We’re a few weeks into term now, and everything’s starting to feel normal again. The summer holidays are a distant memory, your new class is starting to get the idea of how you work, and finally you can plan a single lesson without its seeming to take several hours. We’re truly into the swing of the autumn term and feeling confident about what’s happening.
Things are not quite so clear-cut for those of us who are in a new school, though. This is the period when we get lulled into the false sense of security that comes with repetition.
By this stage of the term, you can start to feel confident that you know the routines of the day. You’ve worked out how to open the PE store, and have a vague idea of how lunchtimes work; you might even have understood the finer intricacies of staffroom etiquette. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t surprises to come.
It amazes me how long it can sometimes take to reach these conclusions. I was in my second year at my previous school when a lunchbox catastrophe left me in need of a vacuum cleaner. Yet, despite thinking I knew the school inside out, I suddenly discovered that it had never crossed my mind to look out for where the hoovers were stored. I knew they existed but, when I needed to find one, I was flummoxed.
It’s at times like this that you really begin to appreciate the office staff in a school. That’s not to say they go unappreciated the rest of the time – far from it.
For a headteacher, the front-office team is the face of the school, as well as often being your first line of defence. A successful team in the school office can leave a headteacher blissfully unaware of the myriad goings-on inside the building. But they’re also often the ones with the answers when you suddenly need those tiny details made explicit.
The proof is never clearer than when answering the school telephone line. Most teachers will happily ignore the ringing telephone as they complete their photocopying or empty their pigeonholes, safe in the knowledge that someone far more qualified has got it all under control. But, every now and then, such avoidance is impossible.
Replacing the toner cartridge
As a headteacher, I should feel confident to step in and cover any one of my teachers in an emergency. I won’t do as good a job as them, because I don’t know their class or their curriculum half as well as they do, but at heart I’m still a teacher and can teach a class. I can make a pretty decent hash of the role of a TA too. At a push, I can even step in for the premises staff – although I’m certainly not first in the queue when it comes to anything requiring gloves or vomit powder.
But leave me unattended in the school office and my heart fills with dread. The place is a just a hive of activity about which I know nothing. Children arrive with money for the fruit stand I never give a second thought; parents ask about the timings of clubs I didn’t even know we ran. And woe betide anyone who asks me how to replace the toner cartridge in the photocopier.
The office team truly needs to know the detail of virtually everything in the school. Far from learning a few hundred children’s names, they are a catalogue of knowledge about whole families. And, with the right team, they’ll also solve umpteen problems caused by the teachers and headteacher with barely a word of complaint.
Three cheers for the office team – we genuinely couldn’t do it without them.
Michael Tidd is headteacher at East Preston Junior School in West Sussex. He tweets @MichaelT1979