Since he left our planet and blasted into space on 15 December, I sometimes find myself wondering, as I go about my daily business: “How would Tim Peake deal with this?” On the face of it, our worlds are miles apart; about 250 vertical miles to be more precise. My job is to lead a school of almost 1,000 young people and to carry the trust of the school’s governors. His is to undertake scientific research as part of an international programme on board the International Space Station (ISS).
Yet the more I see and hear of Tim Peake and the joyful way in which he engages with young people in his regular “spacetalks” – showing us how the suction loo works, the intricacies of replacing a failed voltage regulator or what zero-gravity means for bone density – the more he feels like a pedagogical godfather in the sky.
He is a man who leads by example effortlessly, who inspires people, young and old, and who is proof that endeavour and hard work do pay off. Combine that with his ability to take people along with him on his journey, and we have one terrific role model.
Most impressively, there are no bells and whistles. Just a man on a mission to succeed; modest, open, apparently confident in the belief that anything is possible if you put in the hours and stay focussed. It is as if he has embraced Abraham Lincoln’s exhortation, “Be sure you put your feet in the right place, then stand firm” – quite some feat in a zero-gravity environment.
This man devoted three years of his life to train to be an astronaut, and was chosen from among more than 8,000 applicants for his place on the ISS. From the announcement of his mission in 2013 to his lift-off earlier this year, he has single-handedly reignited our passion for all things extra-terrestrial and is probably attracting more young people to science than any number of Department for Education initiatives.
As a role model, the former Army major might have come straight out of Central Casting; an ordinary man, who went to an ordinary school, and with ordinary parents who shows us just what you can achieve if you really put your mind to it.
Like the rest of us, he didn’t come fully formed; his strength of character and dedication to purpose no doubt owe much to his life experience.
In his case, life took him from the Combined Cadet Force as a teenager to tours with the Army in Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Afghanistan; on to working as an Apache helicopter test pilot and ultimately becoming a European Space Agency astronaut.
From this background was born his ability to think and act strategically, taking a long-range approach to problem-solving and decision-making that involves objective analysis, foresight and immaculate planning.
So how can we nurture the Tim Peakes of tomorrow? I suspect, in truth, he had the good fortune to grow up in a loving family, which definitely helps; sadly not everyone enjoys this advantage. But what he does show us is that if we can inspire young people to commit to excellence in every aspect of their lives, it may take them further than they imagine.
So Tim, the next time you’re passing over the east coast of Britain and see an island of lights topped by a magnificent cathedral in the Fens, I’d love you to imagine a headteacher looking up for a little inspiration.
Sue Freestone is headteacher of King’s Ely in Cambridgeshire