Freeze sucker!

So September loomed closer into view, a blot on the summer holiday’s horizon. Very much like the slow dance at a disco: all the fun stops and the dancefloor slowly clears leaving you feeling isolated and alone – well maybe that says more about me than the start of a new term. But as I relentlessly updated Twitter on my phone desperately trying to find an important tweet to distract me from reality it became apparent that the dancefloor was not in fact empty. There were hundreds of folks on there, jiving away to the sexy and exciting tune of ‘I’m going to a new school!’ Fresh faced NQTs about to embark on a new exciting career; middle leaders about to start the rocky road to senior leadership; and once jaded long in the tooth heads, given a much needed shot in the arm as they prepared to tackle and untangle a new school of mysteries and problems. Was I the only person staying put? Was I the only one on the twittersphere without anything new to look forward to? Why will no one dance the rhumba with me?

So I went to sleep the night before school feeling…nothing. I wasn’t dreading it. I wasn’t itching to get back. It felt like a regular Monday albeit after a massively long weekend. I knew what I was getting: same school, same teachers, same kids, same challenges. I imagine at this point you’re probably thinking, that should the opportunity ever arise, you probably won’t be booking me for a motivational inset, but do you know what: I don’t care. Sometimes going back to school isn’t exciting, sometimes you don’t have a year full of anticipation and excitement and wonder. Sometimes you’re just going back to school.

I went out to the playground to meet and greet the children and parents. I do this every morning and I’ll admit that as the year builds so does the knot in my stomach as I pick up the school bell, push open the door and step out onto the playground. I scan the playground for faces that look like they have something to say to me which at 8:45am is usually not a positive, but a pent up, over-rehearsed, distorted and angry complaint. But on this morning, the first morning of a new year the playground was nothing but smiles and I realised, just then, that I should embrace this moment. No one has anything to say except for happy hellos and cheerful enquiries into each other’s holidays. The children are all excited to be back and there is a real buzz and most delightfully, nothing awful has happened that I can be blamed for!

Throughout the day I caught up with not only the staff but the children. I was genuinely surprised at how (almost) emotional I got when I saw a very ‘vulnerable’ child who I worked extensively with last year, bound around the playground looking happy and healthy. Seeing all the children en masse in assembly sat beautifully looking up expectantly at me, I began to feel so lucky that I knew them and they knew me and it was a pleasure to welcome them back to OUR school, a place we know and value so much and promise them that this year was going to be awesome!

Then the meeting with the staff to go through the handbook. The school’s bible, containing more than just the ten commandants – this epic tome makes clear every nuanced expectation, routine, system and structure in the school. Nearly two years in the making, it is now finished, a blueprint for the school we have created and I again, internally pause to embrace this moment. We’ve done it. We’ve built this school from the ground up and it is ours; it is ours and it will succeed. We go through the tried and the tested and although it’s a lot to digest, we take comfort in the fact that there are no more changes, we do not need to evolve because for now we are perfect.

Then there are the changes of course…universal free school meals, life without levels and the new curriculum. But we don’t care. Not least because we’ve already thought about them and have things in place – we don’t know if they’ll work but they’re in place. But better than that, we know that all schools are going through these changes. And for a third time I allow myself to enjoy being here, in a school that isn’t playing catch up to every school I know or have worked in, due to a lack of care or attention to policy and principles through past leadership regimes, because we’ve put that right. Now we can tackle the national challenges of the day on an even battleground and that feels…wonderful.

I know that one day I’ll get itchy feet and long for a new challenge. I know that one day my way will be the wrong way for this particular organisation and it will need a fresh pair of eyes to sort out the problems I would have become to blind to. And when that day comes I’ll be blogging and tweeting about how excited I am about my new venture, I’ll be dancing on the podium and spreading the love of change to anyone that will listen.

But for now, I want to enjoy being frozen in a state of suspended animation. I want to revel in leading a school I know like the back of my hand and where for the briefest of moments (and let’s face it, it will be brief) I am in control!

I haven’t moved schools…and I’m very, very happy.

 

Thanks but no thanks.

Thank-You-word-cloud

I have chatted to three other headteachers recently about a particular issue concerning leadership that irks me: giving thanks.

Now, forgive me for saying, but I think I’m actually quite a nice boss. I’m fair, honest, open, understanding and (for the most part and when I’m not being hilarious) calm. I have only shouted once in my career as a leader and felt like such an idiot afterwards vowed never to again. I don’t publicly or privately humiliate people and I never confront someone out in the open but if a challenging conversation is needed it is done sensitively in the privacy of a closed office.

I also tend to let people have their way. You want to go home early because your partner has booked a long weekend away for your birthday and he didn’t realise you were a teacher and can’t have time off mid-term? Alright. As long as you can get cover for your class sorted go for it, have a nice time. You’re going to find it difficult to get the Term 3 data in on time because it coincided with your cousin’s birthday and it’s been a busy term. Oh, ok, well as long as it’s done before the end of term that should be fine, I don’t mind spending my holiday reviewing it and I’m not reporting it to governors after half term anyway so yeah, don’t worry. Your reports are not going to be in on time? Well, I suppose I haven’t finished writing all of my comments on everyone else’s yet so if I don’t get yours until Monday that shouldn’t really be a problem, I’ll just rush them off in the morning, no worries.

You see? Quite reasonable. I don’t get cross, I don’t look disappointed. I just very quickly and rationally weigh up the pros and cons and think – if I can accommodate this will it be a real problem? Over the years I have granted such ad-hoc requests to pretty much every member of staff so I feel the balance and order across the school is at a constant equilibrium: there isn’t one particular member of staff who is ‘always’ making such requests (otherwise that would warrant one of those chats in a private office).

I don’t know if I am too lenient or more lenient that other headteachers. All I know is that I don’t like confrontation; as long as stuff does get done pretty much on time everything will be alright; as long as staff are independent and responsible for keeping themselves in the loop the school will carry on successfully; and I’m human. We all need a bit of leniency from time to time don’t we? From the mundane requests to work from home because a fridge is being delivered to the exceptional: going way above and beyond the standard number of days for compassionate leave because, well, it was clear they needed it. I see this as being an effective leader for the people and for the school, after all, look after the one and the other will be taken care of too.

There is also another, slightly more ‘senior leader’ aspect to me being the most gracious and wonderful leader in the history of schooling: I’m a banker. No, that isn’t a typo, I am a banker. I store all these requests that I grant, with a smile and a ‘don’t worry’, in my mental bank of back scratchers. For I know there will come a time when I request something that will require them to go the extra mile or will put them out of their comfort zone and I don’t mind doing that if I can back it up with past favours. This isn’t blackmail; I don’t get my little black book out and say ‘On the 14th May you asked if you could not come into celebration assembly because you wanted to book your travel insurance and I agreed; therefore you will stay here tonight until midnight or until all the children have been set up with individual blogging accounts.’ No, it’s more a case of getting everyone to accept that at times we rely on the kindness of others.

So what is it that irks me? Well it came to my attention recently that there is a perception, from some staff, that I don’t appreciate them and never say thanks or well done. I was genuinely surprised by this. I (honestly) think, that as well as being a very ‘human’ and compassionate headteacher, I actually praise staff all the time. I do so in staff meetings, in newsletters, in person and through the act of supplying them with more buffets a year than your typical wedding planners. And yet, there is still this perception that I don’t thank people. Interestingly, all the other headteachers said the same and commented that ‘no staff ever think management thank them enough.’ I find this simultaneously interesting, worrying and if I’m honest, bloody annoying.

What I find interesting is how far from the mark I have obviously been when it comes to how individuals want to be thanked. Clearly, being nice, accommodating, jolly, smiley, never getting publicly cross, creating a pleasant work environment and thanking people when they deserve it and doing all of this consistently for everyone, isn’t enough. Some people want more and this is also what I find worrying because I don’t know if I could ever satisfy their collective thirst for praise. Actually I can quench a collective thirst, it’s all the individual perceptions of how I should thank people that I’ll never be able to manage. It’s easy for them as all they have to worry about is one person: me. They all know what I want and how I work and my expectations. As for me? I’m expected to know and respond to every single employees personal preferences concerning how they want to be treated. My overall consistency isn’t good enough because it doesn’t tick all of everyone’s boxes. This, then adds to my annoyance. Not because I’m ungrateful or I feel undervalued but for the simple reason that it seems like the deck is not stacked in my favour.

No person in the entire school is as scrutinised and judged as me. Everyone will comment on my behaviour, choice of words, mood, facial expression and condemn me the moment any inconsistency arises and yet I am also expected to accept every single one of their inconsistencies and understand the hidden, personal backstory as to why they have acted or spoken the way they have or else risk being branded as ‘insensitive’. This seems not just unfair (and hey, I know I get paid more and it’s my job so I should just quit moaning) but more importantly it seems impossible. There is also, as one of the headtechers pointed out, the very real fact that we do not get thanked regularly by everyone (yes I know, and I refer you to the previous bracket concerning pay and job description and me getting over it) but shouldn’t staff feel some responsibility for the well-being of their headteacher just a little bit? I however, don’t expect thanks for just doing my job, so how much thanks should teachers expect for just doing theirs?

So I intend to spend the summer holidays reflecting on ways that I can show appreciation in the hope that people will value it. In doing so I have some questions to consider:

• How much may I have to change my perception in what to give thanks for?

• Do I care that some people don’t think I thank enough?

• What difference would a little more acknowledgement make – even for things that I don’t personally feel warrant it?

• To what extent should my staff accept my inconsistencies and quirks?

• What will I do if I change and I thank more but in a year’s time get told that I hardly ever say thank you?

Goodbye-ee Goodbye-ee, Wipe that tear, baby dear, from your eye-ee

goodbye_024

A lot of the end of the year is about saying goodbye and wishing everyone a good summer. This should be jubilant or at the very least cathartic – especially when saying farewell to the pupils and parents for the summer. I mean for a start there are the gifts: yes teachers, I know I may no longer fare as well as you with your bottles of wines, your chocolates and your novelty ties or even your garish mugs littered with amusing spelling errers; but I get the handshakes, the comments on what a good year, the very odd card (no I don’t get as many as you although I’ll argue mine mean more because they really didn’t have to send me one) and the surprisingly touching comment ‘I Hope you have a nice holiday because you really deserve one’.  

Then there’s the emotional juggernaut that is the Year 6 leaver’s assembly which should pack enough punch that by the end of it no one should be able to manage anything – even the simple task of picking up a felt tip pen and badly signing a shirt without blubbing and collapsing into a weeping heap on the floor.

It’s a funny thing the Year 6 leaver’s assembly: you get the full range of emotion. First there are the photos and the memories where everyone is happy and laughing. Parents nudge each other and smile; the children giggle and put their arms around their buddies; teachers and staff look on and feel genuine pride in the knowledge that their work here is now done.  Then comes the song, with a song-choice so contrived in order to manipulate the tear ducts of the parents that I wouldn’t be surprised if the producers of The X-Factor book themselves into every school leaver’s assembly to choose the show’s set-list. And then they’re off! (I mean the crying starts not the children just get up and leave.) I stand at the back and I see it all: children really crying, children trying to cry, children looking at the ones crying wondering if they should start crying and the ones who are crying with laughter because they can’t believe some of their friends are actually crying.

I have stopped enjoying the Year 6 leaver’s assembly since becoming a Head. I still feel pride when I see them up on stage and (hopefully) still stand back and think ‘we did alright by you, you’re ready’ but I don’t enjoy them. Mainly because I know at the end I’ll have to say a few words. Now normally I love nothing more than holding court and speaking to my people but, on this occasion, it worries me. You see, I can’t help feeling that the parents are thinking that this is their last chance to mutiny. For years they’ve had to publicly sit there and suck it up – all the drivel that comes out of my mouth as I pontificate at the start or end of any school social engagement. Yes they go on about it on Facebook, but never to my face and never in public but now…what have they got to lose? What am I going to do? Ban them from the playground? So I say my words whilst looking for the first signs of dissent. The eye-rolls, the slow hand-claps, the humming, the standing up on a chair and shouting ‘You’re an appalling man who is ruining the lives of all children.’ But so far…they haven’t done it. Not sure why, they’re probably wrapped up in their own kids rather than my angst the selfish swines.

Sometimes you have to say goodbye to staff and occasionally that goodbye represents huge tectonic shifts in the running of the school. A key member of SLT is leaving or a deputy or someone who has been there for decades is finally off. ‘What does that mean?’ people will ask. Does this mark some iconic clash of ideology and is the school now going to hell in a handcart? The answer is normally ‘no’ but that may not stop some people from hypothesising – very publicly. These are normally people who are unhappy themselves but don’t have the gumption to actually do anything about it or leave. Sadly they fail to see the actual talent in the people who are leaving and assume that it must be personal (which says more about them and is actually quite derogatory to the beloved people leaving but there you are).

At times like these the phrase ‘end of an era’ normally gets bandied around more freely than a loom band at wet play. I dislike this phrase when talking about schools. It encourages a rose-tinted view of the past that then suggests what is happening now is not as good. And this, in my opinion, is distorted, unhealthy and ignores the obvious: everyone in a school at any given time is trying to do what the school needs at that given time. Yes it may be different to the past, yes it may need different personnel to do the job and yes, sometimes it is reacting to a shift in the national picture but that is what happens if a school is doing its job: it responds to the needs evident in its community; the minute a school stands still it is dead in the water.

When reflecting back on the achievements and contributions of others in a school’s past, I prefer to use the word ‘legacy’. What legacy have they left behind? This supports the notion that whatever they did, they did it with the intention of improving the school and the provision and care of its pupils. We should all be thinking about the legacy that we will leave when we finally push off – because then we’ll be focussed on the children who are in the school now and our contribution to that school will be valid and purposeful.  

A Head once said to me that he disliked it when Heads talked about ‘their school’ in a way that suggested no one else could take over after them. He said that if a school can’t be managed after one person at the top goes then how could anyone say that that Head was any good? (The same can be applied to the class teacher whose class is only well behaved if they are there – that is not a thing to be proud of, that poor behaviour in your absence means you have some more work to do.) The legacy of any leader should be that when they go, it’s easy for someone to take over the role, keep things ticking over with minimal disruption until they spot the next thing that needs to change. Reflecting on a ‘big’ staff change that has happened in my school – the outgoing leader can be assured that he has done just that and he leaves a lasting legacy behind.

Then there’s the packing up. I can pack up my car in about two minutes, the only thing that holds me up is if I get stuck behind a teacher on the way to the car park who is struggling carrying all the bags clinking with wine and rattling with boxes of maltesers. There is also the staff do where I will spend my time trying to avoid anyone who looks like they have drunk enough to tell me what they really think about me. Finally there are the last goodbyes where we all wish each other a great summer and say ‘see you in September’ even though we all know we’ll see each other tomorrow because we need to go back to school because there’s a memory stick there that we just can’t do without over August.

Happy holidays!

Post-script

Yet with all these goodbyes and all the emotions I still find the last day of Term 6 a bit of an anti-climax. Don’t get me wrong, nothing beats the first morning of the summer holidays where you realise you really are on holiday – but the actual end of the year, well it always feels like a bit of let-down. On reflection I think this is self-imposed.  I mean why do we fixate on the end of the year? Why do I set the last day of term as the day where I should be able to sit back and say ‘There – everything is done’? That is madness! It also puts on a lot of meaningless pressure on me and everyone else. We feel the need to dot every i and cross every t because…because what? It’s the end? I spend my whole time saying ‘schools are constantly evolving, schools never stand still, your work is never done’ and yet I feel this burden to get everything completed as if the school is going to be entered into some weird end of year competition and I want to win ‘best in show’. What am I trying to ‘complete’ and why am I trying to complete it at a point in time where no one is going to see it for six weeks? I am in idiot!

It was Michael Gove’s exit as secretary of state for education that made me realise my folly. Focussing on getting to the summer holidays as if it is some sort of mecca mirrors my feelings over his promotion to Chief Whip. It was something I had been dreaming about for months, but when it happened I was too busy trying to remember how to assemble the staging for the summer performance to care about it, and come September, when I return to school, I’ll realise that everything is still just the same without him. So cheers Michael, your work here is done, sadly, I fear, your legacy will be around for a lot longer.