Who in the world am I?

Written by: Jenny Brown | Published:
Jenny Brown, headteacher, St Albans High School for Girls

When changing curricula, reformed examinations, tight budgets and government diktat threaten to drain our morale, Jenny Brown says we must remember why
we do what we do and the joy that working with young people brings

“Who in the world am I?”
“Ah that’s the great puzzle.”
Alice in Wonderland

This summer, accommodating the implications of the reformed A levels and new GCSEs, I felt (like Alice hurtling down the rabbit hole), that “it would be so nice if something made sense for a change”.

Teachers in recent times have seen the wonderland of learning overrun by new directives where new curriculum, assessments and examinations appear and disappear with the manic speed of the white rabbit.

The amount of national change can mean that staffrooms sneak beyond the rueful into the wearily sceptical or even the cynical. Energy and inspiration can harden into criteria-meeting chains, bite-size learning and endless assessment.

So what can we do to counter this? To reclaim the joy of the job?

Forgive the idealism of the vocabulary here, but what I’d like to start with is the necessity of holding on to the wonder at the heart of the profession, even in the white heat of syllabus-change.

One of our jobs in schools must be to create the climate and the time to grow learning. Slow, methodical, deep learning. And to find the space, a little oasis, like Alice on her raft surrounded by the tears of successive dormouse education ministers, to remember the delights of our profession.

Because whatever the vagaries of governmental diktats, of tighter and tighter budgets, and resources pushed to breaking point, the fun of it is still the point.
It is fun to get to know young people and to engage with young minds, it is fun to share ideas, and above all it is fun to seek understanding together in one room about something you care about.

And if all this sounds hopelessly naïve and optimistic, well – yes, it is.

There’s no doubt that there are huge challenges. The legislation and regulation that you need to be on top of, the budget which you have to stay within, the endless and endlessly shifting demands of government, the stress and burn-out of colleagues.

In some ways, of course, I know I am very lucky. As the head of St Albans High School I am fortunate to teach in a great school, with incredibly impressive kids and a dedicated and very talented staff.

I am also fortunate that I do not have to face the demoralising and sometimes paralysing financial constraints that colleagues in the state sector face.

As we know, the latest predictions from the Institute for Fiscal Studies are that spending per-pupil is to fall by 6.5 per cent by 2019/20.

Schools are cutting music, drama, languages, classics, art – one school I know has cut geography A level. What are we left with? It is cultural vandalism – something that has quite rightly been attacked.

The decimation of the school curriculum along with the current culture of accountability and blame are real issues that can infect morale and affect the way we as teachers meet that number one obligation – to go into classrooms, recognise and celebrate the talent of our pupils and share the fun of our mutual learning.

We have to retain, in Charles Dickens’ wonderful phrase, “A heart that never hardens ... (and) a temper that never tires”. That can feel like a tough ask.
And yet as teachers we get to reach most of the hearts, most of the time.

And this is not about money or cost, or inspection or government or any of those things. This is about enjoying our classrooms and the learning and ambitions, however motley or confused, sitting within them.

If we want to realise the potential of our children, we have to ensure that we are nurturing our own.

We have to keep learning actively, explicitly and enthusiastically.

Even (or especially) when under enormous financial and resource pressure, schools must prioritise exciting professional development and grow it through open and adventurous connection and sharing of ideas and practice, by setting up sabbatical programmes, supporting further degrees, creating senior shadowing and secondments both in and out of the school, providing innovative inset from people who care. These things matter.

We educate for many reasons – all of them good ones. But the most important reason for education in my view is not the results, the universities, or the well-paid jobs they may lead to, important though they are.

It’s not even that we fill minds full of great things – although we do and what an incredible delight that is.

In my view, the gift of an education is the gift of integrity: of discernment and understanding – which allows pupils to recognise their potential, to see and know what they want, what they love, what they care about and what they are good at.

Or to return to Wonderland, to find the answer to Alice’s question: “Who in the world am I?” 

  • Jenny Brown, headteacher, St Albans High School for Girls.


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