Listening, Thinking, Conversations: It was all danger in there! #SLTChat Footprint Part II

I am not sure I have ever seen anyone look quite so determined and focused. Moments earlier, the school caretaker had unshackled the school gates. Mr S, without hesitation or deviation, headed for the main entrance. I followed. Mr S demanded to see the headteacher, Mr M. He explained why. I asked if I could be present.

The previous day, we had taken a large group to Ormesby Hall as part of the study we were doing across school; each year group focusing on a particular level of our fictional family tree and their societal level. We walked there and back – forty fives minutes each way. It had been my idea. It was wet, and got wetter.

I sat in Mr M’s office with Mr S, as Mr S scolded me, describing the dishevelled state that his twin girls had returned home from school in the previous day. He was alarmed by the foolhardiness of walking to and from our place of visit. Mr M, speaking calmly and respectfully, defused the situation. I learned so very much from Mr M and the way he engaged with parents and community. I felt the need to say something. I am not sure how well advised what came to mind actually was but I said it anyway. “I am taking a group up the Eston Hills next week that includes N [one of the twins], would you consider joining us?”

Last Sunday I hosted #SLTChat; the theme, Community Engagement. I set two questions:

  1. Does a focus on the attainment gap limit what is possible through partnership?
  2. How do we listen to one another for the benefit of our children and young people?

I focused on the debate around Q.1 in an earlier blog here. This blog focuses on Q.2.

In the interests of a more complete record and a resource for anyone interested I have attempted to capture all tweets tagged #SLTChat, from all participants here. I have made no attempt to categorise, they are listed in the order they came through. Where tweets are in response to a tweet, the earlier tweet is shown. I apologise now if I have missed any. I may also have duplicated some.

As I did in focusing on Q.1, I have attempted to prise out key themes and ideas, acutely aware that my choice of words might impact on any given reader’s receiving of them. I make no attempt to anonymise, as such. Rather, I paraphrase or use my own words. Where I feel it is appropriate, I quote directly and attribute credit.

The key messages / responses shared by participants:

  • Parents want the best for their children and strong relationships can be forged if school is sensitive to reservations (whatever they may be) parents/carers may have around engaging with school.
  • It is for school to invest in the relationship, coming from a place of compassion rather than judgement, so building trust.
  • Schools must work with those parents who may be disengaged with education and/or school so that they recognise the value of their child engaging with school.
  • Standing with parents, as a friend and advocate, a constant, will assuage any fear had of engaging.
  • Patience has to be exercised and time given to breaking down barriers such as the carrying forward by parents of negative school experiences, seeing school as an extension of authority.
  • Strong partnership comes through trust building, relationship building, and that takes time. Trust is not a given.
  • Parents must be seen and engaged with as equals.
  • Every minute invested in partnerships, persevering, whatever, is worth it. This leads to a tipping point. A movement.
  • Schools must remember to ask parents what they want, and not make their own assumptions.
  • Engaging communities where there is an absence of trust is challenging but must be done. That requires good leadership, with the leader(s) taking responsibility.
  • A non-judgemental approach is absolutely critical, with no suggestion made of there being a best ‘way’.
  • Parents can be seen as hard to reach if we adopt a “school-centric mindset”.
  • If conversation focus is solely on homework we are not accounting for more important other issues. A child’s education reaches past our gates. Are we aware of what learning goes on outside?
  • Having a designated family support officer, who is there to give a wide range of support to families, is a great way to learn about what families want and need.
  • Take the opportunity to show allegiance by appropriately sharing your own experience as a parent; maybe of growing up yourself in ‘challenging’ circumstances. “Be prepared to show our hand.”
  • Parents need to see school leaders on the school yard, engaging with them.
  • We (schools) do not know everything. Conduct a needs analysis and be proactive.
  • Deficit models – implicit or explicit – do not make for true partnership. Ask parents what they want, not what they need help with.
  • Consider the implications of power and who is seen to be holding that.

As for Q.1, shared in the first blog, I will not draw any conclusions or attempt to project my own thoughts or experience on what has come from this, the second part of this Community Engagement debate. As said,  I think that would be an abuse of privilege. The privilege being that so many participants gave up their time to engage in this debate, addressing an agenda set by myself, and myself having a special interest in this field. More on my interest and what I offer here.

I will, though, now focus on something more specific that featured in the #SLTChat debate. As for Q.1, I had given some considerable thought to the wording of Q.2.

How do we listen to one another for the benefit of our children and young people?

The key word for me is ‘listen’. I noted with interest one of the contributions made by @nfowles5   

It’s important to set specific meetings that are focused on listening and feedback. To do this you need structured processes like Susan Scott Team Conversation model or Nancy Kline Thinking Environment

Something I intended returning to, to find out more. By pure coincidence I found out a whole lot more when participating in the ‘Coaching in Education: why bother?’ event, this week. Having been ‘in conversation’ myself, I then passed the baton to @LouMycroft and marvelled as Lou talked of the power in the Thinking Environment coaching approach. This was further revealed when modelled by Lou ‘in conversation’ with @CollectivED founder, and inspiration behind the event Professor Rachel Lofthouse.

Subject to Rachel’s approval, along with fellow participants and colleagues Lou Mycroft, Ruth Whiteside, Jo Flanagan and Rebecca Tickell, I would like to draw on my learning from the event and compose a discrete blog on the place for a coaching approach to community engagement. That is for another day. For now, I repeat the words spoken by Lou as she explained the Thinking Environment approach: “The hardest bit is keeping your mouth closed.” And later, modelling the approach, “What do you think?” Maybe the power of the approach is in its simplicity, if difficult to enact, for some?

My question is, How difficult is it for schools to keep their mouths closed and listen to what parents/carers think? Step forward @GilchristGeorge in response to Q.2 posed during the #SLTChat debate:

We have to listen with desire to understand the stories and how they impact on holistic development, then demonstrate hearing what is said by ethical actions

George explores what he means by ethical actions here.

Without that, we cannot, for sure, follow through in the way @Southgloshead suggests:

Getting our parents to really talk to us about their family situation has had a huge impact. However, you only get 1 chance to prove to them that you have the power to help them. This is how trust is built.

In the course of the debate I was thankful for @2106Head ‘s contribution:

We use Structured Conversations with guidelines that are adhered to and ensure most of the conversation can be steered by the parents and not us., this way they more happily open up and sometimes we find out things about the family we didn’t know.


“Because they work!” Bretta says. And they do. I know that from personal experience. I share my experience here and here (note the comments to the blog posted by a parent and a teacher (fairly new to the profession) and their thoughts on the process).

The structured conversation, introduced and advocated by Achievement for All, incorporates approaches of active listening, solution orientated psychology and problem solving within a clear four stage framework (explore, focus, plan, review), ‘as a means to understand the parents’ hopes and concerns for their child and to engage them in a collaborative relationship that would support their child’s greater progress and achievement’ (Day, 2013, p.36).

National evaluation evidence based findings are very positive about the Achievement for All structured conversation model. Parents reported feeling more included in the process of their children’s education, more empowered, and have sensed a change in the dynamic of their interactions with school staff.

And where might the conversations – structured or otherwise –  take place? Here is an interesting thread from Sunday’s #SLTChat conversation; one between Janet Goodall of the University of Bath  (@janetifimust) and ex-headteacher Chris Chivers @ChrisChivers2

@SLTChat: Absolutely. Is there ever such a thing as a ‘hard to reach family?’ Is this about language and mindset?

Chris: Have visited schools that took meetings into the community, including a room in a pub, to break barriers.

Some schools have buddy parent interpreters on playgrounds to share newsletters or pass on information; harnessing available expertise.

Janet: One school called it “Using the wise women and men of the community” – particularly those who already work in/around the school – they see how much teachers care about children and can pass that on!

Chris: Yes. One school brought a community lead onto the Governors and used this link to transmit essential information.

Janet: Yes – such a good idea.  One group of HTs asked me to talk about how they could integrate more with the community – my reply was to stop just talking to other heads and talk to community leaders!

Chris: Essential to know your community if you want positive engagement.

There really is so much we can learn by listening to one another isn’t there? Or to put it another way…  Lou Mycroft’s preferred Thinking Environment way, “What do you think?”

I was grateful, on Sunday, for two friends who offered an international perspective: Jenni Donohoo (@Jenni_Donohoo) and Dr Steve Constantino (DrSConstantino)

Amongst many valuable contributions by those two, these stand out for me:


From M. Wheatley’s ‘Willing to Be Disturbed’ – when we listen with less judgement, we always develop better relationships with people.


Every family desires that their children exceed them in their quality of life. Family engagement ensures that can happen.

Hear hear! I am acutely aware that this has turned into a very lengthy blog but I do feel bound to share all of this with the many participants who made Sunday’s debate such an interesting and useful one. If you are still with me… thank-you. I will finish by returning to the event shared at the very beginning of this blog.

Over a significant part of the school year, made possible by the flexibility and cooperation of my colleagues I had been taking groups of children out in the local area. I had passed my minibus driver test and we hired a 17-seater minibus, as required. Inspired by local film-maker, the brilliant Craig Hornby, I had devised a programme of learning that, essentially, had learners working as historians and film-makers themselves. Our focus was Cleveland’s ironstone mining heritage. With input from Craig and the help of Teesside Archives, Cleveland Ironstone Mining Museum, Dorman Museum, Pannett Park Museum and our local authority ICT experts, we embarked on one amazing road trip. A road trip in which I was expertly supported by one of those extra special teaching assistants (HLTA) that you only ever come across once in a blue moon; Mrs C. Our trail started at our local cemetery, at the graveside of Frank Bates, husband of Hannah Bates, ‘tragically killed in Eston Mine on 26th November 1936’. We picked up on Frank’s story at Teesside Archives and went from there. The children made a film of our findings, presented a docudrama to parents and local community (captured on film by Craig) and, we were thrilled to win an award for our efforts come the end of the year…

Courtesy of

My reason for raising this? Mr S did go out up the Eston Hills (site of what was once the largest ironstone mine in the world) with us the week after our conversation in Mr M’s office. What is more, he joined us on several occasions, learned with us, and contributed much. Mr S was with me, too, one day towards the end of our mission, sitting with a group, having our lunch, looking out across the Tees Valley, by Eston Nab…

We were approached by two elderly gentlemen, walking their dogs. I can still hear the voice of one of them, “Do you know what, kids. There used to be a mine right under here!” He did not get any further than that. He was stopped for twenty minutes or more as the children told him and his mate all about Frank Bates, his life as a worker in the mine, and his death in the mine. Their excited telling of this was punctuated by direct quotes from ex-miners interviewed by Craig, such as: “It was all danger in there!”  

The two men turned to a beaming Mr S and I. They shook us both by the hand and thanked the children for making their day, and more.

Partnership! Thank you, Mr S!

3 thoughts on “Listening, Thinking, Conversations: It was all danger in there! #SLTChat Footprint Part II

  1. Fascinated by this blog Simon especially as I recall the “Journey in Stone” video and presentation in Caedmon very well. As you may recall “Community Engagement” was very much part of my role in Teesside 2003-2010, but I had already spent 20+ years focusing (experimenting, researching & developing) on it. I managed to provide approaching 100 workshops for parents, surestart, & local organisations and without doubt the most frequent message was “WHY DIDN’T WE KNOW ABOUT THIS BEFORE?”- in fact it prompted me to write my first book. I know you are very busy but I’m happy to discuss this with you via e-mail if you wish.


    1. simonmfeasey

      Thank you, Keef. I recall your excellent work well. The danger is – as I am sure you found – that we all debate and think on this readily but do we practically address it – interrogate, together, issues of vulnerability, power, trust, authentic dialogue, listening to one another’s narratives? Or do we return to the frantic pace and mish-mash of doing school as we are told to do? It would make for an interesting exercise to review all schools’ professional learning schedules and identify any imbalance. Thank you for your kind offer. I would like to take you up on it. My email


  2. Pingback: School, Families and Community: Stakeholders, Partners or Friends…? #UKpastoralchat #AskPastoral #AskPastoralSimonFeasey – Community Capacity Building

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