Head, Wimbledon High School
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There are two tomes currently taking pride of place on my desk: a collection of the second of the historical tetralogies by William Shakespeare, and The New Art of Headship 2023 by RSAcademics. Not common bed-fellows, I’d warrant, though it’s easy enough to make jokes about one of these texts covering years of unrest, chaos and bloodshed, centred around the anxieties, vanities and pitfalls of leadership during turmoil; and the other being Henry V.
The Shakespeare is there because I’m teaching Henry IV Pt I, but I’d also reached for it last year on the death of Her Majesty Elizabeth II, when finding some words for an assembly. I had tried to think about how she had felt the night before her coronation when, aged only 27 and grieving for her father, she had been thrust onto the world stage, and how her sleep may well have been as elusive as that of Henry in his famous midnight soliloquy in the halls of Westminster:
Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude,
And in the calmest and most stillest night
With all appliances and means to boot
Deny it to a king? Then happy low, lie down!
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.
When reading the passage to our students, I admit I felt it resonating within me, not only as a commentary on the burdens of Kingship, but as a reflection of my own experiences over the previous three years and the occasional longing to have a break from it. We’re not by any stretch monarchs – in fact, I often think of Heads more as caretakers than kings or queens – but whether leading a small team, a school or a country, a leader is a leader; and Hal’s envy of his sleeping troops absolutely reminds me of my occasional fantasies of returning to full-time English teaching, and the chance to remove the metaphorical crown and lay it down, even if only for a short while. Who amongst us Heads has not experienced the heaviness of that crown from time-to-time, and the sporadic 3am episode of staring into the abyss of significant and relentless responsibility? And not just us: king of UK Grime Stormzy himself appropriates Henry’s words in his 2019 track ‘Crown’ (and if it’s a good enough metaphor for Stormzy, it’s good enough for me…)
So, as our thoughts turn to the forthcoming HMC Conference in Shakespeare’s birthplace of Stratford-on-Avon, with its welcome focus on the challenges and joys of leadership in our schools, the two texts sitting on my desk have seemed to me both inter-connected and thought-provoking in that inter-connectedness. The idea that a ‘new art’ of Headship is emerging – very much catalyzed by the pandemic, the report suggests – is fascinating, and much of the report chimes with my own experience: more and different pressures from more and different stakeholders; the need to strategize long-term whilst fighting short-term fires; a transactional element creeping into relationships which may well heighten as the sector headwinds continue to blow; and a feeling – as quoted in the report – that ‘Heads look back on a time before Covid with nostalgia’.
Challenges, it would seem, abound.
But isn’t it comforting to know that it has been ever thus? That yes, in a post-pandemic world, everything seems to have changed, but that this change is utterly predictable; that after crisis comes challenge and even at times chaos. Shakespeare tells us this is the case not only as far back as the world of Henry IV – back in the fourteenth century, after all – but even further back than that, much further, in Troilus and Cressida for instance where the Trojan War is followed by deep pestilence and utter turmoil.
Things change, constantly, and whilst we are only a small part of that change, we are leading our communities during one of the most significant changes of our generation. Will we need to adapt? Of course? Is it difficult? Absolutely. But it’s been part of human experience since the very beginning: writers like Shakespeare tell us that leaders eons before us felt the weight of their responsibilities, and that they went on and led anyway; and those who come after us will doubtless experience the same. Being a human and being a good leader must go hand-in-hand, so we’re going to have moments and even years when we feel the crown to be heavy or uneasy. Acknowledging our own flawed humanity, at 3am or otherwise, and our place in a long line of flawed, human leaders just might be what is required to keep us going.