Why the power of humour in school leadership is no joke

Head Colin Dowland says his letter to critical parents, suggesting they retrain as teachers, showed the value of humour

Colin Dowland

School leadership: Headteacher Colin Dowland explains why humour is so important

“Why did the Ofsted inspector cross the road?”

No? OK, I’ll come back to that later.

First, let’s talk about Spike the purple unicorn. 

Spike is a coopted member of school staff, who lives in the wooded nature reserve at the side of the field, and leaves us special messages on the playground spelled out in his magical droppings. He lives on a diet of pokey-pokey nuts and, when he eats too many, his messages become illegible.

Spike first appeared in February 2020, when things around the world were getting more frightening by the day, and we were being asked to implement a new Covid-related initiative every seven minutes. My weekly staff-update email became almost daily, and it soon became clear that some staff didn’t have time to read the emails properly. 

Consequently, I began adding a one-liner gag, one bullet point from the end. This was to catch everyone’s attention and to keep staff reading to the end of the update. And it started with a purple unicorn.

Humour as a school leadership tool

We are now on to the 41st Spike one-liner. The one I’m most proud of is: “Spike the purple unicorn has a new girlfriend called Peggy – a beautiful, white-winged horse he met in the nature reserve when collecting small sticks and branches – aka Tinder.” No one commented. Tough crowd.

Of course, I have no idea if staff do now read the email update in full. I’m not that deluded or naïve. I’m also not an expert, but using humour as a leadership tool – as well as simply to oil the often-overheated school wheels and help everyone get along – can be very powerful. 

Another effective device is comic self-deprecation, but I’m really rubbish at that. 

Another is to dress up on World Book Day, Comic Relief and Children in Need. If the head doesn’t, why should anyone else? I’m not averse to putting on a dress and wearing glittery high heels...but I digress.

Working in a school is a high-pressure job, with constant challenges from the children, accompanied by demanding parents, the Department for Education and Ofsted breathing down your neck. It also often comes with some pretty grim safeguarding issues thrown in. It’s exhausting, emotionally draining and can be very dispiriting. It’s not for everyone. The nightmare that is staff recruitment speaks for itself.

So, as in many schools, at the beginning of every Inset day, in staff meetings and on our training slides, I always include some funny stuff, simply to lift everyone’s spirits: a ridiculous story, a silly joke or a stupid video or picture.

The January 2021 Inset day was all planned and going to be a set of staff wellbeing, new year’s resolution-themed Taskmaster activities, featuring origami, Play-Doh, a scavenger hunt and a Brexit race across the playground using hockey sticks and Brussels sprouts. A stress reliever after such a tough term, a tense Christmas and the damp squib of new year. 

I was looking forward to being Greg Davies, himself an ex-teacher. There were quality prizes, too – I spent a massive six quid on the winner. But it never happened, because Lockdown Three arrived, and a new, less fun, Taskmaster activity kicked in.

Of course, not everything can be treated with the funny bone presented front and centre. It can’t all be custard pies. With our role in the development and protection of the children so important, it would be unsustainable and ineffective. Safeguarding, underperformance, financial crises – the list is long – all still have to be addressed with a straight face. They are not laughing matters.

However, if you try to create a climate where keeping staff morale high is a priority, school is a safe and happy place to be, and if you recruit people with real emotional intelligence, when the time comes to get serious and address the bad things that do sometimes happen, it sticks out in sharp relief. 

A few weeks ago, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek letter to parents, asking them to retrain as teachers if they felt they could do better with the lockdown remote learning. It was written in the usual, light-hearted house style, and parents know me. I was hoping they would take it in the spirit I intended. They did, and they were amazingly supportive, as ever. 

But someone posted it online. It went viral, had 2.8 million views on Twitter and resulted in educators around the world sending hundreds of “thank you” messages and emails to me. That’s how powerful humour can be.

And what’s the punchline to “Why did the Ofsted inspector cross the road?”

There isn’t one. 

Ofsted inspectors just aren’t funny.

Colin Dowland is a primary headteacher in North London. He tweets as @colindowland

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