Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Pontifex: An Etended Metaphor

Before I decided upon this metaphor for my first year of pastoral leadership, I needed to check with a priest (and canon lawyer) that it was acceptable. After all, Pope Francis uses Pontifex as his Twitter handle and one of his many titles is Pontifex Maximus. Given this is written in the light of my MA in Catholic School Leadership, excommunication for heresy was not my intention! However for Catholics and non-Catholics alike, I feel Pope Francis does give an excellent example of leadership: servant-like, love-filled and compassionately just. I have written about my first term of pastoral leadership previously, see <here>.

Pontifex: “Bridge Builder”

Pontifex Maximus is a title of the Pope which means ‘greatest bridge builder’. This was originally the most important position in early Rome, but was later adopted by the Church based there. In a city divided by a river, it was naturally a very important role.

Less “Bridge of Angels”

More “Spaghetti Junction”

However it has been less Bridge of Angels and more Spaghetti Junction this last academic year as I dealt with self harm, eating disorders, bereavement, illness, stress, anxiety, school refusers, marriage breakup... and just ordinary teenagers. Expect the unexpected is a good mantra generally for those working in schools, even more so a Head of Year.

For the first time, I have had to work directly with with social services, hospital consultants, the police, CAMHS, the EWO, counselors, home-school support workers, parishes... as well as the parents and carers.

Building The Bridge 

The step from form tutor to pastoral leader such as Head of Year is enormous. The scale and extent is such that a handover is near on impossible.

Jill Berry introduced me to Robert Quinn’s idea that you: "Build the bridge as you walk on it",

This suggests that we are always learning and honing our skills in education and that we may never be ready for the next step of leadership if we wait until we consider ourselves fully trained and prepared.

Is it possible to be train up as pastoral leader? I think one of the most important things is to simply have the determination to succeed, and working out how to invest sufficient time and energy (something, somewhere needs to give at times - working out what that is can be one of the toughest challenges).

Brooklyn Bridge (New York, USA)

It took just over 13 years (1870-83) from start of construction until opening, or 18 years (1865-83), from the drawing-board to opening. The bridge cost $15.5 million in 1883 dollars (about $379,661,000 in today's dollars)

The QEII Bridge (Dartford, UK)

It took just over 3 years to build from 1988 to 1991 at a cost of £120m (£244 million as of 2015).

Building bridges is not quick, nor cheap.

How much time do we give our pastoral leaders? Are non-teaching pastoral leaders the way forward? Or is it better to have someone who is also involved in the pressures of classroom teaching?

How much money do we pay them? Does the money recognise the responsibility, pressure and accountability? In many schools it is far less that academic leaders such as Heads of Department. That gives an interesting message about priorities.

Emergency Bridge Building


I don’t like using military language in reference to schools, but nevertheless, sometimes as leaders, both SLT and Pastoral Leaders are called in during an emergency. Plus you often need to act like UN Peacekeepers.

Emergency bridge building is a difficult task. Particularly when one side is not willing or ready. They are difficult conditions in which to rebuild your bridge, but sometimes it is necessary. Emergency bridge building, or rebuilding, is a special skill, that requires particular expertise.

Building Together

Everyone in school is actually a pastoral leader. Everyone has a responsibility for safeguarding. Most teachers have a form. They certainly see students in distress; in the corridor, in the playground, in the classroom.

Many love being a Form Tutor. Some see it as an inconvenience. Are they then the ones confused why a student hasn’t done their homework, or is missing lots of lesson for no apparent reason?

It is everyone’s responsibility.

Reams of data, the latest pedagogy, 1:1 iPads, the 'all singing and dancing lesson' are of no use unless someone is ensuring the students in the room are safe, happy and secure.

However also remembering, Jill Berry’s question at TMLondon, “Who would want to be lead by you?” - as a Pastoral Leader are you ready to get your hands dirty and do registers, detentions, admin like everyone else?

Pastoral Leaders are “the oil in the machine” (John Dexter)

Why do your best planned lessons go wrong? It's normally, nothing to do with you or your lesson.

What time, space, status and reward do we give pastoral leaders?

If there is not enough 'oil in the machine', the whole school is in trouble.

Senior leaders, please consider the support that you offer to the pastoral challenges in your school, do you even know what they are?

Why be a Bridge Builder?

In 10 years of teaching, I have never been busier, nor could I ever imagine having so little time to myself. I didn’t even realise some of the things that go on with some of our students. It can be absolutely heart breaking yet equally amazing that they arrive in school and learn anything!

However I am really enjoying the job, and I find it incredibly satisfying.

One thing you need to learn very quickly is that you will never please everyone… some will think you are too hard, and others not hard enough on the students!

Consider it, or make sure you are the people supporting it.

Download the original presentation <here>

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