Testament of Experience. Well – 27 of them.

The irrepressible head of English at our place asked if I could make this available, so here it is. It’s the ‘leaving speech’ I made on the last day of term. I’m not really very good at doing ‘entertainment’. Last days of term were never my strong point; when other teachers poured themselves into the eager student challenge of “are we going to do something fun today?”, I built up a library of videos – later DVDs – to reach for. Sorry – always a teacher rather than an entertainer. So after 27 years as head of geography – and slightly fewer as head of faculty – the one thing that I was recoiling from on the last day was giving an comedic, riveting , laugh-a-minute speech. I’d much rather teach a lesson. So that’s what I opted for. Here were 27 things I’d picked up over those 27 years, in no particular order – but they were the truths that revealed themselves to me over that time and humbly offered to the colleagues and family who were there in the staffroom. My final lesson*.


My first week as a newly-appointed HoD taught me more useful lessons than I cared for at the time, but they rooted deep. First week of January and Y9 are doing their ‘geography exam’ in the hall. All very formal. Do I wish to organise it, or leave it to the three 40-something male department members? I jump in – me! Me! My job – my role. Chance to be visibly ‘in charge’. Five minutes in and all the students have exam papers in front of them, pens are poised, hall is silent. Seven minutes in the first hands go up. After ten, it is a wintery forest. All give the same complaint: “I don’t know how to answer this – we’ve not studied these topics.” So, how was I to know all three teachers taught their own preferred curriculum and set their own exam? I’d distributed papers making assumptions about uniformity, an alternative to which I hadn’t even thought could be a possibility. Lessons were swift: don’t assume you know what you might not, do your preparatory work; just because you have the role doesn’t mean you are ready to execute it; don’t try and ‘prove yourself’ in areas you haven’t done the spadework for; – oh, and how to manage someone who’s messed up – as my head did, sensitively handling both the parents phoning and writing in to complain about their child’s messed-up exam experience, and his self-admonished new head of geography.


We search for ’cause and effect’ so readily. We like to know what’s going on and tease out the lines of process and impact. We often get it wrong. I’ve always had a lot of plants in my classroom; they personalise and humanise (vegetise?) it. I came back one September to find them all dead. Browned and curled up leaves standing in trays full of water. The cleaner had promised to keep them watered over the summer break and had obviously been too enthusiastic, leading to death by over-watering. I said nothing but my tight-lipped response to any further ‘help’ from her over the coming months couldn’t have gone unnoticed. It was two years later, when I was recounting the event to a class, that one of them lingered at the end of the lesson. “It was my brother.” ?? “He was in your tutor group and got fed up with them plants poking his face. So he brought in some of dad’s weedkiller in the last week and poured it into all the pots.” Lesson: we try to imagine we know what’s going on; half the time we haven’t even got close.


Ah hubris! Following an unsuccessful interview for a Deputy Head post, I submitted an article under a nom de plume about career trajectories, interviews and being content with remaining in the classroom. The day of publication I got home to my wife saying the deputy editor of the TES had phoned and would I ring him back. Would I!?? As I punched in the numbers I was imagining the forthcoming invitation: ‘What style, what observation – will you do us a weekly column….!’ Apparently the random pen name I had constructed was owned by an actual teacher, who had phoned the TES demanding to know who had written under their name about their experiences. Would I phone him to convince him it was a genuine coincidence. I did – and we compared almost like-for-like teaching situations, failed deputy headship interviews, and similar conclusions. The lesson: we sometimes think we’re unique in experiencing the slings and arrows that we do. More likely as not – we’re not so special as we like to think we are.


It’s easy to criticise, as well as satisfying. We can assume an intellectual detachment and observational panache in finding fault with systems, procedures, plans…  But if it’s accompanied by an alternative suggestion it moves the commentator from ‘habitual moaner’ to ‘constructive solution-seeker’. I’ve appreciated it when team members have suggested an alternative option to me, and have tried to do the same to those whose plans I’ve had issues with. It promotes dialogue and mutual solution-seeking rather than persistent criticism. It makes critiqueing a positive engagement rather than a negative entrenchment.


We don’t always get it right. I don’t go as far as contending that we’re all promoted just past the point of competency – but that happens now and again. I was fortunate enough that when this happened to me I was able to retract from the role. It was a temporary 12 months internal promotion in a function that ran alongside the head of faculty/subject role. Two of us were appointed – one to head KS3, one of KS4. We both realised within a few months, that the demands of running a key stage as well as our faculty and subject roles were beyond us and we both said we would not be reapplying at the end of the 12 months. The organisational plan was dropped at the year-end. We were both lucky (as was the school). We could step back to what we were doing before with relative ease. That’s not always the case, but I remain convinced we need to facilitate the moving into – and out of – roles far more fluidly than we often do. There has to be the opportunity for face-saving ‘this is not for me/you’.


I’ve done it enough times to recognise the pattern. First two weeks – they’re good as gold. Then by week three the limits are being tested – toilet requests, coat kept on, chewing gum is really not being chewed. It’s when it’s still a challenge in October and November and you’re beginning to anticipate certain students in certain lessons being a battle of wills before each lesson. That’s when you need to hold your nerve the most, isolate the behaviours, research the family with the head of year, follow-up the sanctions, insist… insist… insist… and keep your nerve. It comes down to imposing wills – and having the tenacity to ensure it’s yours that dictates the culture of the classroom. That can take beyond Christmas. But time and time again the group that has caused me most grief at the start of the year settles to a way of doing things that means we can do those things that cause them to fly by the spring. But ‘resilience’ is not just for kids…


I’ve coached students to successfully obtain a place at Oxbridge – only to see them struggle in employment years later. I’ve also seen students who I despaired of when at school with their paucity of qualification go on to develop successful careers, become dedicated parents and great supporters of the school. Qualifications matter; but they don’t correlate with as much as some lay claim to. We launch students into the world; their trajectory is something else. I think we aim to keep as many doors open as we can persuade them to stick feet into – with a robust sense of self-worth and clear appreciation of their own particular aptitudes that we’ve enabled them to recognise.

The longer I’ve done the job, the more convinced I’ve become that a clear sense of what ‘progression’ in our subject entails lies at the base of all that we do if we want to do it effectively. Assessment, lesson planning, questioning, feedback, reporting to parents, moderation, curriculum planning….  if we don’t define what it is that makes a more sophisticated response than a lesser one – then we’re just conjuring with ‘stuff’. And I don’t think we’ve nailed this. The most effective CPD we can do in our department teams is to discuss, describe and define what progress looks like, how we recognise it, how we communicate it, how we chisel avenues for students to flow into it and how many forms it can take, in what dimensions.


There are people in teaching who get low. For some it becomes depression that requires treatment; for others it is periods when mood, drive, certainty and confidence temporarilly ebb and leak away. I think this forms the majority rather than a minority, but we rarely speak about it and are reluctant to admit it. I’ve appreciated when close colleagues have enquired ‘Is everything OK – you’ve seemed a bit quiet lately’ and tried to keep an eye on others to offer the same consultancy. We should anticipate such phases in ourselves and others and be sensitive to periods when we can press team members, and when we need to ease up. Funnily enough, I’ve found that taking on a new initiative when I feel least like it is the engine that puts the routine responsibilities into proper perspective and stimulates the drive to fire up the furnace again. As long as its an initiative of my choosing that I believe in.


I hate being managed. I know – presumptive in a public sector role that demands and deserves accountability. Even more so in an organisation such as a school that is built on complicated professional relationships and intricate systems. But that’s me. Whether it derives from a concern of criticism, being propositioned into a path I don’t hold with, reluctance at being made aware of the limits of my autonomy, or just conceit – I don’t know. But I also recognise I need managing. The compromise I came to some time ago was to try to pre-empt any ‘managing’ that may be required and restrict the need for it from external chains of command, by persistent self-managing – and reporting where I was up to in this quest whilst recognising I couldn’t be totally objective and would benefit from third-party insight. It generated a workable accommodation I think.


Just that, really. One of the main joys of leading a department is determining who makes up that group that you work alongside each day, whose lives you find interweaving with yours through births and birthdays, weddings and – yes, funerals. And who you have the privilege of shaping professionally and watching grow as teachers, and as people. Just that.


It’s a job that could seep into every hour of every day. You could always mark another page, another book, plan a lesson in more detail, create that extra resource….. There will always be a voice saying ‘But the children deserve it’. The only limits are going to be the ones we place on the demands personally. We all have to make that decision for ourselves, for our context, our life-stage and our interests. But the common principle is that it has to be sustainable – physically, emotionally, in our relationships and over our careers. We have to find the point of ‘enough – that is all that can be reasonably asked of me’. And then to sleep well, and return refreshed.


I know social media (ok – twitter) has been a huge benefit to my teaching. It has made me so much more aware of possibilities, of questions and not a few answers. But it’s pretty coarse in its cascade of awareness. I’ve found myself getting wrought up and vexed by issues that… well, really they’re just there in the ether or else beyond my powers to influence. St Francis got it right – I need to save my energy for working on those things I can influence, accept that some matters are beyond my control, and know when to switch off from rapacious conjecture.


There are days, aren’t there, when everything you touch turns sour and curdles. People, events, plans, hopes. Pfffftt. There have been days when I think I would have served the place better by sitting at home and covering myself with a sack-cloth. And yet – we are not alone, in institutions with hundreds of beings, in having a demolition of a day. So if I can extend one pleasantry and a smile for one student who looks like they bear the weight of the world that day – it’s still a day that can yield profit. And tomorrow will be better.


Anyone who offers a simple answer or a single strategy for improving life in schools should be reminded of David Mitchell’s essential reprimand: “… I think you’ll find it’s a little more complicated than that…” Because our material of moment is human beings – particularly younger ones, there are likely to be multiple causes of issues, requiring more than one response. That’s not to say there aren’t better ways of doing things, but they will require due consideration beforehand, a range of interwoven responses and a raft of people to be brought onside in pursuing change. Complexity is good – it makes the whole thing perpetually interesting.


You don’t hear the term ‘Year 8 Dip’ so often these days, but it was common a decade ago. Why did students seem to desert their path of progress, their escallator of excellence, and just want to argue – with each other, you, and swing back in their chairs? We spend our careers with children and rarely have I read about how we prepare for that pituitary hormone-fest that students endure and we absorb. What I have seen is students who are literally kicking and screaming in corridors as Year 8s and 9s can settle into being the most cordial of students by Year 10. If…. *if*… we handle them with expert and conditioned eyes, heads and hearts. When you’re teaching ‘that group’ of rebellious Key Stage 3 students it can feel like a demolition derby with superfuel. They will come through. All shall be well as long as the school has the containment, the skill, the endurance and the essential long-view firmness.


It’s about being noticed. Amongst the crowds, the crush, the semblance of order once seated in rows or groups. As you go from lesson to lesson in your five or six period day, sometimes subject to a question by a teacher, sometimes offered the chance to give your thoughts, oftentimes not – it’s about sensing that someone has seen you, taken note of you, and bothered about all that writing/making/performing/growing you did today. As teachers we rarely have chance to talk to more that a few students each lesson; if we try to cover most then it tends to be cursory. But in marking a piece of work we can build that one-to-one relationship that misses out otherwise. As long as we take it, fully, and with a believeable sense of interest in the individual that scribed the words.


If we don’t allow for students thinking in different patterns to the way we do – we may dismiss other forms of ability as ‘wrong’.


We’ve lived through enough educational changes that have been poorly explained, weakly justified and haven’t carried the people needed to deploy the strategy. But that happens within schools and within our departments too. Sometimes, yes, you need to drive through a change despite the voices that can’t be carried. But every change should address a need, a solution should improve on what went before (and that’s taking in the knock-on implications that may not have been considered), and none of us own the whole picture ourselves.


Our students used to have to enter the school by two side entrances that went past the bins. The main doors into the foyer were reserved for staff and sixth form. I urged three heads to let all students use the front doors. The responses were that it would lead to a crush in narrow corridors at the end of the day, the steps at the front were unsafe, and cars may get scatched that parked at the front. The present head said, yes, it should happen. The skies have not fallen in. No crush has taken place. Steps are still steps. And the few staff who parked at the front park elsewhere now. Traditional practices become habits that need good reasons for continuation. Challenge the habits; make them earn their keep.


Someone put this poster in a corridor in the last few years. It is affecting and washes my mood towards staff, students, parents, support staff, visitors, job applicants… It has moderated a sigh, a tut and a determined walk towards someone’s office to ‘sort something out’. We can forget that people are trying to do their best under circumstances we are ignorant of. I like the thought that even Plato had to cut people some slack…


This refers not just to those whom you ‘lead’ – but colleagues horizontal to you, and those further up the line. (We rarely say ‘well done’ to those with wider briefs in schools – it ought to happen more often. We all thrive on recognition of having done something that has improved things.) I’ve contemplated whether the ‘If’ should be ‘When’ – because institutions grow when difficult conversations take place regularly. It shows passion in a state of progress and improvement. But if it takes place in a context where people are regularly thanked, it makes the challenge about the choices – not the people.


This is from a letter to the TES in the month before I took up my post (so December 1986). It was a short letter, but summed up more purely than I had seen before the ingredients of effective classrooms. I tore it out to keep as a tenet of wisdom. It faded and curled on the wall in front of my desk for 27 years. I never found it to be untrue; I never found it wanting; I never found anything to improve upon it.


I found but one cross-over message from sport to my career. I took me some time, but I found – eventually – that you carve decidedly better ski turns on a forbidding downhill run when you lean into the fall-line (ie downhill) rather than, instinctively, back into the mountain. I’ve carried that into the icy challenges of school life when those decisions and situations you feel like peeling away from are best tackled by falling into them with belief in the outcome. More often than not you emerge in a controlled and slick descent. This is not the same as flinging yourself downhill with a flamboyant ‘come-what-may’ absence of technique. That usually ends up in hospital.


If you don’t forgive yourself, why should anyone else? If you don’t have any regrets upon reflection, what are you going to learn from? If your days are error-free, how fully are you challenging the status quo? You are allowed to make mistakes. Just make them within the realms of tolerance. (This also applies to those for whom you are responsible, and those to whom you are responsible).


We all have to develop our own style of doing the job. But we learn the tactics from watching others – both in successes and in failing to succeed. The best we can hope, is to be authentic and speak with a sincerity in what we do and how we carry out our role. It won’t always be right, but if we operate from an internal touchstone of conscientious endeavour, we can only be criticised for our technique, not our motives.


Who knows if it will be a life-long career for you. But act as if it will and aim, each year, to accrete new knowledge, advance new skills, and reflect with honesty what moves students from one state to another. It has a complexity that can never be mastered – not even in 10,000 hours, for the context and the material is constantly changing. There will always be something to absorb, something to get better at, something to refine and something to pass on. Building ‘people’ has to be one of the most fruitful and rewarding ways of spending a career that you get the privilege of engaging in – embrace the richness, enjoy the never-finished construction project.

So, there you go. Home-spun philosophy, but it’s *my* home-spun philosophy. My ‘evidence’ for these things? I don’t need to provide evidence – they are the truths that surfaced and guided me. You have to find your own ones. But they may kick off lines of reflection and we may coincide on one or two.


*A little literary license. I’m still teaching two lessons a week to a Year 13 A level geography group. Maybe not so much ‘keeping my hand in’ as ‘dipping up to a little finger cuticle’. But still – a work in progress.

Postscript: That terrific head of English we’ve got has since told me she was a Y9 student sitting in that exam hall of item #27 and being messed about. I can hereby declare that at least one student was not harmed in the making of this career. (Thanks Katie)



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8 responses to “Testament of Experience. Well – 27 of them.

  1. Julie hare

    I had the privilege to be present during this leaving speech. Despite the authors attempts to avoid such emotions, I found it to be moving, funny, inspiring and emotional. I am honoured, to have not only served as a colleague but to have my 3 children taught by this most wonderful teacher. He taught us all many lessons and certainly inspired me.

  2. Thank you. Just what I needed to read at this point in the term!

    • Glad it’s had a therapeutic effect then Caroline (at whichever point in the year it’s read). Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment so positively.

  3. Carole

    Accidentally came across this. Reminded me of a thing or two. Thanks.

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