As the end of the academic year approaches, so does the end of my time as Headmaster of Bristol Grammar School. As I retire from headship, I find myself reflecting on my 34 years in the teaching profession.
Teaching started for me in 1984 with a surreal transformation. In August I was an Army Captain stationed in Germany as a part of the British Army of the Rhine; in September I was teaching the basics of human reproduction to eleven-year-olds at a comprehensive in Nottingham – the kids were interested enough in the subject, but not keen to listen to their new teacher!
Individually children are usually charming and interesting; in a group with an enthusiastic but naive teacher, they can be quite a handful. I had doubts about my career change in those early days, but once in a while a lesson would go well, and I would see that teaching really is a very special and profoundly fulfilling experience. I got through those early years because of the example and help of some quite exceptional colleagues: teachers who clearly loved helping children learn and had developed strategies to manage the demands of the classroom without losing their sense of joy in their subject, the young and the craft of teaching.
My own school days were mixed. I had some impressive teachers but, taken as a whole, I felt that my schooling was poor and that I and my classmates were being let down. I came into teaching with a distinct sense of personal mission: education could and should be a good deal better than my own childhood experience.
Experience as a teacher quickly confirmed to me that the key to presenting all children with a quality education lies in the culture of the school. The best schools have an established culture that puts learning by children at its heart – a culture that is essentially ‘can-do’, innovative, energetic, and relentlessly ambitious to provide their students with opportunities and experiences that will transform their lives.
Today I see many more quality schools populating our education system: children are engaged and sensitive, teachers are professional and self-reflective, and support staff are increasingly involved in the life of the school. The system may be confused but it is also ambitious to be better, and the present for most children is much brighter than it was in my school days – and a lot brighter than some news reports, as well as some in the profession, like to suggest.
Schools are really great places to be. And the best time is early in the morning. My school day starts around seven when I join the other early birds. I get a cup of coffee, more colleagues start arriving, and then the children. The energy about the place picks up as the school comes alive for another day. I have been very blessed, and I shall miss it all more than I can say.
BGS Headmaster, 2008–2018