What Remains: Remembering Kevin, a year on

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.

Enduring optimism

… 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

photo

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.

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Seven Confessions of an Incoming Head of English

I begin a new role in a North London School as Head of English in less than two weeks. Below are seven ‘confessions’ or ‘truths’ about my new role. These are partly my introduction to #teamenglish and partly a way of thinking through my introductions to my new team. Any reflections, suggestions, practical or otherwise, would be very welcome.

  1. I’m a great believer in serendipity

I’ve known enough people to whom terrible and desperately unfair things have happened to be a subscriber to the ‘everything happens for a reason’ school of thought (and in the stinging soreness setbacks of my own, could happily have thrown a punch at the next person who used the phrase!). However, few moves in my career have been explicitly planned, from my first Head of Department role (resulting from a sudden loss of the HoD and 2 i/c) to my Doctorate (a random visit to the school from Middlesex University and a ‘why the hell not?’). Chance meetings, crashing disappointments, surprise inspirations and enlightening ideas have come together to get me where I am. I’ve learned to embrace these ‘lightbulb’ moments and take challenge as an impetus to further improve what I can offer to a career which, for all its challenges, I adore. Also, I love the word serendipity and embrace any reason to use it!

Similarly, I didn’t plan for this particular move, perhaps the most unexpected of the changes so far. My background is in Modern Languages, then three years in SLT (though I do have a Masters in Literature). The opportunity came about as the result of a roller-coaster of a couple of months, in which I resigned from my Assistant Head role to consider my options and put the completion Doctorate in Education – and my family – as first priorities.

There was an out-of-the-blue phone call on behalf of a school which needed a short-term Head of English as a result of last-minute staff changes. Our values and expectations seemed to match. Within a fortnight, I’d been offered, and accepted, the role.

I’ve always wanted to be an English teacher

I have continued to half-joke through my career that, when I grow up, I’d love to be an English teacher.

I remember my learning in English at school more vividly than that of any other subject. My English teachers were those who inspired the strongest feelings in me; not always positive! This was precisely because I didn’t find it easy; not at A Level. I absolutely worked my socks off for the subject, and sessions with my long-suffering and infinitely supportive Mum around the dining table (not allowed out until I’d demonstrated a full understanding of the text). I can still quote long passages from Anthony and Cleopatra, analyse John Donne’s Flea, picture Miss Havisham’s wedding dress and giggle about Chaucer’s rusty swords (Miss Jones told us that, where it was all war at GCSE, it was all sex at A Level…!). More than this, after the toiling and tears and incomprehension, the feeling of actually arriving at a true understanding of a text was utterly exhilarating. I’m still a voracious and passionate reader, with novels an often welcome reprieve from a hard week at work (I read in the bath; controversial I know, but it works!).

Later (another serendipitous moment – frankly, I didn’t quite know what to do with myself and rather enjoyed studying!) I took a Masters in European Literature, and Mrs Oldfield and Mrs Jones are owed a big debt for the distinction I attained (one of my proudest achievements ever).

One of my happiest years of teaching was being given a KS4 Extra English class, with whom I had completely free rein. A perfect excuse to analyse the latest news stories (we guessed Christopher Jeffries was innocent well before the press got there!) and act out extracts of favourite novels and short stories, as well as writing our own rap songs and analysing contemporary comedy from YouTube.

This move is partly pragmatic

This is a practical move in several respects:

Firstly, the Doctorate. I’ve been doing it for four years now. It’s all about how parenting affects teacher identity. I love doing it, but the demands of my job have meant I haven’t touched it for twelve months. It’s a bit of a ‘now or never’ and this new role (on 4 days a week) will, I hope, give me the flexibility I need to get it done, as well as offering new insights for my research.

Secondly, my children. I’ve got to know them again over summer. Despite the loss of my new nail varnish to the coffee table and daily fluctuations of what Sasha will and won’t eat, it’s been wonderful to take active pride and enjoyment in my stubborn, feisty and so-contrasting girls. With my new schedule, I’ll be able to take them to school and pick them up on one day each week. We are all extremely excited about this!

Thirdly, a chance to explore other options. I used to dream of writing, but I never actually picked up a pen or opened a keyboard for fear it was all just be a bit pointless and rubbish. Thanks to my research and Twitter, I have some opportunities to do a bit of professional writing and research for a some people I admire hugely, and it’s extremely exciting. As well as this, a chance to work in a freelance capacity with new teachers, and to explore other such opportunities.

Finally, one I wouldn’t have thought of on my own, but very wise advice from a friend and mentor… I don’t know what will happen next (more below), but if I do decide to pursue SLT in the long-term (by no means a given), the core subject experience will be hugely valuable.

I’m raring to go… and a bit nervous

There’s a very thin line between appearing arrogant and allowing oneself to be cowed by the demon known as the ‘imposter syndrome’. I’m aware that there will be reservations about my lack of subject specialism, and fully respect this. Similarly, I’m aware that, after a period of negotiation and intensive discussion (including my teaching being seen), I have been employed to do this role by the Head, and that I am capable of doing it. I’m someone who loves new learning and will thrive on the challenge. Part of me is wildly excited – another part is more restrained. See below…

I bring lots of experience and clear educational values (spots, stripes, claws and other tenuous animal metaphors) 

I have never been a career ‘climber’ for its own sake, believing in earning one’s stripes and the immeasurable value of experience. There are more to be gained, but with nearly twenty years, I have quite a few stripes. I’ve also, of late, had a few spots knocked off me – am perhaps a little less ‘fluffy’, idealistic, and keen to please, a little more cynical, quite a lot bolder, less concerned over what others think. I’m pretty clear about what I do – and don’t – stand for as a leader.

I’m a great believer in:

  • Nurturing the ‘whole person’ – both in students and in colleagues. Understanding what makes people tick. Making time to listen. Giving people a chance to work through difficulties and find resolutions.
  • Making the most of diverse strengths within a team and making opportunities for people to develop other areas. Great teachers are developed in many different forms.
  • Respecting wisdom and experience, including that of those with more than I have.
  • Direct and prompt conversations about issues and concerns.
  • Remembering why we come to work; we’re all here to improve students’ life chances. It may seem obvious, but we risk losing sight of this during more stressful periods.
  • Remembering we’re not here to do society a favour. Our job is a privilege and a huge responsibility, and we need to support each other in ensuring we’re giving our students our very best.
  • Humour, and not taking ourselves too seriously.

I don’t believe in (and will address):

  • Toxic politics and infectious negativity which detract from our key aims.
  • Internal gossip and speculation.
  • People who blame the children for the failure of a lesson or a course.
  • Poor communication.
  • Bullying, belittling, manipulation, intolerance and other such forms of unprofessionalism.

HOWEVER, negativity isn’t always a bad thing. In life and in work, I’m quite drawn to the grumpy and the cynical. I’ve always had an issue with the simplistic NCSL portrayal of the staffroom ‘blocker’. The one who grumbles in a corner. My experience has taught me that the rebellious and the cynical often have extremely valuable contributions to make to move things forward. The worst thing we can do is fail to create opportunities for them to be heard.

I’ve never read The Great Gatsby

… and other such gaping holes, I’m sure. (But it’s waiting on my Kindle!)

I have no idea what’s going to happen in January

One of the aims of this period is also to give me time to work out where I want to go next. Part of me really hopes that this will work out and give rise to something more stable. Part of me is fully aware of the explicitly temporary nature of the post (and of the potentially horrific journey each way). My key decision will be whether or not I want to return to SLT. I’m not ready to answer that yet. That’s for another blog, another time…

In the meantime, I look forward to reading and talking about lots of lovely books (because that’s what English teachers do, isn’t it?!)…