@headguruteacher – Who I am

My Dad was from Ramsgate. He grew up in a small terraced house; Grandad was a carpenter and made stained glass windows. Dad went to the grammar school and then to Oxford. He played the piano and loved singing.

My Mum met my Dad through plays.  She’d grown up in a funky Oxford townhouse; Grandpa was a Classics Don at Merton.  Grandma was an amateur theatre director…mostly Shakespeare. Mum spoke French and also loved acting. She’s hugely into ancestry and I now know that William the Conqueror was my 29th great grandfather.  I’m practically royalty!

Dad joined the British Council in the early 60s and we were posted around the world. I lived abroad until I was 8. Kuwait, Ethiopia, Iran and Brazil for a couple of years at a time…I was born in Oxford after Mum flew home from Kuwait.  Oddly, I didn’t meet my Dad for a couple of months, but he made up for lost time. We had lots of adventures and returned to England in 1974, living in leafy commuter-belt Farnham, Surrey.  My parents influenced me hugely. Because of them I’ll always vote Labour, remain a committed humanist-atheist and have a strong social conscience. They also gave me a thirst for travelling and the idea that seeking out intellectual and creative fulfilment is the route to a happy life.

Aged 11, I was moved up a year at school.  I don’t think differentiation had been invented then! It meant I was much happier intellectually but I was forever slightly out of step socially, eventually starting university at 17 and my first teaching job at 21. Who knows what would have been different if that hadn’t happened.  I loved school. Apart from the odd bit of bullying; part of life as a smart-arsed wimpish uber-geek with glasses.

Aged 12, my Dad died.  I’ve written about that elsewhere.  Needless to say life was never the same after that. But I still had a privileged upbringing; no doubt about that.

I loved science and music. Physics, Joy Division, Echo and the Bunnymen and huge bleached spiky hair defined me for years. I applied to Manchester University because of New Order and an article in The Face about the Hacienda nightclub.  Shallow? Moi? I loved the urban city feel after the Surrey prettiness lost its appeal. I got a First in my Physics degree. I’m still proud of that even if it’s not done to brag about these things.

Playing in bands and creating original music has always been a passion.  Tract Nein, That Ted and St Jude each played a significant role over the years. Before I discovered blogging as an outlet for self-expression, my private hobby has been writing music – you can hear the fruits on SoundCloud! I can’t sing but I can do the rest well enough to amuse myself.

Teaching took me by surprise. And my Mum. She cried with disappointment when I first told her! Maybe she thought a Nobel Prize for Physics was the next step?! Or she worried that I’d be skint – teachers were not paid at all well then.  Originally I only did it because a PGCE allowed me to stay on as a student with a bit more money. And then I thought it would have been a waste of time if I didn’t see it through.  The PGCE placements were a bit of a nightmare but once I got a real job in Wigan, I found it hugely rewarding. I started to see the possibilities for a career.

After three years teaching, still only 24, I went back-packing for a whole year including a few months in China, the Philippines and taking the trans-Siberian train from Beijing to Moscow, arriving in July 1991 just as it was all kicking off.

After a tough year supply teaching in London, I got back into the groove of teaching (details on my About page). I still felt a need to keep options open and enrolled on a part-time MSc in Development Studies at South Bank University. I loved it. It forced me to learn how to write and touch type; it made me learn the 20th Century history that I’d never touched at school and gave me an understanding of economics, international relations and poverty issues that I wouldn’t have developed otherwise. My dissertation on UN intervention in Somalia from 1991-93 was basically a neo-Marxist rant.

Back at school I developed a serious interest in solving the problems of school management.  I loved being a Head of Year before joining the SLT, even though it was tough at times; there were dark days.  I’ve always been someone to set up initiatives, to propose alternative curriculum models and to challenge people with low expectations or dodgy attitudes.  I used to be doggedly uncompromising; I let people have it. A reference once said that ‘people sometimes feel the sharp sting of my disapproval if they fail to meet my expectations.’ Now I’m a lot more subtle. When you’re the boss, you need to be.

Meanwhile, through school, I met my wonderful wife, got married, had two fabulous children and moved to Crouch End. That accounts for most of what I am and what I do…of course. We make a great team; we enjoy our time together. Whether travelling, skiing, watching Game of Thrones, The Killing or Modern Family, we like spending time in our little unit.  There’s nothing more profound or rewarding than seeing your babies turn into extraordinary young people. My wife and I spend countless hours exchanging and dissecting the details of our professional lives; educational principles matter but it’s usually the idiosyncrasies of the people we work with that occupy our time.

Most of what I think about what I do has been documented in my blog. Blogging has taken over from music as my main diversion from real life. It’s been quite a journey; recent work with John Tomsett on the Headteachers’ Roundtable Education Manifesto is just one of many amazing opportunities that have come my way since this all started.  I’ve even written a book. I didn’t think that would happen – but writing about education has become a big part of what I do these days.

Being a Headteacher suits me. Schools are huge projects with a moral purpose; intellectually challenging; personally demanding; always changing. You need a bit of imagination and a bit of an ego to stand up there and say ‘come on everyone…let’s do this!’ without getting too upset if people don’t agree. And you are pretty much your own boss. That’s fine with me.

From September, a new mission at Highbury Grove in Islington lies ahead.  I can’t wait. It’s the closest integration of what I am and what I do that I can imagine.

5 thoughts on “@headguruteacher – Who I am

  1. Great to read this, Tom.

    Echo and the Bunnymen – I once sat next to Ian McCulloch at a dinner party….

    And I went to Manchester too, though not sure we’re quite the same era?

  2. That’s fantastic. I used to worship him. Manchester ’83 – ’87 and few more years after that while I worked in Wigan.

  3. Hi Tom

    I too was at Manchester. ( 85-88). Queued once for the hacienda!

    Did see mick hucknell at the Intenational once !

    Good luck with new job !


  4. Was The Plaza (curry house on Upper Brook Street) still an institution when you two were there, or had that gone by then? I was in Manchester as a student 1976-1979 – then rediscovered the city when I was Head of English in Altrincham 1989-1993.

  5. Hello. I was reading your blog and came here and was casually reading this as I was watching Criminal Minds and thought I was mistaken when I saw your Kuwait and Ethiopia roots. I moved from a year gig at a bilingual school in Kuwait yesterday and will move to addis Ababa in July to teach! We have the same life….kind of 🙂

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