Letting go

I knew my final week before retirement would be hard. I just didn't realise how hard. I've spent my entire career in challenging areas of London, and all but five years in Southwark, first as a deputy headteacher and then, for 31 years, as the head of Comber Grove Primary. I liked the school from the moment I walked into it... An attractive Victorian building, with tuck-away mezzanine rooms and classrooms with high ceilings.

Over the years, I've gathered an exceptional teaching staff - delightful people who share my view that primary education should be an exciting gateway to learning, where children can enjoy a vast array of fascinating experiences. Their dedication has meant that our children love coming to school, and many still write to us when they are married with children of their own. Visitors have told me they could feel the enthusiastic atmosphere as soon as they walked through the door.

My work has been a passion, not a job. I'd wanted to be a teacher since I was five, and there has never been a day when I haven't wanted to go to school. When I reached 65, it wasn't mandatory that I retired, so I didn't. But, four years on, arthritis has stopped me getting around the building easily, and with great reluctance I announced I'd be retiring at Christmas.

Christmas is a delightful time with children, and my final week began with our concerts, a colourful kaleidoscope of seasonal music, poetry and carols. As usual, it was of an exceptionally high standard, and the hall was packed with parents. At the end of the concert, a parent-governor gave a little speech, thanking me for everything I had done for his children and those of everybody in the hall. "It isn't just the wonderful education," he said. "It's the love you have for every one of them, and that they also have for you." It was a touching moment, the more so because it was unexpected.

As the week moved on, parents came with gifts, cards and letters of appreciation. One parent had written two sides of A4, recalling all the experiences her children had enjoyed. I hugged them all. Each day, teachers wandered into my room for a chat - just as they had always done - but knowing, sadly, this was for the last time. My mind wandered back through the years and the times in this room when I had comforted tearful teachers and TAs who were having teaching or personal problems, shared abundant laughter with every one of them, or discussed educational ideas with a passionate enthusiasm.

And then the final day. I have always placed music at the heart of my school, and my deputy had been carefully organising a special concert. I sat at the back of the hall, carefully trying to control my emotions as I listened to my children singing and playing their hearts out. Then, I was called to the front and children from each class presented me with gifts and memories that I could take into retirement. Giving a little speech at the end was the hardest thing I have ever done. Then on to an Italian meal in the evening with my wonderful staff, and a hug with every one of them. "You must have been a pretty good boss," the manager said as I left. "They were all crying as they went out."

The next day, Saturday, I went into school to collect the remaining gifts, and I wandered round my school for one last time. Then, and only then, did I let the tears flow.

Mike Kent is a retired primary school headteacher.

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