Meet the head in his crested underpants

27th December 2007 at 00:00
It's the last day of term. We send everyone home early (only a little bit, honest!) so that the staff can sit down together for a late Christmas lunch. This year it's a choice of two curries because we're very avant-garde in Devon. Then into the staffroom for mince pies and Secret Santa.

It's an institution at our place. 135 staff draw a name out of a hat for whom they secretly buy a present. We watch as all 135 open their presents, ranging from the ridiculous to the absurd. By tradition, I am the last to open his present. Last year it was a pair of Y-fronts, embroidered with a large college crest. Yes, of course the staff wanted to see them being worn, and I'll leave you to decide whether they had their wish. The year before, I had been making frequent trips to London, so the staff had wangled a year's free membership at Spearmint Rhino. Since I'm more of a morris than a pole dancer, it regretfully went unused.

It's all about motivation. The pilates, yoga and head massage sessions might be directly aimed at relieving stress, but getting people to laugh together does that and more. That's why in among the cups and trophies of the year's final assembly we present the Golden Maggot award to the winner of the staff fishing competition. Such events generate their own stories, and these build into a common mythology that in time creates a sense of belonging. I bet there's a strong link between this and the result of a recent staff survey which showed that 98 per cent enjoy working at the college.

Businesses motivate with money. How wonderful it would be at Christmas to whisper in the head of history's ear, "Well done on the GCSE results, son!" and slip a fistful of fivers in his top pocket. The owner of our local hairdressing salon whips all her staff up for a meal at the Ivy to show how much she loves them. Try that in schools and watch what the Daily Mail has to say about misusing public funds. We have to be more subtle.

My friend Martin, a very wise primary head, once commented that different people like to be paid in different currencies. Some like public praise, some private. I've known a few for whom outrageous, flirtatious flattery does the trick. Some staff have never set foot in my office; others pop in often, wanting to feel that their ideas can be taken seriously, or seeking affirmation, or just reassurance. There are experienced staff who freeze when you appear at their classroom door, others who like a high-profile audience for their showmanship or just appreciate that you are interested in what they are doing.

Teaching at its best offers an enthralling, fulfilling loop when you see your own enthusiasm reflected back from the kids and you feel that you have made a difference. This is self-actualisation at the highest level of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. It is in the nature of schools that this is simply not attainable day in, day out, lesson after lesson, especially in the darkest days of December. Hence the need for leaders at all levels constantly to feed and stroke their staff at the lower but vital levels of love and belonging, status and recognition.

A languages teacher once told me she had cried when I wrote her a letter to thank her for playing with students in the college orchestra at the Christmas concert. She had spent five years at her previous school and had never been thanked for anything. It's the little things that count. Happy Christmas.

Roger Pope, Principal of Kingsbridge Community College in Devon.

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