This is the month when secondary school headteachers age quickly. It’s not just last year’s examination results playing on their mind or the start-up of the year; their haggard look is from numerous evenings making presentations to parents on the annual primary school merry-go-round.
I estimate that I must have done one hundred or so over a fourteen year period as a headteacher. The story below is taken from Liminal Leadership due for publication on the 17th October 2016. It starts with the story of the priest and the taxi driver, one I told during many of the talks to parents. Explaining the “why” of your school, the why that gets you out of bed each morning is a critical part of headship.
It’s late evening after a busy day. I’m walking across an ancient bridge over the River Tiber with a group of fellow Diocesan Headteachers. Early December 2014 was my first visit to Rome and a truly memorable one. The evening meal had ended a day travelling around Rome’s great basilicas. Food for the heart, head and soul, providing the nourishment to sustain you in headship and bring you back to the reason why. Why you chose to be a teacher and school leader; why we educate our children and young people in the way we do.
Education is an act of love; it is an act of giving to each and every child, started by their parents, which helps develop and form them. It shows great trust for a parent to send their child to a school at which you teach or lead.
For many years I told the same story at the annual Open Evening for parents who were thinking about sending their child to St. Mary’s. After a few years I recognised the familiar faces of some parents who started smiling before I delivered the punch line. Whilst elements of our practice rightly change over the years, our story is consistent; it encapsulates our why.
“A priest and a taxi driver died and went to heaven. They were met by St. Peter at the pearly gate who spoke to the priest first: it was a couple of years in Purgatory and then back up to heaven. When the time has passed the priest returns to see St. Peter and asks, out of interest, “What happened to the taxi driver?”
St. Peter replied, “Oh, he got straight in”. The priest, who had led a good life, was upset by this and questioned St. Peter further. He responded, “Father, when you started preaching, the people went to sleep; but when he started driving, they began to pray.”
It saddens me, at a time the standard of education has arguably never been higher in England, that the level of mental health issues affecting young people and teenage suicide rates are also unacceptably high.”
So started a presentation about what we would offer; alongside the obligatory and important slides of examination results were ones explaining other less tangible opportunities we provided as a school. Giving a child a means of earning their living and contributing positively to society is a prerequisite for any good school; it sits within a greater educational provision that also gives them a reason for living. It is not an either/or. Great schools have an abundance mentality rooted in a mission and vision of educating the whole child.
The journey around the great basilicas was the backdrop to affirming this root. The few days’ experience of Rome was profound but also full of fabulous little snippets of information. I hesitate to call them trivia as Fr. Luiz and Fr. Michael were wonderfully knowledgeable guides. One of the “did you know moments” was outside St. Peter’s among the earthly crowd looking up to the heavenly saints’ sculptures at the top. The window the Pope stands at to deliver his various statements to the city and the world is midway between the two: he provides a bridge from heaven to earth; the Pontiff is literally the bridge builder. Bridges are the metaphor behind this book.
Christopher Logue invites us to “come to the edge”. It can be a frightening or exhilarating place to stand; it depends on whether you think you are about to plummet or fly. The line “and he pushed” jars against my sensibilities, though being pushed we are. Flying and falling are both high risk; I prefer to build bridges. The bridge is a metaphor for the means by which a leader systematically and deliberately builds a culture across the chaotic times we are experiencing; the perfect storm as we called it in the SSAT(UK) Vision 2040 publication.
Come to the edge.
We might fall.
Come to the edge.
It’s too high!
Come to the edge!
And they came,
And he pushed,
And they flew.
Welcome to Liminal Leadership; standing astride two different worlds, that which has been and that which will be. We may be standing at the threshold of a different kind of education system; it may be one in which the teaching profession is diminished or augmented. Along with other school leaders of my age, I will help form the bridge from one world to another, leaving the past but never really entering the future. Let’s hope and pray it will be better. It can be a disorientating or ambiguous existence but that’s liminality.