Sunday, 3 November 2013

A Car Crash Conversation

SLT has taken a bit of a bashing on Twitter of late, some of it, in some circumstances deserved, some less so.  Within my own school I have a good relationship with most members of our SLT team, mainly because; despite some of the decisions they make that I may not agree with; that I may find difficult to implement; that I may struggle to find time for, they have not lost touch with their humanity, have worked at the school for many years because of an unswerving loyalty to the children in the community that our school serves. 

   On Twitter I have tweeted with many Head Teachers, Deputy Head and AHTs steeped in integrity and a passion for their pupils and compassion for their colleagues.  This post isn't about you.

Rather, this example of a car crash conversation I had with an AHT at a my first teaching school, in Tamworth. She was the line manager for the English faculty, and the conversation is about the first time I had crippling depression after the death of my father 8 years ago. After his death and gradually, over about 6 months, I became a ghost of myself, through a loss of one and a half stone, hair loss, insomnia and adult acne.  I looked a wreck but somehow, when I told this AHT I was not very well at all and I had been prescribed anti-depressents, I had a most astonishing conversation. 

This taken from a different blog I started about 3 years ago, mainly containing self-indulgent, awful mawkish writing. This, though I think  is worth a second airing, not least for two friends who are teachers and not in a good place at all due to a range of stresses, many of which are teaching based.

So here is the tale of the car crash conversation with an AHT and some context.

So, at last the doctor's visit about my depression was done, and me being the conscientious sort, felt it right to tell the people at work, my school. I told my head of department first and he listened, made no judgments or comments and advised me to speak to our Assistant Head, the one, who totally inexplicably was in charge of 'people' and their well-being at school. This was the same woman who told a friend and colleague whose sister in law was dying of the human form of BSE at the same time an OFSTED Inspection was due that, "School is more important, she won't know who you are anyway when you visit."   So, you can imagine I was not overly optimistic about the outcome of our conversation, and boy was I right. Now, this is a conversation I have not really ever forgotten.

I walk into her office, trousers hanging off my hips and palms sweaty, not really from nerves but it was a side effect of my medication. Pleasantries are exchanged and I tell her, "I've been diagnosed with depression and I'm on anti-depressants."
She responds in an all to inappropriately cheery manner with, "Oh, well you disguised that well."
A little dumbstruck I respond with, "Oh, erm, really?" [internal monologue: What do you mean I've disguised that well?! I've lost over a stone and a half in weight, I haven't slept properly in the last 6 months, my clothes are falling off me, my hair is falling out in clumps and my complexion is worse than a teenage boy's.]
Still in the cheery tone she comments, "You should take some more pride in your appearance! Put on a bit of lippy, do your hair, by some new clothes!"
Once again I am dumbstruck, I cannot respond. [internal monologue. I feel the worst I've ever felt in my life and now you're telling me how crap I look. Brilliant. And getting myself in debt buying new clothes will make me feel better how? I said I have depression, not that I'm a bit depressed you imbecile. Doctors don't prescribe you anti-depressants unless you could be a danger to yourself. Are you really meant to be in charge of people? How? Why?!]
She continues in the same irritating tone of voice, same stupid comments, "Go out with the girls, go and get pissed!"
I manage to muster a response here, "I can't, anti-depressants don't mix with alcohol."
"Oh don't worry about that," she carries on, "go and have a few drinks." 
I can't manage a response again. [internal monologue: How on earth can you get to your age (she's in her 50s) and have such low emotional intelligence? Why are you so ignorant about this? Stop TALKING!]
I think I fudge an excuse to leave, and leave I do. I'm astonished at the stupidity of her comments, still am, and the worst of it was, no help was offered. No offers of occupational health, no alleviation in my timetable. Nothing. Nada.

 It is this kind of encounter that, sadly, creates the 'Us and Them' between classroom teachers and SLT culture in a school.  It is regrettable that this kind of incident, something I have never forgotten; produces angry bile when I recall it. 
Is it any wonder that classroom teachers can be distrustful of senior managers in a school?

Perhaps, what is of greater concern is that such encounters have put me off wanting to 'climb the greasy pole' of promotion in a school. If that is the end result, some kind of Faustian pact that recinds you of your soul and integrity, I don't want it. I'd rather be put out of my misery like a horse with a shattered leg after missing a jump in The Grand National, than become 'that'.   I wonder if that is something that crosses an SLT member's mind when they instigate a conversation with a classroom teacher? If not, it really ought to.


  1. Having led schools myself, Gwen, I can only say how sad and wrong it is that you have - quite understandably come to this conclusion. I just hope another conversation will arise that can change your mind. We need people like you. I am surmising somewhat I guess, being someone who has only read your posts. I would say to young staff, roll with the blows and promise yourself - as the offensive idiot walks away - 'I will be better than you, and make more people happy than you can.' I know it's hard. All the very best.

  2. Two comments:
    1. In 19+ years of education I can count on one hand the number of admin that I would consider potentially being a great teacher. I have a feeling that many admin went into teaching and were continually hounded with this unshakable feeling that they were expected to do things they weren't very good at, When they saw the the work of Admins they knew they were better suited for that line of work and they were right. Pencil pushing, bean counting, being political those are all special talents I want none of. It's not a promotion, it's a complete change in profession.

    Point two, I get what you are saying about emotional intelligence, but I often wonder if it's also a matter of emotional endurance. Can you handle the day to day responsibility of being a good human being or do you need to just shut it all down and treat others as cows and insects. For some people this happens early in life, for others it happens gradually as a result of their job or life. Sometimes just surviving being a decent human being is quite an accomplishment.

  3. This is terrible, Gwen, and I really do feel for you. There certainly ARE some very poor leaders out there (at all levels), and your account clearly demonstrates what damage they do.

    But I would feel sad, too, if, as you say, "such encounters have put me off wanting to 'climb the greasy pole' of promotion in a school." I really don't believe that this is what leadership does to people. I do think that pressure can bring out the worst in people, and sometimes it brings out the best.

    I read such inspiring stuff from beginning and early career teachers in Twitter/in blogs, and I really hope this augurs well for future generations of school leaders. I know that requires them to look at positive senior leader/head role models and be lifted and motivated by them. I think you can also look at weak leaders, with poor judgement and appalling people skills, and think, 'I could do that job and do it so much better - I would never treat people that way'. That has to be better than letting the b******s grind you down and kill your spirit!

    Go for it, Gwen...