W/b 16 January 2023

Monday 16th January

How reasonable is it to work long days in term time?  Teachers and boarding staff certainly work long days in any given week during term.  Equally, I have been told by those outside the profession that, “Teachers get good holidays”.  This is not untrue, but it doesn’t appreciate what is expected of the profession or the demands of term time. 

UK working hours are calculated over a ‘reference’ period, normally of 17 weeks, which means “you can work more than 48 hours one week, as long as the average over 17 weeks is less than 48 hours a week” (UK Gov website).  With half-term and end-of-term holidays, our working hours tend to balance out, I think.  A hardworking colleague, my line manager at the time, once compared the long hours that we (mostly happily) worked during term at a busy boarding school that taught Saturdays with the hours of friends in other jobs.  I don’t remember the numbers now, but we felt it was comparable over a year and that you take the rough with the smooth.

Such thoughts are in my mind at the start of this week because (i) I enjoyed a good, productive weekend that gave me some family time but that also included quite a lot of work. (Headteachers and teachers are not alone in working part of their weekend, of course). And (ii) because this week is “Care Bear Week” at RMS, a week when you can put yourself forward to be given the name of a colleague who you will anonymously support during the week. Given it’s the third week in January, a week before Pay Day, with the daylight hours short and the weather bitterly cold, Care Bear Week is a lovely idea. You might take a colleague’s Duty for them, and/or buy them a little gift or bake them a treat, and/or leave some inspirational quotes or kind words on a card for them. And in return, somebody anonymously does that for you too. These small acts of kindness make a difference.

I’ve never really been convinced by arguments about the exceptionalism of teachers. There is teacher busy, and certainly teacher tired, but the same is also true for hospital staff, social workers, tradespeople, office staff, single parents, etc. There are a few things that are particular to schools, e.g. one is that we all get exhausted at the same time. That’s not normal. Before I was a teacher, I worked in jobs where colleagues went on holiday at different times, so you never had all the office exhausted at once. Whereas there comes a point in each term at every school when on top of their regular teaching, tutoring, taking of clubs or teams and duties, everybody has also been working extra hard marking mock exams, writing reports, and attending Parents’ Evenings, and every dedicated colleague is shattered. It’s usually about two-to-three weeks before the end of each term, and it’s why teachers need frequent breaks from the intensity of term time.

So, Care Bare Week is one of the ways that we can show a little support for each other, and first thing Monday I dropped off something in the pigeonhole of a great colleague.  Later on Monday afternoon, a few slices of homemade Millionaire’s Shortbread turn up in my office.  To get all William Carlos Williams: they were delicious, so sweet and so thoughtful.  

Other than kindness and cake, today’s tasks involved: returning marked essays (which always feels great); updating colleagues about the next steps in our Google evolution; more conversations about the Five-Year-Plan; thinking about the coming months for our Development Office; a meeting with our Director of Finance and Operations that brings a couple of surprises; and hearing the Cadogan House staff plan the “ideal structure of the day” in our Prep School. Not bad for the nonsense PR stunt that we’re told is ‘Blue Monday’.

Tuesday 17th January

We have pupils in for scholarship assessments this week.  Academic, Drama, Music, Art, and Sport.  It’s a busy, complex week, but my ‘role’ involves nothing more than chatting with the pupils and hearing how it’s going for them each time I walk through the New Mark Hall where they’re based.  Marc in Admissions and Rachel, our Head of Senior School, plus her team, have it all in hand. 

While in some ways I miss the fun of meeting brilliant new pupils during this week, that’s not my job anymore. Over the last couple of years, we have evolved a new structure at RMS which is better for our pupils. We have a Head of each School (Nursery, Prep, Senior, and Sixth Form) and these four fab colleagues get to know each of their pupils and families very well, while also managing the operational day-to-day running of their school.

My role as overall Head of RMS now includes more time for exciting important meetings like this afternoon’s one with our landlords, RMIGET, about how the repair work is progressing on roofs, on our Great Hall, and in the underground tunnels that support the heating. Occasionally, I struggle to remember why it was that I asked to change my own role in this way! Then I remind myself it was because “we have evolved a new structure at RMS which is better for our pupils”. Mentioning our landlords is me introducing a new character into this weekly blog. You’ll hear more of them, I expect. Everybody’s working hard together with good intentions, but on a 100-year-old, 300-acre site, nothing’s straightforward with the landlords.

The day ends with two meetings. The first is about the structure of boarding and contains lots of ideas from a couple of good colleagues, but no convincing case for urgent change is made. The second is “just a catch-up” with Rachel, Head of Senior School, but lasts the best part of ninety minutes simply because some weeks there is a lot to catch up on.

Wednesday 18th January

Before Whole School SLT today, I am prompted by a colleague to write to our parents about the “occasional misuse” of WhatsApp groups. Most parents get it right, of course they do, but occasionally a parent in any school nowadays uses WhatsApp to do the twenty-first-century equivalent of “taking a petition to Mrs McCluskey”, getting a tad dramatic and going a bit Grange Hill by trying to drum up support for their pet peeve. I take my colleague’s point, but I’m not quite sure how to address this with all parents when it’s one or two in a thousand who occasionally get it wrong.

Whole School SLT provides an update from the Heads of School on how they are progressing with (i) aligning the day for our Nursery and Prep School for September 2023, and (ii) considering the structure of the school day for 2024. The first seems comparatively straightforward, although we do want to hear more from parents and colleagues. The second is a larger endeavour, if we go there. Along with everything else that she does, Rachel is leading a Working Party to canvas opinion and check desirability and feasibility.

Later on, I get to watch the first of two lessons this week. It’s a joy, and I’m in awe of the expertise, manner, and skill of a colleague. However, the Year 13 pupils are not quite firing today, and I say at the end that their teacher is working harder than some of them in this important week before Year 13 Mocks. The pupils say that they have been more focused on revising the first of their two papers than today’s topic. This could well be a fair point. We’ll see how they get on next week!

Our pupils at RMS really are wonderful and very conscientious overall. While I’m on standby for taking detention after school today, it turns out that nobody is in detention this week and so I can head down to our Sports Hall to watch a few Year 6 netball matches, and some Year 8 hockey.

Thursday 19th January

I join the Senior School and Sixth Form SLT meeting to hear them talk about wonderful pedagogy ideas, and the possibility of us becoming a Prue Leith cookery school – very exciting.  This joy is counter-balanced by a follow-up LADO meeting.  Every year, over Christmas, something that could be serious tends to land in your Inbox.  This is fine, all part of the job.  While of course it’s crucial to get some downtime, it’s simultaneously true that you’re never fully “Out of Office” as a Head.  The “thinking about School” is pretty much always in your head, every single day, often just scenario planning about something that could happen, or could be better, or ‘Might go wrong and how we can ensure it doesn’t?’  Occasionally, at home, my children will ask me “Why are you shaking your head, dad?” when I haven’t realised what I’m doing, lost in school thoughts and possible scenarios, or thinking about an actual problem because even good human beings with the very best intentions sometimes make mistakes and get it wrong.

This year, just before Christmas, there was a call from, and then later a Zoom with, a LADO (Local Authority Designated Officer). A LADO is the person responsible for co-ordinating the response to concerns that an adult who works with children may have caused them or could cause them harm. While these are most often Mays and Coulds rather than Dids, or do not actually involve any RMS pupils or employees (as in this instance), it’s nonetheless always serious stuff that saddens your soul.

Thursday Evening brings the first Senior School Parents’ Evening of 2023.  Our Year 9 students, and their parents, all together with colleagues in the Platinum Jubilee Hall.  I have always enjoyed a good parents’ evening.  As a teacher, I love the opportunity for honest feedback, deserved praise, and appropriate prompts to pupils in front of their parents.  As a Head, I love being there to catch up with our parents, to hear from the students about their evening, and also to get a rare chance to sit down and catch up with my colleagues during times when they are in-between appointments with students.

Friday 20th January

This morning starts with a request for a call from another Head, which I make straightaway, as we all try to do.  I appreciate the honest conversations most Heads can have with one another, whether about a pupil or colleague, or just an issue with which one of us is grappling. It’s all confidential of course, and that’s part of why we can be so honest on these calls.

I catch up with a couple of colleagues about a pair of pupils that will help inform a couple of emails to parents over the weekend. Then I get the pleasure of watching an Early Career Teacher (ECT) who is doing really well. The HoD and I watch it together so we can feedback helpful thoughts early next week. I am conscious of a recent interview with John Hattie that said his videos of teachers in England showed “89% of classroom time is spent with teacher talking. Teachers asked around 150 questions a day, most of which required less than three-word answers. That’s the norm. Most teachers don’t know that, and they deny it. But the evidence is undeniable”. It’s an interesting statement. My ECT colleague is not making this mistake. She has clearly been working hard to develop her pedagogy, but in her classroom it is the pupils that she has working hard, while she is already comfortable with silence while the pupils think and work. In many respects, this is all really encouraging.

There are more meetings with colleagues, and with parents from our Prep School and our Nursery to hear their experiences, and a Friday Assembly after which my recipient of Care Bare Week approaches me to ask if she should be thanking me. I claim not to know anything of what she’s talking about but I am fooling nobody. She is a great teacher, and the whole initiative has been wonderful with colleagues across all sections of the school getting involved. My last actions in my office for this week are enjoying birthday cake with a small group of our boarders. This is a tradition we follow for every boarder every year, and it always a pleasure to hear from the students for whom the school is their home. As yesterday was also my birthday, I then head home at 6pm to enjoy a Friday evening with my family. It’s been a good long week in term time.

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