I have thought before now about writing a weekly account of life as a headteacher. I don’t imagine anybody else will be interested and have no wish to force that. My words are ‘Long Reads’ and who has time for those nowadays? Nevertheless, I would like to hear for myself how the rhythms of a school year syncopate from a head’s perspective. A voice of guilt telling me that “Once term time begins its relentless pace there will be no time for this nonsense”, has stopped me trying previously. But with Covid hopefully past its peak and with so many great colleagues working with me, I am determined to make the time this year. At least let’s see how long my resolution lasts.
Monday 5th September 2022
The first week of September excites me and has done as long as I can remember. Mornings smell different with gentler early Autumn weather. There is something special in the collective optimism of new beginnings, the abrupt gear change from summer’s rest, and the joyous noise of a school community coming back together that just does it for me.
First day back for us is only for Years 7 and 12. We give the 11-year-olds a chance to navigate uncrowded corridors, and we begin to teach the 16-year-olds about ‘Sixth Form Mindset’. In both cases a new year group take speculative steps together, and the drab cliche of ‘new friendships that last a lifetime’ shows a glimpse of the beautiful truth that was there when once it was an original thought.
I always enjoy seeing Year 12s walking back into school for their first day. They hold themselves differently this side of GCSE results, are more visibly comfortable in who they are and what they’ve come through together. I have known most of this year group since they were aged 11, have followed them through tough years of adolescence in lockdown. They are undoubtedly growing more self-assured, and it is one of the great pleasures of teaching to witness this.
Our Head of Sixth Form speaks and reminds the new Year 12’s of what they wrote on Post-It Notes when she first got them together back in July and asked them to tell her the purpose of education. She reads their answers:
‘Prepare for future lives.’
‘Develop ourselves socially.’
‘Have fun together.’
‘Learn new skills.’
‘Find and develop our passions.’
She reads out many excellent answers and appears filled with love for their bigger picture thinking. ‘Yes, it was like they got us and are already buying into what we are about’, she proudly tells me later.
Tuesday 6th September
Today starts with a pair of early morning conversations with Heads of Department. One is personalising a curriculum for a pupil, the other talks me through how they will be working with a colleague that’s been finding it tough. In both cases the HoD’s actions greatly impress and do not surprise.
As soon as the pupils begin arriving, I walk the corridors to be with them, to find out about their summers, and to ask them how they’re feeling about returning. Some like me, are excited like small children on Christmas Day. Some in Year 11 claim they are not, and others truly are not as they haven’t seen this early in the morning for quite a while. I remind myself of the self-assured Year 12s yesterday – the worry of GCSEs looming is all part of the Year 11 trip. They too will come out the other side.
It is a first day of term that goes extremely well in many respects. New teachers get to meet our brilliant pupils and vice versa. The pupils love the new servery area and the food at lunch is a big hit. Food was the area that our pupils were least satisfied with in a survey last year, and so I am quietly pleased that they can immediately see improvements. The Head of Charities sends me the totals raised last year by our pupils, staff and parents for The Dash Charity (supporting victims of domestic abuse in our area), for Great Ormond Street Hospital, and for charities working in Ukraine, alongside the quantity of food collected for our local foodbank last term. Her team of pupil leaders have done a great job in a challenging year.
That said, the first ‘Own Goal’ of the term takes place as early as break. It might not sound much but it really is important: the coffee machine has broken in the largest Staff Common Room and there is not tea/coffee available at break. It isn’t anybody’s fault, but it sends completely the wrong message. I apologise to the colleague who tells me about this, quickly call a different colleague to make them aware, and the team here get the machine fixed later in the morning. I am frustrated that this has happened but try my best to hold that emotion in while we discuss what we can do to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
Pride in our teams has been on my mind repeatedly in recent weeks. The teams of support staff have done so much over summer to have the school looking amazing. Our examination results rewarded everybody’s hard work through the Covid years. We’ve had good induction days for new staff, a strong Inset with plenty of personal choice for CPD, and great induction days for new pupils. All of this takes considered planning and teamwork from excellent colleagues who are growing into their leadership roles after two or three years in post. I see the Head of Senior School with our Year 7 at break, and again over lunch, just checking how they’re settling in and being there with them. The Senior Team, Heads of Year, and tutors will lead Parent Information Evenings after school three nights this week, and then attend a barbecue for recent leavers on Friday evening. I already know that my pride in all our teams at all levels will be a constant refrain through the year.
Wednesday 7th September
It may sound silly or implausible, but mid-afternoon I remember it is Wednesday and find myself thinking something like, ‘You’re kidding me! It can’t only be Wednesday. We’ve been back about nine days already, surely”. Perhaps it’s because we were in last week with colleagues, but mostly it’s because the start of the new school year is intense – that’s just how it is, very busy for the brain. There’s plenty of cognitive overload around at the start of term, for all teachers and pupils, and probably for many parents and support colleagues too. Long days, lengthy To-Do lists, frequent evening events, PIEs, and BBQs, and visits to boarding houses. Term time, in other words.
Two highlights with pupils today are leading form 7R in an afternoon of ‘It’s a Knockout’ as part of the finale to their Induction Days and being in one of our boarding houses while some of our youngest boarders show me their rooms and let me know how things are going for them so far. In both Year 7 and boarding, the week is full of team activities that help ensure they are all having fun while getting to know the other pupils around them.
Thursday 8th September
Everything about the first week of term changes on Thursday afternoon when our Head of Senior School shares news with me that members of the royal family are racing to Balmoral. We look through our protocol for such an eventuality, think about how this applies to us now, and begin to talk through possible actions. It is clear from newsreaders wearing black ties that the news could be imminent.
Confirmation of the passing of Queen Elizabeth II arrives towards the end of our Year 8 Parent Information Evening. The value of the afternoon’s preparatory conversations with colleagues is felt by me. The Union Flag outside our chapel is immediately moved to half-mast. I send a short email to our parents. The website and social media accounts are changed to grayscale. An assembly is arranged for first thing in the morning. The Friday BBQ for recent leavers is postponed.
At 7:30pm I take my own hungry children home to be fed and spend the evening writing tomorrow’s assembly while speaking with the four Heads of School at RMS about details including more suitable plans for our youngest children, the possibility of a reading in assembly from one of the Head Girls, etc. We move fast about decisions for Friday and agree that other decisions can be reached in the morning when we have all had time to process and to reflect further.
Friday 9th September
The assembly for all pupils and students from Years 4-13 upwards is also attended by many support staff from across school. It is a large and important gathering of our school community. I have been up until the small hours the night before writing my words because I very much want to strike the right tone for all. I hope that I got it right, and the messages of appreciation afterwards suggest that the RMS community certainly appreciated us all coming together in this way.
A small group of colleagues gather later today to make further decisions for the coming days. The experiences of pupils will not be impacted so Geography fieldwork, our Year 7 residential trip to the Isle of Wight, and the ‘Great Escape Day’ for all other year groups in Senior School and Sixth Form will still take place. It appears that there is an appetite for a Book of Condolences and colleagues in the Art Department offer to design loose leaf pages that sound beautiful. Our Open Day planned for Sunday 18th September is put back two weeks, which may have consequences for our Admissions, but it is the right decision during a period of national mourning.
Saturday 10th and Sunday 11th September
Two colleagues and I have signed up to take part in The Great North Run, raising money for two charities. We have done this before with a coachload of pupils, and it was truly wonderful, taking the students out of their comfort zone and raising £15,000 for The Rainbow Trust. This year it is a different scale, just colleagues, though we are planning on doing it again with students next year. The drive up to Newcastle together is nice because it’s lovely talking with colleagues without the demands of school life.
The run itself is tough though, for us all I think. Too much sun. I am not a regular runner and have nothing left in my legs at the end. But we all finish, happily, and a couple of us beat our previous times. The heady mix of emotions when you cross the finish line is quite unique and really good to experience: sharp relief that you can finally stop running, strong emotions that have built through the race as you read about the good causes people are running for, and the most gorgeous view of the South Shields coast as a reward for your efforts. You don’t get out of South Shields quickly though, so it is near midnight when we arrive back at school. We have all been away from our families for the weekend, but it was unquestionably worth it. “See you at school in seven or eight hours’ time” we say to one another then head off to our homes.