There’s a saying that goes something along the lines of this: “Some people are like buttons – they hold everything together.”
Today, I found out education is losing a button. A beautiful, gilded button that any school would be proud to have grace its educational epaulettes.
Mrs Rush, the nursery nurse at my children’s school, is, according to the newsletter, retiring after 22 years’ service.
Mrs Rush is special. She’s one of the greatest leaders and role models in education that I have ever seen.
I first met her when she stood to the side of the early years foundation stage team at the open evening for new parents four years ago. As we sat there – a mixture of confident school-gate regulars and nervous new parents, all glancing at a highlighted prospectus or list of questions, fretting about lunch arrangements and uniform dictats – Mrs Rush radiated calm, warmth and welcome.
Anyone who caught her eye was given the broadest of grins, a wink or a thumbs-up, as if to say, "It’s OK, I know the chairs are ridiculously small, and it smells of plimsolls and cabbage, but I’m here."
You could see people’s shoulders visibly relax under their straight-from-work clothes, I-should-have-brushed-my-hair expressions and oh-god-there’s-the-headteacher fixed smiles.
Each parent entrusting their precious child to the care of the EYFS team was gifted one of Mrs Rush’s smiles that night. She scanned the room, said nothing, but built relationships and calmed frazzled nerves with just an upturned grin and a twinkle in her eyes. It was a masterclass in leadership.
'I’m so excited you’re starting at our school'
The next time I met her was when she came to my house for a home visit. As I spoke with the class teacher, Mrs Rush read, played and chatted with my little girl – I could hear the conversation lilting and laughing as I went through all the proformas and information.
When I had finished talking with the teacher, I went into the playroom and knew straight away that my daughter had been dusted with magic. She was smiling, beaming in fact, and desperate to show Mrs Rush more of her toys and books.
Mrs Rush was lying on the floor doing a jigsaw and reading with her, and had, in that brief visit, built trust, optimism and joy about starting school. As she got up to leave, she looked my daughter square in the eyes, held both of her hands and said: “I’m so excited you’re starting at our school. I can’t wait to see you again and have some amazing adventures.”
My daughter’s eyes twinkled, as Mrs Rush waved over her shoulder and then again out of the car window, as my daughter reciprocated frantically, watching the car round the corner.
On the first day of school, Mrs Rush was there again. She knew every single child’s name without having to refer to a list or pet names like poppet and love. She asked every child a question about something she had remembered about them and I watched in awe as she coaxed the reticent, the weepy and the overexcited through the school gates – she was pretty good with the children, too!
Every parent, no matter how young the child, how complex their needs, how fretful and difficult their transition, was safe in the knowledge that she was there that morning.
'Everyone would go to the ends of the Earth for her'
Her ability to make everyone feel like the centre of the universe is a gift. She remembers, birthdays, pets, friendships, favourite toys and hobbies. She has an encyclopaedic knowledge of all 45 children in the current EYFS class, as well as every other child in the school. Everyone loves her, even those children in Year 6 who are a little too cool for school. Everyone would go to the ends of the Earth for her.
Under Mrs Rush’s tutelage, every child feels respected, cared for, encouraged and protected. She’s there in all weathers, too: monsoon-style rain, and she’d be there with her purple cagoule; on warmer days, she’d be wearing her wide-brimmed hat; and once, I spotted her waddling to open the gates dressed in a penguin onesie for the EYFS’ staff Mary Poppins-themed World Book Day.
She radiates such boundless optimism and care that I’m fairly sure most of the parents would follow her off the edge of a cliff, Pied Piper-style. That’s the level of adoration and respect she commands.
She’s not a member of the senior leadership team. I’m fairly sure she hasn’t been on NPQ leadership courses or the like, but she is one of the greatest leaders I’ve ever seen. She is a button and she is the glue: she holds everyone and everything together.
During the delicate transition from nursery or home to school, she picks up the threads of each individual child and knits them carefully into the fabric of the school. She makes them feel as if they belong. She gives them a point of reference and a place to seek solace and support. She delights when they achieve and she reads every well-thumbed story from the EYFS book box with the same wonder and effervescence as the first time.
She never tires of hearing their news, however small, and she makes them feel as though they are wanted and belong. She sticks lessons back together when unexpected puddles appear on the carpet or when Tommy’s tummy ache manifests in a multicolored projectile into the playhouse.
She has comforted and cajoled shy shepherds and stage-frightened stable dwellers. She’s unraveled the maypole, manned cake stalls, and is the only one who isn’t fazed by cutting up the 45th school-dinner pizza with the consistency of sedimentary rock, using only miniature cutlery.
Her knowledge of the EYFS curriculum is deep, broad and effortlessly implemented – children’s first experiences of learning are brought to life by her decades of experience and a genuine love of her craft.
Mrs Rush is the first point of contact in the morning, standing outside the classroom come rain or shine, armed only with a clipboard and a grin, just like she has for 22 years.
Yes, Mrs Rush is buttons and glue, and I could have done with one of her magic tissues when I read that newsletter.
So if you read this, Mrs Rush, please know that everything you have done for the children and families who have passed through your care has been a masterclass in kind, compassionate and human leadership. And for this, on behalf of them all, I thank you.
Emma Turner is the research and CPD lead for Discovery Schools Trust, Leicestershire. Mrs Rush is retiring from Ashby Hilltop Primary School, Leicestershire