Diary of a headteacher: Aiming for the moon

Written by: Diary of a headteacher | Published:

Slowly and surely the transformation is taking place. After a meeting that will hopefully transform a core part of her school, our headteacher diarist reflects on the importance of aspiration...

I started secondary school in 1985. It was the era in education when significant change was afoot. Not that we knew it as students in classrooms around the country.

Looking back now, the writing was on the wall. You could see it coming when the then secretary of state announced in a speech in Sheffield in January 1984 that he intended to seek broad agreement about the objectives of the five to 16 curriculum. We know where that ended up...

An interesting work from the UCL Institute of Education looks at the experiences of teaching history from 1985 to 2011 (Woolley, 2017). It states: “There were dramatic changes in history teaching across this period, in terms of teachers’ epistemological position, professional status and pedagogic practice. All of the teachers interviewed perceived and experienced a loss of autonomy.”

As I sat in my English lessons in secondary school, I remember our teachers telling us that what was most important was that we express our ideas and opinions. We were encouraged to use our imagination freely. While this approach might not have helped a generation with our use of colons and semi-colons, it certainly taught us to think.

I remember as a student in south London in the late 80s receiving some advice that has served me well throughout my life, especially now as a headteacher. My teachers taught me the importance of speech. They told me that, if we learnt to speak well, if we were fluent and articulate story-tellers, we would go far; that you could talk yourself into (or out of) anything – just as long as you could talk.

You would think it a given that we should be able to articulate ourselves well but, even in our profession, I am afraid it is a skill that some are missing.

One of my English teachers often talked about speeches that she had found particularly memorable. She would encourage us to listen to the great orators and pay attention to their diction and intonation. She taught us to hang on the words for meaning and to consider how they made us feel.

I can remember one so clearly. Our teacher told us about a speech she had heard. On September 12, 1962, President Kennedy delivered this speech before a crowd of 40,000 people in the Rice University football stadium in Texas, many of them school children.

He said: “We choose to go to the Moon! We choose to go to the Moon. We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.”

This week, I remembered this speech. As I sat in a tender presentation for potential new caterers, I thought about our decrepit and condemned swimming pool. Back in April 2018, when I arrived, I had a vision that we would renovate the space to create a state of the art dining room and conference space.

This seemed like a dream at first, quite far-fetched. But my new team and I went for it. We sold that dream to potential caterers. We helped them imagine how amazing it could be.

Today, I feel like President Kennedy must have felt in 1962. He reached for the moon and so did we. This morning we have the financial investment we need to ensure our building work takes place over the summer. We sold the story of our school, shared our potential and made people believe. We are the story-tellers who, hopefully, will fulfil the big dreams we have for our school and learners.

  • The author is a headteacher in her first year of headship at a secondary school in east London.

Further information

Experiences of teaching history 1985-2011, Mary Catherine Woolley, UCL Institute of Education: http://bit.ly/2Qt1liJ


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