Picture the scene: I was the new headteacher. The children had been back in school for a couple of weeks. They greeted me excitedly every time I went into their classrooms.
But I hadn’t had a chance to get the year groups together for a school assembly – always a key moment of community building.
With our two key stage 2 classes in one bubble, we checked the risk assessment and decided that we would commence with KS2 assemblies in the hall.
And so it came to pass: I stood in front of the children for my first assembly as headteacher in my new school, and greeted them with an upbeat "Good morning, everyone!"
The brightness and joy I had come to know from the pupils was not repeated back to me – instead, I saw their eyes faded, their shoulders slumped and, in unison, they issued that monotonous chant, known to primary staff up and down the land: "Gooooood mooooorning, Mrs Staaaaaples. Goooooood moooorning, everyone."
A little bit of me died inside. Who were these children? Certainly not the same ones who had been offering such friendly hellos in the classroom.
I ploughed on through my planned assembly but I can’t remember what it was about. I spent most of it thinking about how I was going to change this ingrained habit.
Modelling good behaviour for school assembly
At the beginning of the next assembly, I explained to the children how their robotic chant sounded. I even did an impression of them (they thought it was funny). Then I asked them if they were really happy to present themselves like this on a daily basis.
I modelled to them how it should sound. I also reminded them about how to sit up straight and to try to look towards the adult greeting them at the front, too. Call me a traditionalist, but I think an assembly deserves a particular air of respect.
I explained that we didn’t need to race through it and make ourselves sound silly, but that we just needed to reply in our normal voices, which are usually bubbly and full of joy.
Then we practised it and practised it again, and again. The first couple of times we had half the children remembering what was expected and half the hall still droning on what felt like 20 minutes later.
After a few tries, a few theatrical sighs from me, and a lot of eye-rolling and laughter from teachers merrily watching me trying to break this ingrained habit, we had it sorted. Every child, in unison, a cheery, well-paced "Good morning, everyone!"
I believe it was assembly time well spent.
Learning as we go
The big test was the next assembly. I reminded them of my expectation and the response was worth it. Our assembly had begun in a much more positive way than ever before.
Since then, each assembly has only needed a raised eyebrow or a wink, smile and a "ready?" at most before launching into our greetings.
I praise them when they do it brilliantly, which is just about every assembly now, and remind them that it makes us all feel good to be part of the shared experience.
There was one disappointing Monday after the half-term when they reverted to the zombie style; proof that children need constant reminders and things can take a while to become embedded.
However, I knew we’d cracked it when a visiting member of the local clergy team remarked on how amazing the start sounded after many years of visiting the school.
Now I am pleased to say that it is second nature that our children answer in this way. It is respectful, positive and sets us up nicely for our assemblies.
I am not suggesting that the assembly greeting is the most important aspect of a school or that everything in our assemblies is perfect. Velcro can still be heard from shoes being fidgeted with, and faces cannot always be seen.
But the point is that, as school staff and leaders facing daily minor frustrations in our schools, we should not accept that things should forever be thus.
We are in the privileged position of being able to effect change and these small changes can have a big impact. It is sometimes easier to moan about a situation rather than do something about it. I see it as part of my role to challenge these "givens" and ask how we could do things differently.
We should be challenging long-held traditions and processes and making sure that they are still worthy of our children’s precious time.
I chose to start my change challenge with a cheery "Good morning!" What will you choose?
Jo Staples is headteacher at Dorchester St Birinus Primary School in Oxfordshire. She tweets @teacherstaples