Thursday, 26 February 2015

Two wrongs don't make a fat bloke write

This week I have been informed twice as to the exact nature of my popularity.  On one occasion, in a meeting to which I was not permitted, a parent told a colleague that “everyone hates that bloke, and loads of people are going to sign my petition to get rid of him”.   This is the same parent who shouted at me for sending children out in the rain, and told me loads of parents felt the same.  No-one else complained (largely because it never happened). 

On the second occasion, someone said to me “Mr Willis, lots of people moan about you, but you just give it to us straight”.  He then shook my hand.  Once again, this morning, in the rain, every parent said “good morning” or some such.  (Except one petition wielder.) 

Before you worry, it hasn’t caused me any lack of sleep, and I haven’t been panic eating, merely gluttonous.  Yet, please don’t think I’m being flippant, nor that I don’t consider the feelings and motivations of the persons involved.  However, I think this needs a little contextualisation and consideration.

Schools are deeply emotive subjects – that’s what makes them such special places to work and serve (and, let us not deny it, so stressful).  The adults left in charge of the learning of these amazing children are privileged, and it is only right that parents (after all, I’m one of them as well) have one eye and heartstring on this situation.  Also, schools are possibly one of the last few groups where the main customers forge a truly meaningful relationship.  Where else do you see someone with that regularity and frequency, and with whom you will share a deeply important part of your family’s life?

So it is a relationship – no other way of putting it.  Any relationship involves tension and compromise.  Any relationship contains someone or something that causes friction.  The more deeply you travel into that relationship, and the more comfortable you become with it, the easier it is to spot those causes of friction.  Furthermore, it also becomes easier to vent your frustrations or air any tensions.

So, having been head of our school for some years now (it’s coming up to 7 years) I’ve forged thousands of relationships, and have enjoyed all but a very few of them.  More often than not, those that are not satisfactory are those where I have to be the person in the relationship to say no, or to deliver unwanted news, or to make the decisions that will not be universally popular. 

Because of our familiarity, because of the fact that people see me every day (if I’m here) and because I often have to make those difficult calls and decisions, people will rail against it.  People always complain when they feel comfortable enough to do so.  The key word there is comfortable; how did that comfort come about?  It is due to the closeness and proximity of the people within that relationship.

Just ask yourself:  do you think I honestly get up in the morning hell bent on refusing applications for holidays which are, by their very nature, against the law?  Do you honestly think that, as I’m brushing my teeth each morning, I am looking forward with relish to refusing full time nursery places?  For one second, do you honestly think I enjoy having to tell parents that their four year old has …. (insert own horror story – mine was when, as a parent, the teacher had to tell me that my son had been playing cats and dogs and had accidentally bitten his best friend). 

Of course not.  However, sadly, they are part of my job.  Sometimes, people think that my answers are unfair; but isn’t that just the nature of a relationship?  Sometimes I have to make decisions based on nothing more than the rule of the law and the principles and guidelines I am expected to follow.  I dare say that, to those whom it affects negatively, there may quite understandably be an aspect of “why me?”

However, every organisation needs someone to make the decisions.  Every large group of people needs someone who says “no”, with rational justification, otherwise such organisations falter.  It bothers me intensely that I have to say no to some deserving families and children over certain aspects of their schooling and life, but it is my role, my responsibility, and conversely part of the enormously privilege it is to be the head. 

Yet that’s just the big stuff.  Sometimes we have to say no because we’re trying to achieve something much bigger and greater on behalf of every one in the community.  Sometimes, when we have to say “it’s not good enough” it sounds like we’re enacting a harsh throw back to the 1970s.  Actually, we’re saying so much more.  We’re saying that we value your contributions as a member of our community, but is this the best you can do, right here, right now?  Is this the best you you can be?  As with all other decisions, it may sound harsh, but it is irrevocably rooted in a spirit of support and empowerment.

Equally, as old fashioned and as disciplinarian as it sounds, sometimes it is an adult’s job (by which I mean moral role, not paid employment) to make decisions on behalf of children, e.g., eat yer greens.  Guess what – sometimes, kids don’t like that.

So, sadly, unless there is a serendipitous break out of bonhomie, there will always be tension, which will lead to my popularity rating always hovering between 0 and 0.5 on the 0-100 scale.  Such are the compromises you make when you sign on the dotted line.  And then there’s the stuff that gets put on facebook about you, which people think you don’t see and that it doesn’t matter…

A word of caution to this tale – if parents want outstanding schools and leaders, then they need to love them just a little bit more.  Three big headship have recently gone up in Bristol, and, if my sources are correct, they had one applicant.  Not one each; one.   Equally, we have gone from having in excess of 100 applications for teaching jobs to being grateful for 15.  This job is being made  no easier by external pressures.  Do you really want to be one of those?

Let me not finish this sounding like a moaner; regular followers will know that’s not my style.  Look at it like this: if you’ve got a problem, my door is so open it doesn’t even exist. Come and see me.  Talk to me (and I mean talk) and, if you still feel disenchanted, then I would be enormously disappointed.  However, I will not bend on the standards we have set ourselves, however high they may be.  Although individuals will not like that, and that is completely within their right, they must remember that there are hundreds of parents who do agree with us, and who not only want us to keep high standards, but expect and demand it.  All I’m asking is don’t isolate yourself on the sidelines – come and be a part of what we’re doing.

Come and look at the hundreds of books that are left on my desk every week (as I write this blog they contain persuasive arguments about lunchtimes and national graffiti, year 7 level algebraic equations, geometry and journalistic writing).  Come and watch a praise assembly (when I’m not doing it, if you’d rather, but the kids fall out with me every time I miss one – just FYI).  Come and join in Making Moves at the Children’s Centre.  Come and see our amazing new EYFS outdoor space.  Come and look at our displays, at the playpod, at the zone, at acorn class.  Come and look at the effect our decisions have on the lives of the children of Southmead, and the families and community we are enormous proud and privileged to serve.  Above all, come and do it with us.  No-one can aspire-achieve-enjoy alone.

Therefore, holding out the olive branch of conciliation, that is all.