A year ago, Kevin McKellar, Head of Hendon School, took his own life. I wrote about him in the aftermath of hearing the news.
It wasn’t public knowledge at the time that it was suicide, though the news did gradually filter out through various channels to those who knew and cared for him. I don’t think he’d have minded this one bit – he was all in favour of transparency – though the spilling – and stirring – of the beans by the local press following the inquest continues to sit very uncomfortably with many of us.
There are many still mourning him and many individual tributes out there today, and I won’t be as presumptuous as to attempt to voice the multitude of feelings out there. Instead, I’d like to go for an individual and professional reflection on how Kevin continues to influence me as a teacher and a leader; in short, Kevin’s professional legacy, which is undoubtedly shared with many others, and which I hope to keep sharing.
Catch-phrases and mantras
My speech and my day-to-day practice is peppered with Kevin-isms, many of which I suspect are unconscious. ‘Staggeringly outstanding’, a ‘forensic analysis’, ‘robust and challenging’, ‘open and honest’, and the more foreboding, ‘I need to be entirely honest with you…’ They’re more than just words, though; they are the fabric of an ethos which permeated my practice in the years I worked with him (I nearly wrote ‘for him’, but he wouldn’t have had that!) and beyond. An ethos of directness, honesty, soul-searching, love for people, and striving for – and belief that we can and wll
Look after yourself!
I was working with some trainee teachers today. I hadn’t planned to talk about Kevin, but the significance of the day suddenly struck me, and I did. I was talking about how teachers are notorious for being blind to their own basic needs in their selfless quest to ‘make a difference’. I talked about how nobody will do this for you; that whilst there may be occasional very late nights, and that the responsibilities of the job are always huge, there are always choices. You do not ‘have’ to work until three a.m. more than about three times a year. You are not forced to spend your weekends sealed away from loved-ones in piles of marking. There are no prizes for martyring yourself. There is another way – and you have to find it, for the sake of those who love you. Kevin made a difference to thousands of people. But the cost was too great, and broke a thousand more hearts. I think those of us who cared for him would give back his hundreds of glorious moments just to have him still around. The cost was too great.
I will never, ever apologise for talking about well-being. In order to look after, and give our best to, our students and one another, it is essential that we look after one another – and ourselves.
NO!… to the entirely unacceptable
Part of this is what Kevin taught me. Part of it is the ‘life’s too short’ approach. And part of it is probably just being a bit older and uglier. But the following I will not and do not tolerate.
Gossip and belittling, toxic politics, contagious negativity, in-fighting and rivalry, hoarding of resources and ideas, self-aggrandisement, arrogance and a sense that you’re doing society or the school a favour by getting out of bed, lack of humility, apathy and laziness, self-pity and defeatism, snobbery, cliques, toadyism, impatience and dismissiveness of young people…
I’m a rather less fluffy version of the me Kevin knew a year ago.
… but I’m an equally optimistic one. It may seem somewhat ironic, but I think most of us who worked with Kevin still feel that sense of genuine excitement, privilege and possibility that comes of working in education. The frustrations and crises are undeniable, but you have to be in it to fight it!
Being grateful for what we have
Family. I doubt I’m the only one who regularly hugs her children and partner a little harder and a little more regularly since Kevin’s death. Our profession is a vocation and a life, but our life beyond it, the people who are with us through births and deaths, the friends who cackle with us and see as at our lowest – they’re worth more. They have to be. I make a special effort to cover myself in small children when I can.
And gratitude for what we have or had on a professional level. Kevin hated anyone leaving Hendon – I suspect many Heads feel the same. We were at times restless and full of a sense of entitlement through blood, sweat and tears required to gain – and retain – Hendon’s ‘outstanding’ status, but he regularly told us how lucky we were to work there. We’d nod and smile. Having moved on myself soon before his death, I can testify that Hendon was – and I have no doubt still is – a unique and special school which afford numerous exciting opportunities. And I’m so very proud that my colleagues there have gone on to another excellent set of results in Kevin’s absence.
The best thing about teaching: the people. The hardest thing about teaching: the people
Knowing and understanding the people you work with an what makes them tick is hugely powerful. This doesn’t have to be intrusive, but learning the name of their partner, child or pet, remembering the name of the course they’re studying outside school, sharing details of a latest box-set. These things were what Kevin did every day – I have no idea how he remembered all those names! – and I have continued to try to do this myself.
The small things
My house is still full of zebras and Hello Kitty bags and inspiration for children’s wall decoration which Kevin had stumbled across and thought I – or my children – might like. I’m yet to get through all the books and films he recommended. If a colleague suffered a person challenge, he would make it his business to know enough about them to offer what they needed, be it several weeks off, or a chance to absorb themselves in purposeful work. He would cook for people regularly, in a highly nutritious and usually extremely haphazard manner. I treasure his cards and bookmarks and cardboard dolls. I found this the other day
I know many others have similar tokens of Kevin’s consideration and appreciation. Inside he said he would be with me ‘every step of the way’. I know I’m not alone in wishing, every day, that this had been possible.