As a youngster, I thought little of getting really hammered at the staff Christmas party. Indeed, I have a vague recollection of pretending to be Keith from the Prodigy at one event, watching myself on CCTV being a firestarter. Later, I stole a whole silver tray of smoked salmon sandwiches, hid them up my top, slid on the ice outside and glided elegantly under the wheels of my then headteacher’s car. I survived; the sandwiches didn’t.
Unsurprisingly, my conduct at staff Christmas parties has since changed, not just because of my age but because of my responsibilities. As headteacher, I think it is important that I attend if invited. But it’s still an extension of my working life and it’s vital that I behave accordingly.
It seems other heads don’t see it the same way. Last year, a new member of staff announced that ours was the first party in 10 years she’d attended where she hadn’t been sexually harassed by the school leader. In reply, I suggested that the head might have been a bit of a (lone) pig; but no, she’d worked with three different principals in that time and they’d all overstepped the mark.
Of course, like everything else, there is no way to keep everyone happy. Some staff will demand your presence at the party while others will be offended by it. What you wear will be scrutinised, as will your time of arrival and departure, whether you have brought a guest or not and whether you look sprightly (“how dare she, everyone else is on their knees”) or exhausted (“she’s likely to have a nervous breakdown any moment”).
All you can do is find a sensible balance and maintain the festive cheer.
It is wise to drive to these events if you can – it will ensure that you won’t be tempted to drink. Not that assuming the mantle of headship makes one particularly abstinent but Christmas parties take place at the end of the longest term of the year – you will be tired, and mixing that with copious amounts of eggnog is a recipe for disaster.
Essentially, the message is: stay sober.
Try to mix a little with everyone. Someone will remember if you didn’t say hello to them and may perceive it as a snub. This is easier in pubs or buffets, less easy at sit-down meals. If attending the latter, I now tour each table in between courses.
Don’t hide in the corner with the senior team, you can do that any day.
Conversation can be a dangerous thing. With a small sherry inside them, even the most mild-mannered teacher can pin you in the corner to discuss the finer points of the marking policy. I have seen headteachers berated over just about everything and have to smile while it’s happening.
Avoid tricky chats
I have learned the hard way not to ask people how they are as it usually elicits a genuinely honest response: marital breakdowns, illnesses, financial worries, wayward children, the impending festive visits of detested in-laws, workload, the problem with (insert any other department) and Ofsted.
Get in first with your topics of conversation. It is a lovely time to point out something great that each member of staff has achieved. It’s also a good time to listen and observe. If a tricky conversation arises, try to deflect it – change the topic, keep smiling, find a way out.
The Christmas party is for the staff to let their hair down and they can’t do that while you’re there. The best thing you can do is to leave with enough time left for them to party without you. They will remember that you were there, but that you didn’t witness them stealing plates of sandwiches or making poor dancing choices.
Plus, avoid mistletoe at all costs.
Keziah Featherstone is headteacher at the Bridge Learning Campus