Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

A daily grind?

Gorilla reading a book

When events conspire to make what started out as an ordinary day become either a very lucky or unlucky one, go with the flow and be prepared to adjust your working patterns accordingly, says Tony Lamberton.

"We must believe in luck. How else can we explain the success of those we dislike?" Jean Cocteau

It was 7.41 on a long-awaited and well-earned Saturday morning in December. As an ex-design and technology teacher, I had a reasonable blend of skills and had planned the change to the kitchen for some five or six weeks. Everything was ready; I was enthusiastic and looking forward to a day's practical work - a big change from my day job as headteacher.

By 7.44am I had broken through a tiled wall with a drill hitting a mains cable I didn't know existed, partly removed a hob and created a deep slice across both my index and second finger which looked as though they required stitches - not bad for four minutes' work. What did I do? What I always do now - stop.

I guess at some point we have all wondered whether luck exists. My last boss before I became a head was a delightful man who always maintained that he could tell what the day or the week was going to be like after the first couple of events. Even though this seemed to be true, all it resulted in was either a difficult day or a pleasant day - no change in strategy.

The convergence of bad or good circumstances is a fact of life to us leaders. In my first year of teaching I can clearly remember taking out a group of keen year 8 scientists to demonstrate converging light. The summer sun shone brightly on to the large concave mirror and the children respectfully learned how its heat and light could become so intense. All went well until my enthusiastic explanation was interrupted with cries of astonishment. Through misfortune, the focal length had matched the position of the black polyester blazer of a student. Smoke, a charred hole and laughter ensued.

Of course this was no ordinary student; it was a vulnerable young man, partial school refuser and one whose parents had finally been cornered by the head of year to buy him a new blazer two weeks previously. Such is the nature of luck.

On another occasion as deputy head supporting a fancy dress Comic Relief Day, I was loaned a gorilla outfit to collect charity donations from students arriving at the gate. The heavy fur on a rubberised suit took several undignified minutes to don and had a thermal efficiency similar to a polar bear. This, of course, was the morning when two groups of angry parents and a police officer awaited me at the door of the office. Coincidence - yes. Embarrassing - very. Hot - incredibly. Lessons were learned.

The same is true of positive incidents. How often have we found the reserve candidate for the summer interview turns out to be the wonderful teacher we were seeking or the chance conversation leads to a powerful solution to a difficult problem?

Schools seem to follow rich veins of good and bad luck with scant evidence to support why. The only certainty seems to be that the trend exists. I offer a strategy which I find helpful, but which is as un-researched and un-evidenced as the existence of the 'luck' it seeks to shape.

If things start to look bad, I stop and re-think my day. Even if I have little chance to change the event structure, I can influence how we do things, and leadership tasks are so many I can usually delegate or approach them differently.

Like the coming of rain, I have learned to cherish 'unlucky' days where I can work on some of the lower priority but more complex aspects of my job. Sometimes my lowered confidence levels make me more thorough, a better listener and more process than outcome-driven.

Equally, when it's going well, I ride it! Tasks and lists can be consumed, optimism abounds, and free thinking and development planning combine. On lucky days I try to avoid or postpone long meetings and complex personnel issues, as over-confidence and fast working have little place in the design of permanent human solutions.

To conclude, I return to my kitchen where, two weeks later with fingers mostly healed, I repeated the sequence of events. The work was completed by late afternoon, new worktops, hob, and a high sense of satisfaction. Explain that!

Tony Lamberton is headteacher at Christleton High School, Chester.

Want to have the last word? The Last Word always welcomes contributions from members. If you'd like to share your humorous observations of school life, please email Sara Gadzik at leader@ascl.org.uk ASCL offers a modest honorarium.

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