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  • Chris Jeffery

On Renewing First Love

35 years in education has taught me that it is increasingly easy to forget why I became a teacher in the first place.

In my experience, very few teachers enter the profession for reasons other than their genuine desire to have a positive impact upon the lives and futures of young people.

The days of “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” are long gone. It’s very far from an easy gig in these times (if it ever was). It’s not for the holidays either, despite that enduringly popular myth, and certainly not for the riches! I think it’s fair to say that the vast, vast majority of the colleagues that I have worked with had the qualifications, skills and character to have made a far better living in other professions, but actively chose not to. Doing good, making a difference and putting their often considerable talents at the disposal of a greater, pro-social purpose were far more important. It’s something I delve into quite deeply when interviewing; I am very rarely disappointed with the responses from those I have appointed.

It can be really hard, however, to maintain that idealism or sustain it over the course of a school year, let alone a career.

The vast quantity of everyday detail, deadlines and diversions can be overwhelming at times. The balancing of an intense and demanding job with whatever life holds away from school provides inevitable and sometimes seemingly unresolvable tensions. Incongruence between your values and personal mission and that of the school or academy chain you might be working for can cause real pain and disillusionment. There can even be a sense of futility as you battle to do your best -and for the best reasons- in the face of frequent changes in government policy and ever tightening resources (even in the private sector at times); or as you realise that the symptoms of the toll that life in 2022 is taking on the young people we care for are impinging more and more on school life, with no additional hours left in the day to respond.

For those who have been in the profession for a long time, especially those who have been in a single institution for a long time, reconnecting with your purpose can be really tough. The flame of your first, idealistic love for the profession you entered is very often hard to keep alive, and rather hard to rekindle once it has sputtered out. It’s hopefully easier if you are working in a place that aims to live out values and a mission that really connect with yours -something I really hope we offer at Bootham- but even here the everyday, the required and the urgent, as well as the inevitable consequence of working in a community of over 800 imperfect humans, too often drowns out that still small voice that wants to remind you of why you come to work every day.

It seems vital, therefore, that teachers are given opportunities to reconnect with this crucial foundation from time to time. I’d rather my colleagues complained about how often we might refer to this stuff than how rarely!

So, over the past three days we have been holding our start of year new staff induction and whole staff Inset days. We have looked at exam results together and spent a little time on some practical details, such as safeguarding updates and duty rotas. We have talked about learning, pastoral challenges and standards to set up priorities for the year. We have had some preparation time in our teams.

But our major focus has been on values and purpose: in part, by giving colleagues the chance to reconnect with their ‘why’ rather than always getting swamped by the ‘what’ or the ‘how’. Exploring how congruous those individual ‘whys’ are with the corporate ‘why’ of the school as a whole and with the work we have to do on a daily basis; hopefully learning from that analysis. As part of that, a colleague from the local university, who has worked with some of our middle and senior leaders over recent years, took us all through an exercise (pictured below) around our personal values, motivations, 'stabilisers', challenges and goals and how those might shape the culture of the school. It was refreshing, especially when we were all given time to look at the gallery of responses to find the patterns that might indicate something of the institutional culture.

In the same way that those in a successful long term relationship sometimes need to work hard to recognise, remember and nurture the reasons it began in the first place, so I have come to learn that, as professionals, we have to do the same with our vocation. It is not -I firmly believe- time wasted; rather it is an investment in the quality of our everyday work. It's been a pleasure to do it this week.

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