to respond and not react, but on the other can make you feel very uncomfortable and vulnerable.

I have never considered it my given right, even as a school leader, that students will “Do As I Say!”. Of course, I want young people to do as I say but I know I will have to do a lot of work to make that happen. My outlook is partly because of my own twisted experience of school, in particular the futility of teachers’ threats, and partly because my NQT mentor in the late 1990s was absolutely clear: “Mark, right now, there are at least 10 things more interesting to your year 10s than your lesson on Nazi Germany– so make sure it sings.”

So, from the outset of my teaching career I have always been driven by a focus on controlling what I can control in the classroom – the content and activities in the lesson, the strength of my relationships with the young people, and my ability to support and challenge learning and behaviour.

Recent specialist behaviour intervention work with permanently excluded children has led me to work even harder on how to connect these young people with school and it is clear to me that the success of this work is mostly down to my willingness and ability to “let go”.


Independent and resilient

Everyday my work in schools aims to help young people to become independent, fulfilled and resilient so I do not have much use for threats, demands or ultimatums. And anyway, the young people I work with who are out of school (or close to being out of school) have heard it all before. When you are permanently excluded you have experienced the ultimate sanction, so further threats are pretty redundant.

With the constant pressure for successful outcomes it is all too easy for teachers to simplify interactions with young people down to binary and potentially adversarial choices or demands that must be complied with immediately. This approach lacks the nuance, sophistication or balance that might yet help the student to reconnect, re-engage and achieve the best outcomes.


Letting go

Just to be clear – and before I tell you what I do let go of – here is what I most certainly do not let go of…

  • I don’t let go of Every Child Matters.
  • I don’t let go of wanting the young people I work with to be independent, resilient and fulfilled.
  • I don’t let go of believing that the right school is the best place for young people and that the right school will provide the opportunities and education that transform the lives of young people.
  • I don’t let go of the belief that qualifications at 16, 18, 21 and beyond can transform the opportunities available to young people.
  • I don’t let go of the belief that all young people have unlimited potential; that effective relationships are the means of fulfilling that potential; and that when the young person takes responsibility it can be liberating.
  • I don’t let go of the belief in second chances.

What I do let go of, is attachment to:

  • Outcomes, results, impact, data – I focus on the process.
  • Being right – I focus on possibility, interest, and curiosity.
  • My ego – I focus on service, gratitude, empathy and compassion.
  • Problems – I focus on solutions and the next (small) steps.

I know this may sound counterintuitive because we build our professional credibility on the ability as teachers to control, have answers and produce results based on being able to get compliance from young people.

As a teacher there is much we get attached to – some of it because it works but some things that help us to keep things simple, efficient and as we would like it. Embracing the risky and vulnerable world of letting go is scary. Here we go…


How much can I let go of being right?

If I am attached to being right about everything, not only does it make my working relationship with a young person potentially adversarial, but it also excludes so many other alternative ways of solving the issue in question.

I get very used to saying “Maybe?”, “Sometimes?”, “It depends?”, “I hear you but there are other opinions you might consider?”, “Whose truth are we talking about? Mine, yours, other people’s?”

For example, young people have strong opinions on school and teachers – if you have been permanently excluded these are sometimes strongly held and vehemently voiced. Obviously, I disagree, but rather than a right/wrong disagreement I try to engender some empathy for teachers, reminding the young person that some teachers were at least okay. I am not cornering the young person and possibly provoking a reaction. Instead, I create some thinking space and make it far more likely that a conversation with the young person about mistakes and responsibility is possible.


How much can I let go of results being the only measure of success?

Okay, let us be clear: I am not advocating the complete rejection of a focus on results, just a loosening of our attachment to them in order that young people connect with “results” in a more meaningful way.

Results are important for pathways to a more promising future and further educational opportunities, but shift the focus onto the process. Rather than results, I often refer to a belief in them or a commitment to the changes that they are making in terms of potential, relationships and responsibility. The focus on results never goes away, but letting go of constant reminders of results creates the space for young people to achieve (those very same results).


How much can I let go of Mistakes Being Final?

Just to show the flexibility of a letting go approach, let’s look at mistakes. Something I often say is: “Everybody makes mistakes (letting go) but only a fool repeats them (tightening up).”

I have acknowledged how easy it is to mess up but rather than condemning, I am able to start a process that leads to not repeating the mistake. I make a point to turn the mistake into a “teachable moment” for the young person and allow them to go through a process (including acknowledging the mistake; forgiving themselves; making amends; and, yes, apologising if necessary) that will help them to learn a lesson and make it less likely they will repeat the mistake.


How much can I let go of my fear of failure and my ego?

I do not want my lesson to be rejected, nor my wise words dismissed, and I certainly do not want my warm intentions to be laughed at. But these are all real possibilities so I have to let go of my fear of a bruised ego and think more about why I am doing this work and, importantly, the meaning and purpose that is inherent in it. Any teaching failure is temporary if you let go. Do not take it personally and give both of you a fresh start next lesson.

I do not want to be told how useless my lesson is, how boring school is, or how pathetic my Ford Focus is. But these are the kind of cutting barbs young people can deliver. Letting go of my ego is the hardest and yet the most important thing to do. This is where the connection that will transform the young person is forged, in my ability to put my ego to one side and serve the needs of the young person I am working with.


How much can I let go of transactional rewards?

Praise is a vital way of recognising and encouraging the achievements of young people. But what about those young people who are trying to break out of a cycle of poor behaviour? How can you notice the small changes in behaviour not yet worthy of an “achievement point” but which are signs of a more positive direction? I use a Cookie Jar for storing the times that the young person has succeeded against the odds. I build a cache of “Esteemable Acts” that we can refer to, celebrate and reference the next time there is resistance or doubt.

I am building resilience by seeing even the smallest “best part” and catching them being good. I am seeing them taking those small steps and in noticing them I am showing my belief in them. This is building intrinsic motivation and, ultimately, independence. And all it takes from me is the willingness to look at achievement in a more nuanced way.


How much can I let go of judgement?

It is easy to make assumptions about those who are excluded from school – they have so many labels it is difficult to know which one to make the judgement by. But all students carry a suite of labels once they are at school.

I move away from labels by meeting them where they are and believing they are doing the best they can with the resources they have got. Then I can help them to see that they have to let go of the past (and these labels) and take action now to write a new story. Maybe they can earn some new labels!


How much can I let go of giving them an easy ride?

By letting go, I can find a compassionate way to talk about how tough life can be even with young people for whom life has been incredibly challenging. I tell them that I am not having this conversation about responsibility because I think I am right, or because I am concerned about this year’s test or exam scores, nor because of any organisation’s reputation. I have let go of all of that and I am having this conversation because I care deeply about the future of the young person.


Conclusion

A headteacher I once worked for had two mantras:

  • “Education really does change lives.”
  • “The foundation of a great teacher is generosity of spirit.”

Letting go is a practice that puts into action the sentiments of these words. As you break free from attachment and move to a more balanced approach, it allows you to respond, not react, and gives you the space to choose the best solution to the problem you are facing.

Letting go takes courage because you are leaving what is comfortable and familiar – it can feel like a big risk. However, the pay-off is phenomenal and life-changing for young people because you actually become the teacher that young people really need.

  • Mark Goodwin has 20 years’ experience as a teacher, school leader, trainer and coach. Mark is the founder of Equal Parts Education, a company that delivers a turnaround programme for permanently excluded students across the Midlands, as well as working in partnership with schools and universities to deliver training and coaching to staff. Mark’s passion is still the classroom and he can be found most days teaching across all phases, in mainstream, alternative and special education. Visit https://equalpartseducation.co.uk/


Further information & resources

Goodwin: At risk of dropping out? How to turnaround a disconnected young person, Headteacher Update, April 2021: https://bit.ly/3futGSy


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