Five Leadership Lessons from Furahini Godlike

Every school has its leaders, though they have different styles and strengths. But on a recent trip to Tanzania, I met an eighteen-year-old boy who set a new standard in school leadership. His name is Furahini Godlike.

Furahini and I

Tanzania’s capital city, Dar es Salaam, has seen rapid urbanisation in recent years. Infrastructure cannot keep up with the rising population. Arguably the biggest victims are the city’s students. One municipality provided the following figures, which outline the challenges the government faces. All figures relate to primary schools:

  • 22% more classrooms required
  • 63% more school latrines required
  • 80% more school libraries required
  • 95.4% more teacher homes required

The numbers for secondary schools are similar. Throughout the city, schools are overcrowded, understaffed and under-resourced. And the gap between supply and demand is swelling.

Amidst these conditions, Furahini recently graduated from high school and earned an invitation to attend a college in Arusha. Unfortunately, although his college classes have already begun, he cannot yet afford to pay his enrolment fee. Rather than add to his parents’ burden by asking them for assistance – they have already been significantly burdened by his brother’s recent four-year battle with malaria – he is trying to earn the money through his own t-shirt startup. At the same time, he juggles three community-based side-projects:

  • a campaign to improve student health by redeveloping the canteen of his old school;
  • an English Club that he founded in 2010 and continues to run at the school; and
  • an Environmental Conservation and Health project that promotes care of the local environment, again aimed at reducing health problems within the community.

Clearly, Furahini is not your typical kid; he is a resourceful, natural leader with an entrepreneurial streak. I was fortunate enough to spend some time chatting with him just before boarding my plane back home, and from this conversation I gleaned five key lessons about leadership.

Lesson 1. True leaders do what is right, no matter what everyone else is doing.

When Furahini was a student, even teachers wagged their classes. On average, he estimates that teachers attended around two out of their eight lessons per day, sheltering in the staff room the rest of the time.

The concrete “classrooms” more closely resembled crowded prison cells, albeit with open doors. Within these rooms, up to eighty students sought refuge from their daily lives, entertaining themselves in ways that any unattended teens would.

Furahini and a few of his fellow students fought the status quo by actually trying to learn. Furahini recalls finding “any textbook he could”, sitting under a tree and teaching himself and anyone else who was interested. Often these “rebels” would be laughed at and ridiculed by the other students, but Furahini and his comrades kept their spirits up with positive self-talk.

“I’d tell myself ‘It’s OK, it’s OK just keep going.'” he says. “Now I look at what’s happening – I am able to help others learn English. I am so happy. I feel like I have already reached a new level so it was worth it.”

Lesson 2: True leaders value their community.

Even though he graduated from high school last year, Furahini regularly returns to his old school to continue to develop his aforementioned projects. He has a strong sense of responsibility to those he left behind, and is determined to use his experience and position to help others broaden their opportunities.

By returning to their own communities and developing more leaders, true leaders demonstrate an innate understanding of the principle of positive feedback. True leaders want to give back to the community that has helped them become what they are.

Lesson 3: True leaders do what must be done, whether it is their job or not.

I visited Furahini’s old school as part of a group of teachers and architects. We were travelling together as part of a CEFPI (Council of Educational Facility Planners International) project. Leading up to our trip, Furahini caught wind of our visit from one of our group members, who had met him when he was Head Boy in a previous visit to the school. Furahini immediately took it upon himself to personally coordinate our visit.

It was Furahini, not a staff member, who ensured that significant preparations took place in order for us to feel welcome. It was he who greeted us upon arrival, and subsequently led us from classroom to classroom to view the school. It was he who took the English and ATYA clubs aside and practiced welcome songs so that we would feel welcome in their school, and it was he who facilitated our meeting with these bright-eyed future leaders.

All this from a boy who had graduated from the school and was not obliged to have anything to do with it!

Lesson 4: True leaders think, speak and act with humility.

After listening to Furahini’s story, I was moved to suggest that I could help him raise some funds to get him into college before the enrolment deadline. To my surprise, the young man became slightly uncomfortable, and baulked at my offer.

In his words: “To be honest, I would feel a bit funny about taking money from people. I don’t want people to help me, because I know I can help myself. I want them to help those who really need it.”

This is the attitude of a true leader. A true leader is acutely aware of those who are less fortunate than himself, and understands the importance of their own self-sufficiency (see Lesson 5). A strong connection with less fortunate people helps keep leaders grounded on a personal level, whilst also keeping them connected to the challenges that their communities face.

Side note: When I consider such leaders as Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, it seems to me that an awareness of the less fortunate may be a prerequisite not just for humility, but also for a highly developed sense of responsibility.

Lesson 5. True leaders know how to take care of themselves.

It may come as some surprise to find that, despite his obvious philanthropic bent, Furahini is fully aware of the pitfalls of martyrdom.

“First I have to look after myself,” he told me. “If I am trying to save someone who is drowning but I don’t care for my own safety, two people die. I have to take care of myself by saving my money and caring for my health and my family, or I won’t be able to help anybody.”

Update (3/8/13): I have set up a pozible project through which anyone can donate a few dollars to help Furahini get to college. Go to http://pozible.com/furahini for more information.

If you would like to know more about Furahini’s projects, please leave a brief message using the form below.

Why Size Matters (and What You Can Do About It)

There once was a man with incredibly large genitals. His sex life was spectacular – but for one problem.

Once upon a time, there was a woman who was known across the land as “Slippery Sybil”. The reasons for her nickname were many, but all of them related in some way or another to her enormous…

This is a story about the most impressive erection in the history of mankind: the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

How did you respond to these story openings?

My guess is:

  • shock after reading the first line;
  • confusion in the second paragraph because it doesn’t flow naturally from the first;
  • frustration, annoyance or apathy in the third because none of this crass garbage fits together.

So what’s my point?

I have been thinking lately that full-time teaching is like writing a novel. Both undertakings can be incredibly daunting. Each requires resilience and countless hours of unacknowledged effort. For the teacher, every year-long class is filled with highs and lows, and similarly, authors experience some days when words gush in a torrent onto the page, and other days when they daren’t go within 45m of their computer for fear of keyboard poisoning. Despite the challenges, successful teachers and novelists give their hearts and souls until the final bell, and those with talent are rewarded with a wonderful story.

If we take this analogy a step further, then the frustrating series of false starts that you experienced at the beginning of this article is analogous to the lot of the humble supply teacher.

For the supply teacher, every day is another new beginning. Names and faces come and go, and real progress, in the form of sustained student development, is never observed. It’s a fate similar to that of Bill Murray’s character Phil Connors in Groundhog Day, except that in Connors’s surreal nightmare each day was identical to the last, enabling him to easily anticipate events. In the life of a supply teacher, a day of intellectual wrestling with pre-pubescent Year 7s can be sandwiched between a day minding three-year-olds in Nursery and a day teaching religion to Year 4s in an Islamic school for boys. Sometimes it feels like stepping into a series of Oz-like parallel universes, where the unfamiliar and unexpected are commonplace.

That’s certainly how I’ve felt at times in the past few weeks, and I know from personal conversations that many other supply teachers also see their job as a demoralising series of non-sequiturs. But need it be this way?

To return to the literary analogy, not all stories are novels. There are plenty of smaller-sized stories to be found and enjoyed. Novellas and short stories are the obvious examples, but even shorter genres exist. The fifty-word story has risen as a genre in recent years, but that seems like a giant in comparison to the true midget of the story family; the six-word story.

Legend has it that this genre was born the day Ernest Hemingway accepted a challenge to write a story in six words. Fascinatingly, Hemingway is said to have regarded the resulting story as his finest work. It went, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Since that fateful day, the six-word story has developed into a genre of its own. Creative writing lecturers often encourage students to practice writing six-word stories on the basis that this practice hones a student’s sense of storytelling by forcing conciseness. Every word must count.

In the hands of talented writers, six-word stories can be romantic (Ships fire; princess weeps, between stars. – Charles Stross), grotesque (Kirby had never eaten toes before. – Kevin Smith), philosophical (It cost too much, staying human. – Bruce Sterling),political (Bush told the truth. Hell froze. – William Gibson), haunting (I’m dead. I’ve missed you. Kiss … ? – Neil Gaiman) or humorous (Longed for him. Got him. Shit. – Margaret Atwood).

The key to writing a good six-word story is to manage expectations. If you are expecting to write a novel in six words, you are setting yourself up for frustration. But writing six-word stories can be incredibly fulfilling, as Hemingway’s experience shows, if you focus purely on getting the most out of those six words.

Similarly, if a supply teacher arrives at work every day expecting to develop a deep educational narrative with their students, they are setting themselves up for disappointment. But if they arrive ready to accept the challenge of showcasing their teaching talents in one day, they may go home satisfied.

In my case, when I made this adjustment I found that each new beginning suddenly transformed into a fresh opportunity to change my teaching approach completely, a practice that would have seemed too inconsistent in a full-time role. For someone like me, who is intent on developing his teaching skills through continued reflective practice, it could be argued that this is the ideal situation. Why slog away at the same story and be constantly held back by your early mistakes when you can pump out five stories a week, generating new, better ideas each time?

There are plenty of other benefits to the “bite-sized teaching” mindset. The challenge of learning a new set of names every day is excellent brain exercise. Those first moments with a new class are fantastic opportunities to rehearse the art of “hooking”, a crucial skill as the old proverb “first impressions last” reminds us. And on a broader scale, the range of different classrooms and schools provides a rich pedagogical sampling ground.

I don’t know much about genitals, or erections, or whatever Slippery Sybil had that was so captivatingly massive. But I do know that when it comes to supply teachers’s expectations, size matters. The supply teachers who learn this lesson are far more likely to sympathise with the Wizard of Oz’s protagonist in Steven Meretzky’s twisted six-word story, below.

Dorothy: “Fuck it, I’ll stay here.”

References:

Wired Magazine, 2006, Issue 14.11, Very Short Stories viewed 25 June 2013, http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.11/sixwords.html

Frenzy Prevails Again, but Schoolman Gallant in Defeat

Almost all student names in this article are fictional.

June 14, Hackney

Colourful name-tags gave the Schoolman an early lead and enabled him to wrestle back the momentum several times over the day.

Colourful name-tags gave the Schoolman an early lead and enabled him to wrestle back the momentum several times over the day.

The Learning London Schoolman was today defeated by arch-rivals the Fourth Grade Frenzy for the second time this week.

However, in a much-improved display, the Schoolman enjoyed several periods of dominance to offer his fans at least a glimmer of hope.

The Schoolman leapt out of the blocks, greeting several members of the Frenzy in the playground and reeling off their names from memory. In the ensuing procession into the classroom, the Schoolman’s decision to set up online behaviour management tool Classdojo on the interactive whiteboard led to another goal. After conducting the register, the Schoolman added a third goal by producing a bunch of sticky labels, bringing up some graffiti-style fonts on the whiteboard and instructing the students to spend the next fifteen minutes create their own personalised name-tags.

The Schoolman was clearly relishing his lead, and spent the next few minutes cheerfully dishing out positive reinforcement via Classdojo. Before long, the students were called to the mat to have their next lesson explained. Frenzy superstars Scorsese and Mohammed eventually sat down, but not before they had wasted valuable minutes. The Frenzy was on the board at last, and began to play in a more relaxed fashion. Scorsese and Bwpfrqx added two quick goals by showcasing an impressive array of combative quips that left the Schoolman with no choice but to have them sent from the field.

A short time later the new activity was under way, and despite some strong over-the-shoulder marking, the Schoolman was visibly rattled.

The Frenzy's winning margin would have been far greater if not for the engaging behaviour management system, ClassDojo.

The Frenzy’s winning margin would have been far greater if not for the engaging behaviour management system, ClassDojo.

His morning break could not come quick enough. As Frenzy pairs began to finish their work, the Schoolman made a costly error by delivering ambiguous instructions to the early finishers to “read until break”. Within moments of being granted this freedom, the Frenzy had spiralled into an orgy of mass hysteria and Frenzy goals flowed like the Thames. Scorsese and Bwpfrqx had returned to the field and were once again in the thick of things, burrowing under desks, hurling pencils, sweeping books from the shelves onto the floor and palming off teacher interventions in performances reminiscent of the great Jonah Lomu. By the time the break had arrived the room was in disarray, so the Schoolman attempted to wrest back control by docking five minutes from the Frenzy’s break. However, in a cruelly ironic twist, the only students who noticed were the poor, obedient souls who actually were listening.

Realising this, the Schoolman released the whole class except for the five most disruptive offenders; Scorsese, Mohammed, Penbe, Luol and Bwpfrqx. In a telling passage of play, Mohammed told the Schoolman that he “needed to be more strict” to which the perplexed Schoolman replied “B..b..but… what do you think I’m trying to do right now?”

While this exchange was going on, Scorsese slipped out the door. The Schoolman called after him that it was a funny stunt but he’d better come back, but Scorsese chose not to heed this warning so the Schoolman referred to the third umpire, Headteacher Susan. The third umpire immediately confirmed that Scorsese would sit the next class in the “behaviour room”, affording the Schoolman some much-needed breathing space.

But by now the Frenzy had all the momentum, and the second session commenced the way the previous one had ended. For the first five minutes after the bell, half of the Frenzy team galloped around the playground, blissfully oblivious to the wavering bleats of the Schoolman and his assistants. Fifteen minutes later the class was sitting upon the mat before an unusually dark and veiny Schoolman, receiving instructions on how to write a persuasive advertisement. The shorter session worked to the Schoolman’s favour, and the Frenzy made pleasing progress on its task. By the time the Schoolman had pegged a few goals back by quashing the off-task behaviour of a few Frenzy players with some adroit Classdojo use, it was time for lunch.

The Schoolman utilised the break to buy a sandwich filled with a disgusting pink meat paste, whilst the Frenzy regrouped for an afternoon onslaught.

The Frenzy's afternoon scoring spree produced the first grey hairs on the Schoolman's head.

The Frenzy’s afternoon scoring spree produced the first grey hairs on the Schoolman’s head.

As lunch time came to a close, the Frenzy resorted to its earlier dirty tactics by completely ignoring the bell. However this time the entire team ran rampant, side-stepping countless Schoolman pleas and rebukes. After ten minutes a still-only-half-lined-up Frenzy could smell victory. A deflated Schoolman lead the slovenly formation up to the classroom, where the Frenzy continued its assault on the scoreboard with five more minutes of rowdiness. Had an ally of the Schoolman not intervened with some biased refereeing, it could easily have been ten or twenty minutes. The Frenzy was led back down to the playground to “practice lining up”, and after another five minutes was finally sitting down receiving instructions for the afternoon Science lesson.

Under the watchful eye of his ally, the Schoolman was able to finish the day with a scoring streak as the majority of students turned in impressive work and demonstrated respectful classroom behaviour. But it was too little too late, and Headteacher Susan removed any doubt as to the result with a last-minute visit to the field to inform the Frenzy that they had all but lost the right to attend the upcoming sports carnival.

Scorsese was again best on ground with a blistering display of disrespectful and impulsive behaviour, while Pepe, Joshua and the female Frenzy members had shockingly well-behaved days.

Honey, I Shrieked at the Kids

Today I taught the most challenging class I have met in seven years of teaching.

When I arrived at the school I was told that the teacher of this Year 4 class had left no plan. Fortunately, I was able to procure the assistance of another Year 4 teacher, who gave me a rushed briefing that ensured that both of us started the day feeling more stressed than was really necessary.

But I’ve had poorly planned days before, and most of them seemed like a dance in the dandelions compared to this day. So what was it that made the class so challenging?

On the surface, the problem was really quite simple: they just wouldn’t shut up.

From the moment I led them up to their room, the students chatted amongst themselves incessantly. At first, I chose to draw on my considerable reserve of patience by standing at the front of the class and waiting. Three or four students noticed and raised their fingers to their lips in courageous, peer-defying displays of obedience, but several minutes ticked by, their patience waned and the rest of the class remained oblivious. As the only person in the room not talking, I began to feel left out.

“Oooookay,” I said, my voice a teacherly blend of politeness, authority and a dash of urgency. I stepped forward as far as I could without treading on an eight-year-old shin and held out my hands, palms down, to suggest a lowering of volume.

No response.

Sensing the need to pierce the rising wall of chatter with something a little more punchy, I resorted to the time-tested technique of clap-and-response. With just the right amount of palm-cup and finger-snap, I clapped the generic pattern of ta-ta-titi-ta. Several students (probably the same exasperated kids who had responded to my earlier display of patience) mimicked my pattern. I clapped again, and several more joined in. However, half of these continued to chat over their own claps. They had clearly failed to grasp the unspoken law of clap-and-response that states that clapping and talking are mutually exclusive. Gradually the clappers who had grasped this law realised that this was going nowhere and returned their voices to the crescendo of babble.

My reserve of patience, which had seemed voluminous in other classrooms, was now so low that I could hear the last litre slurping its way down the plughole. In a panic, I opted for option D: shouting. Whilst I knew this can be interpreted as a sign of weakness, I was out of ideas. This lion had been backed into a corner and was ready to lash out. Unfortunately, the obvious logical fault in my belief that I could silence their noise with my own, louder noise only occurred to me when my desperate roar of “OK SETTLE DOWN RIGHT NOW!” sent the sound pressure level into the decibel range of the pneumatic drill.

It was at precisely that point that I felt the dread of knowing that I had lost the class. And it was only 9:15.

The remainder of the day consisted of shouting competitions, hurriedly explained lessons, misunderstandings, crying children, temporarily successful interventions by other teachers, countless cortisol spurts and many, many self-supplied temple massages.

On speaking to other teachers I discovered that my experience with this particular class was not unique. I was told that very experienced teachers had described that year group as the “rudest they have ever seen” and refused to return.

But it is all too easy to blame the students, and I know there are things I could have done that might have led to a few less heart palpitations. Upon reflection, I have identified a few simple tools that might have made my day a lot easier, and I would love to hear any suggestions that fellow teachers have to offer.

1. Name tags
Few things make one feel more helpless than being completely ignored after shouting an ambiguous order like “Hey! You with the corn-rows! Stop holding that ruler next to your groin and slapping it against the desk!”

A child’s name is their collar, and there is no way to give their leash a sharp tug without it. No matter how good your memory is, you will never memorise the names of twenty-five kids whose parents took complete creative license over the laws of language when first penning their child’s name on the birth certificate. Well, not without props anyway. As such, I have bought five packs of sticky name tags at £1 a bag and intend to distribute them to classes at the beginning of each day.

2. School rule sheet
This step seems obvious but is easy to overlook in the hustle and bustle of a new school morning. Kids need consistency, and consistency is established through language. All schools with half an ear to the current research should have agreed upon a common language of behaviour management that encompasses expectations, rewards and consequences. I believe that any serious school should provide all visiting teachers with laminated information sheets that clearly outline the school’s behaviour management language. However, since schools are usually too busy to do this, I have developed a template that supply teachers can use to collect this information. It will be uploaded shortly.

3. Daily plan display
Students like to know exactly what will be happening over the day. Any ambiguity in this regard seems to appeal to their sense of freedom, which means worse behavior. As such, a daily plan should be made visible to the class from the moment they step through the door, and adhered to rigidly. Even if this means arriving at school an hour early, the hair you save will more than make up for the hour of sleep that you lose.

Please share your own ideas in the comments section below.