Start the term as you mean to go on

Times and methods have changed over the years, but it still pays to ensure everyone is clear about their role as they enter the new term.

It’s that time of the year again when schools across our global community begin the academic year. By the end of the first week of September, all students will be back in the classroom. Given the testing conditions staff have been working under for the past 18 months, for this year, they will be hoping for some kind of reversion to normality. 

Through my career, I remember each year beginning on an optimistic note, with new hopes and ambitions, albeit tempered with a degree of trepidation. For some time now I have not been directly involved in schooling, but I still find myself reflecting on my first staff meeting as a probationary teacher in the early 1970s. I had been appointed to a boys’ secondary selective school in the West of England. 

Staff meetings had been a regular feature of my year as a student teacher prior to university and later during my postgraduate teacher training course. I had found them relatively relaxed affairs where notices that could already be found on the notice board were read out, troublesome pupils discussed, complaints aired by union representatives and pleas made for the return of tea mugs. All presided over rather affably by the head or deputy head teacher. 

None of this prepared me for my first staff meeting as a probationary teacher. The meeting was called for 10am the day before the first students would arrive. I was contacted beforehand by my head of department who suggested that I best be there for 9.30am.  Thus, in order to create a good first impression, I arrived on time to find to my surprise most of the staff already in attendance and engrossed in a furtive debate about last year’s A-level results. The staff were predominantly male and quite experienced, and many had a military background, including a number who had served in the Second World War.  

At 9.55, the head teacher’s secretary ushered us into the school library – a large imposing room with oak panelled walls, upon some of which hung a list of school captains going back many years.  In the centre of the room was a large oak table surrounded by enough chairs for all heads of department and behind them rows of chairs for us less important staff. The head of the table was occupied by the headteacher’s large chair. 

At precisely 10am, the headteacher arrived in full suit and gown. He took a perfunctory glance at us all, sat down, shuffled the papers he had brought in and said: “Good morning ladies and gentlemen. Good to see you all. Now to business”. Then rhetorically: “Let’s start with Andrews, shall we?” 

At which point he looked up from his papers and scanned the room until his eyes alighted on my head of department. Then locking onto his eyes he said: “How do you explain that in your subject young Andrews got a B when in all his other exams he got an A? If I remember correctly, as he got the same grade at O level in your subject as he did in the others, what happened in the sixth form in your subject?”

“Well … ” began my head of department with a semi-rehearsed reply.  The headteacher listened intently to his response, but it was soon clear from his demeanor that no explanation would be good enough and a repeat would not be tolerated.  

Thus, over an intense two-hour period, the headteacher analysed each student’s results. When the performance exceeded his expectations, the relevant member of staff was congratulated. Sometimes the staff would collectively explain a case of poor performance but more often than not, the head teacher made it clear that collective, like individual, excuses were unacceptable to him. Occasionally he would interrupt and say. “Is that not what you said happened last year and I thought you said you were going to do something about it.”

Few escaped his wrath and by the end, even I, who was not involved at all, was beginning to feel the heat. 

When the meeting eventually ended and we were dismissed, we all went to the local pub for a ploughman’s.  My head of department asked what I had made of the meeting. I said I had never been in a meeting like it and I found it quite intimidating.

He replied: “They always are. That was my tenth. He does the same at the start of every school year. It’s his way of making sure we all know our role. That is to ensure all our students progress as expected and achieve excellent results – not just in exams but in everything they do. If we fail, he wants to know that we have reviewed our approach and taken measures to ensure we don’t make the same mistakes again.”

“What about notices?” I asked. “He did not give any out.”

“That’s because he expects that if he puts a notice on the notice board, you will have read it”

In this day and age we might well question the direct nature of the encounter, but there can be no doubt that by the end of the two hours, every member of staff was clear about: 

Additionally, I joined my new colleagues in adopting the good habit of arriving at school early so that I could read the staff notice board before lessons commenced. 

What was your first staff meeting like?  Did it provide answers to the key questions?

What are we trying to achieve?

Where are we now?

How do we intend to move from A to B?

Or was it dominated by administration information which had already been published?

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We are aware that activity in many of the schools we work with is still restricted by actions taken to reduce the spread of COVID. However, as the term proceeds we hope you can start moving forward again. 

Take care and stay safe

George