I have just resigned as Director of Key Stage Five and requested to work a 0.6 contract. I am left with mixed emotions about it all, so I thought I would try to write my way through all the ‘feels’.
I have really enjoyed being a Head of Sixth Form – a job I have been working around all my teaching career. It is much broader than Head of Department, you have to bridge the academic and pastoral divide, sometimes holding them together with the tips of your fingers as they fracture and ricochet around each other.
You need to understand the strange world of ESFA Funding (or in my case, try to), the constantly shifting sands of DoE guidance and the changing landscape of post-18 transition as well as hold an encyclopaedic knowledge of pastoral, HE and careers support. There is a lot of signposting, cajoling, cheer-leading, honking, counselling, mentoring and coaching to be done (and that is just to colleagues … only joking).
My main mantra has always been to ‘hold the door’ as long as I can, to enable students to walk through – we are both a tool of social mobility and place of safety; a modern day Hodor, if you like. It helps I have been around the education system for a bit, the past 20 years have made it a little easier. But why stop now? This is a good question and there are lots of things to untangle in my answer.
It is all-consuming – the challenge of any pastoral role is that it is never done, the work is never finished and whatever you do, it is not seen as enough by others and those who will always want something ‘more’. The tools you have at your disposal are time and labour intensive; you are often the mid-point between a young person, teacher, department, parents, and the world. The highs are fantastic but the lows are pretty bad. When things are not going well, it can feel relentless, it can challenge your core beliefs about the world, especially when young people do not always respond to your interventions in the way you would like. I guess inputs are not always the same as outputs.
Inevitably, you spend most of the time with those students who need you the most, those who display more challenging behaviour and can be difficult to build a rapport with. If I have learnt one thing over the past two decades, it is that there are no magic wands, you cannot just wish for them to be different. Despite your interventions, some will still make poor choices. Sometimes your own actions will not be the right lever for the student; could you have tackled it differently? Probably? What can you change about the situation tomorrow? There is much uncertainty in this primary task; you are stuck between the splits between dependence and independence, child and adult, care and control.
The job is about leaning in and chipping away at some of the challenges; being a constant in a world of change, appealing to better natures, reminding them of their potential, giving them practical coping strategies, showing them that you care.
You need to be the adult in the room, slow things down, put grit on the ice and stop them from slipping off course. Helping young people process and contain their own anxieties about change is tough emotional work.
The challenge of the daily triage – the role involves daily juggles and decision-making. You have to triangulate a large amount of data to work out who is most in need … and my goodness do schools collate a great deal of data. The challenge here is that much of it is a social construct, you are very rarely dealing in absolutes, so you need to make a judgement call on what matters. It takes a while to unpick the sometimes contradictory messages held from different data sets and find the student within.
The challenge of post-16 parent-partnerships – these have often been more difficult with KS5 students. Meetings with post-16 parents can often take on a whole new level of angst as the young person is clearly no longer a child as the dynamics at home can shift. Some parents are very uncertain of how to negotiate this new terrain with their children whose adult bodies hide the scared, frustrated and anxious child within. Some parents are desperate for schools to fill the parenting gap and be the ones to enforce the boundaries of late adolescence.
Parent: Can you stop him using his phone every night, it stops him from sleeping.
Parent: Can you stop her from going out until 11pm in the evening.
Parent: Can you get him to study more at home.
I am completely sympathetic as things are more muddled and muddied in later adolescence but I often say to parents they are still the adult in the relationship, they are allowed to set expectations and boundaries and there can be consequences. I am not sure I can stop or change any of the things they want me to but I am always willing to talk about them and be a mediating force.
The challenge of post-pandemic education – COVID-19 teaching nearly broke me. The amount of work and stress involved to complete the CAGs and TAGS process was inhumane and the way in which the Department for Education dealt with the profession was a disgrace. There seem to continue to show the same contempt and disregard for the teaching profession; we were told to create a mini-tag process this year and we were never told we could stand down. I still have 180 marked scripts in my office that I was not able to give back. We are not out of the woods yet, we are knee-deep in post-COVID recovery.
The challenge of OFSTED – the inspectorate continues to be a malign influence on the sector. The judgements are not developmental, not designed to help or support. How can they judge what we have had to do in the past two years to keep the wheels on the cart? As a school awaiting an inspection, the whole process seeps into ever pore and causes much double-think.
My challenge of a work / life balance – they say you should put on your own oxygen mask before you help others but I am guilty of getting this bit wrong. For too long, I have done more work than life, and that cannot be right. There is clearly something of the ‘wounded healer’ in this approach and the work can be very reparative but I refer you to my first points about the all-consuming nature of a pastoral role and the never complete to do list. I guess there is a difference between throwing yourself into something and losing yourself. When you are stuck in this place, it is easy to think if you just work another few evenings, another weekend, through the holiday – you can get ahead of it all. But, as all addicts will testify, work is an unforgiving master and will keep taking until you find a way to break the cycle.
However, it is also the best job I have ever had. The ability to have an impact on a young person is huge; you are the gatekeeper to so many wonderous things and it is a genuine honour to hold that gate open and show your students what is on the other side. I am so proud of the people my students have become and my small part in that magical transformation. However, I recognise that their journey is a collective effort from all those involved in their lives and education. I just get to hang around the goal at the end and push them through.
You also get to be the adult you wanted or needed when you were young. They may not all be ready for me but they have had open access to someone who will treat them with unconditional positive regard, listen to the ‘now’, talk optimistically about the future and their pathways through it.
I still think young people are awesome, their energy, enthusiasms and ‘joy de vivre’ are infectious. Even those who adopt a more cynical teenage angst are to be envied, that ability to question everything and hold everything in contempt is pretty special and there is something to be learnt from that.
I think I just love watching them build their lives, put the jigsaw together; it has been and remains an absolute honour. I do not pretend to have all the answers but I remember all too painfully how it feels to be uncertain about the world and I hope that this the bit that I have been ‘good’ at, if one can be good at all is holding on to the anxieties around change.
A psychoanalyst friend of mine, once said it was interesting to reflect on which age/stage teachers became bonded with and what that might tell you about the teacher and their own unconscious conflict. What else might be worked out in these relationships, the revisiting of conflicts past and reworking of roles. These are interesting thoughts but ones I will need to save for another time.
I have had the honour of being elected as a Labour councillor and I am wanting to live my life a little differently. In some ways, the case work will seem like an extension of my pastoral role and their are lots of skills learnt here that will be useful in the future. For now, my pastoral watch is over as I make way for someone else to take the helm. I will still be rooting from the side lines and someone else will get to steer the ship. For now, my watch is done. Perhaps not for ever, but it is time to live a little differently.