One of the most exhilarating aspects of being a teacher was always the beginning of new academic year for me. I still remember vividly my first day as a qualified teacher inviting my first class into the classroom and addressing a room full of attentive faces in their smart new uniforms about the course they were starting. My pleasurable task was to share my passion for my subject, interest and motivate them and hopefully establish the foundations of the kind of positive relationship based on mutual respect and confidence in my teaching that would lead to success and enjoyment.
Of course I didn’t always get it right and win with all students. No teacher does with every class and student – a fact of life that sometimes gets forgotten. Though I certainly got better with experience over the years we should never forget that teaching is not a mechanistic process. It is about human relationships – and that makes it all the more exciting.
That feeling at the beginning of the year never went away. Whether as a classroom teacher facing my new groups, as a middle or senior leader addressing a large group or as a headteacher taking my first assemblies of the year, that new start was always a pleasure. My use of the adjectives ‘exciting and exhilarating’ is deliberate. Part of that was helped by returning from a much needed break suitably refreshed. This highlights the reason why addressing the issue of work life balance is so important.
Each year I or my team had our plans and ambitions for that academic year. Part of that was the opportunity to set out that ‘state of the nation’ with staff, to celebrate their many achievements that had been confirmed by the examination results during the summer break. Of course, it was also to learn from what had not gone so well and understand what we needed to do better – a professional discussion about working together and sharing the responsibility in a climate of mutual support and respect.
As this new year starts all of that still applies. Actually, it is more important than ever because of the very specific challenges for school leaders and can sap morale and undermine retention. It seems that there has been a massive disconnect between the stated good intentions of the Secretary of State to reduce workload etc. and the continuous activities and announcements from the DFE throughout the holidays seem to have operated from a parallel universe.
The greatest challenge for school leaders in such a context is therefore to retain and nurture the excitement that makes teaching such a wonderful vocation in spite of these distractions.
The most effective shield for schools is the shared vision the headteacher builds across the whole school, acts out and articulates every day. Schools have recently been exhorted by Ofsted to adopt a holistic approach to curriculum planning. That can be easier said than done in the light of accountability pressures but we should hang on to this welcome direction of travel and deploy the armour of our vision to ignore any distractions including invitations to waste time and energy on preparation of bids, Ministerial ‘announcements’ and media noise.
We should be a proud, not a fearful profession beginning our new year with confidence. There is no more powerful source of organisational resilience than a shared vision underpinning an ethos and culture that values all staff and welcomes their full engagement. Here are some brief questions and pointers to the kind of discussion that might help to achieve that common purpose:
What kinds of adult you want your students to become when they have completed the education in your school? This will lead the discussion onto values, personal qualities and all of those things that are often described as character. It will also lead it onto the kind of ethos and culture you want to pervade the school. What sort of relationships and behaviours do we want to foster?
Once these fundamentals have been discussed, the conversation needs to move to the content of the curriculum. What do you want your students to be taught? That is not a distracting and polarised discussion about knowledge or skills but a combination of both. Where will they learn these things? Much may be in subject lessons, just as much might also be in the rich and varied programme of extra curricular activities. I have written about these processes in much more detail in my book ‘Lessons Learned?’.
If there is one time of the year when I miss being in schools more than any other it is that first week of the term. I hope that every teacher and school leader who reads this will share the satisfaction and excitement I felt 31 times at the beginning of September. I wish you all well for the new year as you continue with your life changing vocation.