When mud sticks

9th September 2005 at 01:00
It can be tough to work in school with a bad name. Don't walk in unawares, says Kevin Berry

It can, and does, happen. Something goes wrong and your school gets into the newspapers . Suddenly you become a teacher at "that awful school!" Or, as I did, you accept a new post and on your first day the head takes you on one side and asks for a quiet word in the office.

"I'm afraid we're in the newspapers," he sighed. "One or two of the parents have been complaining. I suppose I should have warned you about this, but I never thought that it would go this far."

It was 20 or more parents actually. He tossed some newspapers in my direction. Then the penny dropped. Or rather crashed to the floor and I heard its echo for the next three years. There hadn't been any local candidates for the job and two people hadn't turned up for the interviews.

I had thought that rather strange, but only momentarily.

Nothing sinisterhad happened, but two pupils had gone home and reported to their parents that they had done nothing but painting for two days. The adults made a fuss and were quite vocal. All that had happened was that the head had introduced the integrated day without explaining himself to parents. The school got a name for foolish, progressive teaching - and it found it hard to shake off.

Later in the day, the deputy head called a meeting. The sum total of what she said was that mud sticks and getting away from that school, or rather taking the next step on the promotion ladder, would now be very difficult.

Her advice was to buy a tin hat from the Army and Navy stores and keep our collective heads down until the bombardment stopped.

She recalled a school in another part of town where there had been "certain incidents" and parents had complained. Faces were pulled at mention of the school but then my colleagues realised: the mud had stuck there too. Five years on, its name was still mud.

"Two people from that school applied for a job here, two years ago. Good candidates they were and they weren't even shortlisted," she pointed out.

When you do visit a school keep your ears open, listen to distant conversations. Sit in the staffroom rather than your car. Linger in the loo, where people will readily gossip. Is the headteacher on speaking terms with the deputy, or not ? Listen to parents at the school gate. Make a mental note of class sizes as you are shown round. Are they unusually small? Has there been a sudden exodus?

If you are already in a school with a reputation, then distance yourself from the source of the reputation and the date. Ensure that everyone, including parents, is effectively reminded of when you joined the school.

You cannot possibly comment on the scandal, nor would want to, because you weren't there.

Have you thought of applying for a secondment? It will give you a year to take stock and look good on your CV. They open up lots of job possibilities. I once conducted research on secondments in my authority and found that 99 out of 100 teachers never went back to their old school. The only one was... me.

Secondments might include a year as a teacher in an art gallery or a museum, or joining your authority's supply team. Or you could enquire about the possibilities of financial backing for doing a diploma or a master's degree. Obviously, any of these suggestions will look splendid on your CV and will put some distance between you and "that school".

If you decide to stay, better to ride out the storm than apply for every job that comes along and be accused of disloyalty. The job you apply for must be one that "I couldn't possibly turn down" andor it's nearer home.

This advice also applies if your school has been devastated by fire.

Do you need to keep moving onward and ever upward? Would a job in an entirely different school on the same pay point, for a year or two, be worth considering? It would surely be better than two years stuck in the same place and dreading each term.

Keep the scandal out of any conversation, particularly when you are somewhere other than your school. When the scandal is mentioned change the subject. Turn to the good points about your school and about yourself.

A scandal is never as bad as it might at first seem. What does get into newspapers is what fits the view of that publication. There is no harm in mildly disparaging t in conversation, but complaining by letter or on local radio plays into the editor's hands. One spelling error or one piece of bad grammar is all it will take.

I was brought up in a newspaper family. I was used to reporters and journalists spicing up stories, seeing just one dimension, opting for a view that would reflect the readers' prejudices, but being told that isn't much consolation. Morale plummets when a school is under a cloud. If there isn't healthy movement of staff, then a school can stagnate. When a headteacher is flown in to sort a school out, a priority should be moving staff, not because they are under-performing but because a school with low morale needs new faces and new enthusiasms.

Time will eventually heal the school's wounds but there is no need for your career prospects to suffer.

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