Fancy a daydream?

I know I haven’t been on here for a couple of months and to be honest I am not sure why not. Actually I am. It has been a crazy (unprecedented!) couple of months with a great deal going on in the world of education. Every day there seems to be a new outrage about “militant unions” refusing to go back to school, even though all they are asking for is guidance. Teacher bashing and a lack of trust in teacher’s judgements is at an all time high. To be honest I have been spending a bit of time considering what to do. I am sure I won’t be the only one. Teacher morale seems to be at an all time low. What has happened to our profession?

I think that the problem, as I said in a recent podcast with Unprofessional Development, is government involvement in education. I am not about to get political (actually I am) but there seems to be no person in government who understands that the purpose of education and the role of everyone who works in schools is to facilitate learning. Education is seen as a political football with each side quoting improved percentages in this that and the other. The team that wins is the one who pumps the most money into a system, thinking that improvements will follow. How long has this been going on? When are politicians going to realise that what they are doing is stifling education and creating a culture where teaching is reduced to a formula, a recipe or even just a set of instructions?

I would like to take you on a little daydream, it will only take a minute. Just relax. Now, when I say “Department for Education” how does that make you feel? Annoyed? Infuriated? Confused? Incandescent? Just accept those feelings and hold on to them, whatever they are, even if they are positive. (By the way, if they are positive you may need to consider seeking help)

Now, imagine that it was called , “Department for Learning.” Imagine that every single piece of guidance that was issued was focussed on improving learning. Imagine that teachers were encouraged to be more creative, that the curriculum was truly broad and balanced. Imagine that leaders in education were judged on their ability to create a learning climate, rather than percentages. Imagine that your judgment in the classroom was trusted. Imagine that the government properly funded schools so that CPD could be a real investment rather than a cost. Imagine being able to have personalised learning for every child. Imagine a performance management system that rewarded real learning. Most of all, imagine a system and a department that holds learning as its core purpose.

Now, how do you feel? Does that sound like a better way of doing things? It’s not that hard to imagine a better way than we have now. One that is based on real research into learning. A system for learning that is separate from whatever government is in power at the time. A system that is led by education professionals. By that I mean people who have actually worked in schools, school leaders, teachers, teaching assistants, administration staff. Why not have the “Department for Learning” run by those who understand learning, rather than those whose main priority is to be re-elected? Most of all, let us get rid of the things in education that are used for political purposes, rather than educational ones.

I honestly believe that standards would rise, children would become lifelong learners, there would be a decrease in the dropout rate for teachers and more people would be attracted to the profession. Staff absence due to stress would drop, teacher wellbeing would increase and hopefully the teaching profession would receive a bit more respect for the work that they do.

Now, slowly come back to the present. Our little daydream is over. Sorry about that.

I left school leadership due to stress and anxiety. The job and the demands became too great and I had to sacrifice my career for my health. I wanted to create a climate where staff and children felt valued and respected. I wanted a place where relationships were good, where everyone felt supported. I wanted to run my school as a “Department for Learning” school. Unfortunately I fell victim to the Department for Education.

I wonder how many other people out there are like me.

Tolerate? Not Good Enough

My dad died a year ago today. He wasn’t the best dad in the world. He suffered for most of his life from depression, and like most men of his generation he did nothing to talk about it or to deal with it. He kept it locked up, ignored it, and eventually I believe it contributed to his death. He died in a nursing home at the age of 76, a shell of the man he used to be. He was emotionally stunted, not able to talk about his emotions or to really form deep relationships. However, he did have some positives. He was a kind and gentle man. He had no prejudice in him and he was very firm about some things.

“You never raise your hands to a woman, and regardless of who they are you show respect to people”

Ideas and principles that may seem a bit old fashioned, but which we could probably learn from today. Anyway, enough reminiscing.

The dictionary defines “tolerate” as

to allow the existence, presence, practice, or act of without prohibition or hindrance; permit.to endure without repugnance; put up with:

In the School Inspection Handbook we will be judged on how well we encourage children to show individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs. In my view this is not good enough. We should not be using the word “tolerate.” We should not “tolerate” those who have a different colour skin, a different language, a different set of beliefs, a different way of living or a different gender or sexuality. To “tolerate” these differences implies that we do it grudgingly or we “put up with” others reluctantly.

When I read the press, or news websites the language used is quite interesting. We hear of black people, gay people, Muslim people, Jewish people, transgender people, famous people, and all sorts of other phrases where the adjective comes first. Why? Shouldn’t the focus be on the noun? Shouldn’t the emphasis be on “people?” When we concentrate on whatever description we like, we are somehow promoting the characteristic, rather than the person. We are saying that the description is more important than the person. I prefer the use of different phrases. This is starting to happen when we talk about what it is to be a person of colour. Finally, we are recognising that the person comes first. I know that for some the description is vitally important. It is a part of defining them as a person. It is part of their identity and persona. It has had a real impact on their development and their upbringing. It also has had an impact on their attitudes and they way they view the world. Sometimes this can be positive, but also it can be negative.

Biologically every person is 99.9% the same when it comes to DNA. We are all in a very real sense related to each other, in the words of Sister Sledge, “We are family.” There is no biological basis for any form of racism or discrimination.

I am, as I have said before, a middle aged, white heterosexual man. I have absolutely no idea what it is like to grow up and live as a person of colour, a woman, a person who is gay, lesbian, transgender or any other sexuality or gender. I have no understanding of what it is like to grow up with a faith other than catholicism. I have never been arrested or stopped by the police because of my colour. I have never suffered any abuse based on my gender or sexuality. I have never been berated or threatened when I have gone to church. I suppose in my naivety that everyone was treated the same. What a fool.

We should not “tolerate” these things that make us different. We should celebrate them, cherish them, embrace them. Our children are not born with any form of prejudice, they learn it from us. They learn hatred from those around them. We should be teaching them compassion, empathy, understanding and acceptance.

I was lucky, my dad left me with a deep sense of respect for all. I cannot comprehend why anyone should treat a person the way George Floyd was treated. To have another human being kneel on your neck for almost nine minutes while you are gasping for breath, and have them think it is acceptable is inconceivable to me. And repugnant.

Wherever I look at the moment I see slogans and posts on social media saying that Black Lives Matter. I couldn’t agree more. I see people of all colours coming together to support each other. I see more and more examples of where Black Lives didn’t matter. Where the people who are supposed to protect and serve the public have reneged on their duty and allowed their prejudice and hatred to come to the fore. This cannot continue. This cannot be our society. This cannot be the legacy we leave for our children. This cannot be what our leaders tacitly allow to happen.

As educators we have a responsibility to change hatred to love, prejudice to understanding and indifference to compassion. We must educate all of our children to respect the dignity of each human being. Schools should be places of learning about our world, celebrating the variety of human existence and sharing what makes us unique. We must stop teaching our children to tolerate and put up with others as though it is something we do reluctantly.

Perhaps my late dad had a point about respecting every single person, regardless of whatever adjective is used to describe them. Intolerance and prejudice has blighted human history. It continues to be a stain on humanity. There has to be a better way.

Do you speak child?

Every time we had students in the school the initial format was the same. I would meet them, give them a tour of the school, tell them about the safeguarding procedures, ask if they were in a union, introduce them to their class teacher, and then leave them to get on. At morning playtime I would seek out the class teacher and get their impression of the student. In every case the class teacher accurately assessed how well they would do. It all worked well, except once.

I did the usual and everything was okay until I got to the union question. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t promoting any particular union, I just wanted to make sure that the students had representation. This particular student was a mature student, he had a background in law and so he felt that he could deal with anything that came his way. That’s when I should have been very worried.

I was out at a meeting all morning so couldn’t see the teachers until lunchtime. When I arrived back the teacher looking after our more mature student was waiting to see me. I invited her into my office and she shut the door.

“Do you hate me?” was her opening salvo. “He is a 34 year old man who cannot speak in full sentences, his vocabulary and grammar are atrocious. He put his hand up in the middle of the input to ask if he could go to the toilet! He has questioned my spelling, told the children that what holds up the roof on a Roman temple are “pillows” and is incapable of relating to children!”

We kept him for a while, we tried everything we could to make him into a teacher. The lessons I observed were terrible. I think the final straw came when the teacher came to me with her teaching assistant to relate the latest incident. Whilst trying to get the class to come back together for a plenary the following words were heard,

“Year five, stop! You are behaving like children!”

I am still surprised that one of the kids didn’t turn round and said what I thought, “What the f**k do you expect?”

My point is that he should never have been allowed near a school, he had no idea about education other than a vague recollection of being at school and wanting to have a teaching qualification. Other than that he did not have the ability that all primary teachers need. The ability to speak child.

What is speaking child? It is the ability to naturally relate to children. It means that you have to take off your “adult, sensible” hat and remember what it is like to be childlike. It’s like the scene in the film “Hook” where Robin Williams is with the lost boys and has to use his imagination to play. Speaking child means understanding the vast importance of being able to fasten your own coat. Appreciating the effort that has been put in to tying your own shoelaces. Being able to stand in front of a class and say “James Bond was modelled on me, we have a mission to do for MI5” and have the class go along with suspending belief. Speaking child means not belittling a seven year old who is so excited about getting a pet for the first time. It is not having a go when you are on supply in year 6 and everyone wants to tell you who is going out with who.

Speaking child is a vital part of working with children, and they very quickly identify who is fluent, and who is completely inept. Children are the best judges of character in the world. Try fooling a seven year old child. I dare you. Understanding children is instinctive for those who work in school. They know their children, their quirks, their needs. As a headteacher I knew which children I could have a bit of banter with, which ones would need a cuddle, which ones were struggling with loss, which ones had experienced domestic abuse, which ones would never reach the “expected standard” but would give it their best shot. I also knew the ones who were a bit lazy, who somehow felt entitled, who had a bit of arrogance about them. One of the best compliments I ever received from a child was, “You’re just a big kid really, aren’t you?” At the end of the day, I understand children.

At the moment the teaching profession is under fire from all quarters and it seems that we cannot do anything right. There are “experts” who are belittling all of our efforts, picking up on where there are gaps. They criticise, find fault, say we are damaging the education of children. They say that they know better than the professionals in school. However, all of their concerns seem to be on what the impact of the continued lockdown will have on the economy. They say that all of their suggestions are more valid than the experience of teachers. These people cannot speak child. I doubt if they ever have. They relish in being the “leaders” who are knowledgeable about everything. They delight in being controversial and never let any cogent argument change their point of view. Let’s have all children sitting in desks, two metres apart, even in reception. Really?

Any form of discipline which requires them to remain seated and physically inactive for long periods will be out of place in a modern school.

Handbook of suggestions for the consideration of teachers and others concerned in the work of public elementary schools 1944

What we need is an Education Secretary who has actually spent time in a school, not just visited. They need to be in a school that is struggling with disadvantaged children so they see it is not the schools that cause the gaps, it is the continued failures of successive governments over a long period of time. And most of all we need an Education secretary who can speak child. We need someone who can go home with playdoh in their hair and paint on their trousers. Someone who is able to deal with a child in nursery who just wants to show you her new knickers!We need someone who can keep a straight face when children write something innocent but inappropriate in their books. The children deserve someone who will bounce with enthusiasm when a child is jumping up and down as it is their birthday. We need a person who has sat in a staffroom whilst colleagues are comforting an NQT who has just had a mouthful from a parent who thinks that it is the school who should dress their child in the morning. We need someone who has shadowed a headteacher for a few days and has seen the amount of work they have to do, and how much of it is administrative nonsense that has no impact on the children’s learning.

I am willing to bet that anyone who can speak child knows exactly what I mean and those who don’t will dismiss this as childish nonsense. Personally I love childish nonsense. And Haribos. And playing in the sandpit. And reading Harry Potter. I could go on……

Letting go and doing well?

I thought I was doing well. I thought about reducing my medication. It’s almost a year since I eventually succumbed to what everyone else could see and started to address my stress and anxiety. It’s almost five months since I could call myself a headteacher. I thought I was doing well. I had stopped looking on my old school’s website to see what was happening. I had stopped looking at their Twitter feeds on my personal account and, although I kept in touch with some members of staff, I have heard nothing for a while. I thought I was doing well and moving on.

What has happened to make me question my journey to wellness? I suppose it happens to many people. I found myself thinking about families from the school and wondering how they were coping in the lockdown. I started to feel worried for the children I knew were vulnerable or who would be struggling to survive. I started to be concerned for some of the parents who I knew had their own mental health issues. How were they doing? I thought about the staff, how were they adjusting to the new ways of working? I thought about the new headteacher who took over from me, running two schools in the MAT. I thought about the other leaders in the MAT and how they were doing.

I thought I was moving on.

In the end I had to make myself stop. There was nothing I could do to change the situation for any of these people. But then it got me thinking about the nature of teaching and what is happening to the profession I love. It seems that every day teachers and school staff are being criticised for not doing enough. There seems to be a whole host of “experts” who have never worked in a school but think that holding public office gives them a remit to comment on anything. In the news we are constantly hearing different dates proposed for when the schools are going to return. Any time concerns are raised about this another “expert” pops up with another opinion.

I know there has always been a certain amount of “teacher bashing” over the years. I know that the value of primary education, especially the early years is not always appreciated by government, we are just there to get the children “secondary ready.” As if education only happened at secondary schools. The main stick that has been used to beat primaries (SATS) has been cancelled at a stroke this year. Is that an indication of how much value they really add to a child’s education?

And breathe!

I could go on, I could rant about a multitude of things but I will restrain myself for the moment.

I suppose Twitter is to blame. I now follow 1875 people and I spend more time than I ought to reading their posts and their blogs. I read about how one headteacher has sent a letter out to parents of the school asking for help in providing food and essential items to vulnerable families. I read about the hours that people are spending trying to get FSM vouchers so that their children can have something to eat. Every day I read about people who are struggling, worryingly some of them are in the very early stages of their careers or are looking for their first job. I cheered at one person I followed who has a new job and can finally get out of their toxic school. I get outraged when a women I follow asks the Twitter community advice about blocking some offensive messages. I get upset when I read of the death of a loved one or colleague. I am inspired by the stories of support that our schools are giving our children at this time. I marvel at the way people who don’t know each other send messages of encouragement and help.

I am constantly amazed by the help, advice and support that is freely given. There is no hierarchy, no attempts to reach the top, no one guru who is the font of all knowledge. There is continual compassion, sustained care for others and an underlying determination to do right by the children in our schools. It is an amazing community and one I wish I’d been part of earlier. Everything is about real education for children. Not simply exam or test preparation, but a love of learning. Also it highlights the wider role that schools play in the community. When I trained we were not instructed about how to order food parcels, prepare online work, deliver packages of work to families, constantly ring children to check on them or, in some cases, put shopping bills on our own credit cards so that children could eat

In a way it reminds me of how I used to be. How I used to be before I started to become ill. I suppose that a part of me is wanting to be involved more, using the skills and enthusiasm I had when I was first a headteacher. But I can’t go back. I know that I couldn’t handle the stress.

Maybe I was thinking that the road to recovery was going to be fairly straightforward. Medication for a while, some counselling and that would be it. Wrong! I am starting to accept that I will have some days when I am not so good, although I do feel incredibly guilty about it. I am starting to accept that being okay is good enough.

Will I always worry about the children and the families I worked with? Yes, probably. I know that it is someone else’s responsibility now but it won’t stop their faces popping into my head from time to time. I thought I was doing well in trying to forget about my school and the community in which it stands. I thought that a measure of my improvement was the extent to which I stopped being concerned about the families and the children. I may be wrong. Maybe it’s not about letting go of the worry. Maybe it’s about letting go of the worry about worrying and accepting that it will happen from time to time.

Many others will be on the same journey as me. Remember, caring and compassion are strengths, not weaknesses. Stay true to yourself and honest with others. Reach out for support and accept that the road is winding with some diversions in place. Keep travelling along it.

Says me! Easier said than done.

In praise of Dr Jessica Taylor

I am mad. In fact I am beyond mad. I just cannot believe that Dr Taylor has been on the receiving end of such an abhorrent amount of abuse for writing a book. It is entitled “Why women are blamed for everything” and it seems to have caused some “people” to react in a way that is completely unacceptable.

I am a white, middle aged, heterosexual male who has been happily married for 27 years to a wonderful woman. I have two fantastic children and a dog. In religious terms I am what is known as a “relaxed catholic.” I grew up in an area not known for its ethnic diversity and so all of my friends are white. I have never had abuse hurled at me because of my gender, religion, colour, sexual orientation or any other characteristic that you could care to mention. So why am I incensed at the amount of abuse a person I have never met is getting about a book that I admit I have not yet read?

My father was not the best parent in the world but there is one thing he instilled in me and my brothers. “You never raise your hands to a woman.” He would not accept any circumstances in which this was acceptable. Never.

In my role as designated safeguarding lead I had to attend many Child Protection Conferences, mainly to do with domestic abuse. Usually the woman was the victim and usually it was not a one off incident but a culmination of years of abuse. One thing always annoyed me. When the decision was made to put a plan in place, it was focussed mainly on what the woman had to do to keep the children safe. The vast majority of the actions that needed to take place were on her shoulders. Occasionally, if the perpetrator was still around, he would be asked to take a perpetrator’s course before he was allowed back in the family home. I always thought this was grossly unfair. She was the victim, she had suffered the abuse and now she was the one who had to take on most of the responsibility in the plan, while in a lot of cases the man wasn’t held to account unless the police were involved. In a way the system was tacitly reinforcing that it was “her fault” and she had to remedy the situation.

I saw these women every day. I saw the effect the abuse had on their self-esteem, their confidence, their appearance and their relationships with others. You could almost see a cloud of self-blame hanging over them. I asked one mother about the black eye she had. She waved it off as being nothing, she said it had only happened because both of them had been drunk and they argued. The next time I saw her it was the other eye that was blacked. Social services that they were aware of the family and just to keep reporting anything that I noticed! We also had a women’s refuge nearby and quite often we had children come to the school, whether it be for a few weeks or longer. Quite often we arranged counselling for them as they had witnessed the abuse and they themselves were victims.

Occasionally the perpetrator was present at meetings and I must admit there were times I almost let my professionalism drop. Sometimes these “men” were almost looking to me for some sort of approval of what they had done, as if they were proud of “putting the little woman in her place.” I was almost physically sick at times.

I don’t know what it is like to be abused, either physically or mentally. I have no experience of being discriminated against because of my gender, colour or sexuality. I cannot comment on what it is like to have someone yell abuse at me from across the street as I go to my place of worship. These are things that have not happened to me or to my circle of family or friends. I am not even going to try and offer any advice to people who have suffered these things. What do I know? Maybe I am naïve as to the nature of humanity.

I have no insights into why people treat others in such a despicable way and I certainly am not going to try and excuse any of this behaviour. Some of this is incomprehensible to me, I would never abuse anyone. My children are the same. My son cannot understand why anyone should racially abuse someone. My daughter has a wider range of friends than I do including people from different ethnic backgrounds and sexualities. She sees this as completely normal.

Today Dr Taylor has launched #iwasblamed for people to share their stories of domestic abuse. It is harrowing to read the experiences of all of these people. There are so many victims out there who have not been believed or who have been blamed for what has happened. It is as though the abuse has two stages, the actual acts themselves and then the battle to be believed. There is something wrong with the system. As a male I am disgusted at how some men treat others. There is no excuse, no reason, no validation for domestic abuse, trafficking or any other situation where women and girls are treated in such an appalling manner.

Although I have not yet read Dr Taylor’s book I am sure that it will be a difficult read but a vital one. I read the article in the Guardian and have followed her tweets closely. She deserves praise and recognition for shining a light on domestic abuse, not poisonous threats and derision. I have read some of the things that she has been called and some of the abuse that she has been subjected to and I have no words to describe how ashamed I am that some members of my gender have behaved in this way.

No woman or girl should experience any form of violence from men. No excuses. No justifications. No victim blaming.

The importance of pastoral care.

I have been overwhelmed by the response I have had to my last post. The amount of positive feedback and support has been amazing. Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to contact me or send me messages of support. It is humbling to see that so many people can relate to my experiences, it is also quite worrying how many have gone through difficulties like mine.

A student teacher once told me of the introduction she got to one of her placements. The headteacher welcomed them in the usual way and then told them that, “The best pastoral care that you can give a pupil is a good set of exam results.” Don’t get me wrong, exam results are important and schools should strive to help students get the best results that they can. But the best pastoral care??? I beg to differ.

One Monday morning my year 1 teacher rang me with a concern. A child had just told her, “Miss, do you know what happened this weekend? A man was in our street trying to get into the houses with a machete. He tried to get in my door. My mam was crying and the police came and took the man away and arrested my brother.”

The teacher’s response? “That’s very nice dear but you have your phonics test test week and you are currently only two points off passing. Let’s continue with these flash cards.”

Of course it wasn’t. The morning was spent making referrals to social services, making sure that the child was able to talk to someone, following social worker’s advice and contacting the mother to make sure that she was okay. We arranged for the child to see our counsellor and made sure that the people on yard duty kept an eye out for them.

Pastoral care is of such importance in schools, for some children it is the most important thing. School may be the one place they are listened to, the one place that they feel safe and valued. Their class teacher may be the most significant adult in that child’s life, the only one who takes the time to check on the welfare of the child.

I have been in schools on supply and asked of there are any children in the class who need a bit of extra TLC. Often this is misinterpreted as asking who are the children who are a bit of a challenge with their behaviour. What I mean is who needs a bit more encouragement, which child is coming in from a toxic home environment, which child will need a couple of minutes to calm down or which child will just need lots of smiles?

Pastoral care in my book is not just about having a separate room where children can go, or appointing someone to be the pastoral manager. It is a cultural thing. The school culture needs to be one of nurturing, caring and watching out constantly for children who need help.

I once had a pupil who was constantly in trouble and in my office. He was disruptive, abusive and sometimes violent with other children. He would argue back with everyone and had some anger management issues. We arranged counselling and a placement at a behaviour unit. One day he was withdrawn and sullen but still arguing with everything. He had a bit of a meltdown which meant we had to evacuate the class. I rang his dad as I was going to exclude him for the rest of the week. His dad came in to see me and was in a bit of a state. The boy’s mother had been sectioned the night before and was taken to a secure psychiatric unit. The police were involved, social workers and doctors. The street was full of neighbours who were all very vocal in their opinion. The child had witnessed it all. Did I exclude him? No. I had a meeting with his class teacher who immediately understood the reasons for not excluding him. We arranged extra counselling, a way of telling the teacher that he needed some time out and also told the rest of the staff to keep an eye on him and allow him to come to see me or his teacher at any time. Over the next week or so he often used to turn up in my office. Sometimes he just wanted to sit quietly for a while, other times he needed to talk.

The point is that the whole staff were involved in his pastoral care. They would have a laugh and a joke with him, give him a hug if he needed it and just generally ask him how he was. Not one person in the school disagreed with my decision not to exclude him. They all had the cultural attitude that every child in the school was their responsibility, not just the ones in their class. Also, at no point did they ask how he would affect our figures as he wasn’t likely to meet the required standard in his SATs. The person was more important than the percentages.

If pastoral care is seen just as the responsibility of the pastoral manager or the SENDCO, if it is a room that the “naughty” children can go to then the system needs fixing. Pastoral care is not just one or two people, it is everyone. It is not just following a programme or an intervention it is a constant alertness to the needs of the children. For some children pastoral care is a smile and a “how are you?” For others it is more intense but it needs to be embedded in the culture and the ethos of the school. What is more important, the person or the qualification?

Pastoral care also applies to staff. Who looks after the staff member who is having a bad day? What does the school do to help someone who has suffered a loss? Is a couple of day’s absence and a bunch of flowers enough? What about the teacher who has a doctor’s appointment for some anti-depressants? What about the staff member who is going through a relationship breakup? Is this just the job of the headteacher?

There are so many teachers leaving the profession because of stress or other mental health issues. On Twitter I hear about so many people who have had similar experiences to me. Leaders who have no emotional intelligence or empathy who have destroyed the confidence and in some cases the careers of dedicated, caring teachers. I don’t have the answer. I know that qualifications and exam results matter, that they are important and that we need to encourage children to do their best. I understand the pressures on schools under the current inspection regime. Every week we hear on various television programmes about how schools should be doing more about this, that and the other. I know how schools are judged.

Perhaps in this time of lockdown where the pressure of exams has been reduced and schools have been, in some way, forced to concentrate on the more pastoral side of things rather than the academic, it may be time for a review. Perhaps the education community has an opportunity to pause, to reflect, to consider and to change the priorities it is judged on. Just a thought.

Why the Crap Headteacher?

If you have read my other posts you will know a little about who I am and where I used to work. Due to an amazing day on Twitter when my followers went from 96 to over 1200 I have been asked about why I have named the Twitter page and this blog the Crap Headteacher.

June last year was a nightmare. My father had just died, we had joined a Multi Academy Trust alongside another primary school and secondary school and I was a mess. To be honest I had been suffering with stress and anxiety for quite a while. The only thing is that I was the last one to see it. I had been a headteacher for 6 years and I don’t think there was a single day that I did not feel a bit of an imposter. There were better teachers in the school than I had been, I worked in partnership with lots of headteachers who all did a much better job than me and to top it all we were just about to have a review of the school as the CEO had concerns about my leadership.

To cut a long story short the review happened and that was the last time I was in the school. I was like a rabbit in the headlights, I had no answers to the questions I was being asked, I had no plans or strategies and I had no more fight left in me. It was clear to me that everything in the school that was wrong was my fault. The standards were not good, assessment systems were not fully embedded (even though we had only introduced a whole new system in the previous October) progress was not as rapid as it should be and teachers were not being held to account. That was it. I couldn’t do it any more. I finally cracked and the breakdown that many others could see coming caught up with me.

It is only now that I can look back with a more critical eye on what happened. Yes, the standards weren’t above national. Yes the progress was not as good as it should have been and I always had a problem with the “difficult conversations.”

That is why I was a crap headteacher. All of the measures that government, OFSTED and the board of directors looked at were not great. If you looked at the numbers and the percentages I was a failure.

However, for some reason I was getting lots of messages of support from the staff. People were telling me that parents and children were asking after me. The local priest said that he had had messages from parishioners saying that they were praying for me. I bumped into a family from the school and the child flung their arms around me. Even the parent hugged me and asked how I was and when I was coming back.

The thing is that I was good at some things. I wanted the staff to feel supported, to feel valued, and they did. I wanted the children to feel secure and loved, and they did. I wanted the parents and the parish to be part of the community and welcomed in the school, and they did. The atmosphere of support and love was evident in the school.

We had lots of families who needed support, either because of mental health issues, parenting issues, safeguarding or just someone to listen to them. The staff were fantastic at this. We had a womens’ refuge near to us and whenever we had an admissions application from a certain address the staff started to organise uniforms and clothing for the children. I used to meet with the parent and the children, find out what they needed and who was allowed to pick the children up. Sometimes they stayed, other times they moved on at very short notice. Did we get the uniform back? No. Did we care about that? The answer is no. If a child had to move on quickly at least they had a sweatshirt, trousers and a coat.

We would have family workers and social workers in the school almost every day. Sometimes a disclosure was made first thing in the morning which led to my whole day being taken up with phone calls, seeing teachers and families and urgently writing reports for conferences. In the midst of which there was usually something trivial come from the local authority wanting to know how many children were wearing school uniform or something else just as unimportant.

Staff would arrange things and let me know afterwards, they knew that if what they were doing was for the good of the children that I would agree. We once had a large family who was at risk of being evicted. I asked in a staff briefing if people would bring in an extra tin of something when they went shopping or buy two packets of pasta instead of one. The staff didn’t know which family it was. It didn’t matter to them. In the end I took four carloads of food to the family. That was the type of school it was. We would feed the children who had come in without having breakfast. Staff would pop out at lunchtime to buy tights, or socks for children who had none. I often found a child asleep in a corner of a key stage 1 classroom as their parents had been fighting all night and the child had not slept.

Members of staff would meet regularly with parents who could not read or write to explain how to help their children. We would send out a newsletter each week and I saw parents coming to staff to have it read to them. Children would arrive late because we had rang the house and found the parent still in bed with a hangover while the children tried to sort themselves out. We often went out to pick the children up.

In all of this I tried to be in every classroom, every day. Not, I hasten to add, to observe the teaching but to check on the staff and children. I had a chair in my room which the staff had christened “the counselling chair” where they could come and let off steam or have a meltdown. (I was criticised for this. Apparently it was another example of my poor leadership) In every classroom I knew every child. Not just their name but about their family, their circumstances and their interests. I knew which children to have a bit of banter with, which ones I needed to remind to behave and which ones needed a regular cuddle. One of my proudest moments was when a recently qualified teacher asked me to leave her room as she didn’t want me to wind the children up.

I valued relationships above all. I wanted to boost the confidence of every child and make sure that the school was a place where they felt safe and loved. I think that I managed to do some of that. I loved aspects of my job and I still worry about some of the families and children that I worked with. I still remember the names and faces of the “little darlings” that every school has.

I know that the situations that I have described will be familiar to some. Our school was not unique as far as deprivation, attendance or other factors were concerned. What made our school unique was the staff and the relationships.

I am no longer a headteacher, crap or otherwise. I have been doing supply work and loving it. Time has helped me get perspective and my family have persuaded me (forced!) to write a blog and get a twitter account.

I still feel like an imposter. I still find it hard to believe that anybody will be interested in what I have to say. However, I do know that, no matter how down you get, no matter how bad you think things are, no matter how lost you feel as a teacher or a school leader, you have the privilege of working with little people who will give you a hug when you need it. They don’t care how crap you are as long as you tell them their painting is superb and their ability to zip up their own coat is fantastic.

Take care of yourselves.

TMI???

I know that currently teacher training is on hold. There are no lectures taking place on theories of learning, different curriculum models, behaviour management techniques or safeguarding. All of these things are of prime importance, however there is a skill that does not seem to be taught in universities. The art of keeping a straight face, regardless of whatever is said or shown to you. It is quite easy with children as you can distract them or turn away. With adults it is somewhat different. Especially when the first thing that springs into your head is “Too much information!”

Many teachers will have had the situation where a parent uses them as a disciplinarian tool for their children. You know the type of thing where a parent asks you to tell their child off for not getting dressed in the morning. As a headteacher this didn’t come to my attention much, but there were some occasions where a parent’s filter of what I needed to know malfunctioned.

One morning my deputy headteacher came to say a parent needed to see me urgently. She said that I should see the parent as I would find it funny. The parent in question was well known to me as her version of how her child behaved and the school’s version differed somewhat. I remembered that she had recently started a new job and she came in dressed for business, although I am not sure whether the yard of cleavage on display would have fitted in with our dress code. Names have been changed to protect the guilty

“I’ve come to apologise for what our Jemima brought into school yesterday, I don’t know why she did it and I am so sorry and embarrassed. (Not too embarrassed to come and tell me though)

“I haven’t heard about any of this,” I replied. “Jemima, what did you bring in?”

“She brought in a condom. She was showing it to all of her friends. She took it from my bedside table and was telling all of her friends that I have these because I have a lot of sex!”

“Really?? Congratulations?? Do you want a certificate in Friday’s assembly? But most of all, why are you telling me this. I don’t want to know”

Of course I didn’t say any of that. I kept my face straight and spoke to Jemima about how things should be kept private. Also that she should not be bringing these things in to show her year 3 (YES YEAR 3!) friends as some parents would not be happy about it. I eventually found out that she had put the condom in one if the sanitary bins in the girls’ toilets. No teacher had come to tell me about this. There had been no parents in contact with the school. I suppose she just wanted someone to know about her sex life!

On another occasion we had had a phone call from a parent to say her child would be collected by her niece as she had to go to the doctor’s and she wasn’t sure if she would be back on time. A very sensible call you might say. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t have caused any issues except that there had been some recent child protection issues around the pupil in question. After tracking down the social worker I was advised to meet whoever was picking the little girl up, find out where she was being taken and make a judgement about whether I was happy. If not I was to keep the child in school and get in touch with social services.

I followed the reception class out to the yard and stood with Chloe. She pointed out who was picking her up. So far, so good I thought. I asked the person collecting Chloe where she was going and was told that they were both going to her auntie’s house. I knew the auntie so I was quite happy. I was just about to say goodbye to Chloe, in the middle of a very busy school yard, surrounded by parents, children and staff when…..

“Aye, our Samantha went to the doctor’s. He’s sent her to the hospital. The silly cow hooked up with some fella last night and now she has got her coil stuck!”

I could not think of a single thing to say. So I just kept my face straight, waved goodbye and went back inside the school.

So, if you are a student teacher, or any teacher for that matter, may I make a suggestion? In this period of lockdown, if you are not in school, take a bit of time to practise your straight face in front of a mirror. And keep a note of the tales if you ever decide to write a blog.

Some thoughts on dealing with loss.

As I sit down to write this the number of people who have died as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak has risen to 7248. Each day this number is rising and will continue to rise. Every day families suffer losses, and what is worse, they may not have been able to say goodbye. There is a lot of support for the bereaved, many messages of sympathy and offers of help. This is as it should be. We should be a compassionate and kind society who help each other in times of crisis. It is at times like this that we reach into the depths of ourselves to find the strength to support each other.

A few years ago I received a phone call that I will remember for the rest of my life. It was a normal Wednesday morning when I heard that one of my teaching assistants (Barbara, not her real name)had died. This was not an “expected death” as she had not been ill. For a few seconds time seemed to stand still as I spluttered out how sorry I was to her ex-husband and offered any help that the school could give. I was shell shocked. What was I to do? There was no policy, no procedure or flowchart to say what a school leader should do in this situation. I quickly met with my deputy and assistant head and told them what had happened, they were in just as much shock as me but we somehow came up with some sort of plan as to how to tell the staff and children what had happened. Various people were contacted and letters were written. I spent long periods ensuring that staff were okay, did they need to go home or were they okay to carry on. I prepared for the assembly we were going to have just before home time when I was going to tell the children what had happened and eventually, once all the staff had left, I sat in my room and cried my eyes out.

That was a very brief, but still painful to recall, outline of the situation I was in. Many school leaders will find themselves in the position of dealing with a loss in their school, whether it be a staff member, a pupil or a friend of the school. Although schools are closed there will be a time when they will reopen and it is then that the losses will be felt most keenly, once the school community is back together. There are some lessons that I learnt from my experience that I would like to share.

1. Be yourself and be visible. There are no policies or procedures that will cover how everyone will react. Staff and pupils will be looking to you for leadership and the only thing you can do is to act from your essence, not your ego. The staff, parents and children will need to see you. On the day I sent the letter out I went to the school gate as usual and the number of parents who came for a wordless hug was amazing. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. Its fine to let people see you upset and emotional. You’re human, not a robot. Education is about relationships, you can’t have a relationship between people without emotion being involved at some level.

2. Be compassionate, not critical. The day after we got the news of Barbara’s death I had arranged for a counsellor to come into the school to talk to the staff. I explained what had happened and that I had received some further information. She had committed suicide and was found by her 14 year old son. I still remember him telling me that yesterday was bad, today is worse. I told him that I was planning on using the library as a space for adults and children to go for some quiet time at playtimes and lunchtimes. To give them an opportunity to pray if they wanted, or just be still. By allowing people to grieve in school, by ensuring that staff and children knew it was okay to cry and support each other, by putting aside all of the so-called important things such as lesson observations and book scrutinies staff felt supported. I also made the decision, supported by the governors, to close the school on the day of the funeral. I did have some telephone calls from the Local Authority about this, saying could I keep the school open and just let a few staff go. How on earth was I to decide who to let go and who had to stay behind? The school closed for the day and interestingly I did not get any complaints from parents. In fact quite a few of them turned up with their children for the service.

3. Talk about the people you have lost. We organised a book of remembrance in the school library where children and staff could write anything they wanted about our lost friend. In our school we were a very close staff. The care and support we gave our children and families was second to none. Barbara was a central part to that atmosphere and ethos and many of the stories about her were humorous and sometimes inappropriate for children to hear. She was loved, and she loved the children. Many of the children wrote lovely things in the book of remembrance which we gave to her family. My personal favourite was, “I loved Miss ……… she taught me how to spell fruit.” Children were encouraged to remember the things that Barbara had done for them, to remember her example of love and laughter. In the following weeks I often overheard reminiscences of the things that Barbara had done, pictures of her on welcome boards were gradually taken down but found their way into classroom cupboards. She will never truly leave the place and neither will the people that will be lost in this pandemic.

4. Don’t forget about yourself. If you are anything like me I wanted to make sure that every single member of staff was happy. One of the chairs in my room was nicknamed “the counselling chair” as it was where everyone came when they wanted to let off steam or have a brief meltdown about something. I spent so much time going round the staff and children that I didn’t take much care of myself. As long as everyone else was okay then I was doing my job. In fact, in order to do my job effectively I needed to put myself first once in a while. I didn’t do this and once the initial crisis was over I was never the same. Yes, I was still compassionate and caring. I still saw the children every day and visited every classroom to see how the staff were, but my decline into having mental heath issues began. Unfortunately I didn’t see it which is why I am sitting at home blogging, rather than running a school. I left my job for a number of reasons but the main one was stress.

Please stay safe and take care of yourselves.

I’m not prejudiced……

As I said I was the headteacher of a larger than average primary school in the North East of England. I have to say now that it was a faith school, (Roman Catholic to be precise.) I don’t want to get into a debate about whether we should have faith schools but perhaps the following true story will show why we need Religious Education.

As I said I was the headteacher of a larger than average primary school in the North East of England. I have to say now that it was a faith school, (Roman Catholic to be precise.) I don’t want to get into a debate about whether we should have faith schools but perhaps the following true story will show why we need Religious Education.

As a Catholic school we followed a religious curriculum that was very much based on Christianity, however each term we did study another world religion. Whenever we did this there were always some parents who objected. What follows is true.

It was a Tuesday morning and the secretary came to my office to say that a parent was demanding to see me.(The joys of an open door policy!) So I politely invited her in and offered her a seat which she declined.

“What can I do for you today?” I asked, even though I knew the answer, but what followed was not what I was expecting.

“I’m not happy about this trip to the mosque next week. My child will not be going and I think its disgusting that you are going to get the children to pray like Muslims. I chose a Catholic school for my children and I want them to have a Catholic education!”

What surprised me was that this was the first I had heard about a trip to a mosque. Perhaps I needed to have a word with my RE coordinator, especially since we were studying Judaism, not Islam. And perhaps it was because the trip was to a synagogue, not a mosque.

“We are not going to a mosque, we are going to a synagogue. But even if we were going to a mosque what would be the problem?” I enquired gently.

“Mosque, Synagogue, what’s the difference?” (Please note that I have cleaned up the language used a bit.) “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not prejudiced or racist, I just don’t like them. I don’t agree with them.”

At this point we could have engaged in several topics of conversation, the differences and similarities between Judaism and Islam, how we are all “Children of the Book.” I could have asked what exactly she didn’t agree with, whether it was Islam as a whole she didn’t like or was it just individuals. I could have pointed out that her son’s best friend was Abdul (who was the only Muslim child in the school at the time.) I could have asked what she knew about both religions and the contributions they have made to the world but I didn’t get the chance.

She then launched into a tirade about Islam which, despite her protestations of tolerance and equality, included some very offensive views which I shall not go into here. I decided to try and move her on to the real school visit and to the fact that we were studying Judaism.

“Well, they’re just as bad, their funny language, the clothes that they wear and the things that they have hanging out from under their shirts. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not racist, live and let live is what I say. Anyway I want a Catholic education for my children, I want them to learn about the bible, I want them to do what the church says and not follow some other religions or learn to pray to other gods. I want them to look at the example of Mary!” (The school was named after one of her titles but I am not going to say which one)

As you can imagine I was very taken aback by this ignorant attitude even though I had had various conversations with the person in question over the years and wasn’t surprised. I asked her if she was a Catholic and that the study of other religions was part of the curriculum that had been agreed by the Bishops of England and Wales. I also said that it was possible that Fr Bob would be coming with us.

“Who?”

“He’s the parish priest. I’m sure you see him at church every week as it is so important to you that your children receive a Catholic education.”

Unfortunately she didn’t pick up on the sarcasm but went on to reiterate that she didn’t want her children to learn about any other religion than Catholic, that she didn’t agree with other religions and that in her opinion a Catholic School should not be talking about Judaism at all, or anything to to with it. I could have pointed out that Jews, Christians and Muslims all pray to the same God. I could have gone into the fact that the Old Testament in the bible is in fact the Hebrew scriptures, I could have mentioned that Mary is mentioned more in the Koran than she is in the bible but I thought I would keep it simple.

“You do know that Jesus was Jewish, don’t you?”

She turned and left.

And some people say that Religious Education is a waste of time?????