Teachers are defined by routines and rituals. Our days are measured in lessons and breaktimes, punctuated by clanging Pavlovian bells. Our weeks are counted out in teaching allocations, briefings and meetings, plus sporadic “non--contact” periods, before the sweet relief of a Friday night kicks in. Our years are cyclical – punctuated by training days, parents’ evenings, concerts, non-uniform days and suchlike.
Some of these are a comfort, but some are decidedly not. Grimmest of all the school rituals are the hellos and goodbyes. Students have the pizzazz of a secondary prom or sixth-form ball. Staff gatherings are frequently less glam and more glum.
Perhaps it’s just me. My wife once offered to make me a badge for the start of the term saying, “If you don’t ask me about my holiday, I won’t ask you about yours.” The message is crustily cantankerous. Then again, so am I. That’s why I dread training days at the beginning of the year: people in holiday garb trading small-talk through rictus smiles, while fending off the panic of the term ahead. Stuff the hellos.
And goodbyes? We are approaching that time of year when we have a glut of them. And they can be testing occasions.
In almost 30 years, I have sat through far too many staff leaving dos, sipping bad coffee or warm white wine, gloomily observing leavers intoxicated by the brief oxygen of an audience’s apparent attention. Too often they deliver a speech that leaves no staffroom buttock unclenched.
What I have learned is this: using a farewell speech to have a go at the management rarely leads anywhere other than to squirming, self-inflicted humiliation. As Shakespeare’s plays teach us, revenge is a dish best served cold. So leave your grudge for another day; make an appointment to say it in person, without an audience, and then at least you’ll leave the establishment with some dignity intact.
As school leader you have an important role to play in goodbyes. You should deliver a finely crafted homily, saying things that characterise the very best of the leaver’s career – their passion for an aspect of their subject, their trips and visits, their high regard among students. And if you can’t, you should nominate someone who can.
In response, the leaver should say a few dignified words of thanks, share a couple of anecdotes that reveal the optimism of working in schools and offer a final farewell, whether poignant or unemotional. Then sit down.
There is another set of goodbyes that are more difficult to manage as a headteacher – when the trickle of departing staff becomes a surge. This may result from budget difficulties, a punitive Ofsted report or some other educational deus ex machina. It may be that the school is due to close and the drift towards the exit begins to feel like a stampede.
Or it may be that your teacher population has simply hit that point in its collective life when the fresh-faced rookies of a few years back are ready to take on new roles and responsibility, and the veterans have decided to pre-empt the next attack on the pensions system by getting out.
Whatever the reason, when people are leaving, it’s easy for students, parents and governors to be spooked.
Grin and bear it
In all of these circumstances, the same rules of engagement apply for school leaders. It’s the usual trick of pretending that all is calm on the surface, while managing the palpitating pulse of panic that threatens to overwhelm us. In other words, we need to go about the day as if a growing trend of leavers is perfectly normal, or just an unwelcome but inevitable concatenation of events hurled our way by education’s quixotic gods.
The longer we are in school leadership, the more we realise that sometimes things simply happen. And the more we know that what feels like a crisis will usually prove to be a passing phase – often sooner than we expected. Time has a habit of softening impact and providing perspective.
That’s why, although we grizzled veterans may regret a sudden surge in staff goodbyes, we avoid conveying a sense of crisis. Instead, we manage the narrative, keep parents informed of new staff joining, celebrate those heading for promotion and mark the retirement of others. We set a tone of normality.
Staff leaving is part of the cycle of schools reinventing themselves. As far as we can, we should celebrate it publicly. Just go easy on the instant coffee and warm white wine.
Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School in Suffolk
Read more in the 3 July issue of TES. You can read it on your tablet or phone, or by downloading the TES Reader app for Android or iOS. Or pick it up at all good newsagents.