by tim middleton
Margaret Thatcher, former prime minister of the United Kingdom, once made the telling remark that “Being powerful is like being a lady: if you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.” The obvious point from the statement is that our actions should speak louder than our words — in fact, they should speak instead of our words. If a woman has grace, dignity, poise, style, composure, honour, self-respect, there is no question that she will fall into the category that society will define as being a lady. A lady will not boast or be mean, but will be confident without being brash. People will see that this person is different and has qualities that others would like to have.
Many people in power love to flaunt that power, to remind those beneath them that they are in control, whether that is the boss at work or the bully in the playground. They are not so confident in who they are so they have to present their case constantly. They have to tell people, uninvited, what they have achieved, earned, gained for others to know it. They have to ask, “Do you know who I am?” They are not powerful though. It is all very similar to Uriah Heep in the Charles Dickens’ novel David Copperfield who is “notable for his cloying humility, obsequiousness, and insincerity, making frequent references to his own “humbleness”. If we have to tell people we are humble, we are not! If we have to tell people we are powerful, we are not.
The Thatcher quotation and these subsequent thoughts seem to be very relevant when we think of schools. Schools have a tendency to use Speech Day and Open Day to tell people how successful they are. Heads will announce a long list of the pupils’ achievements, with outstanding results (carefully selected, of course) in many different areas of school life, usually claiming that their school is the best one. The Head Boy’s and/or Head Girl’s speech will be similar with them proudly declaring that “you guys rock” and “there is no-one like us”! The school has had an incredibly successful year; the pupils have been amazingly successful; the staff has been hugely successful — and as one Head was heard to say:
“We are very proud of our pupils’ humility”! Being successful is like being a lady . . .
For a start, Heads should not have to give a report on what has happened in the school during the year as the parents have had a child there and will have spoken about what has been happening; parents will have received newsletters or such information throughout the year; parents can read a summary of it and they will no doubt receive a school magazine chronicling all such events. Why waste time at a Speech Day rehashing it all? Besides, Heads are preaching to the converted; the parents presumably chose the school because they believed the school was successful!
However, schools do not need to tell people they are successful because it should be seen, known and felt. Furthermore, the best way to see, know and feel the success of the school is not so much at an Open Day (every day should be an Open Day, in fact) but at a Speech Day. Do all the things that are said and awards that are given match the stated Vision and Mission? Most schools will declare the stated value of humility, yet here they are boasting of their achievements! Are all subjects, pupils, activities, year groups treated and respected equally? Speech Days are showing people what the school is like, not least in whether they are humble in their successes. Which trophy is the largest, which trophy gains the loudest applause, which trophy is the last one given (and therefore most important one)? All these questions speak volumes about the school, far more than the words of a Head. Where are the pupils seated, how do the pupils behave, how do they acknowledge their peers, teachers and visitors? All these tell a great deal about what the school is really like.
In fact, the words of another influential lady also spring to mind when we consider Speech and Open Days. Queen Gertrude in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in response to the insincere overacting of the Player Queen stating her love for her husband, says that “The lady doth protest too much, me thinks”. In a similar way, a school doth protest too much, me thinks, when it comes to Speech Days and Open Days. As someone has said, “Being female is a matter of birth, being a woman is a matter of age, but being a lady is a matter of choice.” We do not need to be told that, though — neither do we need to be told people or schools are successful! Just choose to be so!
Tim Middleton is the executive director of the Association of Trust Schools [ATS]. The views expressed in this article, however, are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of the ATS.