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If we are not careful, the start of a new year can feel very much much like a case of ‘here we go again’ – at least for the staff and older students.
Of course, it’s a different prospect for a young person joining year 7. At one time, I thought I was fully aware of what our new arrivals might be feeling as they come through our doors for the first few weeks of term, but it turned out that I was wrong, even after what had been over 20 years in the job.
What changed my mind was becoming the parent of a child starting secondary school.
My son achieved well whilst at his small primary school; he was confident, articulate and a generally considerate young man (I know, I’m biased). However, he found the initial transition to a secondary setting difficult, and so did I.
The experience really reinforced in my mind the amazingly powerful position we are all in as teachers and role models for the young people we serve. When I asked my son about his day, it was rarely his friends that he talked about first - it was the teachers. He could repeat back to me what was said to him almost word for word, regardless of whether he had been praised or given some guidance on how he could improve in an aspect of his work or behaviour.
What the adults said to him really mattered, and he now had so many more to deal with compared to when he was at primary school. There, he spent the vast majority of his time each year with just one or two teachers, enabling him to build strong relationships that really helped when he had challenges to face.
So what is my own impact on the new students at Passmores? Am I a scary man that only speaks to them at assembly time or when they are in trouble?
Different leaders obviously operate in different ways – but in my mind, rather than being a ‘headteacher’ I am a headTEACHER. I came into the job as I loved teaching and working with young people, and that hasn’t changed. I know I don’t spend as much time in the classroom as I would like to, but every conversation I have with a young person fills me with the same joy and sense of purpose today as it did all those centuries ago when I was an NQT.
So how do I make sure that I’m not just the slightly distant man you only ever get hauled in front of when you’re in trouble? Or is that actually my role, and should I just accept that?
The answer to that second question is a definite ‘no’ for me.
I do everything in my power to be at the door saying goodbye to our students at the end of every day. I get the chance to judge whether the smiles on the faces of the young people are just there because they have made it to the end of the day, or whether there’s a grin that means they’ve had a really good day.
I work hard to learn names, to find out if they are into football, reading or dancing and to talk to them about how life is going. If I’m not bothered about listening to them and investing in them by getting to know them, then what should they feel about me? Yes, I’m their headteacher, and an element of respect comes with the ‘position’ – but I’d much prefer them to respect me as the person that they see striving to do my best for them.
The start of the year is busy, and it’s easy to get office-bound. I once went home feeling really grumpy, and probably wasn’t very nice to be around. Initially I couldn’t work out why – but then I realised (after checking my pedometer) that I had hardly got away from my computer that day. I had had almost no interaction with our students or staff, and felt like I had not had any of the ‘good stuff’ that comes with being a teacher!
What I’ve learned is that the little things really matter, especially in year 7 when everything is a bit strange. Knowing whose birthday it is and saying happy birthday is something I try to achieve every day. We even send students a card if their special day falls in the holidays, as we can’t congratulate them in person.
A smile from a teacher (perhaps even more so from the headteacher) is such a powerful force for good and can make a real difference, especially for a new student. For a good illustration of the power that a smile or laugh can have, watch the short film Merci! by Christine Rabette.
So do me a favour and smile at a year 7 next week (keep it relaxed, though – you’re not Jack Nicholson and no one needs a ‘Heeere’s Johnny!’ at school). Just let them know that, although it may take us a little longer than at primary school, we do want to get to know them – and that they’re more than merely a set of results that will help us either pass or fail our appraisal targets this year.
Vic Goddard is headteacher at Passmores Academy, as seen on Channel 4’s Educating Essex, and is the author of The Best Job in the World; you can follow him at @vicgoddard
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