Santa Please Stop Here
This story presents a seasonal moment of realisation. I soon began to understand that this is a big part of what the job is all about, the perpetual process of understanding the lives others. It may well be that we are inevitably wrapped up in our own lives, with the assumption that others generally live life the same way. And just when you become preoccupied - these realisations can hit, and move you. They will shift and steer your actions and behaviours, particularly when you have the privilege of being the headteacher.
As we begin to think just a little bit about Christmas, I'm reminded of a series of events that shaped the festivities of the years to come.
As always, we'd had our Christmas collective worship, singing carols together as we decorated the tree. The classrooms took shape with flickering fairy lights and 'home-made' trimmings, and we had the hustle of the Christmas fayre, church services and dinner, all to look forwards to.
Christmas in a school is a magical experience, as you surround yourself with excited children, who will remind you about the innocence and beauty of it all. As a grown up, it's a also a slice of what we all loved as a child. The fun and feel-good, the anticipation and the glitter.
But it really wasn't all good. There were situations that would present themselves, and every year it was a similar pattern.
'The Christmas calendar is a busy one in schools. It's something that requires careful management, with so many events to oversee. As the workload increases, so can the stress levels for everyone. As the headteacher, you need to remain level-headed and in control, because this can also be the time of year when your safeguarding disclosures increase.'
Despite all of our plans, and all of the additional work and preparations, something wasn't right. Misplaced and minor grumbles on the door step. So-called disputes between children. Casual allegations about pupil welfare or about staff that didn't care. Sometimes the criticism became more personal or there could be threats about leaving the school for somewhere more considerate.
As always I would remain approachable. I would follow everything up diligently and with an open mind, only to find out that any concerns were minor, illogical or non-existent. I would look around and see that the children in school were happy and safe, and I could begin to appreciate that these were isolated complaints, disproportionate and unfair.
In one instance a parent would not stop. Her concerns grew and escalated and yet her child would always appear carefree and happy in school. I offered her my time. I monitored the situation closely. I followed everything up. I took every word seriously.
'But she was convinced. This was confusing given the fact that when I had observed, everything had appeared very settled. I became unsure about how this could be resolved with a positive outcome for all parties. I could wait in hope that things would subside or go away, but wishful thinking offers little personal reassurance and is no way to run a school.'
And then, at some point in and amongst the hustle, things started to make sense. For most people, this was the best time of the year, and for too many others, it was the toughest. The pressures of the festive season were too much. The high expectations and the strain to deliver. The vulnerability and the pressures of parenthood. The impact on mental health and the inevitable financial strain. Unfortunately the truth is, that not everyone has good reason to be happy at Christmas time, no matter how much you cover your corridors in tinsel.
It was time to slow down and to take a step back. To understand the bigger picture and to appreciate how, for many families, Christmas exposed them. And with a little time, comes clarity. Clarity will always be at the heart of anything that you can do to successfully strive towards an improved, or positive outcome.
In the years to come we would make sure that we could all become more aware as a staff team, so we could spot the early indicators and be receptive and supportive. We would carefully look out for families where we knew that there could be domestic pressures and add this to our safeguarding duty of care. With a sensitive and trusting approach, we'd make ourselves available. At the same time we had the opportunity to take our children to the panto and give them ice cream. They would enjoy the many school Christmas parties, visit Santa for their present and enjoy a lovely Christmas dinner. The whole run up to Christmas became an opportunity for us to genuinely make a difference.
The season would conclude with our services together in church. With our families by our sides, we would talk openly, considering the challenges, shining a light on the requirement for kindness, compassion and community. Every prayer, hymn and blessing served as a reminder. We didn't just sing and read those words, we took the time to understand and make sense of them all.
Year by year, it all became less about rolling out Christmas in school, and more about trying to ensure that we could all be well, be aware, be grateful, and be faithful to the true meaning of the Christmas story.
'The nativity tells us that the angels first delivered the proud news to the humble shepherds. The working classes. The hillside setting and the stable was really not the cosy, typical image that children will see depicted. This was a story about miracles amongst hardship and simplicity. These are the narratives that can serve to help us to understand, learn and relate to the nativity.'
The WIN / WIN
These realisations can be a very powerful driver. They can change the way that your school lives and breathes. The other thing that it did for me, which was often the case in headship, was the opportunity to grow. I always sought to be sincere when speaking publicly and to be able say things that were heartfelt. It's very hard to talk about love to children, if it isn't something that you spend time thinking and learning about yourself.
The design of your school should be dependant on these kind of circumstances. This is what makes your school unique, a good fit for the people that it serves. When leaders are able to identify the characteristics of the community, they can then be in a position to steer the provision.
We created a food bank in school. This was something that I had always wanted to do. When someone had challenged me and told me that it was too hard to manage because there were things like sell by dates to consider, I wasted no time in clearing out an old storage room ready. Within days we had it full of food and school uniform. At this point, our learning mentor was able handover food parcels to our families. This not only served to make Christmas easier, but also for the forthcoming pandemic.