Me: So, how did you feel having all of that power?
Student: I liked it. I could do whatever I want and get away with it.
Me: Do you think that is a good thing?
Student: (after pondering this question for about 30 seconds) Yes
Me: Fair enough
The backdrop to this conversation was a year 9 History lesson about the rise of Hitler’s dictatorship in Germany. As part of a starter activity, I had asked certain members of the class to be “table leaders”. They were allowed to make up 5 rules that their classmates on their table would have to obey, regardless of the rules’ substance. The idea was to show how absolute power can be both corrupting and intoxicating. Predictably, some of the rules made up were arbitrary, cruel and unusual. The student I was speaking to had sent one of her classmates to go stand facing the wall, one other classmate to go and sit by the post-lunchtime bins. Another classmate was sent outside; not outside the classroom, but actually outside the school building. Outside temperature was about 2 degrees at this time, and a light flurry of snow was gently falling.
This conversation got me thinking about a staff meeting that took place whilst I was teaching in a school in Manchester. The school I was working in had recently become an Academy, and had hired a new Principal. In fact this new head was not just an ordinary head, but was in fact, a “superhead”. Initially, I thought that such a term meant that the individual had some sort of magical power (i.e. flying, mind control, the ability to shoot laser beams), but really all it meant in this scenario was that he had the power to earn lots of cash. I remember this staff meeting because it was the first time he spoke, and I will never forget his slightly divisive opening comment.
“You are either with me or against me. Anyone who is against me, can leave now.”
Needless to say, this “superhead” lasted only one year, and I suppose he is now living in his super fortress on the ocean floor or perhaps on top of a very tall lunar mountain. In contrast to this approach, which immediately had the effect of alienating most of the committed and dedicated staff who gave 100 per cent every day in very difficult conditions, the behaviour of the Principal within my current school could not be more different.
Having recently returned to the classroom (in January) after a two year absence, I was immediately struck by how dedicated she was to both the students’ and staffs’ well-being. She trusts the staff to do their job to a high standard and this can be seen in her organisation of staff briefings. Teachers are given an opportunity to speak at these briefings and are able to question and seek clarification of decisions made in an open forum. Teachers feel empowered, and I really get the impression that innovation is driven from the bottom up and not top down. She is, also, on the school gates every morning, welcoming the students to school. She teaches all year groups on a weekly basis and seems to know the students and their families inside out. For me, this is a sign of a head teacher who has her priorities straight and whose commitment is wholly to the students.
The school has been judged “outstanding” by Ofsted, and it is clear to see why. The head teacher sets the tone for a school that is well run at every level, from the structured organisation of lesson resources on the shared drive to the accelerated progression made by EAL students (60 per cent of the student intake) through targeted English intervention programmes. I do not want to be naïve in my analysis, and I know that it takes a lot more than a head teacher on the school gates to make a school successful. However, I do believe that the complete trust she has in her staff and her total commitment to the students goes a long way towards making the school successful.
Back to the lesson, and one of the other “table leaders” had decided that the students on her table should work together as a team, should work hard and should be respectful with each other at all times. I thought that her approach was incredibly mature for someone so young. Maybe she was taking her lead from the Principal.
On another note, I am not sure if I ever did fetch the student who had been sent outside…