Back in 2012, when OFSTED visited for an inspection that established us as a satisfactory school (in those distant days when you could still be one!), I wrote that we had effectively hauled ourselves out of a ravine and we were in the broad grasslands, walking together, towards mountain ranges of achievement. We would do this better together, and we did. Hardly anyone left and we had a clear view of how to proceed. We knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that we were a good school a long time before OFSTED confirmed that in 2014.
After our 2014 inspection, confirming the intensity of that communal effort made in the previous 18 months, I wrote of the need to begin the trek into the mountains, where visibility was likely less, and keeping together would be harder. Roads would be steeper and it would not always be clear when we had got to the top. The views of where we have come from would be clearer and we would see the value of what we had achieved, but still, the peaks would be hidden in mist and the direction-finding would be less obvious. We would need to rely on our compass and innate vision, rather than sight. As acknowledged in many places, the journey from good to great is harder than that going from average to good.
At present, at Christ the Sower, this is undoubtedly the case. We have had many many notable successes and continue to celebrate them, but the overwhelming feeling, as we complete this term, is one of struggle. This must not surprise us, because the nature of the beast is that we do struggle with it. We do not go into the intensity of teaching and expect it to be something from which we emerge unscathed. We, literally, spend ourselves on behalf of our children. That is where the energy goes. Leadership has been harder and more demanding, and directed in different ways – to working with new teaching and support staff, in establishing new teams, in taking on new roles, and presently, managing and supporting a class full of exceptionally needy and many damaged children. Every week – and sometimes every day of that week – has brought me and the leadership team challenges that we have never faced before. This is the nature of mountain life. We can’t see the road as clearly, and what is waiting around the crag is unseen until we are upon it, or it is upon us. This is not complaint, just the reality of what we do in a successful school. It is a privilege to lead and a burden to bear, all in one.
Bruce Cockburn sings, in Pacing the Cage:
Sometimes the best map will not guide you
You can’t see what’s round the bend
Sometimes the road leads through dark places
Sometimes the darkness is your friend
This, for school leaders, for those who are trying to push the boundaries without any clear view of what might happen, or for those who love God and are interested to see where he might take them, is the essence of faith. With Jehoshaphat, King of Judah, in 2 Chronicles 20, facing the invading Moabites and Ammonites, we say
We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you. (2 Chron 20:12)
What does this feel like? Often, this term, and last, it has felt that if we slip back at all, more has been lost than we are comfortable with. It is as though we are unsure of our footing. Sometimes, successes seem more hard won – and fewer easy gains are around to be made use of. This is all part of the mountain scenery. Retracing our steps is more likely to mean going downhill and climbing again in another direction. The triumphs, and triumphs there are, seem more secure perhaps, yet the buffeting and bruising of higher altitude does feel more intense.
In the mountains, you learn to trust each other to a degree you have no need to on an open plain or undulating foothills. Yesterday I was in a meeting discussing the future approach to one tricky situation and it became clear that just keeping an adult within a class for an extended period of time would build and develop the level of trust and availability required for success. Small things, but trusted things. Today we are losing to retirement a teaching assistant of long standing who in the last 3-4 years has become a pillar of children’s emotional security, especially those who are troubled. The level of trust engendered by her presence with children who need above all to feel safe, is fantastic, and recognising and seeking to replace that in someone else is a necessary mountain challenge.
This metaphor might eventually run out of steam, as all metaphors do, but whilst we have it, let’s use it. Speaking to us from another metaphor, the final word on this comes from the lovely Hillsong United song Oceans:
You call me out upon the waters
The great unknown where feet may fail
And there I find You in the mystery
In oceans deep
My faith will stand
And I will call upon Your name
And keep my eyes above the waves
When oceans rise
My soul will rest in Your embrace
For I am Yours and You are mine
Your grace abounds in deepest waters
Your sovereign hand
Will be my guide
Where feet may fail and fear surrounds me
You’ve never failed and You won’t start now.