“Get back...or I’ll stab you in the face”
It was my second year of headship and I was attempting to break up an argument between two adults in my school carpark. I was now being threatened by one of them.
I can still remember his eyes, which appeared to be devoid of any emotion other than hate. I felt terrified.
More from Mike Fairclough: If Ofsted told us to jump off a cliff, would we?
However, the experience, and what happened after that, forged a determination and resilience within me that has served me well ever since.
There are times when a parent or member of the wider community has made a valid complaint about one of my decisions and I have apologised for it.
I’m not attached to always being right and I do make mistakes. When this happens, I will hold my hands up and try to make amends, and I hope people will understand.
However, since I became a headteacher in 2004, I have experienced a broad range of the sort of attack described above. I have also received four anonymous death threats after media reports about my school.
On five different occasions, governors have been sent letters calling for my resignation. Most of these followed my decision to refer a family to social services.
During the school’s last Ofsted inspection, the lead inspector had to follow up on two allegations from the public that I was “encouraging terrorism”.
And then there have been the threats of physical violence from a parent or carer, either implied or communicated in no uncertain terms.
My experience is not uncommon among heads, but we get little or no training in how to respond to these situations. Whereas members of other services are educated in de-escalation and self-protection, we get nothing.
So, I have had to develop responses myself, for me and my staff. Now, when I have found myself unfairly under attack, I apply the following seven guiding principles and actions:
- Stay calm. It’s difficult to problem solve from a state of panic.
- Know that verbal and physical abuse are never acceptable.
- If there is an imminent danger of physical harm, the correct approach is to walk or run to safety. The next step is to contact the police.
- Stand your ground in relation to a written or verbal complaint – this will show confidence.
- Share all details of events with governors and senior managers.
- If false allegations are being made, never meet with the complainant alone, and record all conversations in writing.
- Remember that troubled times will eventually pass.
Taking the rough with the smooth
Although 99 per cent of my job is not volatile at all, when these sorts of events take place, they can be very distressing and consume a great deal of time.
On the flip side, each of these situations has improved my ability to deal with future challenges and taught me some valuable lessons.
The man who threatened to stab me was arrested and barred from coming near me. This action sent a clear message about the values of my school and my character as a headteacher.
It was an unpleasant experience but one which ultimately made me stronger.
Each subsequent situation has enabled me to hone my ability to deal with various challenges and to appreciate the longer-lasting good times.
Mike Fairclough is headteacher of West Rise Junior School in East Sussex