An impossible choice

The call came as I was sitting by my dying father's bedside in hospital, just after Sunday lunchtime. It would lead to a classic test of leadership.

On the other end of the line were Wendy, my assistant principal, and Tina, my head of sixth-form. They were in Kingsbridge town centre with the police. A young man had been fatally stabbed in the early hours of the morning. He had apparently been in an argument with an older man who had bottled him. He had bled to death on the spot, watched by his friends. The young man and his companions were all members of our sixth form.

Wendy and Tina spent Sunday supporting distressed students who were drawn to the spot in search of comfort. I arrived back in town that evening to find the area cordoned off and a mound of flowers with heartbreaking messages. A suspect was taken into custody: he was the father of another student.

This is a remote market town where everyone knows everyone else and the biggest news of the week is usually a lost cat. Kingsbridge is the last place anyone would expect to be murdered.

I drove into school early on Monday knowing that staff and students would be looking to me for leadership. It is the headteacher who sets the tone and gives staff the strength to stand tall for the students. I planned a whole-staff briefing, which had to be solemn yet full of practical advice on dealing with the situation, and an assembly for the boy's year group, knowing that many had been close to him.

By 8am, I had responded to requests for radio and television interviews. Then my mobile phone rang. It was my sister. My father had deteriorated and I needed to move fast if I was to be there for the end.

This is leadership not as part of some hypothetical training module, but as real choices in an intensely real world. Should I drop everything to be with my father when he died? Or stay and provide the leadership needed at that moment in my school?

We all make such choices every week, albeit on a smaller scale. Do I go home to bathe my child or run the netball club? Do I mark a set of books or take my husband for a birthday dinner? Most of us, most of the time, put our students first and face the music later.

Wendy could handle the staff for me. Tina could do the interviews and the assembly. Yet both had already spent Sunday picking up the pieces and were feeling the strain. There is something of a watershed at moments like these. Your students, your staff, your community are looking to you. You are the rock to give them stability in choppy waters, the lamp to light the way forward.

So I did what teachers do every day and put the job first. I fronted the staff meeting, the assembly, the radio and television interviews. At 10am, I jumped into the car to drive to the hospital. Before I had left the car park, my sister rang to say it was too late: my father had passed away.

He would have understood.

Roger Pope is principal of Kingsbridge Community College in Devon

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