Head Trauma – The Bruising Diary of a Head Teacher
By Nick Smith
Michael O’Mara Books Limited 2022
RRP: $34.99 (HB)
Reviewed by Anne Henderson
This is a book for those who despair of any news that teaching is more than a losing battle in the achievement of high standards in literacy and numeracy. Written by one who has spent three decades and seven schools at the coalface of teaching in the UK – having given up his medical career after eighteen months as a junior doctor – Nick Smith’s self-deprecatory tone lightens the read but he can make a point as sharp as any scalpel when needed.
While chapters follow a chronological order it is not technically a diary and charts, in the past tense, the progress and pitfalls of a career. It opens a window on the life dramas, joys, lessons both in and outside the classroom and rewards of a profession long denigrated by a world of publicity seeking glamour on the internet coupled with long existing notions that have diminished teaching as a career for the best and brightest. At one point, Smith pointedly dismisses Bernard Shaw’s infamous dictum “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” while his teaching memoir at what used to be called the chalkboard more than puts paid to the Shaw put down.
There are hair raising scenes in some of his early anecdotes as a rookie teacher – such as the assembly given by a deputy master, the fear engendering Mr Freely, who spotted a Year Eight boy whispering out of the side of his mouth in the otherwise silent rows of boys. Ordering the boy to the stage, Freely made him stand motionless at the front of the hall. It was a very hot day and the boy collapsed with Mr Freely continuing his assembly as if nothing had happened and barking at any staff who tried to assist the boy who eventually was helped by teachers after Mr Freely had finished.
As a trainee teacher, Smith was thrown in at the deep end – students set fire to his lab, stole his trousers and locked him in a cupboard. He was hit on the back of the head by a flying textbook. And then there were parents like Mr Jacobs who aggressively assured Smith his son had no need of advice on subjects as the father had taken care of that while objecting to his son AJ’s success at drama as “a waste of bloody time”. As he moved into more experienced years, life didn’t come easier. Seeing the humour mixed with the muddle, Smith relates an episode at one parent and teacher interview where he talked effusively for some minutes to a mother about how well Sally was doing. After his summing up, the smiling mother replied how pleased she was for Sally, but could he tell her about her own daughter whose name was Chloe.
Aside from these all too human mishaps and encounters, Smith also discovered he needed better methods in assessing how well his lessons went over: “My top set’s test answers clearly demonstrated that they hadn’t a clue about anything I thought I had taught them. They may well have enjoyed my amusing anecdotes and dramatic demonstrations but they were dazed and confused when it came to subject matter … I slowly began to twig that teaching is not all about your own performance.”
Teaching is not for the faint hearted. At the end of his training stint, two-thirds of his tutorial group had dropped out. Current statistics in the UK show that 30 per cent of teachers have left the profession by the end of five years. Smith argues: “Those leaving cite pay, workload and government policy as key issues, but I believe many are stunned by a full timetable, the complex demands of their students and the realisation that the support they got when training is about as good as it gets.”
But if 30 per cent leave, a lot more stay and Nick Smith’s warts and all take on teaching and administering schools offers not just lessons for government planners and ministers but a peep into a world that is fostering the citizens of tomorrow and a profession that gives the word “vocation” a new meaning. And the news is by no means bad – in fact as Smith sees it we have a lot to be proud of.
High school or senior school teaching as a profession pits its professionals against complex odds, not least its teams of adolescents in formative years. Apart from the stresses of the contemporary world, parental push for results and mental health for starters, the human years between childhood and adulthood are complex and often confusing for individuals. Attempting to offer some perspective, Smith writes:
… children nowadays are self-indulgent; they gobble up sweets and prefer gossip to exercise. They have terrible manners, they argue with their parents, they are contemptuous of authority and have little respect for their teachers. No, not my words, but those of the Greek philosopher Socrates from two and a half thousand years ago.
Smith encountered real challenges such as the boy who would appear at the classroom door then bolt off and, when chased, ended in the toilet block setting fire to toilet rolls. There was the class group XY3 who were hard to keep in the science lab and dangerous when there sending jets of flame across desks from gas taps, drinking acid and hitting each other with tripods. Smith adds: “for all the chaos, they brought out the best in Val and me … we produced the most detailed, interesting and creative lessons… [and] we got a lot more satisfaction from a good lesson with XY3 than we did with other classes.”
Head Trauma is not just a record. It is a documentary of sorts about teaching and one individual’s experiences in making good through numerous human mishaps, joyful rewards and a constant need to rework situations to their best advantage. Nick Smith is as much a learner as teacher and his ambition and dedication shines through the hurdles. He may have given it all away at the end of three decades with a heap of criticism for government regulations and bureaucracy, but his book is in large measure a paean to the teachers he worked with and the results they achieved.
In his self-deprecatory manner, Smith writes of how as he set out on the way to headship, he saw himself aiming for “hero head’ achievement – a young man with sights on making a difference. And he did with his Torquay Girls Grammar, where he was headmaster for 14 years, moving the school into an exceptional standard category with the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) over the years he was there. But it was a constant learning curve and at the half-way mark Smith carefully replaced the print on the wall of his office which pictured Napoleon crossing the Alps, on the way to inevitable victory and painted in 1801, with one of Napoleon in 1814, slumped in a chair in a small apartment room of his palace as his downfall comes closer. Writes Smith: “I find this picture really helps to keep me grounded.”
The lessons for Smith are as diverse as they are numerous. There are the Year 8 girls he followed on a sponsored walk as he shepherded the laggers, Sabrina Petersen and her friend: “Their ramblings covered such weighty topics as: which taste nicer: pink or white marshmallows; when was the last time either of them had stepped in dog mess; and whether, if they had to make a choice, they would choose to have one extra finger or one less … For five interminable hours they produced a continuous stream of surreal speculation … I remember thinking if these were the typical thoughts of the younger generation then the future wellbeing of the nation was in doubt.” Flash forward five years and it was the same Sabrina who stunned Smith in a mock Oxbridge trial at his school where she gave such superlative answers to questions that the session ran over time. “Oh me of little faith,” Smith concludes.
There was Demi Broome of infamous wayward behaviour with general disregard for any school rules. After her last Year 11 exam, Demi burned all her books on a path near a field adjacent to the school which set off a fire that threatened a nearby primary school and during which the Deputy Headteacher fell and broke an arm. Storming away from the school after a dressing down, Demi disappeared only to resurface months later arriving to thank the staff for putting up with her and saying how she missed school. She had found work as an ancillary nurse.
Schools and what happens in them are often no predictor of what young people might achieve or go on to later. Smith describes again and again how he grew just watching so many of his students in his school’s care develop into citizens to be proud of. And then there were the teachers, many of whom were the work to rule type who offered no more than they were paid for. On the other hand, many shone out like diamonds.
A school is a melting pot of well educated and capable individuals with independent stances on all manner of things presiding over hundreds of young minds many of whom have to be won over before their attention is gained. Long serving characters like Mrs Payne can be found in many schools. Thirty years of handling all manner of students and situations had left Mrs Payne, Head of PE, confident beyond questioning. Smith describes her as a force of nature. She was expert at handling notes to excuse girls from sport – “she would make those waving sick notes join in with the rest to run cross-country in the rain”.
Smith often played go-between with parents and Mrs Payne. It was not easy but he came to recognise that her strong will was because of her passion for her students and their need to take regular physical exercise which was good. Being slack about lesson plans and administrative paperwork had to give way to what she offered in their place. Smith soon accepted that Mrs Forbes’ contribution was overwhelmingly positive and that was what counted. She was generous and devoted to the girls in her care, so what did it matter if she sunbathed topless on the Year 11 Spanish trip or drove too fast over speed humps in her rush to get to her destination. There was little Mrs Forbes would not do to assist the school. Mrs Forbes helped Smith sort out his priorities in assessing staff.
Overseeing his teachers, Smith was careful to develop small tricks like sending a message to a staff member habitually late for morning registration by sitting in the staff member’s chair, waiting for said staff member to arrive, as Smith called names. But not always were Smith’s antennae spot on. Dealing with a student who had been caught after shoplifting a chocolate brownie, Smith was about to go into what he terms “impending crassness” mode but was stopped by an intervention on the part of wise owl Mrs Mellor, head of the girl’s class year. Mrs Mellor simply asked how the girl’s mother was and out poured a sorry tale of a dysfunctional home with a mentally broken mother who could not provide meals for the girl and her brother. Smith silently blessed Mrs Mellor and began organising ways the school could help the family. And then there was Mr Lacy.
Mr Lacy went from being a first rate chemistry teacher to one delivering poor exam results. Smith brought the teacher in and delivered his assessment and good advice for improving in the future. When things did not improve and Lacy asked for a day off, Smith became more disapproving until Lacy broke into tears and explained he was going to the Egyptian Embassy. His daughter had married an Egyptian man who had absconded with their daughter when they were on a holiday in Sharm-El-degre. The father had taken the child to Cairo to be reared there. Their many attempts to get the daughter/grand daughter back had all failed. Lacy was distraught beyond measure in their quest which had become a living nightmare. His work had suffered as a result. The child was never returned but Smith and the school tried to help and gave Lacy support although he never saw the girl again before dying after retirement. Smith made a note that he had learnt a painful lesson – gather all information before any kneejerk responses.
This is a book that entertains with its humour but also one that opens up on the whole world of teaching and schools. It is also one that surpasses the rather endless debate over educational standards. Smith describes from close up how intelligent, well educated professionals face a daily round of the unexpected, the challenging and the pathos of human character and behaviour. Those professionals are armed with university degrees in specialised subjects along with educational theory and practice. For all that, their performance is as much one of gathering information and experience as it is about dispensing it.
At one point, Smith opines how teaching is so often regarded by parents and many on the outside as an area anyone can be expert in simply because they have been to school and even university. Smith questions the logic of this saying no one would think they knew better how to operate on a body than a surgeon or second guess a medical specialist in a medical diagnosis. His accounts of complaining parents are for the most part laughable but should be taken as a precautionary tale for readers who themselves might be parents who believe school should be the answer to all areas of difficulty for their children and complain when it isn’t. And, with the increase in problem of mental health among young people, teachers now manage not just behaviour and intellectual guidance but also have to balance many health issues among the students in their care.
Smith’s greatest lesson over his years in schooling is about bonding. And that message comes through loudly in his accounts of his best moments. Such as with the nervous collapse of a shy Year 7 French Horn player on stage after which her classmates rallied her back on and encouraged her to finish the piece which they applauded loudly despite its wrong notes. In years to come, the girl overcame her nerves and went on to perform strongly. As Smith puts it: “The more experiences, the more bonds, and the more bonds the more goodwill, and the more goodwill the better the education you can provide.” Although he does recommend against year group sleepovers – re which see pp 163-166.
It is a great read – teaching is not for the faint hearted but Nick Smith offers plenty of reasons for young graduates to try it.
Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History.