I recently left Primary headship after seventeen years. It would be dishonest to say I loved every minute of it, there were obviously challenges to overcome and some days that the eternal optimism that has to come with leadership was hard fought, but I did love the vast majority of it.
Do we ever really know our true worth as teachers and educational leaders? We believe in our mission and we trust in our professionalism and our core values. We want to be the teacher we were at that first successful interview, to never lose that enthusiasm and passion to make a difference to the life chances of children who will flourish under an inspirational teacher. Despite external pressures and interference, teachers get on with the job of educating the children in their care, whatever the political landscape.
I will miss many things about school, the camaraderie of like-minded colleagues, their support, warmth and humour in the challenging and stressful times as well as the good ones. Headship can be a lonely place fraught with difficulties but I have been blessed with great staff who have always been there to make things easier. I will miss the children who put a smile on your face every day and those who challenge and test us but ultimately remind us why we do what we do, why this is our vocation. I arrived home from my last day at school to find a post on Facebook from one of my sons which not only made me reflect on my years in teaching, but also made me realise his degree in Creative Writing wasn’t wasted! I’ve included the bulk of it here:
Albert Einstein once famously said, ‘if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it’ll live its whole life thinking its an idiot’.
Education can often be a thankless, stressful, and ever more alarmingly underfunded vocation, and so many of us have our entire academic experience tarnished by a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to teaching, born from necessity, the insistence that trying to offer anything more specific or inclusive simply isn’t viable.
However, all of us know how massive a difference one good teacher can make. That’s all it takes, just one good teacher. One person for whom education is more than just a job, but a means of providing a bedrock of passion and confidence that serves children well into their adult lives. Almost everyone had that one good teacher, whose name and words they remember for years after they’ve left school.
For a lot of people, that teacher was my dad, Michael Shepherd.
My dad started out teaching art classes for disabled individuals almost 30 years ago, combining his twin passions of creative expression, and helping those less fortunate than himself. For almost 30 years he’s dedicated himself to providing not only education, but encouragement and support to generations of kids. He’s a big believer in the freedom of self-expression, never demanding obedience from his students or staff, but working to establish mutual friendship and respect. He’s taught people never to let anything dictate who you are or what you’re capable of, no matter where you come from or what you look like. He judged people not on their academic ability, but on the strength of their character, ensuring equal opportunities for all his students. He was progressive and inventive in his approach to education, and thanks to him many children who would otherwise have been left to struggle have gone on to excel.
I won’t say its always been easy, or fun, and God knows there have been times when he wanted to throw in the towel, but he never did. He’s faced adversity and criticism, he’s had his fair share of obstacles and he’s overcome it all.
Today is my dad’s last day as a headteacher, marking the end of a long and storied career. I know my dad will probably shrug and laugh a little, he won’t blow his own horn or expect any special praise, but he deserves it. So I’d like you all to join me in congratulating Michael Shepherd, today, on his last day as Head Teacher.
Leaving headship was hard, a tough decision that I questioned regularly as the final day approached however, my new role with Success for All allows me to continue to work closely with schools, teachers and learners and continue to celebrate educational successes with them. In the preface of their book ‘2 Million Children’, the authors; Robert Slavin, Nancy Madden, Bette Chambers and Barbara Haxby perfectly express the mission of Success for All:
If we truly believed that every child could learn under the proper circumstances, we would be relentless in the search for those circumstances. We would begin by providing comprehensive early childhood programs to ensure that children start school ready to succeed. We would use well-validated methods and materials known to be capable of ensuring the success of nearly all children if used with intelligence, flexibility and fidelity. We would involve teachers in constant, collaborative professional development activities to continually improve their abilities to reach every child.
Success for All makes the idea that ‘all children can learn’ a practical, daily organising principle for schools, especially those serving many children placed at risk.
I’m delighted to be part of the SfA team here in the UK who are making this happen in more and more schools with great effect.