As the school year comes to an end and people turn their thoughts to the break and that oh so important time to recharge and refresh, I want to spend a little time thinking of those who are coming to the end of their professional journeys and are about to retire.
A week or so ago, I went for a drink with Les, he will mean nothing to you, but he is a man that has had an extraordinary impact on me. As we sipped that first beer of the evening, he calmly looked over to me and said, “Well, I’ve finally done it, I am retiring at the end of the year.” I felt strangely emotional, partly because I knew how much the job had meant to him. Les was the Assistant Principal at Grange; he had been for many years before I became Principal and had continued to be long after I had left, in fact, he had devoted the best part of 40 years to Grange; all of his working life. Through the many ups and downs the school had experienced in his long tenure, he had never wavered; his commitment to the school, the community and the children has become something of legend in the area.
I remember the first time that I met him. It was 2001 and I had just been appointed as the new Principal and I have to confess that I was wary of him; he was the school’s ‘alpha’ teacher; already an institution, he was strong minded, charismatic and popular with children, parents and staff. He had developed a fearsome reputation in the wider education community as a man who would not suffer fools gladly. I knew when I started, that he was the first person I would need to meet one to one.
The meeting went well, very well, surprisingly well; given that I hadn’t slept the night before. Les and I were, on the surface, completely different people; his experience had helped him to become highly pragmatic and I was a dreamer, but in the meeting he was immediately supportive and encouraging. As it turned out, this was extremely important when it came to building capacity and momentum for the changes that followed.
I remember on my last day at Grange which, as you can imagine, was a very emotional day, we shook hands and looked into each other’s eyes with pride and mutual admiration, as we did so I asked him the question that I had been bottling up since that very first meeting; “How come you were so supportive so quickly?” His answer was simple and typically to the point, “The first time you opened your mouth”, he said, “you demonstrated that you cared about Grange’s kids; my kids and that meant you were going to be alright by me!”
He was right of course, and I knew that that was exactly why the feeling had been mutual. He along with the rest of the remarkable team had been under pressure for years to deliver systems; to satisfy local government officials, school inspectors and examiners, it had been a very long time since anyone had talked about the children as people and not statistics but our time together was different and that meant that he was able to rediscover his passion for the job, the children and a school that he had devoted most of his life to.
I have worked in a number of schools in my career and with some great people; truly brilliant, skilled professionals, but I have never worked with anyone like Les; a man who must have been class teacher to nearly 1500 children and thousands more that he would have worked with in the many extra-curricular clubs and trips he organised and ran; which he did for no extra money or acclaim.
Every day he would arrive at school with the same energy and enthusiasm he did on his first day in the mid 1970′s.
He was not a man who ever looked for attention or public recognition because for him, the children and the smiles on their faces were what got him out of bed in the morning and made the job the most magical on earth!
It was no accident that he always got the best out of the kids; academically, socially and creatively; he oversaw the unbelievable rise in academic standards that had Grange moving from the bottom 5% of schools to the top and he delivered year on year. The true gauge of his influence though, was that every child wanted to be in his class, just as their parents had when they had been pupils at Grange!
Not only did he nurture the kids but he also guided many new teachers; supporting and encourage them to take risks, to focus on the children and to never let go of their passion for the job. I felt it first hand; despite me being the Principal, he became my rock without ever undermining my authority or making me feel like his junior.
We had strong discussions and debate, which is healthy and hugely productive; especially when they were as constructive and as focused as ours. They would always end with better ideas and strategies; true collaboration.
I know that there are many like Les around the world; true heroes of education who go through their careers giving everything they have for our children and then they head off into the sunset, often unnoticed, but today I want us all to celebrate those people; their professionalism, dedication and passion; their undying loyalty to kids everywhere. Not only has my life been richer for meeting a Les but so has that of every child, teacher and parent that he has worked with.
So here is to you Les and to all of those like you; your lessons will be active long after you leave the classroom; thank you!