The Long Walk

There is a forum for secondary school head teachers in the county in which I work. It is at about this time of year that we pay tribute to colleagues who are moving on to jobs outside of the county, or outside of schools, or who are about to retire.

A few kind and generous words are said about the colleague, who in turn makes the obligatory remarks about how much they have enjoyed their time as a head teacher.

Particularly poignant are the retirement speeches of those who have served for a long time, perhaps as head teacher of the same school for 10, 15, even 20 years or more. A long-standing colleague reflects on the early days of working in the county, how different it was back then, and shares some anecdotes about how helpful the colleague was to them at particularly difficult moments.

Now and then, there is a head teacher who retires for whom there is no-one left in the room who was around when they started. Their peers have fallen by the wayside one at a time and they find themselves to be the last man (or woman) standing. I find these moments haunting. How must it feel to outlast one’s peers? To have no-one who was there from the beginning?

It reminds me of those news stories about the oldest person in the world. At that time in their life, no-one alive existed at the time of their birth. They stand alone.

In Stephen King’s dystopian novel, ‘The Long Walk’, one hundred teenage boys set out each year along Route 1 in America in a reality TV show with a grim twist. Each walker must stay above four miles per hour. If he falls below, he receives a warning. Four warnings and the boy is shot dead by snipers. To win the competition, you must simply be the last boy standing.

It is a dark story of bravado, brutality, companionship, self-discovery and loss. Towards the end of the story, the boys cling desperately to each other, some choosing to sacrifice themselves, perhaps to save their newly found friends, perhaps because the futility of the game they have entered dawns upon them.

This year marks my tenth year of headship. It has been a long walk.

Leading a school at the beginning is not like leading a school a decade later. You start out with a desire to win. As time passes, you realise that the goal is not to win, merely to survive and keep others walking with you. That is not to say you lose the ambition to make your school the best it can be, just that longevity proves that this isn’t a goal you will achieve. The quality of the journey becomes more important than the achievement of the prize.

10 years in, there is a backstory. There are mistakes to be owned. There are successes which have faded. Every decision is laden with history, every turn is taken with the knowledge of how you have arrived at this juncture.

I see others serve their short stint as head teacher before moving on to CEO, or some school improvement role across the trust, and it irks me. I have no doubt that they have made their mark, perhaps dramatically turning around a failing school. If this is the model – fast impact head teachers overseeing yet more fast impact head teachers, a rapid turnover of heroes who rise to lead a system which thrives on immediacy and overnight transformation – then so be it. But I pity those walking the long walk who find themselves advised (or coerced) by those who have only learnt to sprint.

There are turning points in the story.

There is a moment where the sort of head you are going to be is defined. For me that came early, faced with a black hole in the budget. When the first radical change you make in a school is to eject some blameless teachers, it leaves a mark. A bad taste in the mouth. I learnt quickly that you cannot afford to postpone the hard decisions; they just become harder. And if you can’t avoid cutting, use a sharp knife. Surgery is best if it is not repeated, so do what you need to do the first time. And for those that survive, give them your best care.

There are moments when your weaknesses are exposed. For me, that moment repeats itself every year when our exam results are published. Even after 10 years, we are not delivering the outcomes I think we should be delivering. I take responsibility for that. I haven’t pushed enough. I have too often prioritised the broader outcomes of schooling over hard results. So many of the things we do are brilliant, but I won’t believe I can do this job well until we break away from being simply ‘good enough’.

There is a moment that nearly breaks you. For many head teachers it is more than ‘nearly’. The snipers took them out for walking too slowly. For them, and for me, it was inevitably Ofsted. It was six years ago, but I still don’t feel I can let it go. I won’t put down in words what it did to me at the time, and I don’t think I ever will. I fight the urge to see them as the enemy, but as they shoot down my comrades one at a time it is hard not to. There has to be a better way.

Then there is a moment when the resilience of the organisation is tested to the limit. For all of us, that was the pandemic. But it is also its aftermath. If there is anything that makes me feel my headship has been worthwhile, it is the way our school – the children in it, the parents in our community, and the amazing staff – have weathered this storm. It is not that we have been strong, but that we are anti-fragile; absorbing each blow and bouncing back. The institution of the school is one of the great inventions of the modern world. Whilst those within it may be individually fragile, together we are resilient. When we are under attack, we are at our most united.

And the years are peppered by moments of joy, too many to note here.

When I listen to the retirement speeches, the joy is always there. Many head teachers reflect at this moment that they have come to realise that they are no longer what the school needs, and the school is no longer what they need. There is a consensual parting of ways. But recently, many profess that they have simply had enough. They are too worn down by insufficient funding, heavy handed accountability, staff shortages, mental health problems, and declining support services. A bitterness has crept in. They could keep walking, but what is the point?

I find myself in the uncomfortable position of being called an elder. At the age of 51! I’m not ready for that. What does it say about a job when so many can’t do it for much more than a decade? I look around the table and see a diminishing number of peers. We are all clinging on to each other. The younger faces at the table turn to us as if we know something they don’t. But we’re still finding our way too.

This year, the first of my old school friends retired. Others have plans. They ask me when I am going to retire – what a ridiculous thought! They seem to be longing to escape from something. I think they have jobs. Mine is a vocation.

A few months ago, an old friend from university days took his own life. God, I wish I had spent more time with him while he was still here. I don’t know how this is relevant, but it feels like it is. Time passes, and then it doesn’t. Did the futility of the game become too much for him? At least he wasn’t the last man standing. He left the game with people around him who cared that he is gone.

This week, the Principal of a local college died suddenly of a heart attack. He worked at my school back in the 1980s. A colleague sent me a picture of a news clipping. It turns out he used to take groups of students walking in the mountains: his love, my love. In the picture you could make out the joy on this youthful teacher’s face. It looked like he was where he wanted to be.

The long walk.

I have a knee injury. For four weeks I imagined what it might be. Could it be arthritis? Had years of climbing mountains finally taken its toll? Paranoia had me prophesying the end of my mountain walking adventures. It’s fine; I just need some physio.

But what happens when I can’t do the things I love anymore?

How much further can I walk?

But it’s less about how much further I can walk and more about whether there are others left to walk with. The long walk isn’t an individual endeavour. One day I may look around and realise that none of the people I started out with are still walking. There may be people to prop me up, but no-one who really understands what it feels like to have covered the distance. What will that ending feel like?

I can see the horizon ahead and I keep walking, who knows for how long?

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