The Curator

In one of the best moments in TV history (in my opinion), the greatest Doctor in the Doctor Who franchise, Tom Baker (also just my opinion), appears as an elderly curator of a museum. This brief scene toward the end of the epic Day of the Doctor episode depicts a moving and poignant encounter where Matt Baker’s Doctor meets his older (or younger?) self. The Curator is entrusted with a gallery of artifacts, the centre piece of which is a painting showing the destruction of Gallifrey, the Doctor’s lost home. In a turning point in the show’s narrative, The Curator hints that this world still exists somewhere in space and time and that, perhaps, all is not lost.

One of the things I love about the casting of the Doctor in this custodial role is that it reflects the deep affection Whovians have for the history of the show, and for Tom Baker himself who mastered the role. Baker is the (possibly) eternal caretaker for Doctor Who lore. The traditions, history and meaning of successive series is forever in his hands.

In a previous school in which I worked, there was a Deputy Head not unlike Tom Baker’s Doctor in many ways. We worked together at a time when the school was celebrating its 350th anniversary. This individual oversaw the marking of this occasion and was the perfect choice to do so. I remember one leadership team meeting where he set out for us how he saw our role. He said something like this:

“As leaders of this school, we come and go. This school was here before us, and it will be here long after we are gone. It is far greater than all of us combined. The school has played a role in this community for hundreds of years: thousands of children have been shaped by it, countless parents grateful for it, and its part in the history of this small part of the world cannot be fully comprehended. We are mere custodians of this school. Our job is to pass it on in the best state possible to those who come after us.”

He may not have been quite this eloquent or succinct, but this is how I like to remember it. A couple of years later when he retired, the tributes to him showed that he had truly lived these values.

Of course, not all schools have such a venerable history. But the point is that we can conceive of our role as school leaders as an endeavour to leave the school in a better state than when we found it. This gentle conception contrasts with the brash ‘school improvement’ narrative of the CEO figure, driving results and eliminating complacency. The custodian, or curator, metaphor encourages us to preserve what is precious as well as bringing new things of beauty to the collection. We are sagely reminded that what we do is only of value if it outlasts our tenure, living on as a new tradition, value, or institutional memory. The visitors to our museum of curiosity should have their lives enriched long after they, and we, have moved on.

We perhaps risk wallowing in the romantic if we limit ourselves to the metaphor of the custodian. We need to be both Tom Baker’s curator and Matt Smith’s energised righter of wrongs. But I can’t help thinking that a little more custodial thinking might be a good thing – do we need another hero?

As I was researching this post, I came across another Tom Baker, this one a teacher who retired in 2017 after many years of service to schools in his county. He is described as ‘quietly caring for students’ for the past 41 years. I suspect he fought many battles over these 41 years – modest ones perhaps – but he is honored for leaving those he taught slightly better off than before they met him. We need more Tom Bakers.

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