Richard Gerver, former educator and principal from England, shines a bright light on educational leadership and vision. I first met Richard after I had interviewed his mentor, Sir Ken Robinson, on Facebook. I was immediately surprised at his giving nature to someone he had yet to meet. We Skyped and shared email conversations about our visions for education. I eventually had the pleasure of sitting, face-to-face, with Richard at the ISTE conference in Atlanta last year.
I have had the extreme pleasure of meeting and talking with some incredible people on my own journey. Richard Gerver sits atop that mountain and I hope that this interview introduces you to the man and leader I have come to know and admire. Richard continues to have the curiosity of a young boy and the wisdom of a much older soul.
Dr. Berger: You have traveled the world Richard since your days as a principal. If you were to be dropped back into a school leadership position how would you integrate lessons from the global stage into your day-to-day leadership?
Richard Gerver: I have learnt so much from the last few years. The funny thing is, that I was proud of my work as a school principal but boy; the saying “I wish I knew then what I know now,” has never been more pertinent. Firstly, that we all believe that our problems are unique; industry specific and as a result, we tend to only talk to people in our silo, in this case education. The truth is, the more I travel and the more the sectors I am privileged enough to work in, the more I realise that so many complex issues that educators, administrators and principals juggle with are generic and very similar to people across a whole range of sectors.
So If I was back in the job now, I would get out more and spend time networking and talking with people from a range of professional environments. It is such a stimulating and enlightening thing to do; it keeps you fresh and focused. Secondly, I realise the importance of vision and more than that, the development of a tangible vision that shows itself in actions and behaviours. So much of what happens in education feels top down, reactive and controlling that the impact on teachers and education professionals is to regard themselves as victims and as disenfranchised. What then happens is that people lose morale and develop layers of skepticism and defensiveness.
If I have learnt nothing else in the last few years, I have realised that leadership must be about empowerment and not control and that, maybe even more importantly, we lead our teams assuming excellence rather than the traditional industrial model which operates on the assumption of the ‘lowest common denominator’, in other words that people will only work hard if they are made to.
The key is not to over develop systems and structures but to intervene only when people aren’t performing to their best. Sadly, what has happened in so many education settings is that by implementing too many systems and structures we have found that even the most gifted and passionate professionals feel constrained by the system rather than empowered by it. This had led to a break down in trust and ambition.
RB: Potential is an interesting word. It can speak to what one has yet to accomplish and their aptitude to achieve given opportunity, resources and an inner desire to excel. How should we think about “potential” in the context of what school leadership could and should look like in the future?
As I said in the previous answer, we need to re-calibrate our understanding of the way people operate. In the same way that all educators MUST believe that all children and students have the potential to achieve; that they all possess unique gifts, talents and interests, we must assume the same of our colleagues.
In my time, I have met some poor educators but I am yet to meet one who chooses a career in education because they can’t wait to screw up kid’s lives! I am also yet to meet one who wakes up in the morning and can’t wait to do a bad job. I think that my favourite definition of potential comes from a story I tell in my first book about a meeting I had in China with an amazing, ageing teacher:
It was in China that one experience reframed my purpose as an educator and perhaps the vision for our future and it based on an encounter I had towards the end of my trip in a school in Hefei:
On the whole teachers would enter classrooms that resembled banked lecture halls; children would bow in reverence and thank the teachers for sharing their wisdom and knowledge, listen without interruption or question and then repeat the bowing ritual; industrial, mechanistic and ruthlessly efficient. It was not an experience that rated for me! Towards the end of my visit, I was sat in a classroom where the kids were ‘buzzing’, there was an air of expectancy, almost excitement. In hobbled a wizened old teacher, seventy if he was a day, the students fell respectfully quiet, the old guy shuffled slowly to the front of the room and bowed to his pupils, he said, “Dear students, thank you for attending my l lesson today, I hope that some of what I am about to share will be of interest and importance. He then proceeded to deliver, what was by Chinese standards, a highly interactive and dynamic session, at the end of which, he again bowed to his students and thanked them for their involvement and interest. Slowly he shuffled to the door and thanked them all individually as they left. Slightly taken aback by the nature of this session and the enlightened and at times, moving experience, I asked this teacher for the reasons behind his approach, his explanation will stick with me forever!
Every day, I stand in front of these young people, their faces full of expectation and hope, their energy radiating across the stale air of this room, and as I look across at them, I think to myself, somewhere in this room, could be the person who finds the cure for cancer, the solution to world peace. Could be the person who writes the next great symphony that moves mankind, there could be a future leader, doctor, nurse, teacher, Olympic champion. I don’t know, but what I do know is that they are out there and it is my job to identify and nurture that talent, not just for their own benefit but for the possible benefit of others. Is there any greater responsibility or opportunity than that? I am blessed, that is why I thank them.
RB: Most of us would like to think that we are unique. What, in your estimation, is unique about leading a school, the students and teachers in the building and the local community and how can we better embolden building-level leadership to embrace this responsibility?
The job of school principal is the greatest job on earth. Education is the greatest gift that we can bestow on our children; it is the foundation stone of human legacy and without education we have nothing. The privilege of leading an education organisation puts you in an awesome position of responsibility and by its nature, a definer of legacy.
Also, in my humble opinion leadership has got nothing to do with power or status but is the opportunity to serve the people who work with you and for you. It is about human development; empowerment not control. Ultimately, a leader’s legacy should be defined by how successfully they make their own position redundant; great leaders should always be looking for ways to make their position unnecessary. Leadership, human leadership is a gift and to be able to do it at the very heart of human development; a school, has therefore got to be the greatest honour of all!
RB: If you were selecting building-level leadership for a new school in your community what might you be looking for not only in the principal you choose, but also in the collection of talent that make up the administrative team?
RG: In order to develop a successful organisation and in particular a school, leadership; ideas, strategies and developments must be able to spring from anywhere. The core process then, must be to develop a culture of action research, of honest conversations, of trust and critical analysis. To do that, you require a team of people who can think for themselves, can take risks and have the confident to make mistakes, people who don’t stop at the ‘but’ but come alive at the signs of an obstacle or a problem.
To build a school like that you need to populate with people who have the traits of entrepreneurs, of explorers of people as passionate about their own learning and development as they are about their students’. I call such people Edupreneurs. It is our moral duty to behave that way and more importantly, help our children to develop that way. That way and that way only, will we ever evolve a system of education that is truly worthy of our children.