I like to think of myself as an experienced professional. I’ve worked in some leafy suburban schools and I’ve worked in some inner-city schools. I view myself as pretty relaxed, have a good sense of perspective. I never usually take work home with me, either in the literal or the mental sense.
I am proud that I’ve learnt the skills over the years to be able to manage and resolve issues with challenging pupils and staff, and be able to go home at the end of the day and “let it go”, in the words of the Disney princess.
Up until recently, I was also pretty confident that I could manage and work through relationships with challenging parents. I’ve done my fair share of breaking up fights in the playground, memorably holding broken noses and wiping blood off the face of a pregnant woman while restraining her rightly furious husband from going to sort out the perpetrator.
But this year, the confrontation has not been directed at other parents in the community, but at my staff and me. And, despite all the above experience, I am not coping.
It is so bad that, as of two weeks ago, I regularly change my route home from the school. We are lucky enough to have a number of different entrances and exits to do so, but I don’t want particular individuals to know my routines.
This has been the culmination of a long and frightening academic year.
Back in September, a dispute between a parent and their “friend” turned nasty. A weapon was fetched from a house. While, thankfully, no one was seriously hurt, the fall-out involving the police and my role as the headteacher meant that one particular individual spent days sat outside my office, watching me from a distance.
Eventually they grew bored of intimidating me and moved on.
Then we had a series of cumulative incidents with a parent who we know has a history of mental illness. Staff rightly felt uncomfortable communicating with them so I took it on.
I was happy to do so as the child had a number of needs that we still had to meet. But feelings of being isolated from the teacher led to other family members becoming involved and increasingly aggressive altercations occurred.
At one point, I stood in front of this family member while they attempted to chase one of my staff who was desperately trying to get away. This was in full view of pupils.
Threats of violence
Across the year, I have also seen an increase in the number of families involved in horrible domestic violence situations, where fathers and relatives turn up at the school attempting to get in. I’ve had to physically stand in the way and call 999, all while the rest of the school tries to be dismissed.
It is at the point now where I carry images of people who should not be on site owing to these issues and, when I am on gate duty, I may be smiling and talking to parents about lost jumpers and school fetes, but my eyes are constantly scanning the crowd looking for certain pupils and who may be talking to them.
And then, two weeks ago, came the worst of it. An incredibly challenging safeguarding issue occurred at school. It was the kind that, in itself, could have been small, but owing to the families of the pupils involved, and their wider friendship networks, has become all-consuming.
I have been trying to manage the expectations and outrage of a parent community while adhering to privacy and the fact that there is a wider social services investigation happening. I have been screamed at down the telephone and told I am no good at my job. I have been called a liar.
More recently, I ended a particularly aggressive meeting where things were thrown across my office and I was shouted at, fingers pointing in my face.
I was physically shaking for two hours after this event, yet still needed to present myself as a capable school leader to my colleagues.
I broke down with members of my senior leadership team, but I feel weak for doing so, knowing that, despite themselves, they will view me as slightly on edge.
No end in sight
Since then, my teachers have contacted me on their way home to say that they have seen an individual waiting for me. I put my headphones in and my head down. I walk quickly.
The police and other services are doing all they can. Just as, all year, they have done all they can. But I have never felt more insecure in terms of my physical safety in my role.
Our community is a challenging one. Violence is normal here. But schools are so important as a place of building community in an area so used to conflict. As such, I have always tried to keep the door open, to speak to anyone no matter what their mood is and use those learnt skills to de-escalate and work with them.
But I’d somehow forgotten that there was a need to put in place measures to protect my own physical safety.
I am currently looking at installing a panic button in my office. How has it come to this?