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Headteacher – “My letter to parents went viral”

I’ve written hundreds of letters to parents in my role as headteacher, says Colin Dowland, but here’s what happened when one blew up on social media...

  • Headteacher – “My letter to parents went viral”

There’s some pretty basic primary school internet safety advice that I’ve heard myself saying to the children countless times: “Anything you send out via the internet could go anywhere, to anyone. So watch what you email, post on social media or message via your PlayStation.”

I didn’t listen to my own advice. Schoolboy error, big time.

Here’s how it happened. A few weeks ago, I wrote a letter to parents, sympathising with them about the frustrations of home learning for families. I meant every word. I’m a parent too and it’s been really tough.

However, in the last paragraph, I also made a wry suggestion that some of them should consider enrolling for teacher training if they felt they could do a better job than my teachers. This paragraph was aimed at a small number of parents whose recent messages and emails had crossed the line from helpfully constructive to just plain rude.

Contrary to what some people imagined, I didn’t write the letter in haste and press ‘send’. I wrote it, put it aside, came back to it later and re-wrote that last paragraph again and again.

It was written in the tongue-in-cheek house style that parents at my school are familiar with. I was hoping they would take it in the spirit I intended. But, ahem, it went viral.

I sent it to parents at 5.26pm on Monday 25th January with the cheery subject line ‘Home learning and teacher training.’ Within an hour I began to receive messages from parents, apologising on behalf of their peers and thanking me and the teachers for the amazing work we had been doing over lockdown.

Within two hours, I started receiving messages from complete strangers across the country, saying I was a ‘legend,’ a ‘hero,’ and a ‘badass head’ for simply supporting my staff.

And then someone uploaded the letter to Facebook and Twitter – the whole thing, including the school office email address and phone number. Emails began pouring in overnight and the likes, retweets and messages on social media started going through the cyberspace roof.

At 9.30am the next morning, The Sun newspaper phoned. They wanted to know if the letter was genuine. Other press organisations followed. The social media likes continued to rise, with the messages remaining overwhelmingly supportive from educators around the world.

Piers, Susanna, Phillip and Holly from the telly wanted to speak to me; so did Vanessa and Nick from the radio, and all the major newspapers. I had two proposals of marriage on Twitter, an offer of free accommodation in California and, to the delight of my mum, #MrDowlandforPrimeMinister started trending.

The letter had 2.8 million online views.

I liaised with my slightly anxious governors and local authority advisors. They were all supportive of the letter, but we were also getting twitchy that the story would be spun around somehow and that there might be a backlash.

I decided that since it was running as a positive story, supportive of the hellish new job teachers were trying to get their heads around, I would leave things as they were. The last thing I needed was to go on TV, make an arse of myself and provide quotable morsels that would deflect from the key message of the letter.

I turned down all media requests. My kids were gutted.

Throughout two hectic days, my office team were amazing at the art of telephone deflection. I was ‘in a meeting’ for several days and didn’t need to take a single call. Holly Willoughby kept ringing, but they told her I was already married.

The outpouring of emotional messages from frustrated heads, brow-beaten teachers, retired and ex-educators, parents of teachers, exhausted NQTs and older teachers struggling with the new technology of remote learning was overwhelming.

The last paragraph of my letter had touched a nerve and I had said out loud what they were all thinking. Unfortunately, it needed saying.

It was an extraordinarily crazy and illuminating few days. I learnt a lot about the power of a few well-chosen words and the unstoppable force of social media. I was asked this week if, with the wisdom of hindsight, I would still have sent the letter out, including that last paragraph. Absolutely.

Sometimes, schoolboy errors are worth making.

Colin Dowland is a primary headteacher in north London. Follow him on Twitter at @colindowland. Visit his website at colindowland.co.uk.

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