Tips from a different age

There is a lot that young teachers could learn from those who retired this year, writes Roger Pope.

Sentimental old fool that I am, I have to confess to crying in our final assembly of the year. One minute I was doing a "You move a muscle and I'll stamp on your head" glare at a fidgety Year 9 in the back row, and the next there was a streak of wet sliming its way down my cheek. Not good for the tough head image, not good at all.

Mrs Drama was retiring after 29 years at the school and Mrs Head of Sixth Form after a mere 21 years. There are some staff you can't get out of the door quick enough: the tired, the cynical, the idle. You nod sympathetically when they come to announce that they are leaving and cavort around the room with joy as soon as the door shuts behind them. These two were different and it felt as if an era was coming to a close.

At the staffroom party I asked how many of them were born after 1977. At least eight put their hands up, realising they were not even a twinkle in the eye when Mrs Drama first starting teaching children how to be trees at our school.

I doubt any of them will retire in 2036 having taught only in the one school. This is the age of the Fast Track Young Leader superhero, underpants over his trousers before he's even out of nappies, saving failing departments and on his second headship before he even knows what superannuation is, let alone can spell it.

And a jolly good thing too. We need dynamic and electric teachers to prepare our children for the rapidly changing world they will inherit. Yet, as a wise old deputy once told me, the problem with trying to be superhuman is that you stop being human.

The folk who have been around a long time have taught the parents and even the grandparents of some of our pupils. They are the guardians of the school's history. We can ignore them when they moan that continuous educational change is just re-inventing the wheel. Let them drive a BMW with stone wheels if they want. We cannot ignore their insistence that such change must make things better for individual pupils, for they are speaking from the knowledge that comes from time.

It was a speech from Chris, a sixth-former, that brought the tear to my eye. Here is an extract from what he said.

"Every so often we have leaders who do not just lead. Sometimes we are fortunate to have leaders who listen. Really listen. Leaders who take time out of their own lives to help us with our own. Leaders who, despite having heard a problem countless times before, will give the same amount of support and help that they gave to the very first person who sought their advice. With the passing of each year they grow themselves, and use their ever-increasing knowledge to make our lives more fulfilled."

Ye gods! From the mouths of babes! So this is what it's all about. Strip away all the NCSL leadership speak and this is what is left.

Schools at present are about doing more. Education ministers need us to do more to grab headlines before they spin through the revolving door to their next job. We need kids to do more to boost our average points score. We all need to do more to avoid being performance-managed into early retirement.

Yet being a good listener is about doing less.

Mrs Head of Sixth Form talked, in her leaving speech, about her passion for gardening and how her career has been about nurturing the growth of young people in the same way she does her plants, even if it meant dumping a healthy dose of manure on them occasionally. Gardeners are patient people.

They guide plants but do not force them. They take the time to find out what particular plants need, and create the best conditions to let them thrive.

The generation that is now retiring worked in schools when there was the time to be a good gardener. We need to do things differently now, but as we start a new term, let's pass on the trug from one generation to the next.

Let's learn from them the wisdom of when to pull up a stool in the greenhouse and spend time listening to our plants.

Roger Pope is head of Kingsdown community college, Devon

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