Schools can be hectic places. The speed at which young minds and bodies live often dictates the pace of life in corridors and classrooms. New teachers quickly find out that the key to effective behaviour management is to take control of the speed of events in the room. Like one of those elegant footballers of the past, a Bobby Moore or a Zinedine Zidane, who puts their foot on the ball and the whole game seems to slow down around them, giving them time to do whatever they want; a teacher who can dictate the speed of play in their classroom is more than half way there.
But even if we slow them down for a while, these busy little people still create an energy around the school which is infectious for each other and which those of us adults who work with them inevitably catch too. Its part of the joy of being around children and no one who works with them would ever want to stifle that innocent excitement about the world around them. You have to get up to speed with it or you will be left behind; unable to answer the countless questions and endless ups and downs of the school day. If you work in a school, you soon get tuned into this high frequency way of life. But take a week or two out, or worse still a couple of months, and you will find yourself seriously off the pace.
This was the environment I walked into last Wednesday. I had been at home for over two months – 73 days to be exact, lying on my living room floor day and night with a prolapsed disc in my back. I hadn’t left the house other than a weekly visit to the osteopath half a mile down the road, and I had spoken to no one other than my family and a few sympathetic visitors. Hardly the best preparation for a return to school. Standing in the corridor outside my office on that first morning, I felt like an old man who had come downstairs in his dressing gown in the middle of the night to find the fire brigade rushing around. Everyone seemed so busy – all smiling and saying hello, but whizzing past on their way to somewhere else at speed. I tried not to look bemused but I doubt I succeeded. It felt a long way from the Wombles on my living room ceiling.
I guess I should explain that last sentence. When you spend two months lying flat on your back, your priorities change. And so do your interests. It’s difficult to read because the blood quickly drains out of your arms when you hold a book above your head. You can follow the news on the radio or the television, but after a while one nuanced shift in Brexit policy merges into the next. And pain doesn’t help with concentration. So you find yourself staring at the ceiling. Hence my newfound fascination with Artex. We moved a few months ago and all the ceilings in our new house are decorated with swirly patterns. Having previously come from a world where ceilings were smooth, I have found this intriguing. How on earth do they get the stuff up there without it falling down all over them and the carpet? And what about all those swirly shapes; how does that happen? In our bedroom we have four perfectly-formed concentric circles around the central light fitting, set in amongst all the wavy swirliness (I’m struggling to find words other than swirly). Is that printed, or do they use a pair of compasses and a piece of string? Then there are all those shapes in the patterns – are we all seeing the same things? I’m seeing mostly animals and birds. Oh, and Wombles. Lots of Wombles. Orinoco, Tomsk, Great Uncle Bulgaria…we’ve got them all in our living room ceiling.
I feel like I might have given a bit too much away here. Don’t be alarmed; I’m feeling much better now. But you can imagine the shock to the system of walking back into school.
I was made to feel very welcome. Alongside the freshly made cup of tea on my desk was a homemade welcome sign featuring an ancient photograph of me dressed as Buttons in Cinderella (you’ll find it on Google Images without too much trouble) and a packet of self-tanning wipes in a sickly-coloured brown packet; this following a suggestion that I looked a bit pasty after 11 weeks staying out of the sunlight. How thoughtful. As the morning went on I was made to feel extremely welcome by everyone I encountered. Seriously, it was lovely. What a joy to work with such great people, big and small.
It seemed no time at all before it was 12.30pm; the hour at which, according to my phased return, I was due to turn back into a pumpkin. I was going to have to get used to only having a few hours in school, and stopping as soon as I got started. So the next challenge was going to be prioritising – if you cut your time in half, what do you focus on? For a headteacher, or a leader of any organisation, that’s an intriguing question. I’ll give you my reflections on that next time. But for now, I’m just happy to be here.