Teaching is a privilege. It is, of course, many other things but it is also a privilege.
How else can we describe the joy of sharing knowledge with young people, some of whom are actively keen to listen and most of whom, most of the time, are willing to be cajoled into doing so?
If we take this idea further: amplify the privilege, increase the number of students, improve attention, and choose the most amazing pieces of learning to share, then we have invented the assembly – the epitome of a teacher’s privilege (which may be why it’s often jealously guarded by senior leaders).
There are constraints, of course: large numbers make individual connections difficult; the opportunity for students to do anything other than listen and think are limited, and there’s no textbook or scheme of work to follow. But working within constraints has always inspired artists and the assembly is an art form.
When I was a middle leader just beginning to think about assemblies as something more than a disruption to be endured, I was told by my deputy head that the assembly was unparalleled as a vehicle for communicating your purpose to the whole school and that it was, therefore, vital to use it to teach and vital that students learned from the experience. Giving out certificates and sharing notices are good things but they should not be allowed to crowd the learning out (I say 'should not', but I know this happens quite widely).
Assemblies should teach. If they don't, the purpose you are communicating is not one of learning and everyone will begin to wonder what kind of school they are in: assemblies set the tone, they develop the ethos, they are (if backed up on the corridors and in classrooms) key to defining the community. They teach and they develop ethos but they must also entertain – otherwise the words will pass through the ears of the audience without ever interacting with their minds – listening for 10 or 15 minutes (20 is always too much) to the same voice is hard.
An assembly is a work of art: you are telling a story, weaving a thread that holds the attention of your audience, sharing knowledge that is interesting or important or curious (and the freedom of being able to talk about anything without the constraints of syllabus or examination is a glorious one to be liberally indulged). Meanwhile, you have a message, an articulation of ethos, a central idea that you want students and colleagues to take away with them and building this into the structure is the most challenging part of the art form – you don’t want to be caught preaching. It’s not possible to slip it in unnoticed (not desirable either – you can’t afford for the take-home message not to be taken home) but it needs to sit neatly within the structure, to follow naturally from the story – either as a reaction to a blunder or a reflection on an achievement (and the starring characters can be chosen to be heroes, villains, or, more likely, mere complicated humans to make the point).
I give a lot of assemblies now and I’m always aware of the privilege of having the (almost) undivided attention of several hundred busy people. I, therefore, try my best to be interesting. Over the past few months, I’ve talked about the Sudan expedition of 1885 and the battle of Trafalgar; I’ve quoted poetry from Henry Newbolt, Charlotte Bronte and TS Eliot; I’ve drawn lessons from the films Strictly Ballroom and War Games; I’ve told the story of the (almost) elimination of polio; and I’ve even proved that there are infinitely many primes (although I think I lost a fair section of the audience in that one).
From this rich tapestry, I’ve been able to talk seriously about how we treat disability, about the importance of making memories, about how critical thought and being wrong loudly can improve learning, and about what can, and should, motivate us as we go out into a competitive world.
Crafting a good assembly is not an easy thing and we rarely get feedback on how well we’ve done: next time you’re listening to one think about how well it teaches, inspires and interests its audience and, either give some feedback (if you think it will be welcomed), or make notes so that you can say something amazing and amazingly next time you have an opportunity (next time you are able to prise an opportunity from the hands of senior leaders) and, when you get that opportunity, seize it – giving an assembly is a privilege not to be passed up.
A collection of Harris Westminster Assemblies is available from the school website.
James Handscombe is the principal of Harris Westminster Sixth Form. He tweets @JamesHandscombe