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The Rhythm Method For School Leadership

Having been a primary school leader, in a number of schools, for some 17 years now, I have learnt many things about school leadership. Some of these have come as a result of bitter experiences, some from better experiences, some from collaboration with colleagues and some from reading and research. One of the important factors I have identified for school leaders to consider is to do with the rhythm of the school year, and its impact on school development and staff morale. 

When we return for the start of the new school year, we return refreshed and raring to go. We have our staffing in place, some of whom may well be new and who will bring new perspectives and new energies, as well as new plans for school development and the year ahead. We need to give learners and staff a little time to settle in but, by the half term break, everything will be well underway and we will probably be moving forward with developments mapped out in our school improvement plans. This continues on our return after the October break, and hopefully, into most of November before the 'C' word begins to take over and dominate. Obviously lots of important learning takes place in the run up to Christmas, but it can leave everyone a little exhausted by the end, as we deal with Christmas performances, parties and the first Parent's Evenings. The lead up to Christmas is a time of the year where astute and emotionally aware school leaders will probably rein back some of their expectations of staff in terms of school development. We need to cut everyone a bit of slack and be reasonable in our expectations. I have never been in a school where staff are not exhausted by the end of that first term. Tired and exhausted staff are not in the best place to deal with development and change.

We return in January with our physical and emotional batteries recharged and ready for the longest school term. This is often the term where, as a school leader, you expect to get the most done in terms of school development as you and colleagues should know exactly what needs to be worked on, and by whom. February and March can be particularly productive, though in my own schools we need to add report writing into our activities for March, with inevitable consequences for school development. We may have a short half-term break, ours is mid-February, but we can return after this and keep moving on. Of course, it is the same for our learners, and this can be the term where we see the most progress being consistently made. Easter arrives and we have got through the long dark mornings and nights, people are tired again, but hopefully significant progress has been made in all areas.

When we return after the Easter break in mid-April, the summer term awaits, and the one that seems to pass most swiftly. As a school leader you will be beginning to study and consider all your self-evaluation activities and data, collected in the previous two terms, as you begin to think about and formulate your next improvement plan. Teachers and working parties will be completing planned activities and their work will be feeding into your planning. Most of this will need to be completed in the first half of the summer term, before we get into more Parent's Nights, school sports, school trips, residentials and transition activities for older pupils. Once all these start kicking in the momentum of school development activities begins to slow down, as other activity increases and energy levels begin to wane again as we head towards the summer break.

This then is an idea of the 'normal' rhythm of a typical school year in a primary school, if such a thing exists. I am sure secondary colleagues can identify something similar in their own school year. As a school leader, you need to be aware of this and have it in your mind as the starting point for what you may look to achieve in terms of developing and moving forward. I have experienced some years that pan out like this, but not too many, as there are so many other factors than can impact on and disrupt that normal rhythm. Staffing does not always remain settled and can be disrupted for many reasons. Staff turnover is easier to deal with when it is known and planned, but when it is around illness, pregnancy or other family reasons, can be more difficult to deal with. Supply is an issue across all sectors within our system, and the inability to find regular supply teachers impacts in many ways on the school dynamic. Such situations have an inevitable consequence on school development also, as there can be fewer permanent staff to take things forward.

The arrival of Inspectors and inspection teams are another unknown factor that have big impacts on the rhythm of the school year. You may have an idea that an inspection is due and prepare accordingly, but even then their impact, during and after the inspection process, causes disruption to the school year and planned development. They can also cause all staff to be exhausted afterwards and still facing most of a very long term still to get through. Morale will be impacted and school leaders would be derelict in their duties in not seeing this and acting accordingly. In my experience inspections, no matter how positive in outcome, leave staff tired and drained and it takes some time for everyone's energy levels to return to normal.

I suppose you could classify other factors that can impinge on the rhythm of the school year as the unknown unknowns. These are the factors that can still occur during what you think is a 'normal' school year. These can be connected with parents, learners, local authority staffing, changes of government, local and national, weather, buildings, you name it. One of the imaginary traits effective school leaders are supposed to have is that ability to always expect the unexpected. You have no idea sometimes what is going to come at you from out of left-field to disrupt all your cunning plans. As an example, this year we had another local school damaged by storm Desmond moving across Scotland, which led to one of my schools playing host to most of this school and their staff for all of last term. Whilst we had no issues in helping out our colleagues, their arrival had a big impact on our school and what we have been able to do in what is normally our most productive term. You just don't know.

So understanding the rhythm of the school year is important for leaders, but so is recognising factors that can disrupt this, and how you and staff will be affected and cope. The rhythm impacts on all staff, positively and negatively, and the astute leader recognises this, and adjusts accordingly. The dangerous ones are those who insist on ploughing on with their plans no matter what else is happening around them, or for their staff. They will most likely have massive negative impacts on staff wellbeing and morale, and I would question the quality and sustainability of any 'development' that occurs in such circumstances. 

As Gloria Estefan sang 'The rhythm is gonna get you.' 

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