“That’ll never happen! How could it? Surely those things don’t happen in real life!”
Like many Headteachers, as part of my National Professional Qualification for Headteachering (NPQH), I had to complete a critical incident task. Much like Star Trek’s impossible ‘The Kobayashi Maru’ training task, this is a series of hypothetical things that happen simultaneously at the start of a school day which require a response from you as a new headteacher. They generally involve squabbling staff, an injured child etc and test your ability to prioritise. As a trainee, you generally giggle your way through, safe in the knowledge that nothing like this could ever happen in real life.
And then you become a Headteacher.
I was reminded recently of some of the stranger ‘critical incidents’ I’ve faced over the years and, as an exercise for all you trainee Heads, thought I’d share a slice of real life – albeit with names etc changed to protect the innocent (and not so innocent!)…
In at 10: Day 1 Arson
It started before I’d even stepped foot in the school as a new Headteacher.
As I was stepping out of the door for my leaving do as Deputy Headteacher, the house phone rang. My wife answered and told me that it was my new Chair of Governors.
“Four children have just tried to burn down the school. What would you like to do..?”
At 9: The bride of Christ.
“Simon… there’s a woman in Reception… She says she’s the bride of Christ.”
It was my first 15 minutes of school leadership. I was 2 years into my teaching profession and an accident of fate had meant that for just 15 minutes on some idle Tuesday, all the school leaders and all the senior teachers were off site.
“Simon – for the next 15 minutes” announced the Headteacher, “You’re in charge.”
It felt amazing! For this brief interlude, the 500 pupil school had me as their 22 year old leader!
I walked about a bit. Had a cup of tea in the staffroom. So far, so easy!
Then the office rang…
“What do you mean ‘bride of Christ’???” I muttered, trying to sound nonchalant.
“A woman… dressed as a bride… wanting to see someone in charge… who says they are married to Jesus!” Came the office staff’s response.
What followed was an awkward exchange where I realised that I knew nothing about dealing with strange situations. Especially those demanding repentance of mortal sins and news of the apocalypse.
At 8: Killing wildlife.
“The children are very upset… It’s in a bad way… It’d be a kindness…”
Having already ushered 200 gawping children off the playground, we discussed options for the moribund pigeon dying loudly on the edge of the field.
“You’ve got to do something – you can’t just leave it.” proclaimed the caretaker.
I’d literally been in school for under an hour, and here I was, stood above a shrieking pigeon with a shovel, children being ushered away from the windows.
As an animal lover, I won’t share what happened next.
But I did my duty.
In at number 7: the OAP on the roof.
Once a member of staff has been allowed to continue after the official retirement age, it appears (or at least did at the time) that there is very little that can be done to ‘encourage’ retirement thereafter.
And so it was with my lovely Caretaker, Burt, who for some reason (aged nearly 80) felt the need to retrieve balls off an extremely unstable (30 foot) roof on a daily basis.
“Now Burt, can we go through this again? It is not safe for you (or anyone) to climb a ladder to the second floor roof to collect balls with no harness or safety equipment.”
“Got you!” replied Burt, “Not to go on the roof!”
“Simon,” called the Business Manager. “Burt’s on the roof again!”
At 6: The Sweary Priest
‘Gentlemen… You will not say “F*ck” in a Church of England School!’
Having been Headteacher for a short while, I’d been troubled by the casual parental swearing on the school playground and the occasional parental argument.
Having had two dads, squaring up to each other in the Reception corridor, ‘effing and jeffing’ all the while, I decided it was time to do something about it.
So I called the Chair of Governors, who also happened to be the Parish Priest. She was a clever and formidable woman who had spent most of her time as a vicar in inner-city London, and so I thought she’d be ideal to help me tame the gobby dads on the playground.
And so it was that, having called the sweary dads into school, I sat with my Chair of Governors, in full vicar dog-collar and uniform, and looked to discuss the issue.
When the vicar dropped the ‘F-bomb’ the look of surprise/ shock/ guilt/ acceptance which flashed before the hulks of dad’s eyes was a sight to behold. Like boys chastised at Sunday School, heads bowed, they awkwardly apologised.
We had no more playground swearing after that day.
At number 5 – Mr Arse.
I do not have the best name for teaching. My wife, also a teacher, kept her maiden name for partly this reason.
You see, my name is Mr Botten. NOT – Bottom! After years of being alert to this, I instinctively spell it each and every time someone asks ‘B-O-T-T-E-N‘.
However, in nearly 23 years of teaching, not one child has mentioned the obviously funny surname (although behind my back may be another matter).
So, when showing a group of parents around the school one day, I was more than a touch surprised when a lovely Year 1 lad greeted me with a cheery ‘Good Morning Mr Arse!’
The first time I thought I’d misheard. But then he followed it up with “Mr Arse, what time is assembly?”. I ushered the slightly surprised parents away.
When I eventually caught up with the boy, the mystery was revealed. You see, Claude (not his real name), had been in the UK about six months and was learning English at a frighteningly quick pace.
However, he was yet to fully understand the subtleties of synonyms…
At number 4: Love letter.
“We cannot deny our feelings for each other any longer!”
I was opening the post as usual, but this was not your missive from the DfE nor even a complaint from a parent.
Instead was a 3 page letter from a parent detailing why she thought we were in love!? The letter contained some specific allegations, including: ‘I know the secret messages you’ve been hiding in my child’s homework…’ (I hadn’t), and ‘The way you choose ‘our song’ to play in assembly…’. I didn’t actually know who this parent was, let alone pick out songs for her. Although I did have a liking for bad 80’s pop for Fridays’ Celebration assembly, so maybe ‘I am the one and only’ by Chezney Hawkes was the song to which she referred?!
I was mortified (and a little unnerved by referenced to where I lived and evidence of more than a bit of online stalking!). Naturally, as a new Headteacher in a school struggling to regain a positive reputation, I rang the LA’s Head of School Improvement, soberly telling her my predicament.
I read her the letter. There was a long pause – and then a howl of laughter.
This was no laughing matter I thought, and rang my wife!
‘Poor women, she’s obviously not well.” was her only (and somewhat ego-crushingly unconcerned) response.
Which apparently was the only possible explanation!
At number 3: fight night.
‘What do you mean, “a bit of a fight?”‘ I asked, still half asleep.
‘About 20 dad. Try not to get upset, but I think you should come down.’ said the Chair of the PTA, sheepishly.
I’d only been a Headteacher 3 months and when the PTA suggested a parents’ fundraising ball, I naively thought ‘what harm can it do?’. I’d left myself at about 11:30pm and all seemed to be calm (although some parents had brought friends and relatives not linked to the school, which is where the trouble started)…
As I pulled into the car park, I saw the PTA chair anxiously talking to the local beat officer…
It appears that shortly after I left, what can only be described as a ‘barroom brawl’ took place (although when the police arrived and spoke to the dozen bruised and bloodied males each claimed that they had simply ‘fallen over’).
‘We’ve managed to mop up all of the blood,’ said the PTA Chair weakly, ‘Although we did find a tooth…’
At number 2: sweary first Assembly
This was it! The moment I’d been striving for my entire professional life! I was about to address the children and staff for the first time at my new school as their headteacher.
I’d run through it a hundred times. The entry music – calm, yet uplifting; the Power Point slides full of hope and inspiration. I’d even tried the assembly out at the school where I’d been Deputy to get it ‘just right’!.
And then the children came in…
I’d like to say that they walked in (and some did). However, many of thee Year 6’s in particular tumbled into the hall, laughing, pushing and shouting.
Something had to be done. I had to set down a marker that I was in charge… but also that I was approachable.
‘Hey, guys!’ I said in my best ‘I’m down with you kids and “get you”‘ voice. ‘Hey, guys. Could you come into the hall quietly? Thanks!’
Quick as a flash the lead boy looked me dead in the eye. I looked back, sure that he’d comply with his new assertive (yet cool, young, ‘groovy’ and approachable) Headteacher.
‘F*** off!’ he said, and carried on walking.
In at number 1: Calling in the SWAT team.
‘Mrs X, please! I really do need you to sit down and stop shouting, otherwise I will have to ask you to leave.’ I said, doing my best to sound calm and assertive.
‘I ain’t going bloody nowhere until you [string another child up from the nearest tree/ stop giving little Tommy homework/ let little Tommy keep his crossbow]’ – I forget the reason for her anger.
It was getting late and I was running out of options – she’d been there for an hour already and was getting angrier and swearier by the minute!
I’d tried to write down her concerns and offer to look into them, I’d tried to give her a copy of all the relevant policies. I’d even tried to apologise for her obvious distress. Nothing was shifting Mrs X from my office.
There came a knock at the door. It was my Key Stage leader. ‘Dan (her husband) is outside. He’s come to drop of some medication for the dog before his night shift. Shall I get him to come in?’
I’d tried everything else, so agreed that this might do the trick.
“Afternoon Mr Botten,” Says Dan “Anything I can help you with here?”.
The colour drained from Mrs X’s face. Without a word, she gathered her things and hurriedly left.
It appears that the sight of six foot two Dan, an Armed Police Officer, complete with machine gun strapped to his chest and a pistol at his hip (it’s the law that such officers carry their guns at all times – even when delivering dog medicine) was enough to encourage Mrs X to reconsider her position…
So whether you’re an aspiring leader, grappling critical incident tasks, a leader about to start their first post or a seasoned hack, the job will never stop surprising you.
And that’s what makes school leadership the best job there is!