Head to Head

Dear School Leader

The lights are up and the trees and trimmed and very soon schools across the land will be closing up for Christmas. Excited children will post special letters to the North Pole and even the most sullen of teenagers will manage to text a few hopeful gift suggestions to the relevant parties. Thoughts turn to what might be waiting under the tree this Christmas Day, all wrapped up with a bow on top.
But finding that perfect gift gets harder every year because these days, everyone seems to have everything. Gaudy slippers and chocolate dartboard sales go through the roof as panic-buy fever sets in and by March, the charity shops are heaving with more soap-on-a-rope sets and electric bowties than you can shake a hilariously-shaped novelty stick at.

And yet, despite how difficult it may sometimes seem, giving the perfect gift is actually very simple. Your time and your good company are worth more to your loved ones than all the overpriced magic sets in the world.
For school leaders, just getting to the Christmas holidays can seem like an incredible achievement. December in a school is an intensely busy time when the to do list spirals madly out of control. Juggling late night school events, frazzled staff and increasingly over-excited and over-tired children, all whilst continuing with the demands of the day job, can turn what should be a happy and exciting time into an energy-sapping nightmare.
So as all those letters and text messages wing their way to the gift-buying, toy-making powers that be, here’s a letter just for you. Imagine I could scoop up all your teachers, support staff, janitors, dinner ladies. Imagine I could hold all the children and families you work with in my gently cupped hands. Imagine I raise them all up to my ear and they whisper to me, one after the other, what they really want from you, what they need you to give them to help them be all they can be.
Here’s what your school community is hoping you will tuck under their tree this Christmas time.

“Dear School Leader

First of all, thank you. Thank you for caring about the fabric of this building, for nagging about Blu-tac marks and scuffed skirting boards. Thank you for noticing the crisp packets in the playground and the damaged hinge on the noticeboard. Your attention to the little details is infectious and it is the bedrock for what makes this school a place to be proud of.
Thank you for creating a place where children and young people can feel safe. For hot school dinners, extra helpings, spare jumpers and dry socks. For homework clubs, for help with school trip money. For noticing when things aren’t right. For listening. As the December sleet slams against the windowpanes, thank you for building us an ark and for doing all that you can to protect us when the world decides to throw its very worst.
At this time of year, when festive events start shoogling the timetable, we need you to hold your line. Keep the standards high. Keep expecting the best from everyone and keep teaching and learning at the heart of everything that happens. We all want to let our hair down a little, but don’t take your foot too far off the gas because all children, and particularly our most vulnerable, take comfort in the routines you have worked so hard to embed. That steady, dependable rhythm of the school day is what tells us everything is ok, so it needs to be protected. Don’t lower your bar.

We want you to make mistakes. We want you to try new things, find new and innovative directions we can head in, even if that means we take a few wrong turns. So scout out the horizon and do some exploring on our behalf. Remember that moving forward sometimes means moving back, so have the bottle to take some risks and help us to break new ground.
But don’t push too hard or too fast. We want to go new places, but not so quickly that we can’t keep up. Show us your vision for where we will go, how brilliant it will be. Weave the golden threads of that vision into everything we do so we can see how it helps us get to where we want to go. We need you to take us with you, not leave us behind.

We want you to listen to us. To make time, amidst all the business and the spinning plates, to listen to what we need and to help us work out what to do when we don’t know what to do. We need your wisdom and courage. Your strong dose of common sense and your ability to put things in perspective. Your hidden stash of emergency biscuits for when the going gets really rough.
Sometimes your job looks really hard. Some days you look like it is getting the better of you. We know you are at the business end of all kinds of flack and we know that very often, we do not make your job any easier. We know that you see things and hear things that make it hard to keep going. Please don’t give up hope. We need you to not give up, because it is how much you care that lashes us together. It is your dedication to our school and everyone in it that powers the engines and keeps us afloat. We will not always agree with you, but we respect how hard you try. We see how you slowly pick yourself up time and time again, square your shoulders and try again. We stand beside you when the going gets tough, just as you stand with us.
We need you to look after yourself. The old adage about securing your own oxygen mask before helping others is completely true; you cannot help us if you don’t help yourself first. Set a good example; show us that your own work/life balance is in order, at least some of the time. Show us that you can be kind to yourself. Don’t kid us on that you are coping when you are not. Share the load. Do you have to be at every school event, every late meeting? Can others take the strain sometimes to give you a break? Part of being a leader is developing the leadership of others. Invest some of your time and energy in nurturing tomorrow’s leaders so that the burden is not yours and yours alone. Always leave something in the tank for the next day, the next week, month or session. Choose wisely what to invest time and effort in and what can be safely jettisoned. Don’t take yourself to the point of no return because we need you here, at your best, so that we can be our best too.
This Christmas we want to see you healthy and happy. We want to be part of something important, to follow you as you lead us to great things. We want to feel appreciated and for you to know that, even though it won’t seem like it sometimes, we appreciate you too.
Most of all, we want you to do whatever you must in order to ensure you have the time, energy and capacity to be the strong and effective school leader we need and that our children and young people deserve.
That would be the greatest Christmas gift of all.”

Susan Ward