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Listening to the Little People

April 24, 2013

The chemistry teacher at school was off on long term sick so I took chemistry as an option for O levels assuming it would be a bit of a doss with no teacher. It was the early 70s in the back of beyond in Mid Wales.

Suddenly a new teacher appeared. This hadn’t been part of our plan. We’d been happy mucking about, having cover teachers or the lab technician look after us. We certainly didn’t learn any chemistry.  And had enjoyed a full year doing absolutely nothing for three periods a week. Double chemistry on a Wednesday morning was a particular joy of attaching bunsens to taps and spraying them round the room. Or throwing wet cloths at each other.

Now we were given a textbook and our new teacher started working through it. Mr Ubibore was different from any other teacher we’d ever had. He was different from every other member of staff. He was different from every other child at school. Mr Ubibore was black. He had a soft African accent – Nigerian I’m guessing – and always wore a suit.

Mr Ubibore had two answers for any question that we had. One was “Because you eat too much mashed potato.” and the other was “Because God made it so.” Neither of these were particulalry helpful in clarifying what chemical reactions might be occuring in our crucibles and did not engender great faith in his ability. I would go home and tell my mother and she would be concerned about me being racist. I couldn’t get her to believe what was happening in every lesson. It was only when we all failed the O level that the school started to take it seriously.

Luckily for me I managed to get in to medicine without Chemistry A level (a pre-requisite in those days) because I went off and did a flashy Baccalaureate so the Universities were keen to find out more about it, but I would never have got in if I’d stayed at my school. But it did make me think it is important to talk to the sharp end when you want to know what’s really happening. We knew within the space of a couple of lessons that he wasn’t fit for purpose. Sweet guy yes. Chemisty teacher no. But no one came to watch him teach. No more senior colleague. No external Ofsted inspector. No Governor. And no one listened to us. No one even asked us how it was going.
And it reminds me of some comapanies where I work where you simply don’t see the high echelons of management on the floor at all. They don’t stroll around the office and ask how things are going. They don’t get a feel for it. They don’t know what the nitty gritty day to day stuff is like any more. The sharp end. They don’t make the opportunity to talk to the people doing the actual work who often have great ideas for simplification and improvement. A suggestion box on a website is no substitute for eyeball to eyeball contact with a big cheese and being invited to suggest ways to make things better. They talk to their direct reports who give them second or third hand interpretaions of what’s happening. Which will be coated with their own agendas rather than laid bare. And it can mean that by the time problems come to the attention of the higher echelons they are massive, whereas if they’d had their ear to the ground they would have heard the rumblings and been able to nip it in the bud. Not to mention the fact that if you see leadership physically around you, you know what it looks like. You get clarity of vision, you get inspired and motivated by good management. All that is lost if they are hidden away in offices talking to each other rather than the rest of us.

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