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Leadership - The serious business of being silly

By playing the fool you let students see your human side and set a powerful example

By playing the fool you let students see your human side and set a powerful example

I've had wet sponges thrown at me. I have been videoed as a rap musician wearing a hat and gold chain. I've even sprayed my hair red.

Some may regard this behaviour as not befitting a senior school figure but I believe embarrassing yourself like this is incredibly useful if you are in a senior position, as long as you are doing it for the right reasons.

Those reasons are generally charitable occasions but can include taking part in school fetes, end-of-year concerts and other social events. The three incidents above are just some of the things I have done in school on behalf of charity. For this year's Sport Relief event, I am taking part in the Shirt of Hurt campaign by wearing the football shirt of a team that is a rival of the one I support. This will involve me wandering around school in an Arsenal shirt (I am a big Tottenham Hotspur fan), which will no doubt get a lot of attention from students and teachers alike. I imagine not quite as much attention, however, as when I had to dress up as Posh Spice and perform a dance routine on stage with the other all-male "Spice Girls".

Aside from raising money, doing silly things such as this has multiple benefits. First, it shows that you are willing to get involved and practise what you preach. If we want to encourage our students to engage in fundraising, it is important that we lead the way. And that goes for showing teachers the way, too. The first headteacher I worked under was quite traditional but he dressed up once and did a karaoke number. I remember being impressed that he had joined in and it didn't do him any harm. He was a positive role model for me.

It is also important to get involved so that you are not seen as setting yourself apart from the rest of the school. To lead an institution effectively you need to be part of it, not put yourself on a pedestal. Being willing to look foolish is a great opportunity to show that you are part of the school community.

Leading on from this is the fact that the more you know the students in your school and they know you - as long as it's positive in both directions - the more it can pay back in terms of getting the students on board with teaching and learning. Having seen that you are actually a human being, they are more willing to knuckle down when you ask them.

Finally, these occasions give you the opportunity to be seen in the context of a different element of school life and to show that you can lead in that arena, too. Yes, we want our students to succeed academically but we also want them to develop as citizens who look outwards, who get involved in their local communities and raise money for a variety of causes while having fun together. Show that you are qualified to teach this message.

Despite these benefits, some teachers and leaders fear negative repercussions from letting their guard down. But I have only ever had the positive results listed above.

Potential dangers

You have to respect people's opinions, of course. If staff or fellow leadership team members are reluctant, obviously as a leader you have to respect that. You cannot force them into following your lead. I've worked with colleagues who don't feel comfortable with public embarrassment or who believe that it sets the wrong tone and I would never force them to join in.

Another big fear is that the school will descend into mayhem and staff will lose control as soon as they put on a crazy wig or sit in a bath of baked beans, but I have never felt that discipline has suffered or that students have lost respect for me in my role as deputy head. And no member of my staff has ever said it has backfired for them either - quite the reverse, in fact. Students appreciate that you are prepared to get involved and are humble enough to make a fool of yourself on the odd occasion. They are very good at accepting that and not taking advantage of it. In fact, it allows you to take a different approach in your everyday dealings with them that can be immensely positive.

For example, these occasions provide a good way of talking about something positive to a student whom you regularly have to tell off: I can make reference to them throwing a sponge at me and we find common ground. Or you can call on the positive relationship you have formed with a student on account of them seeing you in a different light when you need them to do something they really don't want to.

So yes, there are potential dangers and it may not be for everyone, but in my experience making yourself look foolish for the right reasons in the right context has only positive results. So when the next big charity day rolls around, or the next school event needs a comic turn, why not put your hand up and be silly for a change? You won't regret it.

Jon Norden is vice-principal at Abbey Grange Church of England Academy. He was speaking on behalf of Sport Relief. Sport Relief 2014 is taking place in UK schools from 21-23 March.

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