It all went black – and a bit red, maybe – within seconds.
The staffroom phone rang at 3.45pm on a Monday and, being a) in its vicinity and b) already too knackered to exercise a little forethought, I picked it up. At the other end of the line was a polite woman conducting a survey: you know, the kind that requires responses like ‘Agree’, ‘Neither agree nor disagree’, ‘Disagree more than a bit, but not enough to to have issues” and so on. I agreed to participate.
Usually, I’m a polite respondent. Back then I was a full-time teacher. The two, I’m ashamed to say, did not always go together in my case. Having cold sweats and palpitations at the sight of post on the doormat (“Envelopes? I haven’t got time to open f*****g envelopes!!”) is a pretty good signpost that You Are Entering The State Of Idiocy-by-Sleep-Deprivation.
So, as I said, I was a full-timer caught on a Monday afternoon. A rather bad Monday afternoon, as it happened, because my then-headteacher had introduced a(nother) clutch of pointless initiatives that would do nothing to improve the quality of teaching or learning. Ones that would make me not just more than most people’s idea of full-time, but even more full-time than before, but not so full-time that I couldn’t allow myself a ten-minute nap. Twice a week. An afternoon made worse, because I was trying (honestly) to answer questions using a scale fundamentally unsuited to those of us left with the retentive powers of a guppy after one day at work.
And if that wasn’t burden enough, because the survey was about… attitudes towards headship. As I recall, my responses went from ‘Four asterisks’ to ‘Five or more asterisks and an ampersand’ up to ‘Several words in succession consisting entirely of symbols’. Like I said, black. Some red, perhaps. Why the ire? Why the infliction of crazed ranting on an innocent Mori employee by one who knew, but wasn’t being, better? It’s all (well, much of it – I have to bear some of the culpa) up there; in the Head, son.
If you’ve read other posts, you may well have a cumulative picture of me as a tad unimpressed by headteachers. I’ve referred to them in the contexts of bullying and of cheating. (I’ve yet to tackle out-and-out fraud, but it’s only a matter of time: I have the examples.) When I entered teaching, I had no strong feelings either way about putative headship. The longer I stayed, the more negative my opinions became. Come the Monday afternoon survey, I’d long decided that I’d rather have my eyeballs removed by five asterisks and an ampersand than risk becoming the type of person exemplified by my boss.
My experience of working for headteachers has followed a similar trajectory. In my probationary year I landed a job at what turned out to be an extremely supportive school – one that, to no small extent, was as it was because of its wonderful headteacher. This fantastic woman retained a substantial teaching timetable and, as a result, took account of the realities of the classroom when making decisions. Staff meetings were weekly affairs, with the agendae decided by – brace yourselves – the staff. Discussions were frank and fearlessly so. And no-one, but no-one, had to run around with three colours of Post-It-Note stuck to their forehead, because the leader was showcasing their way with kinaesthetic and visual learning styles in a sixty-seven-part lesson. In short, I was working under a head who understood that every teacher also mattered, and that staff deserved be treated as sentient, intelligent adults – not toddlers or lab mice.
Those were the days, my friend; I thought they’d never end. Silly me.
Since then, I have worked in schools led by one variety or other of maniac. The type, for instance, whose identity has become so fused with that of the institution, that it’s impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. Or the type who, having alienated all of his or her own friends, thinks their success is measurable by how many of their staff end up friendless too. Or the type who gauges ‘productivity’ by how little time employees spend with their own children; by the in/frequency of their bowel movements (could go either way, that one, depending on how you feel about shitting bricks); by whether they cross the quad at that slightly accelerated speed seen in Pathe newsreels etc. etc. Or the type who, I suspect, has blackout blinds on their windows and sleeps in a box of unconsecrated polystyrene beads in the office. More than once, I’ve encountered the ‘variety-pack’ head, who contains all of the above.
Most of these individuals assumed that their staff aspired to be like them. Or them. They conducted business on this basis, solipsistically threatening dissenters with the removal of promotional opportunities as if they were vital organs. One told me that, if I continued refusing to carry out a very stupid instruction, I’d “never be trusted with something important again”. The fact that “Result!” wasn’t the correct answer became apparent when the conversation lurched to an emergency stop, followed by the hiss of something either inflating or deflating.
Several of these headteachers were graduates of the NPQH course and, from what my erstwhile colleagues tell me, they are the ones who now routinely threaten dissenters of any degree with capability procedures. To be offered a place on the NPQH, candidates have to undergo considerable psychometric testing. If anyone out there has experience of these tests – particularly if you helped to devise them or know what kind of pervert person is being sought – do leave a comment. This is not a cunning ploy to further covert aspirations to headship; I hope I’ve convinced you of my unfitness for, and aversion to, the role. Plus, by and large, I don’t regard Zanu PF as a model of good governance. It’s just that I suspect the emphasis of these tests is on the ‘psycho’ element, and not in a healthy way. If I’ve got that wrong, I’d like to be told, so that I can shift the blame from the course onto other shoulders: the pressures placed on heads by successive governments, and the individuals who choose to respond to said pressures in the most rotten of ways.
The NPQH hadn’t been invented when I worked for my first headteacher. I doubt she’d have been accepted onto the course, had she ever applied. But she was a huge part of the reason why, unlike so many fledging teachers these days, I wasn’t carried out of the profession on a stretcher, with a terminal case of the screaming abdabs.