Royal Grammar School

Newcastle

take a deep breath: and get back to work

take a deep breath: and get back to work

Here we are again: another September, another school term and year. This will be the twenty-fifth that I’ve started as a head.  

A quarter of a century? Blimey! I can hear voices (or is that merely paranoia?) asking how someone as professionally long in the tooth as I am now can possibly find the energy or motivation to start pushing the boulder up the hill, Sisyphus-like, yet again.  

In lots of ways it is hard. Over the August Bank Holiday we Traffords often get together with other teachers – friends and family alike, all in the trade – in an attempt to dull the pain, or at least still the sense of anxiety. After all, the longer you’ve been at it, the more you know what’s in store, the more vividly you can picture the strength-sapping demands of a long autumn term; the frustrations and the moments when you wonder why you bother at all, when it seems fruitless to keep fighting the battle for improvement; the non-stop expectation and demand for, well, leadership at best and miracles at worst!  

Yes, if I’m honest, by late August I’m a little on edge and somewhat snappish at home. I’m fidgety, knowing it’s got to start again, but not quite ready to do it.  

But all that’s about the business of taking a deep breath, of preparing myself to take the plunge and even of still suffering that lack of confidence that asks, can I really hack it and do the job as well as I need (and am needed) to? I’ve never believed in being totally certain or convinced that I’m always right: indeed, I distrust those fellow school leaders who appear possessed of such certainty. But maybe I envy them a little, too, because this is the time of year when doubt gnaws: after all, once term’s underway there’s precious little time for such introspection.  

But natural self-doubt is not a weakening of the sense of vocation, of the need to do the job, to make a difference, even to fight (yes, sometimes one has to) for what is right for the school, for the young people in it, for those who earn a living in it. That’s what drives me.  

The task is more, not less, daunting every year. And this is the time when I feel it, and my wife Katherine and I plan all kinds of strategies for keeping healthy, exercised, thinner(!), less stressed, less email- and Twitter-driven, more accessible to the family. They work for a while – then it’s back to mere survival.  

Nevertheless, a few butterflies aside I am genuinely up for the fight, more than ever. There’s a job to be done, and I think I can do it. So I’ll dive back in and, once I’m in the water, it will be familiar and won’t seem so cold or intimidating as it does from the edge of the pool.  

So now, stealing a few biblical metaphors, I’ll gird my loins for the new school year, truly raising my (and the school’s) eyes to the hills in our pursuit of a vision and a powerful future for the young.  

In the words of Aristotle (translated!):          

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”  

It had to happen: I’ve strayed into someone else’s territory! That quote is one of many I’ve stolen recently from a fantastic book, The Restless School, by former HMI and founder-director of the National Education Trust, Roy Blatchford. Roy sent me an inspiring chapter while it was still in draft. It’s called Excellence as Standard and, flatteringly, he asked if I could recognise the RGS in it.  

In all modesty, I could certainly identify in it precisely what we try to do, day in, day out, forming a habit of excellence. Here’s my favourite bit, one I now reiterate to my colleagues (not too much, I hope!).  

“Schools are a people business. The inner belief and commitment to realising excellence by those who lead schools is the starting point. At its beating heart the excellent school is a place where people care more than others think is wise, risk more than others think is safe, dream more than others think is practical, and expect more than others think is possible.”  

To care, to risk and to dream. Now there’s a set of aims! And it’s a daunting one - which explains, I think, how I feel at this time of year, as I wrote at the start.  

We set ourselves a momentous challenge in presuming to educate our young, let alone to do it within a “habit of excellence”.  

But it’s not just what we do, either: it’s also why we do it. As I was embarking on writing this, one of my daughters, a teacher in a boarding school, was just coming to the end of a week working with some of her Year 12/13 students (generous with their time and talents, as the young so often are) to provide a holiday nine-to-eleven year-olds from deprived inner-city backgrounds through the Children’s Country Holiday Fund charity.  

She and the host students work hard to give them a wonderful experience. The reason I mention it here is that, having seen off their young charges, she and her helpers were sitting and talking through the experience. Several had been in tears when they said goodbye. And one 17 year-old boy remarked, “I’ve never thought about it before, but now I think I understand why someone like you becomes a teacher.”  

Indeed. A spot of real education occurred there, for one young man at any rate.  

So now, in common with teachers everywhere, in every kind of school and college, I take a deep breath, fight down the nerves and insecurities, and get back to work.  

Good luck to all of us!  

Bernard Trafford

Headmaster