Head to Head

Pick of the Pops

The end of another term is approaching and oh what a term it has been. We could never have predicted this time last year what the next twelve months would hold in store. The word ‘unprecedented’ doesn’t even begin to cover it. Exams cancelled. Schools closed.  Things that we thought could never happen happened, then happened again. ‘New normal’ emerged, an oxymoron if ever there was one because there is nothing normal about this new world we are living in. Remote teaching plans were hastily drawn up as we scurried to suddenly create distance from families that we worked so hard for so long to pull closer. Assemblies, sports days, training sessions, meetings with parents all gone or unrecognisably changed. The touch points of our working lives, reliable landmarks in the tumult of a career in education disappeared, replaced by risk assessments, worry and a million gallons of hand sanitiser.  

After a year like this, school leaders could be forgiven for giving up. The pressure and expectation on school leaders from all sides has been intense. Actioning local authority edicts, supporting staff and generally trying to keep their school community afloat in the face of rising unemployment, ill health and pervasive fear has taken its toll on even the strongest of leadership teams. No one could blame school leaders for saddling up and deciding to get out of Dodge, perhaps favouring a profession where working from home is at least an option.  

And yet here you are. Still pushing. Still trying your best. Still propping up weary and frightened staff, encouraging them to offload to you so they can keep it together when they reach the classroom. School leaders are made of some pretty strong stuff.  

With Christmas just around the corner, one of the hardest restrictions for many schools has been the ban on singing. For those working in schools, coming together for an end of term sing-along or rousing carol concert signals the start of the holiday period good and proper. Like so many things this year, it will have to be different, but don’t fret. I have made you an early Christmas present. I have put together a little mix tape of festive classics to send you bopping into your well-deserved festive break. These top five Christmas crackers have been specially selected to help reveal how in the name of the holly and the ivy you have managed to get through 2020 and why your school is so very, very lucky to have you. So grab an eggnog and your headphones and dive right in.    

5. Last Christmas by Wham!

Ah, Christmas 2019, back when all we had to worry about was if Mary would drop kick baby Jesus in the middle of the infant nativity like she did in rehearsals or if the dance floor in the local pub was sturdy enough to withstand the annual whole staff, tequila-fuelled Hokey Cokey. Tempting though it is to look back fondly, school leaders know that we are where we are. Sacking off the moping and making the best of the here and the now helps your school community see the positives and step a little more cheerfully into the unknown. So bring on the virtual Secret Santa and break out the festive face coverings, it’s time to celebrate Christmas, 2020 style.  

4. In the Bleak Midwinter

Bleak is an appropriate word to describe what has come to pass this year and acknowledging that as a school leader is vital. Trying to act like everything is ok smacks of insincerity and has no positive effect, the verbal equivalent of a Band Aid on a bullet wound. For most of us, this crisis will pass and leave us relatively unscathed, able to continue with our lives, hug our loved ones and move gratefully past these troubled months. We are the lucky ones. Even still, this virus will cast a long shadow and many uncertainties still lie ahead. It is far better to admit things are difficult and frustrating and that you don’t have all the answers. As a school leader you have a responsibility to plan for the worst and hope for the best. Your honest acknowledgment of the bleak reality validates how others are feeling and opens the door to planning for a brighter future together.  

3. Run Rudolph Run by Chuck Berry

Between hurtling down corridors and dashing round the dinner hall, school leaders are never still for long. You are a worked example of perpetual motion. The final weeks of the Christmas term would normally find you tiptoeing along the cliff edge of exhaustion, one final perilous drop away from the no man’s land of total burn out. Too many late nights running school events, days filled with bulging to-do lists and increasingly tired and tetchy children, not to mention the demands of your personal life and your family’s not unreasonable requests for a little of your time and company so often leads to a Christmas holiday spent unwell on the couch, unable to think or feel anything very much. Perhaps this year that can be different. It has hardly been a relaxing or stress-free term, but maybe the forced cancellation of the usual nativities, shows, Christmas fairs and concerts will allow you to better prioritise  your own good health for a change and help you get to the end of term with your wellbeing intact.  

2. You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch by Thurl Ravenscroft

As a school leader you are automatically the fall guy when things go wrong. As far as parents and staff are concerned, you are pretty much where the buck stops. Which means when things go south, people blame you. Usually loudly and in person or through passive-aggressive emails. Broad shoulders are a pre-requisite for school leadership and nobody becomes a leader in order to be everyone’s friend, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still hurt. Especially when you are doing your level best to do the right thing under extremely challenging circumstances. Being made out to be the bad guy is a mood-sapping experience at any time but when you are already fighting on every front it can be enough to make you raise the white flag. But hang in there. If having a rant helps someone get through their day then why not just let them? If someone comes into your office and bounces round the walls for ten minutes they will ultimately end up back where they started, perhaps a little calmer and ready to talk about solutions. You might be typecast as the baddie sometimes but you don’t have to stay in character. Always do what you know is the right thing and be as kind as you can and even your harshest critics will have to grudgingly acknowledge your staunch commitment to the greater good.  

1. Oh Come All Ye Faithful

And so we come to number one on our countdown of Christmas hits. I lay this powerhouse classic carol before you for a very good reason and that is because the one thing I hope every school leader gets for Christmas this year is faith. Faith that better days lie ahead and faith that all of your tireless work will bring your school community through this crisis in decent shape to move forward. Your commitment and courage, your stubborn scrappiness and determination that you will keep doing your best for the children and families you work with is the rocket fuel that will propel your school to new horizons. In the early, chaotic days of this crisis perhaps you were occupied entirely with thoughts of keeping your school afloat, of surviving as best you could whilst the storm raged on. As days turned into months, survival mode was no longer enough. You created and are still creating a strategic plan, a blueprint for getting through this mess with the important things still intact. You have done this because of faith. Because of your total dedication to your school. And get through it you will. Not by the skin of your teeth. Not broken into pieces, all faith gone.  Your plan and your leadership will ensure your school not only survives but thrives, united in hope. You will lead your school community forward, heads held high, eyes on the horizon. You will take what you learned from the dark times and use it to make your school stronger. Perhaps even joyful and triumphant.  

I hope this musical hit list brings you some festive cheer and I wish for you a restful, peaceful and safe Christmas. And remember, even if they forget to tell you, your school really does believe you are pick of the pops.  

Susan Ward

DHT – Scottish Borders