My unlikely education guru: Kenny Rogers

Teachers gotta know when to hold ’em – and when to walk away, says Susan Ward

'Teachers gotta know when to hold 'em this school year'

Well, it’s nearly that time of year again. We are almost back to school – indeed, some teachers in Scotland are already back.

The busyness will descend once more and this is the time of year when teachers need to take a deep breath. Get steady. Be ready. August is like the moment just before you swim a length underwater; technique really matters. If you don’t breathe deeply enough, get steady enough, you’ll never make it to the other side.

So, here’s my advice on how to get steady for this session, dispensed – naturally – via the lyrics of Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler”.


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Know when to hold ’em

What are you going to hold on to this year? What matters to you? What aspects of the job are you going to hold on to and prioritise, regardless of what gets in the way? For me, it is always the learning. Keep in sight what’s needed for real, authentic, messy, exhausting learning to take place, for teachers and pupils. Everything else is background noise.

Know when to fold ’em

Sometimes the best thing you can do is know when to quit. Education is awash with “never give up” attitude and I’m all for that but, sometimes, admitting defeat is the best way to move on to bigger and better things. If you have taken a problem as far as you can and you know you have done your best, be prepared to park it for the time being so you can focus on other things.

Know when to walk away

How’s your diary looking? Filling up? If it’s already looking like Piccadilly Circus in there, stop. Are you taking on more than is sensible? You do not have to do everything by the end of August. Or even by the end of September. Pace yourself. The school year is a marathon, not a sprint, so if you’re more Usain Bolt than Mo Farah, apply the breaks before you burn out. And primary teachers, for the love of God, stop laminating and eat your dinner.

Know when to run

If it feels wrong, challenge it. If it’s making you ill, stop doing it. Talk to someone. Do not suffer through things alone. Nothing at work is ever important enough to be happening at the expense of your mental or physical wellbeing. So, if you see that black hole beckoning on the horizon, turn the other way and run back towards the light.

Never count your money when you’re sitting at the table

Don’t congratulate yourself too much, but don’t beat yourself up too much either. You do things, things happen; sometimes good, sometimes not so good. Remember it’s all learning. Parking your ego can be hard sometimes, but making mistakes, however embarrassing at the time, means you are learning. At some stage this year, you’ll make a mistake. Embrace your failures because they are data-rich. Everything you need to know about succeeding is down there in the wreckage of your latest screw up. So, swallow your pride and pore over the debris to ensure that next time you’ll do it right.

Every hand’s a winner, every hand’s a loser

Remember, it’s all relative. One person’s foul-up is another’s success story. Something you think has gone appallingly may be perceived quite differently by your learners or colleagues. So, be mindful of that mirror. Make sure it’s showing you a true reflection. Being too hard on yourself or doubting that you are any good is toxic to your ability to do your job well. Be proud of what you do. If you have invested your time and talents to make it the best possible version of itself, then set it upon the water and watch it sail to glory – or at least don’t assume it will sink.

And always remember, of course, that “if you’re gonna play the game, you gotta learn to play it right”.

Here’s to a happy, healthy and productive year.

Susan Ward is depute headteacher at Kingsland Primary School in Peebles, in the Scottish Borders. She tweets @susanward30

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