The Anatomy Of A School Year

The anatomy of a school year

The trouble with schools is that when things get tough we often think we are the only ones going through a particularly bad patch, which leads to us blaming the school in some way.  Lift your head up and look around you when things are bad and think about the year before.  It may just be a cyclical phenomenon.

I’ve taken the following from my book, “A Head Full Of Ethos”.[1]  The book is written primarily for leaders at all levels in schools, but this snippet can be read by anyone who works in a school.

In every school I have worked in, the following cycle has played out over the course of the year. I am sure you will recognise it. Nevertheless, when things get tough, staff (including the leadership team) often forget that the difficulties they face are not exclusive to their school. Instead, they may be quick to place the blame on some aspect of the school, such as its structures or leadership. This can lead to discontent and low staff morale. Therefore, as simple as it may be, It is important, every member of staff is aware of this cycle – and reminded of it often. It is encouraging to know that you are not the only school finding it hard.

The Anatomy of a School Year:

Renewing relationships. The staff arrive back after the summer break full of energy and with big hopes and plans for the coming year. The students also return and, having been away from you and each other for so long, they take time to settle back in, regain their trust in you and rediscover the boundaries they have learned (this can take the entire month of September). This also applies to relationships with their peers. Everyone thinks the Year 7s are perfect and let them off with blue murder. (Why, oh why do we allow ourselves to be lulled into a false sense of security each year!)

Testing the boundaries and levels of trust. After three or four weeks, you are paid a huge compliment: the students trust you again. However, this also means that they start to properly test the boundaries. This process also occurs with their peers, especially the Year 7s who have yet to establish a pecking order in their year group (this usually starts a bit later in mid-October or November).

Fatigue and wet weather. Everyone begins to get tired two weeks before half-term when all the carefully planned lessons which were organised when staff were full of energy are beginning to run out. The October break arrives and offers a slight reprieve, but with November, the dark nights set in and the mood begins to deteriorate. With this comes more angst-ridden lessons where the students are just not helping. At the same time, Year 8 have established their dominance over Year 7, who at the same time have been establishing their own hierarchy via fights and squabbles. All this leads to exaggerated talk among staff about how Year 8 are heading towards being the worst year group ever.

Christmas beckons. The general mood in the school reaches a low at the start of December. However, from around the second week in December the holidays are in sight: people start giving each other cards, there are school performances and the Christmas tree goes up. It is a nightmare trying to stop staff from playing videos before the last couple of days, but apart from that things feel settled.

Deep dark winter and the January blues. There may be problems when the students return, especially in schools where there are large numbers of child protection cases or in areas of high deprivation where students find themselves unable to cope having had particularly bad experiences over Christmas. (This may occur before the break, too, as students anticipate what might happen.) There may also be community-based incidents that spill over into school when everyone arrives back. The mood and behaviour doesn’t take long to deteriorate in January. Everyone has a touch of sunlight deprivation and January never seems to end. On top of that, everyone is stuck inside on most days due to poor weather. Things are at their hardest from the third week of January until the February half-term.

Spring is in the air. As everyone returns from half-term, those who are busy wishing their lives away go around saying, ‘We’re halfway through the year already!’ Aspects of the school may still difficult, but everyone knows they have broken the back of the year. Unless, of course, the leadership team have planned all the parents’ evenings for the term, along with a couple of twilight training sessions, in which case the mood in the staffroom deteriorates as tiredness sets in. (Avoid this scenario.)

The clocks change and Easter. The clocks going forward gradually lifts the mood and with Easter comes a new-found energy. Staff are also buoyed up by the thought of Year 11 leaving soon. They have been ready to go since Christmas and it has been a hard slog.

Summer workload. The weather makes a huge difference during the summer term: it is lovely seeing all your students out on the playing fields (if you are lucky enough to have some outdoor space) looking chilled. Behaviour is definitely better and, in theory, everything should be hunky-dory, but … how many times during the year did you hear someone say, ‘Leave it for now – we’ll do that in the summer term when the Year 11s have gone’? Every year, I forget just how hard it can be during the summer term.

Being aware of this continuous cycle won’t resolve the issues you encounter, but it will help you and your staff to be more aware of the school year and perhaps become more proactive – for example, pacing yourselves, having realistic expectations and supporting one another.

All the best for the coming year!  It’s a great job really, and now that I’m not in it on a day to day basis, I realise how much I enjoyed my time as a teacher and school leader.

[1] A. Di-Finizio, 2022, “A Head Full Of Ethos”. Crown House Publishing

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