It may seem unlikely, but the social norms of school staffrooms could learn something from the rough, masculine world of huge oil rigs. Inspired by wonderful story telling, I’ve been thinking that if oil men can transform their social norms, then surely teachers can too.
Vulnerability, (when shared and supported) is far from a weakness, it is a strength. Not only should teachers do this to make their working lives better, but also to model better mental health to the children they work with.
The joyous Invisibilia Podcast returned this month, with two stories about changing social norms; including one on the unintended consequences of McDonald’s teaching Russians how to smile, which I will return to later, exploring the dark side of emotional labour!
The central tale at the heart of the podcast, however, is the story of the hard-bitten Rick Fox, charged with setting up Shell’s new rig in the Gulf of Mexico. We follow the unlikely twist of what happens when macho men in an extremely dangerous workplace get in touch with their feelings.
Surprisingly, accidents decreased by 89% and productivity increased beyond any of industry expectations. Teamwork was transformed from thoughtless procedural clocking in, to a collaborative, safety conscious where people cared for each other.
To find out more about how this happened, I’d strongly suggest listening to the always entertaining and informative podcast from NPR. This incredible project was studied and reported by researchers, and their findings were initially applied to corporate life.
There are lessons for school here too. I’d urge teachers, especially SLT and middle leaders, to listen to this podcast episode and make the connections for themselves. Of course there are a few differences between schools and oil rigs, but people are more similar and our responses to fear and pressure are often the same.
Like oil rig workers of the recent past, teachers watch their colleagues getting hurt all the time, but have to keep going. There is a cost to seeing peers getting torn to pieces by misplaced accountability measures, deluged by workload pressures, and being powerless to express or improve their work environment. Under the tectonic pressures that (often) crush the management in schools staffrooms have become places where teachers are often able to admit that they are struggling.
“If you make a mistake, hide it. If you don’t know something, pretend that you do. …never appear weak. if , for some God forsaken reason, you feel an emotion rising, swallow hard.” Quote from Invisibilia episode
OK, we all hear complaints from colleagues. But, when was the last time you heard a colleague admit that they don’t understand how to spot progress in letter formation, or that they need your help with behaviour, or told you their real feelings. Not ‘I hate this job’ or ‘Yr9 are horrible’ but the honest internal struggles of people doing a hard job? Would you listen? Would you know what to do?
I know we think we are all very in touch with our emotion in schools, in touch with how the kids are doing but in a profession where ‘getting too close’ can seem dangerous. Perhaps the truth is that most teachers cover real emotions and function within a mask of toughness, only moaning through to let off steam, once in a while.
Like the millions of shop workers expected to smile and accept crappy behaviour from shoppers, described in the same podcast episode, there are many teachers putting on a brave professional face everyday. One they learned to copy from colleagues. The one they are told they need to wear to survive and to inspire children to learn
There is a growing research field in organisational psychology, and Invisibilia interviews Dr Alicia Grandey who explains that if social norms of false cheer, while it has some benefits, leads to health problems and an increase in mistakes in the workplace.
School leaders have a lot of responsibilities, that many wear as a badge or a shield. However, their primary role as a manager is the wellbeing and efficiency of their staff.
If an oil man, charged with exploiting natural and limited resources, can do this — then surely those leading schools can find time and commitment to do it too.
If you’d like to change the norms in your school or organisation, and want to replicate the sort of transformation that happened on those rigs…I am not a psychologist and for the sort of change described in the podcast, you’ll need to look elsewhere.
My experience at the intersection of education, technology and business is what clients are interested in, as I help make richer learning experiences, better edtech, and healthier ways of working.
If you’d like that kind of help, get in touch
(Please note — just because this post references a podcast that has Shell Oil and McDonald’s as reference points, I should make it clear that I in no way support either of those organisations or the work they do! Both are multinationals that are responsible for a lot of evil. However, good lessons can come from bad places.)