One of the enduring middle-of-the-night staring-at-the-ceiling imponderables of doing this job is the occasional brainworm ‘what would I do if I was no longer a headteacher?’ What else could I do? What other jobs would I be suited for if I couldn’t do this anymore, or even if I didn’t want to do this anymore.
I’ve often been told I could run a business. My job, they tell me, is exactly the same as running a medium-sized company. Over a hundred staff to manage, a budget, premises, customers and a product with a defined outcome (sort of). Perfectly transferrable skills.
I can see it now can’t you. A room full of sharp suited business people sipping mineral water on the twenty second floor of a city centre tower block, the sun glinting through the vast plate-glass windows. One of them asks: “So who’s the new guy?” Another replies: “I understand they managed to get a primary school teacher…”
Perfectly transferable skills. I’ve been trying to work out what those are. The public perception of teachers seems to swing wildly between the popular joke about people who can do and people who can’t teach, and then the people I meet in person who immediately tell me they couldn’t do my job. I think the latter response is based on their exasperation with their own children rather than admiration for my skillset. Don’t have the patience, they say, not realising how much easier it is to be patient with other people’s children.
In the current circumstances there seems to be one set of skills which I am using almost to the exclusion of all others. It’s not got anything to do with patience or running a business. In fact, it’s closer to my previous career than my present one. In the current circumstances the importance of communication has been more apparent than ever. In all its forms. And that has taken up just about all of my time. Good job I used to be a journalist.
Newsletters to parents are the obvious starting point. Families need to be informed – what our plans are for their children’s learning during lockdown, who will be in school and who at home, what equipment is available – but they also need to be reassured at a time when they are under huge pressure from accessing technology and perhaps their own employers. I have read some soothing words from headteachers which have clearly been designed to take this pressure off parents by telling them not to worry, whatever they can manage is fine, if they don’t get any work done not to worry, as long as everyone is happy and safe. Hmmm, hard to argue with most of that of course, but the children do need to learn, especially when we are looking at such an extended period at home. And if I was a teacher investing hours of my time in high quality online teaching for my class, I wouldn’t be very happy with my boss telling the children they didn’t have to do it. The balance is a delicate one; the tone important. Above all there is a need to gently draw some very clearly defined lines.
Then there is the staff. There are 130 of them here and even though I enjoy talking to each of them, it’s simply not practical to communicate with them individually as a head would in a smaller school. So I’ve adopted a similar approach; a weekly newsletter keeping them informed of everything happening around the federation, from this week’s RE day, to where to find today’s assembly, to an update on the progress of our colleagues who have been suffering from Covid. Like the parents, there’s an element of support and an element of setting the tone. It’s probably become my main leadership tool.
That’s the print journalism. But there is also audio and video. Taking assembly has become making a documentary. If you’ve been walking in the village or along the beach, you may well have seen me with my iPad and tripod, recording a piece to camera (as they say in the trade). I’ve loved that, although in truth I’m only playing at it; if I didn’t have my brilliant colleague Mr Murphy back at base to put the words and pictures together, I wouldn’t be able to do it.
The real media have required a lot more attention too during the past few months. Requests for interviews from newspapers and radio stations and television news channels are common as schools keep bobbing back to the top of the news agenda. That is where my amateurism is really exposed. My phone rang late last Friday afternoon and the very well-spoken caller said he was from LBC Radio. He would like to interview me on the breakfast show the following morning. In my end-of-the-week dopiness I missed his name! Looking at the LBC schedules for Saturday morning, I saw that Andrew Castle was on and so managed to convince myself that it was the former British tennis number one and Strictly star who had called me. Now he has a bit of a reputation and when I tuned in the next morning and heard him say, a few minutes before my appointed interview time, that if teachers take vaccines then other people will die….my mind began to melt around the edges.
And then the phone rang and it was a lovely man called Chris Golds, the presenter of the breakfast show on LBC News. That’s LBC’s sister channel. Which I hadn’t even realised existed. We proceeded with a very reasonable interview without any reference to teachers causing the death rate to increase and I was left to reflect on the importance of a) listening and b) doing your research.
Thirty two years ago this month I joined the Ely Standard newspaper as a trainee reporter. I spent the next few years reporting on flower shows, whist drives and parish council meetings (I’m probably one of the few people not surprised by the deliberations of Handforth Parish Council – I’ve seen meetings like that a hundred times). Three decades on I’m in a completely different profession and yet I’m essentially using exactly the same skills.
So perhaps that’s my answer. If I being a headteacher is no longer an option at any point in the future, never mind running a medium sized business, I shall be heading down the A11 and seeing if they have any trainee reporter jobs going at the Ely Standard.