Creativity takes many forms. When I was growing-up I was the eldest child in our family. My sister Jenny always seemed to be artistic. She began drawing at an early age, I recall her producing intricate tiny pictures populated by mice-people. She had a natural artistic talent which try as I might I did not possess. For years within our family I took on the mantel of ‘Alison the sensible one’ whilst my sister was the ‘creative one’.
Creativity means thinking differently
However, teaching at its best is a highly creative role. I had confused artistic style and talent with creativity. It was only when I became a headteacher and started to keep a weekly journal that I had the realisation that decisions I was taking within the school were in fact often driven by creative solutions-focused thinking. Through my research into teaching without labelling by ‘ability’ I was increasingly challenging myself to think of alternative ways of presenting learning that would ‘find a way through’ to individuals who did not naturally excel within school. Or it could be that they excelled academically but found social engagement tough. I am driven by the importance of trust, equity and agency. Leading the school, I would listen as colleagues talked through difficulties they were experiencing with children in their class and would always seek to help another way of looking at the situation to develop. When I was teaching within the secondary sector, I was keen to understand how I could make my teaching accessible and meaningful for all my students.
The power of reflection
What did my weekly journal reveal? As I started to record the notable events of each week it became clear quite quickly that the areas I valued most were the ones where I felt I had contributed a different suggestion or solution to ones that had previously been tried. I understood the importance of playfulness, humility and humour as part of trying to provide an irresistible improvement trajectory for the school. This was about working as a huge team, including children, staff colleagues, parents and the wider community in a collective endeavour to move beyond ‘Special Measures’ towards becoming an excellent inclusive school.
Following our dreams
The most obvious manifestations of this creative leadership were driven by a sense of ‘why not?’ In my first term of headship we held an art week which meant that all lessons each morning were replaced by mixed-age groups throughout the school, all engaged in painting, modelling, observational drawing. We worked with students from the local Further Education college to create a huge soaring bird from papier-mâché that represented our phoenix-like process of rebirth as a learning community. Corridors and classrooms were lifted with collage and brought to life with vibrant colourful images created by groups of children and students working together. All of this took place in the mornings, with all children taking part across the whole school at a time when the school attainment was in the lowest quintile.
Creativity as radical thinking
Later, when our results were stellar, we engaged in even more radical activity such as building a huge graffiti-decorated outdoor music garden, a radio station in the dining area, a motorbike and sidecar was parked in the library for reading Wallace and Gromit style. We adopted guinea pigs and gave the biggest, scariest boy in the school the role of caring for them. We bought a double-decker bus on e-bay and transformed it into an outdoor library and therapeutic play space. Our staff team trained as forest-school teachers and every child had half a day every week timetabled in our patch of woodland. Music flourished and we held community concerts with a full orchestra of musicians from past pupils, parents, staff and children. Dance, drama, speech-days, design challenges and robot-wars all became part of a rich, diverse curriculum and Ofsted loved what they saw.
Creativity as professional courage
All of this was inspired by professional courage borne out of strong principles and knowledge about childhood, professional learning and pursuit of excellence. Leaving headship was a wrench for me personally, but now all my energies are being poured into creating a new professional body, the Chartered College of Teaching. Creative leadership offers the chance for building trust and agency for everybody. I now realise that to be artistic is only one way of showing our creative skill and I love the energy that comes from helping others to achieve more than they ever thought possible. Building the College from scratch, encouraging others to understand what might be achieved, feels like an irresistible creative endeavour.
If you are a teacher or support the world of education, I would love you to join us. Who knows what we might achieve together?
To explore the purposes of education more widely visit the Education Exchange
Also read 'Schools as testbeds for vital creativity'.