Losing Your Head

A tribute to my friend, colleague and Headteacher of Hendon School, who died on Sunday

There are cards and flowers and a very small glass angel outside Hendon School today. Amongst them, there’s a message from a student, who has kindly given me his permission to share it. It was a card he meant to give Kevin before the end of term. It reads as follows:

Dear Mr McKellar (Kevin),

I wanted to take a moment to formally thank you for everything you have done for me throughout my time at Hendon. It is rare to find a Head Teacher that shows such enthusiasm to help his students and change people’s lives. I could not have  made it to where I am without your help, you have encouraged me in ways you cannot imagine by supporting, believing and giving me a chance to follow my dreams. Thus, because of this, I cannot wait to move onto the next stage of my life and university.

Kevyn (with a ‘y’)

P.S. I look forward to keeping in touch.

Kevyn has added the following note on 26 August:

35/35 A*

The card I was not able to give to you. Thank you Sir. Rest in peace.

From Kevyn with a Y!

Kevin loathed social media. He was deeply mistrustful of its capacity to wound and offend in ways that went against the ‘spirit of transparency’ of which he spoke so often. He and I argued about this frequently. In true Kevin spirit, he didn’t give an inch. I think even he would be blown away by the tidal wave of grief and affection and respect that is out there this week. I think I may even have enough evidence to win the argument. I just wish it wasn’t too late.

If there is one message which overlies all of the rest, not just in the media, but in the cards, the phone calls, the conversations and helpless shrugs, it’s that Kevin McKellar Changed Lives. Not all of us agreed with all of his methods all of the time, but he had a set of core values which did what every teacher I know most deeply aspires to: Kevin Make a Difference.

In Kevin’s school, every adult and child was expected to give their everything to trying to be better. This was never, as far as I remember, explicitly demanded, but it was modelled by him tirelessly, every second of every day in his role as Headteacher of Hendon School. He gave every ounce of his being to pushing us each further than we might have imagined we could go. He led with tireless, sometimes infuriating, flamboyance.

People were everything to Kevin. He knew our family members by name, he knew our pets, our weaknesses, our fears and our dreams. He would dance in and out of classrooms and offices speaking appalling Japanese, German, or a mixture of the two, singing loudly, demonstrating his latest dance move or proffering little gifts. A Hello Kitty bag he’d seen that he knew my daughter would love (and I would hate), a hand-drawn zebra (because ‘zebras never get stressed’), an inspirational book about a world-changing figure, an outrageous anecdote about his latest DIY disaster (I’ll never forget the story of him falling through the roof of the greenhouse). He knew our favourite colours, our deeply-held beliefs, our idiosyncrasies. His exuberance was infectious, exhausting, and – we believed – without end.

When I went to this school this morning, after two months away, it was with fresh eyes that I saw the pink walls and angels, the wrought-iron hearts, and the bright blue pots we painted together with our families, the first weekend after we started at Hendon.

photo 1-1

The pots we painted with our families, eight years ago

There’s a fountain in the middle of the courtyard. A carved angel outside his office. A mural of inspirational quotes (hand-painted by Kevin, with help from staff and students) outside the library. Even the pipes are painted pink. There’s colour everywhere. Colour which reflects the heart, the soul, and the love that was at the heart of the enterprise we all gave ourselves to every day at work. Of trying to be better.

Kevin's angel and pink walls

Kevin’s Angel and Pink Walls

My decision to leave Hendon in May was a difficult one. That story is for another time. But I knew that I’d be taking with me the values I had grown, under Kevin’s leadership, to stand for. I’d like to highlight three of them.

Kindness

Kevin’s death is a reminder, above all, that we are each fallible and fragile. Kevin used to constantly remind me to ‘support upwards’ as well as in every other direction. Kevin could spot at 50 paces if you were having a bad day. Last year, the day after a friend passed away, he vehemently insisted I fly to the funeral in Ireland, which remains one of the best decisions I could have made. He sought out the lonely, the vulnerable, the slightly lost, and he made it his mission to help them feel better. I know I’m one of hundreds wishing we could have made it better for him.

 Inclusivity 

Kevin didn’t just tolerate diversity. He celebrated it. He saw magic and potential in each adult and child he worked with and fiercely devoted himself to drawing it out. He never demanded conformity, as long as we were true to the values of the school, at the heart of which was always, without hesitation, the good of the students. Our staff and kids are inclusion embodied – a crazy mix of shapes and sizes and faiths and persuasions and passions and talents.

An endless sense of possibility

For Kevin, anything was possible. ‘Go for it!’ was his response to any idea or inspiration – ‘then come back and show me IMPACT!’ The school was haven to guinea pigs, dogs, small children and, for a memorable summer, an enormous circus tent. He believed we all need constant challenge and inspiration, and had a way of picking up on restlessness and creating new and exciting opportunities and cajoling and pestering and spurring us on to success.

Kevin's vision

Kevin’s Vision

There is a bitter irony at the heart of this sentiment, of course, and it’s this that so many of us are grappling with, through waves of sadness, a sense of unreality, helplessness and the strange quietness that seems to assert itself now. The man who taught us anything was possible is no longer here, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

Or maybe there’s a small something. Kevin has died, but the values he represented so passionately are timeless. I remember how deeply proud he was of our triumphs. He used to write to our parents to tell them how proud he was. Wouldn’t he be proud of us if we tapped into the depths of our resilience, put on our bravest smiles, looked out for each other, and got back to the business of preparing our young people for the exciting, uncertain world of adulthood. And what a group of young people they are.

As a former colleague, mentee and friend of Kevin, I’ll pledge this to him: I won’t be complacent or defeatist. I’ll stand up for my moral values with conviction. I won’t be afraid to be different or fallible or admit when I’m wrong. I’ll always ask how I, and those around me, can be even better. I’ll continue to celebrate diversity and difference and eccentricity. I’ll put people first and continue to work to fulfil the potential you saw in me. And I’ll continue to try to make you proud.

One of many booklets Kevin made (by hand)  for his students

One of many booklets Kevin made (by hand) for his students

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23 thoughts on “Losing Your Head

  1. I can only guess of the sorrow you and the community that Kevin served are feeling right now. Legacy is a word I use with the staff at Passmores; we encourage them to improve and move on to improve the lives of young people in other schools when they feel ready for a new challenge but what they leave behind is really important. For some of us that may be a fantastic scheme of work or a great set of results or a young person that they helped through a difficult time in their lives. In Kevin’s case his legacy has been obvious at Hendon School over the last few days but it will also be obvious in your new school and in the schools of other professionals that learned from him.

    I hope that writing this in some way gave you some solace and I know you will honour this leader of young people and adults legacy throughout your career.

    Thinking of you Emma.

  2. This is *so* reminiscent of how I (and my school) felt when we lost our dear Mary de Castro last year… What a wonderful leader – and person – Kevin must have been to inspire such feelings in both pupils and teachers. Thanks so much for writing and sharing this, Emma.

  3. A beautiful and fitting tribute- Kevin gave me a job, believed in me, encouraged me to become an AST and so much more
    Thanks for writing this x

  4. This is delightfully poignant. I love the angel and the pink walls. Everyone should have sight of a bright pink wall at some point in their day. Kevin sounds like someone lots of us aspire to.

  5. I am joining a school as head next week which has lost a senior teacher. Thank you for sharing this with me. It allowed me to reflect and think about the others involved. He sounded like the type of person I would have loved to have met.

  6. Thank you for writing this. I was lucky enough to have Kevin mentor me as an NQT many moons ago. In the few years I worked with him he radiated passion and compassion to all those he worked with. He had boundless energy and was one of those rare and totally natural teachers. He certainly touched my life in a positive way, and thousands of others too.

  7. Kevin sounds like a wonderful Head and leader, running a great school because of it. As you say, it’s about people; the children, the staff. If I take one thing away from this (I’m a University Tutor) it will be to not just ‘tutor’ my trainees but think of them as people (which I hope I do to some extent already). And yes – we do all need colour and angels.

  8. Thanks for sharing something so personal, Emma.

    The best leaders do, as you say, change lives – not just the students’ lives, but the lives of the staff, and often of parents too. You will have learnt a huge amount from working with Kevin, and when an inspirational leader encourages others to go on to be the best senior leader and, in due course, head they can be, then the influence spreads far beyond the life of the individual. I’m sure Kevin would be proud of that.

    We used this poem last week when working with our T & T principals, and I found I was thinking of it as I read your post:

    And in the end we follow them –
    Not because we are paid, not because we might see some advantage,
    Not because of the things they have accomplished,
    Not even because of the dreams they dream
    But simply because of who they are:
    The man, the woman, the leader, the boss
    Standing up there when the wave hits the rock,
    Passing out faith and confidence like life jackets,
    Knowing the currents, holding the doubts,
    Imagining the delights and terrors of every landfall;
    Captain, pirate and parent by turns,
    The bearer of our countless hopes and expectations.
    We give them our trust. We give them our effort.
    What we ask in return is that they stay true.

    William Ayot

  9. Beautifully written.

    I found out this extremely sad news at work today. I only once met Kevin when I worked with the school via the local authority. I remember how down to earth and real he was as a human being, someone who was in the school for all the right reasons. He transformed the school and inspired the adults and children he worked with, always putting in the extra time.

    The sadness has stayed with me throughout the day; the feeling for his family and the difficult times they will face.

    Let us all take a step back and evaluate what is important and be transparent, as Kevin would have wished.

    RIP

  10. Pink walls, Angels, Nelson Mandela quotes, Zebras and Buddhas..i wish you all could have met Kevin ..
    Tears are openly rolling down the faces of teachers today.. Weve gone from a happy positive place to a very sadly devestated building.. Im Just looking into haunted eyes all day long- were together in our grief our disbelief.. We cling on to our memories and try to look forward but we cant get past whats happened – whats happened to our lovely erratic headmaster- why Kevin couldnt you see we needed you here in our lives..Kevin McKelkar our Angel

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  14. I have just managed to dry the tears that were uncontrollably running down my face after reading your post Emma.

    You have written it perfectly…. and it helps so much to now see life as a quest to make him proud rather than be so upset.

    I feel I havn’t been able to explain to people how exactly I feel/felt after this news. Words never seem enough to describe the light and rainbow that he was. People who have only met him once are even saddened.

    Your post made me feel like someone else feels the way his death made me feel. I felt your words were exactly what I would write. He was his great self to everyone!

    I am where I am because of him. I’m a doctor now… and he always believed, but more importantly and what makes me me are my moral values and spirit ….. inspired by him.

    We often say a person lights up a room, he lit up the world. Anyone he met…. he would ignite the spark in them so that they could, in their own way, illuminate the world.

    Kevin, Mr Mckellar, I am so sorry that we couldn’t be there to save you. You saved us all. You have done more in your lifetime than you will ever realise. You have inspired, touched, and changed many many generations. Your legacy and your effect will live on eternally in the lives of our children and their children and theirs.

    That is truly a life well lived.

    I hope you’re safe, smiling and free.

    We love you, always have, and always will.

    Sangam

  15. I knew Kevin for a few months when he was working as the Head of the English Department at Canning Town School many years ago. He helped me through a few difficult months there as my mentor whilst I was training to be a secondary teacher. The school was full of students who didn’t want to be there and teachers who had given up or were just run down. He was the shining light. His light never faded, he never gave up on anyone; even the hardest most challenging students. To them you could hear his voice booming, ‘How DARE you!’ from a mile away.
    I remember my first day at the school and how he totally understood how nervous and shy I was. He was so kind and so caring, as if I was his own child. I have many people so genuine since. I always thought he would do tremendously well in his life and go on to bigger and better things. When I heard the news on the internet last week I was filled with shock and disbelief.
    How could something like that happen to someone like that? Someone so full of hope, compassion and inspiration?
    I once saw him teach a Year 12 class on the theme of Empathy. His energy and vitality was truly inspirational.
    I sincerely hope that his soul rests in peace and his family are blessed with strength at this time.
    God bless you Kevin McKellar for all the good you did in this world. May your soul rest in peace.

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